Love Is Not Blind

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Think of a life that is without a pair of eyes. And then read Saima Bhat’s report about a boy, the elder of the two blind brothers, who went from Srinagar to Dehradun and then to the Aligarh Muslim University where he competed with sighted students till he graduated. Quite recently, he fell in love with a Banaras girl, also blind, and the marriage took place last week.

Sajad Ahmad Bhat and Ishrat Jan. KL Images: Bilal Bahadur

It was October 01, 2018, when image-less dreams of Sajad Ahmad Bhat and Ishrat Jan turned into reality with their marriage.

Inside the shamiyana (tent), erected in a public park, outside their Shivpora home, around a hundred guests were waiting for just a glimpse of the newly-wed couple. They were waiting for the couple to join them inside the shamiyana.

But a ‘no’ from the groom’s mother, Gulshan, forced guests to visit the house on the pretext of using the restroom or just to see the newly constructed house. Once inside, their eyes started scanning rooms looking for the bride and her groom, who had sat in a room, busy in their own conversations. Any entry in the room did not disturb them, but the creeping sound of the door did. People saw them smiling but they themselves could not see each other.

Like all love-birds, this blind couple too had to struggle in their own way to motivate their parents to solemnise their marriage.

Turning Dark

Sajad was born to Gulshan and Fayaz Ahmad in 1992. They are first-cousins. A year later, when Gulshan became a mother, everybody started calling the newborn an angrez. “He resembled his young uncle, who was killed while crossing over to the Pakistan administered Kashmir,” said a close relative of the family.

At the age of two, Sajad, grew into a blonde boy, with normal eyesight, but someone who couldn’t tolerate sunlight as it would pain his eyes. His parents first consulted ophthalmologists across Srinagar and later went to Delhi where he had to undergo a couple of surgeries. Despite efforts by his parents, his eyesight could not recover. Nothing helped Sajad and ultimately he lost his eyesight completely.

Frustrated with the fate, when Gulshan delivered another son, the family was happy. But unlike Sajad, who lost his eyesight after a few years of his birth, their second child was born blind.

Tragically, Gulshan’s all three sons have certain ‘defects’. Though her third son has eyesight, he has difficulty in learning. Frustrated, she attributed the family crisis to various things. She started going to faith healers, visited shrines, offered animal sacrifices. But nobody has ever told her that it was not a curse for any of her actions but the problem was her marriage with her first cousin (her mother and mother-in-law are sisters) that her children were born with genetic disorders.

For all these years, Gulshan has been crying over the fate of her children, and even now, when Sajad is married, she looks much older than her actual age. She has more wrinkles on her face and forehead in comparison to her cousins who are of her age.

After Sajad underwent surgeries and lost his eyesight, he says, for some years, he didn’t know how he will cope with his dark life.

Initially, he was admitted to a special school in Solina. “It had no good facilities. They just had one teacher who used to teach us Braille system,” Sajad said. “I was not a regular student in the class. I didn’t like that school.”

Soon Sajad met a friend in the school, visually impaired, who suggested him that they should get themselves admitted in the newly started Composite Regional Centre (CRC), started in 2000.

Childhood picture of Sajad Ahmad Bhat.

At CRC, Sajad met a teacher whose name he recalls as Vinod Kumar, a resident of Gorakhpur. It was Kumar who taught him the 6-dot system, the basic learning mode for visually impaired. Initially, it was very difficult for Sajad to learn the art. But his teacher was humble enough to make him understand that he has to learn the 6-dot system anyway.

After a few years at CRC, Sajad’s father Fayaz came across a special school, National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH) in Dehradun, that he says was first of its kind and ‘Asia’s no. 1’.

In 2006, Fayaz along with his two visually impaired sons went to Dehradun for their admission. It is a school as well as a training centre. But all the seats were occupied until they reached and they had to come back with heavy hearts.

Next year in August 2007, they went again to Dehradun. This time they were lucky to get the admission. So their formal education and training started finally. Sajad got admission in sixth standard and his brother in the nursery class. Both of them started as regular students where no concession was given to any student in terms of passing the examinations. The school has classes from nursery to twelfth standard.

Initially, it was very difficult for Sajad to adjust to the new place and he also had to study new subjects like Hindi. For at least a fortnight, his parents had to stay in Dehradun so that their kids get acquainted with the new environment. “I had to sit in exams and luckily I passed the Hindi paper. It boosted my morale and I decided to continue my studies from the same school,” Sajad admits. And after a few years, Sajad was so confident that he changed his language from Urdu to Hindi.

While preparing for his matriculation, Sajad heard of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and developed a desire to do his further studies from there. “I appeared in the entrance examination of the AMU for the eleventh class and I could attempt just 60 questions with the help of a scribe, a helper writer,” Sajad said. “I had no hopes that I’ll get through.” But when the list was made public, Sajad’s name appeared in it. And soon Sajad was a student of prestigious AMU for two years, 2014 and 2015.

In AMU, Sajad had to sit in regular classes. The only added facility he was given was the helper for writing his examinations, rest he had to compete with regular students. “I used to record the class lectures and then listen to them in the hostel and during examinations.”

For writing examinations, Sajad said the students like him were given helpers from the class junior to them, who used to read the question papers for them and then the latter would start dictating the answers. Other than that these students are given separate rooms as well where they write their exams. They had to compete with the rest of the students with minimum 33 per cent to pass their exams, like regular students.

At AMU, Sajad was supposed to change his subjects, so he preferred to have Urdu and Islamic studies as his optional subjects and Political Science, History, English and Human Rights as his core subjects.

Excited, Sajad while narrating one incident when he scored 84 marks in an optional subject when he was supposed to score minimum 17 marks and in turn his scribe told him “itney he marks they to it kyun likhaya (If you needed just a few marks then why you made me write this much).”

For each paper, Sajad and his friends had to pay their scribes at least Rs 600 or 700 that included their travel as well. But he says that central government, under a special scheme, pays them half of the scribe costs and they have to mange half of it from their own pockets.

Sajad passed his twelfth standard with 56 per cent marks and then he started with a basic computer course. Meanwhile, he was in touch with his teacher Muzamil, also visually impaired, in Dehradun, who is also from Kashmir. “Muzamil sir had his eyesight till his tenth class but then he lost it completely,” Sajad said. “He is now teaching in Dehradun School. He is a graduate and has a degree in physiotherapy.”

It was Muzamil who asked Sajad to come back to Dehradun to learn physiotherapy and continue his graduation as a private candidate. “A new course was started by the time I reached Dehradun in January 2016. Japanese Medical Minimal Therapy (JMMT) was started in Gujarat and Dehradun. But it is still a new course and fewer people are aware of it. It works like an acupressure for the neck, back, shoulder pains,” explains Sajad. I had two options to learn oil massaging or JMMT but I was not comfortable with oil massaging.”

It is a technique where it needs to press for the pain triggering points and Sajad says it gives immediate relief to the patients.

Two years after learning the art, Sajad got a job in an NGO run by Shalini Khana, who is the current director of NAB (National Association for Blind) India Centre for Blind Women and Disability Studies, at ITC chain of hotels, in Gurgaon.

“I am earning around Rs 15000 a month excluding the rent of the accommodation they have provided me and one time meals they provide,” Sajad informed. “And meanwhile, I have finished my graduation as well. Now I am waiting for the final results.”

Sajad says all of his studies have been free but it was just his private expenses that his family paid for. His father had to get him home during holidays from Dehradun. Now Sajad is confident and he travels alone to Delhi as well as to Kashmir. He says he is more familiar with the areas and roads in Delhi than Kashmir.

During one of Japanese physiotherapy workshop in Delhi, Sajad met Ishrat Jan, who was managing the canteen of same NGO. Muzamil, his teacher, knew both of them.

Sajad Ahmad and Ishrat sitting at their home.

Actually, a resident of Banaras, Ishrat, an orphan, is only one among eight siblings− four brothers and four sisters − who were born blind. All others are born sighted. She says she has 30- 40 per cent vision. “I was born blind, but after a few surgeries, I got some vision back and now I can see a bit,” Ishrat said.

While in Banaras, Ishrat was not aware of the facilities provided by the government for the visually impaired children. But one day, she came across a Jeevan Jyoti school and she enrolled herself in the school. “I studied till the fifth primary and got trained, but then, I left the school and stayed home,” Ishrat said. “After a few years, I heard of a Houz Khas NAB Centre for blind women in Delhi. I went there and studied till tenth class. After passing my CBSC, I applied for a job in the same NGO and they gave me the responsibility of managing the canteen for Rs 1200 a month. But I continued my studies as a private candidate and passed my twelfth class examination with 75 per cent marks.”

Ishrat doesn’t remember her age but says she must be around 22, however she remembers the year she met Sajad in Delhi which was 2016. She giggles. The couple was not comfortable when asked to narrate their struggle to get married. But Sajad’s mother Gulshan informed that she and her husband were not willing for their marriage.

“It is an added responsibility,” Gulshan said. “See we have already two of our kids blind and our third son is having a learning disability but we couldn’t help it.”

Gulshan and her husband went to Banaras in 2017 to see Ishrat and her family but the couple returned without committing anything. “But Sajad warned us that he will marry only this girl so we had to accept his decision.”

In October 2017 again, the couple went to Banaras and did the formalities of engagement as per Kashmiri culture and then decided the date for marriage, the fall of 2018.

After Sajad and Ishrat’s marriage, Gulshan, who single-handedly manage her house, says she is waiting for a miracle to happen as it has happened in teacher Muzamil’s life.

“He is himself blind and is married to a blind but now they have two kids who are perfectly okay. Their kids have perfect eyesight and are now helping their parents,” Gulshan said. “I am living with a dream now that Sajad’s kids would be born with eyesight so that they will take care of him when I or my husband won’t be around.” But she says they have not consulted any doctor to know the chances of having such kids.

Her second son, Jasir Ahmad has also completed his tenth class with good marks and has recently got admission in AMU. “I am a bit relaxed now, because both of my kids travel, from Delhi to Kashmir, on their own for the last three years now. They are very familiar with the roads there than we are,” says Gulshan.

Back home, Sajad remains busy with his social networking accounts and surfing the internet. “I have an android C+ phone and these phones come with software of talkback system. This application has made life very easy for us. It converts text into audio. It reads the screen text for us and it has given us the flexibility to answer our calls, reply to texts and even study online from google as well as youtube,” Sajad said. Amid a laughter, he quickly said that people get astonished to see visually impaired using a cell-phone and using all the applications.

“I don’t feel bad about it. I make them understand how we use it,” Sajad said. “Even last time, one boy gave me his number to check if I could really send him a text message. I did. He was surprised. I can’t change it. I am what I am.”

He says some of the people even ask him more strange questions like “how do you eat, how do you wash your clothes and even how do you take a bath.” The couple broke into laughter that how weird people could think.

On October 20, the couple is flying back to Delhi where Sajad is planning to continue his job and Ishrat says she wants to continue her studies as a private candidate from Delhi University. His father and one of his maternal uncles will accompany the newly-wed couple so that they are given decent accommodation in Delhi, says Gulshan.

Sajad and Ishrat at the time of their marriage.

Sajad has recently appeared in a written job examination in railways. He says if he qualifies it then he would prefer to return to Kashmir permanently. “Jobs for specially-abled people are presently provided by central government offices only. I suggest if organisations like Jammu and Kashmir Bank can start recruiting us as well then many of our problems will get addressed,” Sajad opined.

Presently, Sajad has just one apprehension: if he returns home then will it be possible for Ishrat to continue her studies.

“In Kashmir, we don’t have many facilities. Last time, a few of my friends were going to appear in board exams, but at the last hour, they were not provided scribes so they missed the examination,” Sajad said.

There is just a NAB centre, which has been started recently but a decade back, there were no facilities, alleges Sajad. He says the government needs to work on some strategy where quality education will be provided to students with special needs, especially girl students, who cannot go out of state for studies. “We can’t remain dependant on our families,” he says.

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