G R O U N D   Z E R O

They don’t know what darkness is
It is society that continues to remain both blind and dark about the world of the visually impaired and their extraordinary capabilities.
Raj Chengappa

There are so many sordid happenings in the country these days that the little good that occurs is often buried in a welter of negative news. Among them was the President of India releasing a book titled “The Light Within”, a photo chronicle of the many visually impaired people in our country, which I had the pleasure of introducing. The pictures taken by Sipra Das, a journalist and former colleague, show a deep understanding of the lives of the people who cannot see and yet demonstrate an extraordinary ability to experience the fullness of life shorn of self-pity, diffidence or bitterness.
Billamangal Sardar visits home in Kolkata once a year, only to be greeted by neglect
Billamangal Sardar visits home in Kolkata once a year, only to be greeted by neglect.

Among the many telling photographs in the book that I liked is that of J. Kaul, a New Delhi teacher. While he listens to a transistor, his wife Usha, who has also lost her sight, lovingly sews a button onto his shirt. Kaul says that when he met Usha “it was love at first sight”, and adds, “Who says I am blind? I cannot see with my eyes but I can see with my heart. That is something you cannot.”

Then there are moving visuals of Vishal Rao, a sightless 29-year-old, playing his flute in a boat in the backwaters of Mumbai. Vishal says his impairment actually gives him greater powers of concentration, which helps him pick up skills faster than most other people. Rao says, “I enjoy beauty of all sorts, it does not matter how it is conveyed, whether through sound, touch or smell.”

Many of them like Nakul Adhikari even joke about their handicap. A physiotherapist in Mumbai, he says with a smile, “A normal girl will get pure love from a blind boy like me for I will never look at another woman.”

Yet, as the pictures in the book and the brief write-ups next to them show, we as a society continue to discriminate against the visually impaired. There is a photograph filled with poetry and pathos of Billamangal Sardar, a 14-year-old from Kolkata, at the seashore enjoying the feel, the smell and the sound of the sea surf. He says, “Some people feel that I am helpless and a burden. My family and friends have no idea what I am capable of. They think I am abnormal. I do not react because I don’t think it’s worth it.” There are many such moving pictures in Sipra’s book that will help you fathom the world of the blind and no more look upon them with pity or discomfort.

I have a personal anecdote that helped me understand their world better. I met a visually impaired couple in Agra while visiting Taj Mahal in the mid-Eighties. The irony of the situation struck me as they went around touching what is the world’s most beautiful monument of love.

On the return journey to Delhi, we were seated in the same railway compartment and I struck up a conversation with them. When we alighted I offered them a lift home and was surprised when after a few minutes the man scolded the taxi driver for taking a wrong turn. I asked him how he knew that, and he said he had memorised the number of turns to his house and the time taken before each so that no taxi driver could cheat him.

I was impressed and after that spent days with them understanding their life. They lived in a government accommodation in Delhi with two children, both with normal vision. He worked as a teacher in a music school and knew the road to it by feel and sound. He knew he was walking in an open area by listening to the way the birds flapped their wings – if they flew freely it meant there was no building obstructing flight. He told me that at night when he slept he dreamt only “in words”. For me, the most memorable statement was when I asked him whether he knew what light was. He said: “I don’t know what darkness is.”

The visually impaired do not live a life of darkness – they shine, as the title of Sipra’s book says, with the light within. It is society that continues to remain both blind and dark about their world and their extraordinary capabilities. We need to dispel the darkness that shrouds our attitude towards them and work towards changing the misperceptions that we have about the abilities of the visually impaired.





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