Suresh has an easy way with people. At one of his shows, he impressed Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, teaching him a magic trick.
Suresh and Umesh Nayak were inseparable since childhood. The two siblings were born a year apart and though they had three other brothers, the bond between these two was special. As Umesh grew up, however, he realised that Suresh was unlike the others. Umesh's teenage years were spent grappling with the realisation that Suresh was afflicted with Down syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes poor mental development and a host of associated physical problems. This knowledge, however, only brought the siblings closer.
Roopasri, Umesh's wife, recalls the day he visited her parents' place for a matrimonial alliance. “The two brothers were together. He [Umesh] told me if I accepted him, I would also have to accept Suresh as my eldest child,” she says. “That was the only condition for marriage.”
Showering love and acceptability on a challenged sibling is one thing. Umesh, however, wanted more for his brother. “I didn't want him to be known in Puttur [their village in Karnataka) as a challenged person or as someone's sibling,” says Umesh. “He needed his own identity. I saw skills in Suresh that the others had no idea of; it was time to bring them out.”
In his schooldays, Umesh had learnt a bit of magic, but his family didn't encourage him to pursue it further, expecting him to concentrate on academics instead. Umesh realised that he could teach the tricks to his older brother.
He brushed up his skills and taught his brother, who turned out to be a surprisingly bright student, given that his intelligence quotient was just 22, as against a normal person's score of 100. Soon, Suresh was performing magic shows. He began in their village and then started travelling across Karnataka, winning accolades wherever he went.
For his magic shows, Suresh needed an assistant and Umesh initially filled the role. Then came little Satvik, Umesh's son. The uncle-nephew duo turned out to be a hit, and by the time Satvik turned five, he was himself an ace magician.
Umesh then aspired a little more. He had seen the speed with which Suresh could memorise telephone numbers, so he approached the Limca Book of Records. The officials were amazed to see Suresh memorise 518 numbers in 72 minutes and they etched his name into the coveted book. He also got entry into the Asia Book of Records last year as the first magician with Down syndrome to perform most number of magic shows. These shows convey a social message: Earlier, it was Down syndrome awareness, now it is Modi's Swachch Bharat campaign.
Last December was a particularly joyous time for the family as they were invited to Delhi to receive two awards from President Pranab Mukherjee. Suresh won the National Award for Persons with Disability. He was felicitated as a role model not just for his magical skills but also for creating awareness on Down syndrome. Satvik got the National Child Award for Exceptional Achievement.
“People used to say that he is a burden. That hurt me terribly,” says Umesh. “I wanted to prove that outlook was so wrong. Today, outsiders know Puttur because of Suresh; they say, 'oh is that the village of the special magician'?” Umesh's efforts, meanwhile, have led to the establishment of the Rota JC Down Syndrome Academy for mentally challenged children.
Suresh has an easy way with people. At one of his shows, he impressed Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, teaching him a magic trick. At another event, he taught tricks to Santosh Hegde, former Karnataka lokayukta. “He is a special person for us, but for him, it is important to be treated as regular and not special,” says Roopasri. “So Suresh helps with domestic chores, and even at my husband's office, he handles visitors.”
At 42, Suresh is developing health complications typical of people suffering from Down syndrome. One of these is failing vision. “The lifespan of people with this disorder is around 45 years,” says Umesh. “But we are hopeful that with proper treatment and care, Suresh will be with us for much longer.”