How V. Shakthi became the most followed Indian differently-abled person on the Internet
Shakthi Vadakkepat is many things to many people. To his wife, her soulmate. To his family, a provider. To his son, his favorite superhero. To his mum, the apple of her eye. To the Twitter universe, a celebrity they are allowed to see, hear and touch. To his readers, a ninja tech-geek. To the startups he mentors, the final word, the kingpin. To me, he is a force of nature, someone I have no qualms in stalking on social media, and someone who I rely on for my daily dose of vigour.
To the Indian society, he is disabled.
He was like every other baby, but when he was very young, he got a fever that ran unabated for a few days. A doctor injected him with something he was allergic to, hence speeding up the fever instead of slowing it down. During this time, his right limbs began to swell up. “I was pronounced clinically dead. Another doctor said it was better for my parents to leave me at an ashram and have another healthy kid. They were asked to complete the paperwork to ‘claim’ me, but they noticed that I was pretty much alive. My mother insisted that she would treat me just like any other child. By then, my limbs on the right side had become paralysed.”
For most of his childhood, Shakthi was on all fours as he could not stand up. But that never came in the way of studying, becoming a software engineer, and of finding love at a hopeless place.
“When I was in my final year at engineering, I met an interesting girl at my computer class," says Shakthi.
"We became friends at computer class, best friends at the computer class, and I proposed to her in another computer class. We are now married 18 years and going strong.”
He then went on to work in the IT industry for almost two decades before getting tired of the grind and becoming his own boss.
“My first job was at a datacentre as a system admin for a salary of Rs 1,000! My dad was spending more getting me to work and back. I was so obsessed with learning tech that I never bothered about all this. There have been instances when I went to work on Monday and returned on Thursday.”
Shakthi was young, energetic and restless.
He then moved on to a networking giant and traveled to the US, when he was introduced to blogging and subsequently tweeting. The rest, as they say, is history! His heralding on Twitter was much like Alexander surveying his would-be kingdom. He tweeted; he advised; he conquered fans.
“I got on to Twitter and loved the medium. My background as a techie helped me help others; one thing led to another and people started following me.”
Can you dial V Shakthi troll-free?
But few Twitteratti have had a troll-free experience! Shakthi also had his first brush with online venom.He describes the incident, “At one point, a group of people launched a concerted attack on my online presence. Three friends of mine dissuaded me from selling my Twitter account when things got tough and told me to start blogging too.”
In the digital world though, when one door closes, another always appears with a hackable password. “At that point, I thought that it would be a great idea to have a platform that was mine and where I could regularly express myself. Hence, The Quill. I had no great ambitions to make it to the top on Alexa or get the perfect domain authority rating or make USD 2,000 a post. I still don't. I write to communicate and that rings well. The Quill has actually helped as a platform for me to connect with the startups that I mentor now,” Shakthi says.
Also thanks to The Quill, he counts the likes of Hugo Barra, Manu Kumar Jain and many other movers and shakers as his friends.
“Yes, real friends; they know me and my family very well. I value human connect above anything and The Quill has been a magic wand in that department," says Shakthi.
"Even now, I don't publish ‘leaks’ and rumours. And that to an extent is the reason why my readers value what I say. In the future, I want The Quill to morph into a full platform for information and also a digital agency that employs differently-abled people.”
Humanizing his Twitter celebrity
The man held quite a formidable stock-holding in the Internet world – so much that it was difficult to guess which amongst his favorite digital pursuits was his full-time job. But if there was ever anyone who could prove that being at two places at once is possible,it was this spirited man who happened to be on a wheelchair. Even as The Quill kept him busy, he would never let a tweet addressed to him go unacknowledged.
“Twitter is in direct competition with my wife for attention during the day! Jokes apart, Twitter is a megaphone, telescope and a microscope rolled into one. You can be heard anywhere, you can see any corner of the world and every miniscule detail of what you do or say is up for scrutiny."
"What went right was a combination of crazy networking on a daily basis and a rule I have that I will respond to every tweet that is addressed to me.”
His approachable façade may have been at loggerheads with his celebrity stature initially, but in his own way, he humanised the idea. “Initially, I was not taken seriously. There was a time when I wanted to shut my account down and go offline. Then I realised that unless I add value to people online, they are not going to connect with me and trust me. I worked on it and it took me more than four years but it paid off and here we are.
"I was stumped when I saw that US President Barack Obama and Senator Rehman Malik follow me. But yes, I never wake up in the morning thinking "What should I tell my followers today?" I am not Justin Beiber yet!”
His chicken soup for the digital soul
...And we couldn’t not ask him to spill his chicken soup for the digital soul recipe! “Never do anything online that you wouldn't do offline. There are no secrets online; everything is found out, just a matter of time. There is no privacy online; try and keep personal stuff offline. Look to help when it is needed, look for help when you need it. Conversations are more important than follower counts and klout scores. Be kind to trolls; they cannot bear it! And respond to every request.” So much goes into the making of a Twitteratti, but he makes it look effortless.
Effortlessly chasing sunshine
While we are on the subject, another thing that Shakthi has proven to be effortless at is pursuing goals independent of impairments.
“Anything that is perceived as disadvantage is just that: a perception. When you keep thinking, talking and worrying about something, it takes on huge space in your mind that could otherwise solve many complicated problems and make life better. When I fall somewhere, I don't feel bad, I feel motivated to not let it happen again.”
“Our society has this ready-made sympathy to offer to people with disabilities. They do not realise that we don’t want it; we actually hate it. What we want is a shot at a life just like everyone else."
"And then there are a few who think that we are here to take advantage of our issues. Who is "disabled"? Therein lies the endemic problem in our social make-up it’s either sympathy or total ridicule, you cannot expect normalcy from them,” he adds.
Shakthi points to how railway concessions, IT rebates and annual seminars offer little respite.
“On the ground, can I do what you do? That should be the yardstick. Don't coddle us; treat us like professionals and give us a fair shot at living. The number of wheelchair-friendly traveling options is ridiculously low. I was asked to remove my prosthetic support and get up from my wheelchair at the airport in Bengaluru; I cannot board a bus here or at any other city in our country. Hospitals are themselves inaccessible!”
“The problem is that there is not a single political leader who is differently-abled to take all these concerns. Time for change is here, there are more than 20 million of us in India alone,” he adds.
Shakthi looks at his physical condition exactly the way one should: just another one of his many trademark idiosyncrasies.