37-year-old Shaji and 36-year-old Laila are parents to 12 children. Their oldest "daughter" is 43 years old.
This visually-impaired married couple from Kerala’s Thrissur district has opened their home in Perimpilavu to as many as 10 visually impaired women. The couple provides them training in art and craft so that they can be self-reliant.
The “children” (apart from their own two children) have been learning umbrella making and various other activities including music, dance, keyboard, guitar, violin and sketching, for nearly a year and a half.
While they are given training in arts during the weekends, the rest of the days are spent in making umbrellas that are sold to a number of organisations.
As of now, the organisation supplies umbrellas to schools and government offices on demand and is looking to expand their activities by including furniture making too.
"We want them to have a life of their own, without depending on others for their daily bread. To learn a trade would mean that they can make a living on their own, be confident that they are fending for themselves," says Shaji, who lost his vision at the age of 15.
The members of the home are a mixed lot, from a Class 12 student to a 43-year-old woman. They occasionally leave to spend a few days in their own homes.
36-year-old Geetha, a native of Kannur, joined the organisation nearly a year ago. She has all the material required for making an umbrella neatly placed before her on the floor. In the middle of making a three-fold umbrella, she asks, "Do you like the colour?"
'A home for people like us'
A nervous problem in his brain gradually filled Shaji's eyes with darkness while he was in Class 10. When the doctors washed off their hands and said there was no cure, Shaji refused to be defeated.
"Then, I used to live in Malappuram. I went all the way to Kozhikode, learnt Braille and completed my school education," Shaji says.
He then went on to take vocational training in umbrella making, candle making, furniture making and the like.
For Laila, who is a graduate in music and has been partially blind since birth, opening "Vibhinna Vaibhava Vikasana Vedi" with her husband, was in a way creating a platform that she lacked in her own childhood.
"Here, we let them chose what they want to learn, so that they realise their potential and are not limited to staying in their houses. I had the good fortune of doing a BA in music and setting up a small music institute, but not everyone gets to be that lucky. If we do not create a platform for people like us, who else will?" Laila asks.
Prior to setting up the NGO- where the 10 members also live- the duo ran a music institute in the district.
"At that institute, even able-bodied children used to come. But it was over a year ago that we decided we should be doing something for people like us," Laila says.
Through thick and thin
Ever since the duo got married in 2009, they have led a life on their own. With Laila's Muslim family refusing to marry off their daughter to a Hindu man, they admit that they got little support from their families.
After meeting each other at a music programme in Kozhikode, they did not leave each other's side. Shaji and Laila got married at a community wedding conducted by Mata Amritanandamayi. They sold lottery tickets for almost two years after their wedding to make a living.
Their 5-year-old son Devanathan makes sure that his parents have everything they need at an arm's reach. The duo has also knocked on several doors for sponsorship in order to run the organisation.
As Laila takes an evening stroll with the others, the seasoned singer has a new Malayalam song in her lips: "Njanum njanumentaalum aa 10 perum..." (Me, my companion, and those 10 people)
(You can contact Shaji on 9207483333)