We were introduced by a mutual friend in the bus on my way to school. I was probably in 8th grade and the boy introduced to me shook hands with a firm handshake. He was alert, fit and the corners of his mouth appeared as if they would break into a ready smile at the smallest pretext. He held a cane in one hand, he was blind. It turned out that he had joined a new school, which happened to be on the way to my school and I was requested to drop him off at school in the mornings. This was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
I soon learned that Nagraj was a remarkable boy. He was born blind and had spent the first few years of his life at Divine Light School, a residential school for the blind. The school catered to students up to a certain age and he then had to transition to a regular school. He would board the bus at an earlier stop and when I boarded the bus, he would greet me with a warm smile and a cheerful “hello”. We would converse all the way, alight at Shivajinagar bus stand and then walk to school. He would hold his cane a little aloft while he linked his arm around mine. It was much easier to walk that way. Bangalore roads and pavements were not exactly flat and I would inform him when he had to step up or down or walk around obstructions. We continued this routine for 5 years.
I quickly realized that I was in the company of a very sharp mind with a remarkable memory. There were no textbooks in Braille then, so Nagraj would sit on the first bench and copy notes in Braille shorthand. He would then go home and transcribe the notes. Since there were no textbooks, he had to rely on friends to read out the lessons to him. There was no question of last-minute revisions or going over areas that he was not sure about. He would take some notes if required and request his “reader” to re-read a passage. I read for him sometimes and there were other friends who would do the same. During exams, he was allowed to take the help of a scribe. The scribe would read out the questions and Nagraj would dictate the answers. Nagraj did very well, easily outshining several of his classmates.
I’m not sure how much things have changed in India but in the mid-eighties, there were practically no resources for the blind. That did not deter Nagraj though, he listened to the BBC, Voice of America and AIR. He was fascinated by politics and we discussed politics as well as other current affairs. I also remember paraphrasing books that I read, “Raid on Entebbe” is one of the books that come to mind. As we neared our 10th grade exams, it became apparent that it would be helpful if Nagraj could record his friends reading his textbooks on cassettes and play them back later. Cassettes were expensive but Nagraj was enterprising. He wrote to a Baptist Evangelical Organization in the US that he was interested in hearing more about the Lord and in due course, he received a few cassettes with sermons. The recording tabs were popped open if I remember correctly, but with typical Indian jugad, he got around that problem and he now had excellent quality tapes to record and re-record over. The Lord certainly does help those who help themselves!
When we finished our 10th grade, Nagraj and I ended up in the same college, he took the Arts stream whereas I enrolled in Science. In fact, a few more of our friends who had studied in different schools also ended up at the same college, so now it was a larger group with more diverse opinions. I realized just how much I took things for granted. For example, when one of us in the group would remark that a girl who had just passed by was really pretty, Nagraj would ask us to describe the girl. We would start off with, “she is wearing blue jeans, a pink top” and then stop. He had no notion of colors. We could state the physical attributes of the girl but I’m not sure how much he could relate to that at that point in time. It was the same with cars or any other objects. It challenged me to think of ways to describe objects and scenes to him but Nagarj took it all in his stride. He had a great sense of humor and loved music. John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was one of his favorites. Another one was the Karen Young version of “Nobody’s Child”. He said that one of his schoolmates had sung the song at a function when he was at the Divine Light School. The song is about an orphan whom no one wants to adopt since he is blind. I had a recording of the song and its lyrics are indeed poignant
I’m nobody’s child, I’m nobody’s child.
I’m like a flower, just growing wild.
No mommy’s kisses and no daddy’s smiles,
Nobody wants me, I’m nobody’s child.
Luckily, Nagraj was surrounded by a loving family and had a large circle of friends.
When we finished our 12th, he decided to move to Bombay and he eventually ended up at St Xavier’s. We corresponded for some time, there were no cell phones or email then. On one of my trips to Bombay, I decided to surprise him. He had no idea that I was visiting Bombay and I showed up at his hostel but was told by his roommate that he had gone out for dinner. I waited for some time and saw him walking towards me with a couple of friends. I walked up, motioned his friends to stop and shook his hand. “Who is this?” he asked. I did not reply, it took him a couple of seconds and then he identified me right away. I had observed in the past that his other senses were heightened. His sense of touch and hearing were remarkable. Standing at the back of the bus with the chatter of the crowd around us, he could pick up conversations in the front of the bus. He did not misuse his superpowers though.
After his B.A, he went on to study at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India’s premier institution for social sciences and public policy and then on to a successful corporate career. I moved to the US after my engineering and lost touch with him. I was fortunate enough to meet him a few years ago when I visited Bangalore and he happened to be visiting at the same time. A group of us went out to eat and we exchanged notes about our life. He was pained to hear about my son’s disability and was quick to reassure me that things would be ok. It was then that I asked him a question that I had meant to ask him over the years but never did. “How is it that you are so cheerful and upbeat?” I asked him. ” I have never heard you complain even once or wonder “what if” or question “why me?“. He just looked at me and said something to the effect of “What difference would it make? I can complain or I can try to do the best with what I have, I have chosen to do the latter”. The ancient stoics would have nodded their heads in appreciation.
I had always known him to have an indomitable spirit with a zest for life but that evening he rose even further in my esteem. As I look back over the years, I have been very fortunate to have met some remarkable people. Not the celebrity kind to take a selfie with and post on Facebook but genuine heroes and role models that serve to inspire me. Nagraj is one of them and I’m proud to still be his friend.