|Pic courtesy: Antarchakshu's FB page.|
“Living is Easy with Eyes Closed,” said John Lennon. But that is only if you, like this famous Beetle, are talking in a figurative sense. Because actually speaking, living with the eyes closed is far more difficult than those of us with vision, perfect or otherwise, can ever imagine.
I had never heard of Antarchakshu – The Eye Within. But when Pat, my colleague/friend, sent me a mail, asking me if I wanted to go back to college, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, don’t I always boast that you can get the Cynthia Rodrigues out of Xavier's but you can’t get the Xavier's out of Cynthia Rodrigues?
And so we set out. There was nothing I knew about Antarchakshu other than the fact that it was an exhibition related to the visually challenged. On reaching the venue, I learned that Antarchakshu was organised by the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC), St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, as part of the Mumbai Eye Care Campaign. XRCVC is a state-of-the-art support and advocacy centre, which works towards the holistic development of the visually challenged.
This year’s theme at Antarchakshu was Breaking Barriers, Achieving Access, and it sought to create awareness on education, financial services and employment opportunities for the visually impaired.
I expected to see just another exhibition with posters and other information on the theme. I was in for a huge surprise.
Having registered ourselves, we were allowed to choose one of four bookmarks in various colours on which our names were typed in Braille. We also had a tag around our wrists to note our scores. Nupur, a Xavierite volunteer, announced that she would be my escort at the exhibition.
I don’t need an escort, I protested. I’m an ex-Xavierite, I could find my way around with my eyes closed. In response, Nupur smiled with the wisdom of someone who knew what lay on the other side of the enormous black curtain that hid the exhibition from us.
I was asked to wear an eyemask, soft cloth shades that let me see my feet, if nothing else. For best results, you must shut your eyes, said a volunteer, at the opening in the curtain. My first thought was to disobey. After all, I didn’t know what they had rigged up on the other side. But then again, I thought, there must be some purpose behind these props. If I am going to do this, I am going to do it right.
I was handed a white cane, and ushered into the hall. I heard someone say, “Follow my voice, and do as I say. It’s not difficult at all.”
“Nupur, is that you?” I asked the disembodied voice. Suddenly, all my sureness was gone, and I was left feeling completely disoriented, and dare I say it? Afraid.
My eyes were now resolutely shut. Peeking out, I had already decided, was not an option. It was strange how the blindfold on my eyes and the white cane in my hand made me feel so vulnerable. Every step, every board, felt like a great climb. Every drop a precipice. The fear of the unknown, of what lay ahead, was very real. And above it all, the black darkness all around.
I stepped ahead gingerly, tapping my cane in nervousness, trying my best to follow Nupur’s voice, which seemed to have receded into the distance. Suddenly, “Chai, chai,” someone began to holler into my ear. “What are you doing? Can’t you see that I can’t see right now?” I yelled.
“Ma’am,” the voice shouted back, “I run a chai shop on the footpath and you have walked into my shop.” I apologised, even as the Voice (Nupur’s) said, “Follow me. Walk straight on.”
Having traversed this hurdle-ridden course, Nupur led me on to complete a series of eight activities. The first activities involved the Penalty shootout. I had to kick a football into the goalpost. The football was specially designed. According to the International Blind Sports Federation rules, this ball must weigh 1.25 kg (about 2.76 pounds) and have eight holes and noise bells contained within. The ball's circumference is around 76 cm (about 30 inches). The noise bells serve to announce their presence out loud, enabling the visually impaired to locate the football. Luckily, my kick took the ball home. It was a fluke. But I was pleased with myself.
The next activity, called Financial Access, involved two small bowls, one filled with old coins of Rs 5, 2 and 1 and the other with newer coins of the same denominations. We had to feel the coins with our fingers and make up a sum of Rs 11 out of each bowl. It was the first time that I realised the difficulties that blind people go through when it comes to counting money. The older coins had distinguishing marks in terms of size, smoothness or roughness of face and the irregular boundaries. The newer coins are utterly uniform in appearance and are a source of confusion, even to the sighted. Once again, I passed this test well.
The third activity involved drawing a geometrical figure such as a circle, triangle and rectangle on a special paper with a special pen. The use of this particular pen and paper caused the drawn object or the written word to rise up in relief against the rest of the paper, giving the impression of being embossed upon the paper. I passed this one too.
In the fourth activity, called Talking, typing teacher, I was stationed in front of a regular keyboard, with my fingers on the a-s-d-f-g and h-j-k-l-; keys. A recorded voice dictated certain letters which I would then have to type. I learned something new through this activity. Did you know that the upraised dashes on the letters F and J are meant for the benefit of visually impaired persons using a regular keyboard? I got a few of the letters right here, but not all. Strange it is that I who can easily type without once looking at the keyboard should have lost my bearings here.
The science experiment, activity number 5, involved a large bowl containing magnets and objects made of plastic and metal. I had to use one of the magnets to separate the contents of the bowl into three separate bowls. This one went off smoothly too.
The Pen Friend, the sixth activity, required us to find a particular printed sheet which had been filed away in one of a number of plastic folders in one of four plastic files. All these plastic files and folders were labeled. I had to use a special pen to press an upraised point on the labels. When pressed, a recorded voice in the pen would indicate the name of the folder or the file. I didn’t do too well here.
The seventh activity, OCR (optical character recognition) involved a voice reading software. I had to listen to the recording and answer some questions. I could barely hear over the din in the college auditorium, but I managed to glean the answer.
The last activity involved throwing darts at a dartboard. The only positive thing I can say about my performance was that no living beings were harmed during this activity. Unfortunately, no non-living thing was hit either, and that includes the dartboard.
Afterwards there was a fun activity which involved walking on a tightrope, commando style. This one was fun. Nowhere as difficult as I imagined when Nupur first told me about it. We were then shown a video which sensitised us to the fact that the visually impaired were just like us. Watch it HERE.
Afterwards I made it a point to go look at the course that had daunted me so much just a short while ago – this time with my eyes wide open. I wondered why my mind had made such a fuss. No climb up or down was more than a step here and there.
I came away from the exhibition, my mind refreshed, my vision clearer than it has ever been.
Antarchakshu was meant to give us an insight into what the blind, whether partially or wholly so, go through every moment of their lives. They walk into dangers, depending on the grace of God and the goodness of fellow beings to look out for them. In the midst of this cruel, insensitive world, they walk on alone. For them, life is a battlefield. For me, the event was an eye-opener.
Sure, I’ve always offered to help the visually challenged to cross the street or to put them into a bus, auto-rickshaw or train, but that was done, at best, without a thought, at worst, a sort of my-good-deed-done-for-the-day.
I am ashamed of myself for not having ever given more than a passing thought to this earlier, but this experience helped me to understand the sheer faith and courage with which the visually challenged live their lives every day.
Thank you, Antarchakshu, for a beautiful and enlightening experience. I’ll be back next year. As for you, St Xavier’s College, it’s always lovely seeing you.