The train was running two hours late. I saw a station approaching, and heaved a sigh of relief when I saw ‘Chitrakuta Dharm’ written on the board where the train halted for 3 minutes exactly. As I de-boarded, Mr. Pankaj, the manager of Drishti Blind School received me. Exhausted due to fluctuating temperatures and irregular eating, I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
Chitrakoot is a holy place flocked by tourists chanting ‘Ram Ram’ along the ghats of the Mandakini River. A ten minutes drive from my accommodation to the school, I was dazzled by the authenticity of the city culture. In an era where teenage boys want gadgets and cars, it was a treat to see boys cycling together to school with slates and canvas bags. Mr. Pankaj drove me to the school that is 7 kms away from the main city. A building made of red bricks, half painted with still some construction work being done. As I entered, I was greeted by a statue of Louis Braille on the left side of the gate near the entrance. Mr Pankaj ushered me towards two small rooms – one was the Office of the Director Mr. Shankarlal Gupta and the other room was for the admin staff.
Mr. Shankarlal Gupta is himself visually challenged. It was inspiring to see this 60-year-old man charged up and enthusiastic. His energy was infectious. He works for BSNL Chitrakoot in the customer service department. He believes that every person is capable of self-dependency if he has the will power and patience to understand and take on any situation. He took me through his story and how his vision slowly faded making him a complete blind person. “I am blind only by sight and not by heart” he says.
When Shankarlal was 8 years, he was affected by small pox due to which the vision in his left eye started to fade. When his family observed his discomfort, he was taken to a doctor who advised recuperation without any medicines. But instead of recovering his vision went completely. After 6 months, he hurt his other eye while playing with his friends that resulted in a red eye. He was immediately taken to Allahabad Eye hospital. After doing a series of tests, doctors confirmed that 80% vision from the left eye had gone. His family was also told that there was no guarantee that the remaining vision would remain.
He went totally blind when he was just 19 years old in 1976. Shankarlal’s loss of vision took away his parents’ future hopes and aspirations for him with it. With little hope, his parents tried to gather information about chances for his further studies. One of their friends mentioned that a visually challenged person could take the high school board examination directly. His parents then enrolled him into Grade 10. “Studying was a challenge. My sisters used to read out loud and I used to memorize. That’s how I passed my matriculation.”
1981 was a turning point for him. His elder brother used to work for Bharat Electricals and immediately notified Shankarlal about their openings for the blind. He got through the interview and left for training to Indore.
“I was good at juggling tasks. I used to go to school in the morning till 11 am and go to work at BSNL in the evening. I topped my higher secondary school beating 800 students who had normal eyesight,” explains Shankarlal with a smile. In fact the company allowed him to study further and complete his Masters degree.
While studying, he attended a seminar conducted by the college secretary Mr. Shridonkar. Shridonkar was visually challenged too. One of the staff explained to Shankarlal the challenges Shridonkar faced when starting the college. Shridonkar’s story inspired Shankarlal to get into social work himself.
In the year 1995, the foundation stone for Drishti was laid at Chitrakoot. Not having a social work background was a challenge and Shankarlal found it difficult to procure land and students. The word started spreading through family friends and village heads, which brought two blind girls from the surrounding village. “Everyone was supportive. They were always there whenever I wanted to go somewhere.” During his surveys he realized girl students required education because the boys already had a school in the city.
All India Blind Federation was scouting around for a local member. As soon as Shankarlal heard about this he immediately applied and was selected. This association was very useful for him as it helped him develop contacts, plan logistics and source students and learning materials.
Between 1995 and 2003 there wasn’t much activity except that Shankarlal was fundraising and looking to build a school. In 2004, he constructed two rooms and started a school in the year 2004. The girl students were from the surrounding villages. One room was used for the class and another was used as a dormitory. Slowly things started to fall in place. A lady approached him for help saying she could cook; a blind girl who had completed her B.A wanted to teach.
From then onwards there was no looking back. Now he runs a fully functional residential school with dormitories and libraries. As he showed me around, I couldn’t help but salute him for his tremendous work.