It seems there’s not a thing Divyanshu Ganatra has not thought through. Yet, instead of being on edge, he’s light and breezy—just as he was on his April 30 paragliding flight, which created national history. Ganatra become the first visually challenged Indian to fly solo as a paraglider.
A cognitive neuroscientist, 37-year-old Ganatra has always been into adventure sports such as trekking and white-water rafting. Losing his vision to glaucoma at 19, he (and his family) strove to ensure he didn’t give up on ‘normal’ life as we know it. Of his fascination with flying, he says, “Flying is something we all want to do, is it not?” But, given his condition, he had to find the right trainer. “I was in search of good trainers who believed I could do it. Since safety is not considered too big a factor in India, it was important for me to get the right infrastructure,” he says. In the end, he stumbled upon Templepilots in Pune. Run by Avi and Anita Malik, it’s a well-known paragliding institute and employs trainers certified by the Association of Professional Pilots and Instructors, Switzerland.
“Divyanshu was chilled out and wanted to do it for the right reason,” says Avi, who put Ganatra through the paces. “He did not want to prove anything to anyone and just wanted to have fun. His IQ and his attitude are both very good.” Perhaps Ganantra derives his attitude towards challenges from his training as a neuroscientist. “When it comes to the physical challenge (of being visually impaired) there are two things. I have studied how we analyse and process information. Reality is not what is out there but what we make of it. For example, more people die in road accidents than in flying accidents. When you redefine a challenge, the focus is on a solution. I had fears, but they served only to caution me.” Both trainer and glider were in sync. Ganatra would be guided through wireless radio. Nothing was left to chance. With ample practice, he was able to think through all the contingencies and ensured he wouldn’t get scared.
Avi made a model aircraft so that Ganatra could understand by touch what he was going to fly. He also had to learn to assess the strength of the wind. “I made him feel my shoulder and forearms to understand how the muscles were to be moved. With the help of a simulator, we practised commands for turning, braking on ground, principles of flight, use of hands.... We practised landing and we were ready on the fifth day,” says Avi.
The flight was successful and Ganatra landed safely, creating a record for himself. “It was a leap of faith, and he followed all the instructions. I had a megaphone in case the radio failed. We didn’t take any chances. It unfolded beautifully,” says Avi, adding that it was Ganatra who took the pressure off them because of his fun-loving nature. “He taught me what trust is.”
His trainer Avi Malik says it was Ganatra who took the pressure off him. “He taught me what trust is.”
Ganatra is aware of the responses so-called normal society makes to the differently-abled. Some time back, he took more than a hundred visually-impaired children for a day-long trek along with 35 volunteers. “Those 35 souls came back changed,” he says.
He also talks about how so many people with disability stay away. “There are 100 million people with disability. How many do you know? We don’t meet or see them because they remain confined, as if they are invisible. Pity and sympathy take away your dignity but engaging in sports and nature creates empathy,” says Ganatra.
His feat as a paraglider, of course, will create positive ripples. “It is very inspiring for the entire community. People will be motivated. Currently the situation is so bad for those who do not have organisational support that just getting through the daily routine is a challenge. But this achievement will inspire others to follow their dreams,” says Sudip Pagedar, coordinator, adapt Rights Group, who mentions that a wheelchair-bound dancer in his office is one such example.
Ganatra is perhaps one of the few who functions absolutely normally. With the use of technology, he not only carries out basic tasks, but uses the computer, reads, writes, calls and texts with comfort. He is co-founder of Yellow Brick Road, an organisation that does corporate training, psychological counselling and cross-cultural research. He also runs Misty Peaks, which organises trails and treks for the differently abled. Not to mention his weekends—all spent in the nearby mountains. “I manage with four to five hours of sleep. So I can fit it all in a day.”
His parents are used to his adventurous spirit and his sister is supportive “though it’s anxiety-inducing”. But Ganatra himself has no anxiety—and no desire to go back to life before glaucoma. “Given a choice, I would stay this way. It is absolutely who I am and wouldn’t change. It gives me an opportunity to talk about a cause and I am an ambassador of sorts. Life is beautiful. We have to live it fully.”