Gautam Lewis is a survivor — thanks in large part to a saint.
St Teresa of Kolkata gave him a second chance at life, after he was stricken with polio as a 18-month-old toddler.
He has come a long way from those dark days — he eventually qualified as a pilot despite his disability and subsequently set up a charity called “Freedom in the Air”, a unique flying school for disabled people in the UK, which aims to inspire and empower through aviation.
A gathering organised by the Mother Teresa Interfaith Committee at St Paul’s College in Ponsonby on November 27 heard Mr Lewis tell his story.
He contracted the polio while living in the twin industrial cities of Howrah and Kolkata in India — and was left paralysed in his lower limbs.
“Because of poverty and geography and then disability, my original family were not able to look after me, that’s how I ended up being rescued by Mother Teresa. “I spent five years living in the orphanage with Mother Teresa until I was adopted.”
While Mr Lewis credits St Teresa with giving him protection when he needed it most, he looks back on his days in the orphanage as a challenging time.
According to one article about him, “when he overheard a nun saying that no one from his family would ever come to get him, he stopped talking for six months. Mother Teresa called in a psychiatrist to help — and, he says, she remained a watchful guardian during that dark period”.
Mr Lewis told his Ponsonby audience that his memories of that period “are rather dark, sad and lonely”.
Eventually, he underwent two years of corrective surgery. His treatment included six months of having weights strapped to his limbs to straighten them.
Then his life changed. He was adopted by a young British volunteer Dr Patricia Lewis who initially brought him to New Zealand.
“One day, I was in an orphanage in India, and the next day I was eating chocolate gelato on Mission Bay,” Mr Lewis said. “This was the first time I had a sense of belonging. I was given a passport and a birth certificate in that order; and I started to learn about families, how to live in a family and how to make friends, from completely different backgrounds.”
After about 18 months in New Zealand, Mr Lewis went to the UK, where he attended schools (including one, Hill House, which Prince Charles had attended). He became involved in the music industry and spent several years managing rock bands.
But he always had a yearning for the skies.
“One of my strongest memories from the roof of Mother Teresa’s orphanage is kite-flying. And in looking up at the sky, I also had a vision and I longed to be on the jet plane that I saw overhead.
“It was more about feeling the freedom of flying in the air with no post-polio paralysis to hold me back. I shall also never forget the day I first went in an aeroplane and left Calcutta. I have always wanted to be a pilot and I was able to qualify in 2007 and that dream of mine I made real.
“And it was during those pilot training days that I felt alive and I felt a sense of freedom and of being liberated. So I started to have new dreams and visualise a future where I wanted to help change the world as well as people’s lives.”
Mr Lewis never forgot St Teresa and the part she played in his life.
He visited her in 1997, shortly before she died. She told him: “Nothing is difficult, just different. And if you can’t find anyone to help realise your dream, don’t be afraid of the unknown, and achieve your dreams on your own.”
To celebrate the canonisation of St Teresa this year, Mr Lewis made a film and took photographs that were part of the multi-media project that toured India for three months.
His film Mother Teresa and Me celebrates the “gift of the human imagination, and explores the power of Mother Teresa’s passion for the human race”.
“Having spent several months in India with the Missionaries of Charity [recently], I now naturally have a wider perspective on the world’s priorities. There are so many more constructive things that can be achieved, if we all harness our collective energy towards working towards promoting human quality of life.
“Think of the millions in the world who do not have basic health, education, sanitation and peace, and suffer from hunger and disease.”
Mr Lewis said he believes his calling now “is to help others who are less fortunate and celebrating the spirit that the sky is the limit”.
Near the end of his Ponsonby talk, Mr Lewis said: “I don’t think I have to say thank you to Mother Teresa for giving me a second chance at life — however, I have an immense responsibility not to waste or abuse that second chance at life. And without her service above self, my life would have remained one of grinding poverty.”
“I feel St Teresa of Kolkata gave me the protection when I needed it the most, and she fended for me and fought in my corner so I could survive the black hole of Calcutta, and have a life full of happiness.”