It was sudden. There were six of them, just finishing a trek in the woods somewhere in Thrissur when they heard an unpleasant sound. It could be an animal on the loose, it could be something dangerous. Three of the trekkers, two guards among them, ran ahead. The other three trailed behind, among them was Neeraj George Baby and his crutches. There was a guard and his friend Antu with him. The guard ran and Neeraj saw that Antu was behind him. It was Antu’s first trek and Neeraj, holding on to his crutches, told his friend to run ahead. Neeraj, who lost a leg at the age of nine, was the last to escape and he didn’t know when he ran that path to safety that a snake had bit him.
“I didn’t know it then but later my leg turned blue. The first doctor I consulted gave me an antibiotic. The colour still didn’t go away and a second hospital suggested analivegam, a medicinal plant used for snake bite, and that worked,” says the man from Aluva, who is now famous for a different reason. Just earlier this month, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa on crutches. But he has said everything there is to say about that journey, which was a long-time dream that he achieved.
Neeraj also posted a photo of himself climbing to the top of the mountain, with the caption: “That’s a memorable moment in my life, a five year old dream achieved with lot of pain only for a reason, wanted to prove that differently abled without prosthetic limbs can be free to their mind as they wish, whether you charge with #GST and #tax we can live our dream! (sic).”
So we talk about his love for trekking, one that began a long time ago, because of his love for nature. “I am a naturalist,” he says. “And there is a lot to learn from nature.” That’s when he narrates the incident of the snake bite and analivegam.
Neeraj has chosen good old-fashioned crutches over a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg for a reason. Well, for many reasons, one of them is in his post above. There was a time when he used a prosthetic leg regularly but it wasn’t easy – neither its procurement nor the maintenance. “The field of prosthetics and orthotics has become a sort of business. I come from a middle-class family. The indifference of the people in this field and the maintenance costs were so demoralising that I decided at one point that I’m not going to use a prosthetic leg as far as possible. I still use one sometimes at home. But crutches are what I use while trekking and playing badminton,” Neeraj says.
His talent in badminton has also been noted when Neeraj began playing para-badminton at the national and international level.
But with fame, Neeraj now has many offers, people promising lakhs of rupees to get him a prosthetic leg. “I said no, and that I would recommend others who are deserving. Sure, it’s painful to be on crutches so much. Especially when the terrain is iced (like in Kilimanjaro) but in my mind, I am comfortable. I have been on crutches for 23 years now,” he says.
It was to cancer that he lost his leg at the age of nine. Neeraj doesn’t delve too much into it and I don’t ask too much about it. Instead we talk about his love for travel and his supportive family, who mostly come to know about his crazy journeys only once they are over. But in the middle of a sentence, Neeraj has to stop the conversation. Coffee break at his office – he works at the Kerala Advocate General’s office in Ernakulam – is over.