It was 7 o’clock, a cold evening of January. The road was with curves and bends. It was the outskirts of Lonavla-Khandala, a hill station and part of Sahyadri Mountain range. Steep drive, deep valley, a few buildings scattered around the hill top.
Tick -Tack, Tick – Tack. The white cane tapping the road surface in a rhythm. Right step forward and the cane would move over in a curve to left. When left step forward the cane would automatically sweep to right. Sameer was still walking, with the help of his white cane. He was in two minds. Either to go home at Nasik or to contact Jenny.
“Home” Sachin thought with bitterness. His younger brother Sameer had duped him. At the end of six months training Sameer was supposed to come and take him back. Instead, he had sent Ravi uncle. Sachin had bad experience of this uncle. This uncle was crooked minded and Ne’er-do-well. He had deceived Sachin’s illiterate parents and grabbed their property. The shock was too much for his parents. His father died of heart attack and within a month his mother followed his father making the two boys orphans.
When Sachin was 7 years, he was hit by a motorbike. Though he recovered from the head injuries; he lost his eyesight permanently. Till Sameer started earning as a Car Mechanic, they both were dependent on Ravi uncle. Soon, the uncle found a match and Sameer got married to Seema.
Seema never liked Sachin. Moreover, she was quite friendly with Ravi uncle. They both would make fun of him. Being blind since childhood, Sachin had disciplined himself to keep his things in order and a fixed place for each item. This wasn’t only convenient for him but also for others around him. But, misplacing his things was a favourite game of Seema and Ravi uncle. Poor Sachin would then desperately go on searching for his toothbrush, teacup, clothes, water bottle.
The scene would change when Sameer was at home. Seema would rush to help Sachin but would grumble that because of him she was not able to pay attention to her husband. She would show Sameer how much stress and tension she had because of Sachin. Sameer would readily agree, try to comfort her while scolding Sachin instructing him not to trouble Seema. Blind and dependent, Sachin was at their mercy. But he developed good habits like helping Seema in her daily core, doing exercise to keep him fit and fine, learning of things around through Radio. “One day I will leave this house”, he would repeat to himself.
And the opportunity knocked at his door. While listening to AIR broadcast Sachin heard that an NGO Association for Blind of Mumbai conducts Rehabilitation training program for the blind, twice a year. The Blindman was required to stay at the Rehabilitation Centre in Mumbai for six months where, free stay, food & clothing was also offered. He further learnt that the training had helped many blind persons to earn and live independently. Sachin decided to go there. That day in the evening he told Sameer about the rehabilitation training. When Sameer mentioned this to Seema & Ravi uncle they jumped at the idea. Sameer made enquiries and fulfilled the requirements as specified by the Centre.
In June, Sachin’s bag was packed with clothes and other things necessary for 6 months stay. On the scheduled date the two brothers arrived in Mumbai and went to the Centre which was near Mahalaxmi Race Course. About 40 blind boys and girls were waiting in a queue. After a physical checkup the Centre officials checked the documents related to blindness, birth date etc and.confirmed Sachin’s admission for the Rehabilitation course. Sameer signed on the admission papers as guardian and left Sachin at the Centre.
The Centre had a large campus and the surrounding garden and tall trees secluded it from the hubbub of the Main Street. Each one of the selected group was allotted a bed with mattress, blanket etc. in the dormitory – separate for girls. Also a trunk per person was provided for keeping clothes and other belongings. The head of dormitory & cafeteria was also a resident. He physically navigated each one to every nook and corner of the building. He made them touch or hold the thing while explaining the facilities bathroom, toilets, drinking water and the classrooms. The trainees were instructed to be ready every day at 7.30 am for the common prayer and training classes thereafter.
Training was in two parts, pre and post lunch sessions. Separate instructors were there for each field like Braille reading-writing, use of white cane, walking on road with the help of cues and clues, boarding a local train and BEST bus, how to move safely in unknown places. The trainees were also made aware of Indian history and political structure. The instructor who was imparting training in walking with white cane, was very strict. Twice he hit Sachin on his bum with the white cane when he missed the rehearsed cues.
“Never forget the road shore line. Feel it with your stick, the muddy area, the plain road, the bumps and potholes. Smell the area- Hotel, Hospital, Subzee mandi. Lister to the sounds – the hawkers, blow of siren, horns, train whistles, birds chirping and people talking”. He urged them to dress smartly and walk confidently.
The lady instructor gave demonstration on how to work in the kitchen. They were taken to the kitchen and each one was given opportunity to ignite gas stove, make tea, cook rice, make chapati, masala chapati. Stitching a shirt button including threading the needle was really a challenge. But Sachin learned with interest and became an expert. He showed keen interest in the sports especially Blindman cricket. In the group matches his team was always the winner. What Sachin liked more was the instructors treating the trainees like friends. They helped them to eradicate the inferiority complex and to live life like normal sighted people. The fortnightly singing event was Sachin’s most favorite. The duets sung with his colleague Jenny were most applauded.
Jenny, a fair looking girl of19 years, slim, curly hair and a taut face. She had come from a rich family. She lost her eyesight due to retina pigmentation, when she was in 8th standard. Since then she stopped going to school.
In the beginning of training, Jenny was very obstinate and arrogant. The dependency due to blindness had made her responses irritating. The daily training included events such as story telling, quiz contest, practicing Braille and how to speak before a public gathering. By coincidence Sachin & Jenny were often chosen either as partners or members of the same group to participate in those events. Initially, Jenny would seek every opportunity to play blame game. Her pet outbursts were “We lost because of you. You’re mannerless. Are you dense? Shut up, you dumb-dog!”. But, Sachin’s caring & understanding nature softened her.
With the progress in training, Jenny learned to mix amicably with other trainees. She had a melodious voice and her memory of Hindi and Gujarathi songs was astonishing. The duets Sachin and Jenny sang were their favorites. The lyrics and emotions expressed therein brought them close to each other. During the morning PT drill he would ensure that Jenny follows the instructions properly and does the exercise unerringly.The exercise of hands, legs, neck were designed with the sol intention that later on, the blind would be able to perform them in a limited space at home and without anybody’s help or guidance. The Chairman and CEO were personally supervising the quality of food being served to the trainees.
Sachin was truly enjoying every moment of his stay at the Centre. Whenever he thought of his life at Nashik, he would shudder as if he had seen a nightmare. Meager food, constant physical and mental stress, no friends except the radio. Here at the Centre, sumptuous food, regular exercise and result-oriented activities were shaping his life properly.
The training also covered small scale industrial activities like how to prepare, candles, popcorn, agarbatti, liquid soap with practicals. Information was also shared on how to set up business, available resources of loan and raw material. Subject of cost benefit was also discussed using layman’s terminology. Sachin’s confidence was increasing. He started making ambitious plans for the future.
During the last 10 days of training, exams were conducted. Sachin scored good marks stood Number 2 in the batch. He got many prizes in cash & kind. The last day of training was like a farewell ceremony. Certificate of successful completion of training was given to each trainee. The trustees gave speeches, congratulating the trainees, and advised them not to seek alms or favour and maintain dignity in their future life. Sachin and his batch colleagues were overwhelmed with mixed emotions. Jenny promised Sachin that she would talk to her Dad about him. Her father was running a factory at Worli, Mumbai. She was sure that he would call Sachin to work in that factory.
As decided at the time of admission, Sameer was supposed to come at the Centre and take Sachin back home. Sachin was anxiously waiting for him. He was eager to share his experience, achievements and his future plans. He wanted to show Sameer his newly acquired independence and confidence. Sachin kept on waiting. But Sameer did not come. His colleagues were bubbling with enthusiasm and anticipation and making strange noise by rolling the folded white canes. One by one all the colleagues left the campus with their guardian-relatives. Darkness fell. Again and again, Sachin would lift his bag for a while, then put it down. His eyes were moist. But he composed himself.
Finally at 8.30 pm Ravi uncle arrived. He showed Sameer’s authority letter to the Admin. Officer. The Admin.Officer made out a Gatepass, called Sachin and patting on his shoulder wished him goodbye. Reluctantly, Sachin slung up his bag on left shoulder and the white cane in his right hand. Uncle handed over the gate pass to the watchman and they came out.
“What happened to Sameer”‘ he asked. “Sameer and Seema are coming to Geeta aunty’s house at Palghar. We are going there now. Come on, hurry up.” Uncle said. “Yes, something encouraging at last” thought Sachin. Extending the white cane in front of him Sachin followed his uncle. Tick-tack, Tick-tack. Uncle looked at Sachin and said, “Good, good. So now the dumb boy has learned to walk without our help. Sameer and Seema should be very happy.”
Palghar was a small town near Mumbai. About 2 hours by bus. Aunt Geeta was Seema’s mother. At 10.30 pm they reached Geeta aunty’s house. There, Sachin was told that Seema’s sister who was at Pune was sick, and hence Seema and Sameer had gone there. Uncle Ravi and Sachin were to go to Pune next day. Poor Sachin was disheartened and confused. ” Sameer never behaved like this. Something was wrong” Sachin thought. Uncle Ravi and Geeta Aunty were talking in a hushed tone. But he was tired and in no mood to discuss or argue with the crooked uncle. They had supper and Sachin straightaway went to sleep.
On the morrow, Sachin got up early and was ready to catch the Pune bus. Ravi uncle and Geeta Aunty were still discussing something in a secret manner.
“At last Seema will be free.” He overheard Geeta Aunty telling to which Ravi uncle replied, “Don’t worry, Geeta ji. I’ve given you my word.”
After breakfast, Ravi uncle and Sachin left Geeta aunty’s house and boarded the Pune bound bus. As taught at the Centre Sachin had made it a habit to listen to people around and gather cues and clues. When the bus started uphill drive with twists and turns he learned that it was Khandala ghat. Then, he thought of Jenny. In the song competition, they sang the popular Hindi film duet “Eh, kya bolti tu, kya main bolu. Sun – suna, aati kya Khandala” . It was a big hit. “Once more” all shouted in chorus at the end.
Presently he learned that the bus was passing by Raj Machi park, a hill point near Lonavla. Sachin again recalled the duet lines, “Lonavla me chikki khayenge, water fall pe jayenge. Khandala ke ghat ke Ooper photo khich ke ayenge”. Sachin was immersed in that irrestible feeling ” Oh dear Jenny, you’re my inspiration, my true friend. You’ve given me the happiest moments of my life.” Does Jenny feel the same for me. Is she now thinking about me”.
He remembered the card Jenny had given him on the Farewell day, “Note the number in Braille in your pocket diary. It’s my dad’s cell number. I’ve already told him about your condition. He has promised me that he will help you” holding his hand Jenny had said in all earnest.
He rummaged in the bag and extracted the diary. Opening it he reached the page by counting and moved his index finger over the dots. Suddenly he heard a big noise of something bursting. The bus swerved erratically. Driver applied emergency brakes. The bus brushed along a big roadside tree and stopped. For a couple of minutes, there was hue and cry followed by wails. Then passengers rushed to get down from the bus.
A car speeding along had to stop because of the swerving of the Bus. Driver of that car went near the bus and surveyed the scene. Then he helped the bus driver to get down. They both inspected the condition of the bus. The left rear tyre had burst. Except some deep scratches on its body the bus was ok. By that time some passengers along with the bus conductor gathered around them. Facing the group the car driver asked whether they needed any help. Bus driver requested him to call the controller of Lonavla Bus stand to send the Help-team at the spot. The car driver did so using his cell phone.
“Bus would be ready in the next two hours. Till then you may rest here” The bus conductor declared.
All this time frightened Sachin was huddled up in his seat, clutching his bag and the white cane. Ravi uncle helped Sachin to get down and told him to follow him. With his bag on left shoulder and tapping the road with white cane in right, Sachin started following Ravi uncle. Tick-tack, Tick-tack.
“Now, this is my first trial of walking independently”, Sachin thought. He scratched over the path with the tip of his cane. It was a soft soil mixed with rubble. He remembered the instructions about the cues and clues. He became alert and listened intently while inhaling deeply.
“This is a rough road. The rustle of tree branches. No noise except chirping of birds. The air around was carrying a faint scent of grass. Ah, this feels like jungle type area and am walking on a rough road/foot path. That’s it.” Sachin concluded.
He was right. They were walking through woods. It was near “Tungarli” lake area, a place 10 kms away from Lonavla town. The noise of bus passengers and vehicles speeding off was distant. “Why uncle brought me here? Why not rest near the bus?” These questions troubled Sachin. For a while he kept on walking. Then he asked, “Uncle, where are we now?” Uncle said, “Dear Sachin, don’t worry. This is a nice shady spot. I will bring the water bottle and some snacks. We will eat and relax here for half an hour. Don’t leave the place”. Making Sachin sit down on a clearing, Ravi uncle left him.
Ravi uncle came back after 15 minutes. Pushing a packet of biscuits in Sachin’s hand he told him that he was going back to bring the water bottle. “Something is wrong” The thought kept creeping in Sachin’s mind. He felt in his shirt pocket, extracted his pocket diary and the card given by Jenny. He tried to rehearse the cell number of Jenny’s father. Eventually he drifted into memories of Jenny and the Centre.
Three hours passed. There was no sign of Ravi uncle. Now Sachin realized that Ravi uncle had purposely deserted him. So, there was no point in searching for him or for the breakdown bus. Gathering courage, Sachin set off on the trail.
Tick-tack, Tick-tack. Sachin felt someone passing by. He motioned the man to stop and said, ” Sir, will you please help me.”
The man stopped in his stride, took a close look at Sachin and his white cane and exclaimed, ” Oh my god, another one wandering away from the Happy Home ! Why don’t you people stick to your area? Come on, now I will take you back.” That surprised Sachin.
At the Centre they were informed about the Happy Home. “It is a home for the homeless Blind only. It is run by this NGO. When you get down at Lonavla Bus stand go to the controller in the office. Show him your white cane and request him to guide you to reach the Happy Home. It offers temporary shelter, of course, subject to verification of certain things. But in any case a blind person below the age 55 cannot stay there more than 2 days.” Sachin couldn’t believe his luck.
“Oh yes please. I will be highly obliged. How far is it? I will pay for the conveyance” Sachin blabbered, urgency in his voice. “Oh, come on now, just follow me .. Or should I hold your hand?” The man said. “No Sir. Thank you Sir.” Sachin replied
The man hailed an Auto and together they reached the Happy Home premises. The man told something to the gatekeeper and left. Sachin was now in front of Mr.Tripathi, the Manager. Sachin narrated the events of the day and his background. Tripathi went through Sachin’s papers. Holding Sachin’s hand Tripathi told him in a gentle tone that Sachin can stay there, but for one day only. He then took the cell number of Jenny’s father and made a call. Jenny’s father immediately came on line. Tripathi explained the situation and the plight of Sachin. There was a gap and then Jenny came on line.
“Hi Sachin, how are you” said she. Hearing her voice gave such a relief to Sachin. He started explaining but Jenny interrupted and told him that her Dad is sending the house servant to pick up Sachin from Happy Home, in the next 3 hours. She added that her father is arranging for his stay at their Factory Quarters and a job too. Immensely pleased Sachin wanted to thank her father. Jenny’s father came on line “Boy, he said, “you have helped my child so much. She is now a changed person and the CHANGE (he emphasized the word change) made us all so happy that this favor as you say is nothing. Good day and welcome.” And Jenny’s father hung up, after talking to Tripathi.
“What a lucky boy you are Sachin. Your Good Times are coming now.” said Tripathi and patted Sachin affectionately. “Yes sir. I am really lucky to meet good people like you. I am so happy. I don’t know how to thank you all” Sachin answered.
“Just respect the white cane” was Tripathy’s reply.