Gautam Lewis is a pilot, a photographer, and a polio survivor from Kolkata, India. From being an orphan who was affected by polio when he was a mere 18 months old to achieving his dream of becoming a pilot, Lewis has one person to thank—Mother Teresa, who rescued him from a poverty-stricken house in Howrah (a small district near Kolkata).
Lewis was in Auckland earlier this week for an event organised to celebrate the life and works of Mother Teresa. Indian Weekender caught up with him to know more about his inspiring journey.
IWK: What are some of your most vivid memories from your early life?
Lewis: As told by my elders, I acquired polio when I was 18 months old. I have no knowledge of my biological parents, and it was Mother Teresa who rescued me and took me to one of the orphanages she ran in Kolkata. I stayed at Shishu Bhavan for five years. Due to the shock of being in an unknown place, I did not speak for almost six months. It was Mother, who with her affection, cured me, and I started to talk again. At the age of seven, I was adopted by British Nuclear Physicist Dr Patricia Louis and moved to Auckland, New Zealand.
IWK: How was it to start a new life in New Zealand?
Lewis: I was young then and have mixed memories from those days. The court approved my adoption, and the judge gave me my new birth certificate. I started my schooling at the age of nine from Grey Lynn School, and later I moved to London with my parents, where I studied at Hill House—the same school attended by Prince Charles. All my life, I have never attended a special school. Yes, I was physically disabled, but that never stopped me from growing.
IWK: What did you pursue after your education?
Lewis: I studied International Business and French in the UK and then started my career in the music industry. At the age of 20, I raised 250,000 pounds at the university and started a dance club in London. With much knowledge and exposure, I ran a music recording company, a record label called ‘Poptones’, and managed big rock bands from the British music industry.
IWK: What other ventures did you take on?
Lewis: My medical history acted as a catalyst for driving me to work for the betterment of the society. I took photography lessons and did small documentaries talking about the plight of the victims. A few of them were picked up by Aljazeera, and then I made a full-length documentary on it. Later, I worked with MTV, World Bank, a few government bodies, European Union, and United Nations Development programmes. I do digital marketing, work closely with NGOs, World Health Organisation Rotary Clubs, and UNICEF. I did a film on polio eradication in India and worked as a volunteer for the polio-free country campaign as well.
IWK: When did you develop the passion for flying airplanes?
Lewis: One of my fond memories from the orphanage is flying kites in the clear skies of Kolkata. As a child, I would wonder if I could be as free and rule the skies. I challenged myself and started taking flying lessons in the UK. I am now a licensed pilot and also have a flying school for the disabled.
IWK: Tell us about ‘Freedom in the Air’?
Lewis: Flying, for me, was liberation from disability, something that I believed in—that every individual fighting his/her disability should learn to fly. It is all about the desire to be free. I started Freedom in the Air school of aviation in the UK as my mission to teach and train people with disability to learn to fly. The vision behind the school is not only to teach flying to physically challenged people but also about igniting the fire in them that they can achieve anything they want.
IWK: When was the last time you met Mother Teresa?
Lewis: I met Mother in December 1996 in Kolkata, eight months before she left for her heavenly abode. I was invited to the Vatican earlier in September to attend her canonization ceremony, but I chose to stay in Kolkata because that place is where I met her.
IWK: How would you describe your journey so far?
Lewis: It has been remarkable, joyous, incredibly humbling, and simply amazing. Had it not been the love of Mother Teresa, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. Not everyone gets a second chance in life. I did, and I am forever grateful to Mother Teresa and God.
IWK: What message do you have for the community?
Lewis: I strictly believe people are only limited by their imagination and not their disability. Mother Teresa conquered the world by her compassion, love, and affection for the humanity, and that is the path I follow and would want others to join too. Break the stereotypes, believe in yourself, and explore, fly, liberate your soul. Life is a rollercoaster ride and not a race. Live it up for yourself.