A Blind School, formalities, and a bike ride

Excursions to the projects happen out of the blue – the other morning after Prathna, it’s “Who wants to come to the Blind School?”. Well I’m in, determined to check out everything before committing. So ten of us pile into a Landcruiser and off we go to Gandhinagar, a suburb on the northeast of the city about half an hours drive away. This area has plate glass company buildings and Government offices behind fences and security guards, but also the extremely poor camping out along the sides of the road in little shelters or simply sleeping on lop-sided charpoys beside the road.

The Blind School is not an MS project as such, it was started by two guys, a Muslim and a Hindu, about fifteen years ago to provide somewhere for the blind children of the poor. The fact that a Muslim and a Hindu co-operated is unusual, and the importance of it is stressed.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to recognise what a desperate life it would be to be handicapped and destitute in this country. Here they receive an education, food, and are taught Braille, and skills like handcrafts, woodwork and so on to try and give them a bit of a future… I did ask whether there was any on-going care for them after they reach adulthood, but no, the best they can really hope for at this stage seems to be to marry another handicapped person, perhaps someone with a missing leg was how it was put to me. Music is something they can certainly survive with, and those with musical talents are encouraged and taught, two teenaged lads on drums and a form of accordion treated us to a performance, while the rest of the students sat in front of us in neat lines and clean uniforms, giggling and whispering happily together. They are well cared for here.

Sitting on the floor beside me was a little girl, maybe three or four years old, not in uniform, and being held lightly from behind by another small girl behind her. She was a new arrival, only one night in, and “being very good”. Heartbreaking really, she kept touching the wall for reassurance, then found my hand and explored it, very tentatively to begin with, then rolling my ring around my finger, up to my watch (whatever did she think that was?) and back to my fingernails. All in complete silence, and with no expression on her face. Poor little sausage, what sort of life has she had thus far as a child in a very poor family.  The rag pickers and day labourers regularly take their small children along and sit them by a tree, or sling a piece of cloth from a tree as a hammock for a baby – one of the reasons MS started up the Anganwadi’s and crèches staffed by grandmothers in the Tekra. We saw the girl’s dormitory later, spotlessly clean, with iron beds rather than pallets, but no toys or dolls. I thought of knitting her a Clanger, Mum, but what would she think it was?

The reason for our visit was to discuss a planned project to create a garden for the residents. They want to plant scented herbs, tree’s, vegetables that the students can feel, smell, and taste, I think it’s a lovely idea… but it’s then suggested that we stay out there for three days to do it and I’m not entirely sure I want to forgo the familiarity and comfort of what’s become home just yet. Soon. In the meantime, I think I may have found myself a project – a previous French volunteer made a 3D mural on one section of the wall, I’d like to do more, give them some extra stimulation. I chat to Virunbhai, he likes the idea, it may happen. Only difficulty is getting there and back – need to catch a bus to Gandhinagar and then a rickshaw out to the school, so it’s another thing for a little later when I have a tad more confidence. I still might knit that little girl a toy though so she has something to cuddle in bed at night. Any doll makers out there? I can find a home for them.

Formalities. As I am here for possibly a year, and on an Employment visa, I have to register with the local police… and before that I have to get a PAN card, and at some stage I need a SIM card and an internet dongle… so I find out that Ajay, the lad I am going to help with his English, is going to take me on his motorbike- am I OK with this? Hell yeah! Yes it’s Asia, yes the traffic is erratic and there’s a lot of beeping of horns and weaving in and out, no there’s no option for a helmet, just a dupatta wound round my head to keep the sun off, but it’s nothing like as scary as Saigon, so on I hop and off we go! Challo!

It’s fun. There appears to be some sort of unofficial guideline regarding beeping the horn – one rickshaw driver gets a proper serve from Ajay for “ignoring me when I gave him two horns” – impromptu English lesson on the bike in the middle of the roundabout, off we go again, I’m sure Ajay is muttering “BEEPED the horn twice, BEEPED the horn twice” as we proceed! Dave has a theory to do with their motors not working if the horn’s not beeping, some sort of dynamo mechanism perhaps?

Paperwork. Wow. Eat your hearts out tree huggers, there was an Amazonian rainforest in the police commissioners office, in floor to ceiling piles, neatly tied up with red string, and with ceiling fans at full blast fluttering paper corners like a deranged flock of pigeons. They know Ajay’s from MS with another volunteer so we shamelessly jump the queue, but are doomed to failure by having something only in duplicate not triplicate, the wrong letter from MS – we get him to write a list, and off we go again. I think we were out for about four hours, failed re phone, got PAN card on second visit, failed again at the police… so we did it all again this afternoon, it was just as much fun, and we only got sent off to get more photo’s – they needed seven this time, but normal passport size at least and at 120 rupees for twelve I’m happy after the two 2’ by 2’ for just eight quid at the visa office in London. So, I have an interview with the Police Commissioner Himself next week. Let me quote the guy at the office. “11.30am appointment, you will wait about two hours”. Guess I am in India!

Home in time to watch the flocks of mynah birds wheeling and twisting crazily in the sky as the sun sets, and then India said to me “But wait! There’s more…” and a fabulous firework display started up as soon as it was dark, not too far away, followed by explosions and more rockets, a multi coloured searchlight aimed away from the airport when a plane was landing or taking off, six or seven white one’s circling the sky when there wasn’t. It was wonderful… and as I write this sitting on the verandah I am looking at a wedding all set up and ready to start on the volleyball courts, and listening to rockets going off at another one in the grassy area at the north end of the Gandhi Ashram… one block away, where another enormous wedding is taking place, they put a marquee the size of a football pitch up for that one. What’s more, I’m invited – the bride is the daughter of one of the MS drivers… again, maybe next time. It is absolutely mad right now, explosions everywhere, and I can see fireworks all over the city – it’s an auspicious day to get married, and for me it’s auspicious that I’m on the third floor and have a great view. Bye for now!



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