The news channels and the Internet haven’t been able to stop raving about Stephen Hawking’s life and death for a few days now, and yes, Science has lost one of its brightest stars to the Universe. What made Stephen Hawking more of someone we could look up to was that he had lived life, worked and contributed a great deal to our understanding of the universe despite a disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka, ALS. This is a progressive disease that slowly robs a person of their voluntary muscle movements, including walking, talking and the like, and people die of respiratory failure once this disease has spread far enough for the brain to lose control over the respiratory muscles, in usually three to five years after the disease has striken. Stephen Hawking lived around 55 years after being diagnosed. Respect.
But this post is not about Stephen Hawking. It’s about ALS. To me, it’s struck closer home, having encountered it in a friend at the ripe old age of six. He was ten. Barely ten.
Ten years ago, in fact, long before ten years ago, around thirteen years ago, my parents bought an apartment in Bangalore. It was newly made, and the neighbour’s boys went to school with me, one in the same class as me, the other, four years older. The older boy couldn’t walk. I remember him being carried in and out of the school bus with his rolly-chair as I called it then, and like everyone else, assumed he had been in an accident or had polio or whatever other mundane explanations we came up with as the six year old shrimps that we were.
I was a regular visitor at their house, the older boy being unable to visit mine, while we traded toy cars and had lenghty discussions about which ones to buy next or who had which car. And the years passed.
Slowly, he lost the use of his arms, left with his wrists, which he learnt to flick to write, and he had to be pulled out of school because there was nobody on the school staff who could – or would help him. But that didn’t stop him, people from the apartment block offered to teach him what they knew, and his mom called up my mom to teach him math, for he was fond of it. I tagged along with mom, played with his brother, traded cars, disturbed him and mom in their labours. He never thought of himself to be different from us. And to us, he was no different either, in fact, I remember fighting for the right to push his rolly-chair for him.
In time, he lost his wrists too, and all he could move was his head. He refused to stop learning math though, and had someone writing for him.
He was twelve when his family took him abroad for better medical attention. Two years after that, me and my family moved out of Bangalore too. I have not heard of him in seven years. Hell, I don’t even know if he’s alive any more. If he is around, reading this perhaps (with a near zero probability though), I hope he hasn’t stopped his pursuits of math. It was only after Stephen Hawking’s death that I realised he had ALS, not an accident or polio or anything else.
His last gift to me was his seventh grade, and very last math textbook, for me to use four years later. I still have it, kept safe in my book rack, and this was the book that fuelled my own liking for math. I even have the last batch of cars I had exchanged some of mine for, now passed down to my brother with a threat that of he loses or damages even one of them, he has had it from me. And my brother has kept them safe, thankfully. Only, I wish I knew where and how he is, or even if he’s alive. I hope he is alive and well, still pursuing math, that wonderful little mathematician who is the sole reason I haven’t let go of math, the sole reason I enjoy and understand the Economics – Math combination so well, unwittingly pushed to a corner of my brain to haunt me years later. To me, us in fact, those who knew him in the apartment block, he wasn’t the kid with ALS, he was, and still is, our own, homegrown Stephen Hawking.