In Rahul Kelapure’s short story ‘The Sound of Silence’, the protagonist Pragya, could be tall, short, curly haired or none of the above. What we do know, instead, is that she is smart, likes her job, drinks coffee and loves her husband. One evening, as she returns from work, Pragya gets abducted and is locked in a room. The story has no visual descriptions – blindfolded, Pragya frantically feels her way around the room which gives one the sense that it is a small, claustrophobic one. The story unfolds only through her racing thoughts, as she plots her escape.
The thriller story bagged the first prize at the recently concluded short story writing contest for persons with visual impairment titled Readiscovery, organised by Pune-based NGO EKansh Trust. The contest has been touted as the first-of-its kind – one of the rules, for instance, was that contestants’ entries should have no or very minimal visual descriptions or references. “While writing the story, only Pragya’s voice, expressions and thoughts ran through my mind, in an audio form,” says 38-year-old Rahul, who works as an assistant legal advisor at SEBI in Mumbai, and is a Crime Patrol fan.
The idea of the contest, says organiser and founder of EKansh Trust Anita Iyer Narayan, is to highlight how, in spite of advancements, popular books, films and TV shows are still largely inaccessible to those who have visual disability.
“Once, someone had messaged me saying that Harry Potter is available in Braille. But what is the point? It’s a hyper visual book filled with descriptions of magic tricks and so on, which a reader who has visual disabilities may not understand. Today, you have audio descriptions of movies. But if the voiceover says someone is waving a green flag, what does that mean to someone who is blind? You have to explain that a green flag signals it is okay to go, while a red flag means stop,” points out Anita, who had organised a similar contest for Marathi stories in 2012.
The panel of judges - popular author Kavita Kane, writer and chartered accountant Sameer Latey and Nikita Raut who works for Bank of Baroda and is its youngest and first blind Assistant General Manager - ultimately received 29 entries from across India. “When the contest was first announced, we thought blindness would be a part of the stories – like, maybe how the protagonist comes to terms with his blindness and overcomes his struggles… There were a few of those, yes, but we received many stories that had nothing to do with that - like love stories - which, without visual descriptions, a reader who is blind could easily relate to,” explains Sameer, who also has visual disability. “It tells us that a great genre can be developed for the blind and that we are not restricted to reading and liking only stories about the blind.” Kavita says she was ‘floored’ by the content and level of imagination in the stories. “The huge response and the urge to write stood out,” she adds. Agreeing that popular fiction, even in Braille, is often inaccessible to readers, she says, “As an apathetic public, we are often ignorant and misinformed about this. It is time we saw things better.”
Rahul Kelapure was born with the genetic disorder retinitis pigmentosa. A voracious reader, he remembers reading the Sherlock Holmes books as a child and thinking that stories could be written in a different way. “Perhaps then I would have enjoyed the stories a bit more. Although visual descriptions in books did affect my understanding of the story, I never really gave any thought to it. With time, I’d learnt to live with it. If someone describes something to me, I imagine it in my own way. The contest was like a revelation – it proved that stories could be written even for the general public in such a way that the quality is not impacted. Everything is left to the reader’s imagination and it can make the story more gripping,” he says.
Siblings Dr. Ghanshyam Asudani and Dr Vinod Asudani won the second and third prizes for their stories ‘Aparajita’ and ‘The Silent Watcher’ respectively, where visual descriptions are kept to a minimum – in the latter, judges ruled that they were able to relate to the descriptions ‘via the context and settings’.
In ‘Aparajita’, a bright student is diagnosed with blood cancer. Warora-based Ghanshyam explains that the story was inspired by a real-life incident. “My brother Vinod and I had appeared in the board merit list after the 10th standard board exams in 1988. The films division of the Government of India had released a documentary on us, a boy who stayed in a slum in Mumbai and had topped Maharashtra, and a girl from Thane who had scored 76% while battling cancer,” says the 53-year-old English professor. In ‘Aparajita’, a school teacher narrates the life of Asha, a star student, who is determined to finish her board exams in spite of her rapidly deteriorating health. She is described as ‘slim, tall, bubbly girl with curly locks’ but emotions do the rest of the talking in the story. “It is tricky, or even unnatural, to write without visual descriptions,” says Ghanshyam. “I think other senses like touch and hearing can compensate to a great extent, but many a time, it is a challenge. Say, a book describes a sky full of stars. I might be able to touch a model of a star, but there is a sea of difference between touching and seeing.”
Fifty-two-year old Vinod’s story ‘The Silent Watcher’ was partly inspired by his own life. In the story, a doting grandmother teaches her grandson the significance of a good education. “I was very attached to my grandmother and she used to tell me in Sindh, where she lived before the Partition, girls were not sent to schools and she learnt to read and write from her brother-in-law. All that was at the back of my mind, but the rest of the story is fictional.”
“In my family, five out of eight siblings are visually challenged since birth,” continues the Nagpur-based English professor. “My grandmother used to take me and my brother to the school for the blind every day which was 12 km away. She would wait for seven hours till 5 pm, doing nothing but wait at the porch of the school till we were done, and take us back home by changing two buses. She did this for around four to five years, as my parents weren’t keen on sending us to a hostel. So during our bus rides, we used to talk about her childhood, how she migrated to India and so on,” says Vinod, who has several national and international accolades to his name, and also finds a mention in the Limca Book of Records, for outstanding academic performance.