“IN EVERY CHANGE, IN EVERY FALLING LEAF, THERE IS SOME PAIN, SOME BEAUTY. AND THAT’S THE WAY NEW LEAVES GROW.”
Autumn or fall has never fascinated me. The word alone gives me a sense of sadness. Leaves falling from the trees and branches left bare against the wind; this visual always leaves me with a feeling of melancholy.
Or at least it did; until I saw the incredible painting by Palaash – a painting so bright, so intense, and so beautiful, you couldn’t take your eyes off of it. The room was packed with upcoming artists and their friends, families, and admirers. Each of the artists, both children and adults, were individuals with special needs.
Palaash won the 1st prize for her painting in the category of ‘landscapes’. Hers was a breathtaking autumn scene of leaves in vibrant hues of reds, greens, yellows, and oranges, scattered to form a beautiful pattern. She received a trophy and a cash prize of INR 5,000 from a renowned professor at the faculty of fine arts.
Named after a flower referred to as ‘flame of the forest’, Palaash has been living with hemiplegic cerebral palsy, a form paralysis that affects one side of the body. As a result, she has little to no sensation or movement in her left arm and left leg.
Palaash has been a regular student at the school for children with special needs where I volunteer. My association with her as an educator is just three years old, but our bond has never been stronger. She is a 28-year-old woman, married and then divorced. However, despite all the odds, she has an enthusiastic and inspired spirit and is one of the most promising students in our school.
When I met her for the first time in the vocational training center at the school, she was completely engrossed in the candle-making exercise that was being conducted. I could see her helping other students, showing them a trick or two. I soon came to learn that she had great interest in drawing and painting and so I enrolled her in the arts and crafts class as well. As the teacher heading this class, I met Palaash regularly and our friendship grew stronger with each passing day.
“Palaash! What a beautiful name that is,” I often told her. “Every time I say your name, I can picture the vibrant tree in full bloom.” She just smiled and said nothing. A genuine smile that has persevered despite endless trials.
Even though I had heard bits of her story, I never pushed her to tell it to me until she was truly ready. One day, when I felt our friendship had reached a comfortable juncture, I asked her about it. Contrary to what I had feared, Palaash was happy to tell me about her life; maybe she understood that all I fell for her was genuine concern and true friendship at the same time.
“Which part do you want to hear?” she asked me to my surprise, with that signature smile of hers.
“Tell me from the start,” I told her, smiling back at her, my hand gently squeezing her shoulder.
Palaash belonged to a lower middle class family. She lost her mother when she was 20 and immediately after that, her father got her married. Within just a year, her husband left her when he discovered her medical condition wasn’t something he had bargained for. After months of abuse and humiliation, she returned to her father, heart-broken and defeated.
Struggling to be hopeful for himself and his daughter, he looked for a way to renew her spirit. He learnt about a school for individuals with special needs and enrolled her.
As I listened to her story with a heavy and troubled heart, I felt a storm raging within me. I was angry for her. But I realized the angst was something only I felt. Palaash was surprisingly calm as she recounted what was perhaps one of the most difficult chapters of her life. Sure, she had been torn and dejected and felt so for a while. But she got over it and decided that moving on was the best thing she could do for herself.
Palaash may not have been a straight A student. But her powerful sense of observation and incredible imagination never ceases to amaze me. She has won several prizes for her paintings at school but this award was, by far, her most acclaimed achievement.
She often tells me that I am her driving force and her source of motivation. I am humbled by her recognition. I tell myself, success isn’t always about what you accomplish in your life; it’s also about what you inspire others to do. Her determination, willpower, and unfailing perseverance have helped me gain a new perspective on life.
Like everyone else in her class, Palaash had worked on her art for almost two weeks, under the supervision of her teachers. Her brush strokes may be slower than most people her age, but her work is precise. Every minute detail was given special attention: the sky, the earth, each leaf, every branch. She took her time carefully blending each color; giving each shade a subtle, yet intense depth.
“Now that your painting is ready, Palaash, what are you going to call it?” I remember asking her once she was done with her art.
She looked at her painting and then at me and said softly, “The colors of autumn”.
“The colors of autumn,” I repeated after her. “Why? What does it signify?”
“The trees watch their beautiful leaves wither, die, and fall to the ground in silence; they do not weep. Because they have hope. Hope that life will soon return and new leaves will once again adorn their branches very soon.”
I simply looked at Palaash, thinking about what she had just said. All these years and I had never thought of autumn the way she did. Today I saw it through her eyes.
Palaash may not have had any formal education or have read any books on philosophy. But her experiences sure taught her some of the most valuable lessons of life.
She smiled when she saw my awe-struck face. “My life has been like these trees in autumn; I have lost all the beautiful things in life. But I don’t want to look back and cry. I know God has a beautiful tomorrow for me. What is it that they say? ‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall’”
I did not know how to respond to her self-assuring statement. I just held her handand smiled.
Today, I look at her on that stage with the coveted trophy in her hands, and I see a thousand dreams in her eyes. And with that, I feel a sense of pride, gratitude, and humility for having been a part of her incredible journey thus far.