Me: Toh fir class kitne baje start kar sakta hu main? (What time can I start the class?)
Attendant: Sir aap theek 5 pm shuru kar sakte hai, tab tak saare students bhi classroom mein ajayenge, aur fir.. (Sir you can start at 5 pm, till then all the students would have gathered in the classroom)
From the side of my eye I could see a boy of around 14 years rushing towards me while playing cricket, probably trying to save the ball from hitting the boundary. Obviously, he knew I was standing there having a conversation so there’s no chance he would run into me, right?
And just a second later- BAM- he crashed right into me, hard. I’m really pissed off, and almost shout back, Abey andha hai kya? (Idiot, are you blind or what?)
Which is when it struck me. Yes, he is blind. Because today is my first day as a volunteer teacher at the Institution for the Blind in Amar Colony, Lajpat Nagar 4, Delhi.
Fifteen minutes later, the students have started assembling in one of the classrooms on the ground floor. It was a few weeks back that I had sought permission from the school principal to teach public speaking to the blind students. The thought had germinated in my mind quite a few years back, that blind people should be taught the art of public speaking, something which will make it easier for them to express themselves and at the same time could be an asset in their personal and professional lives.
As the students seated themselves, I asked them to stand up and introduce them one by one. But how were they to know where to start from? I couldn’t simply point out and tell them who was to start and who was next. So I had to walk up to each of them and tap them on the shoulder so that they understood who’s chance it was to speak next.
The first thing that hits you when they start talking is their shudh Hindi. And when I say shudh I don’t mean like the Hindi class topper of your school. Their Hindi would remind you of the sort that would be spoken in India decades ago, more so like in the pre-independence era.
After the round of introductions, I gave them an assignment – talk about your happiest moment. Two common themes emerged- the birth of their baby sister/brother and the moment they were admitted to this blind school.
Unlike what we may have assumed, many of them didn’t start school like we did. Many of the boys in class were staying in their village and didn’t know what they would do with their life, basically whiling away their time aimlessly. Then through a relative or a friend, they came to know about the blind school facility and shifted here- discovering a completely new way of life. Not like us convent educated kids from the India’s cosmopolitan cities who get into the best schools because of the efforts of our parents.
After the assignment, I thought of chit-chatting with them. The boys in the class were in the range of class 3 to class 9, along with a few who had passed out. So I picked on a theme that is universal, something that 10 year olds and 30 year olds happen to discuss with the same fervor- superheroes. To my surprise, they hadn’t heard of Spiderman, Batman or Superman. How was I to take this discussion forward now?
So, I explained to them the concept of superheroes and then gave them something which they didn’t have till then- a superhero that they could relate to. Since five months ago there weren’t any Bollywood examples one could have given, I introduced them to Daredevil, the blind superhero from Marvel Comics. They were fascinated knowing that a mere human, that too blind, could be a superhero by developing and honing his other five senses beyond normal human ability.
Naturally, what followed, was their eagerness to know the spelling of this character so that they could search for him on YouTube- but two problems faced us. Firstly, they could not see Daredevil on their phone since the wifi in their area was not exactly stellar. And second, it was an English movie, and they didn’t understand much of English. Turns out we reached a compromise where I would get the movie for them on a pen drive and they would see it even if it were in English.
But I realized Ii would be wise to first check whether the movie didn’t have any adult scenes, I really would not want them exposed to any such thing at their age, because slowly and steadily I was realizing that my level of exposure to the world and theirs was vastly different- in various ways, so one needed to be a bit sensitive on certain fronts.
Also, we happen to assume a lot about blind people. Being blind doesn’t mean they are completely 100% blind, the students in my class had blindness ranging from 40- 100%. Something which I observed and understood the next time I dropped in there.
It turned out that it had not been communicated to all that I would be taking a class that day and most of the students were busy watching Supercops vs Supervillains on Life Ok. Watching a show on TV? Blind kids?
Like I said, with their varying levels of blindness, some can see a bit better than the others. And that is when I saw around 10 of them huddled close to this TV set, half watching, half hearing the show that was going on. It was pretty evident that I was intruding on their ‘chill out’ time, and after talking a bit with them during the ad break, I left.
While leaving that day, I happened to ask them how did they manage to use their cell phones. Turns out every phone, not only theirs but each and every phone that you or I use, has a special feature for blind individuals. It is an audio app that helps them navigate the various features of their phone by giving voice commands.
It’s been quite some time since I went back there, but what I would love to know is whether they’ve seen Hrithik Roshan’s latest movie, Kaabil, where he plays a blind man hell bent on revenge, and also can mimic people’s voices. Which is funny, because once for their entertainment, I mimicked a range of Bollywood personalities for the blind students, including Amitabh Bachchan, whose voice Hrithik mimics in the movie trailer.
Kabir Singh Bhandari
(**the writer is a volunteer teacher at the Institution for the Blind in Amar Colony, Lajpat Nagar 4, Delhi )