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SEE IT FEELINGLY

Unpretentious and unsentimental, yet full of a dogged empathy and curiosity, THE LIGHT WITHIN: A DIFFERENT VISION OF LIFE (Niyogi, Rs 1,000) is a rich and useful book by the photojournalist, Sipra Das, about the lives of the blind and the visually impaired. It collects photographs of a wide range of men, women and children living and working with various degrees of blindness, alone or in different relationships and communities, together with brief accounts of their lives and work, collected over more than a decade. From coconut pickers and motorcycle mechanics to musicians, stage and film actors, homemakers, company executives and social workers, Das’s subjects — they are never ‘objects’ of pity or condescension in her eyes — come from all over India, and from across the social spectrum. With an adventurousness that she shares with many of her subjects, and an endearing sense of humour, Das follows them around their daily lives, chores and leisure, during moments of intimacy or solitude, or when they “cross over to means that aren’t strictly above board” in collaborating over a test paper at a special examination centre for blind students. She does this without stopping to worry too much about what the politically correct thing to do or say would be when encountering the severely challenged. Nor does she try to make art out of her photographs, or literature out of her writing, although her combining of image and text — in no-frills sans-serif typography and design — manages to document not only her ostensible subjects but also a great deal more. At a practical level, this book will be of immense help to social workers, educationists, counsellors, therapists and policy-makers trying to create modes of intervention and support for the visually impaired of all ages, keeping in mind the specificities of sexual, cultural and economic difference. At another level, because Das’s interest in blindness is not literary, aesthetic or metaphysical (unlike that of, say, Sophie Calle or Derrida), she allows readers to reflect freely on the astonishing human materials collected in this humble and beautifully ‘naïve’ book.

What do we make, for instance, of this episode from the life of Kamal Kanjilal, 36, a member of the Blind Opera in Calcutta? “At the crowded cremation ground, he sat next to his mother’s lifeless body for hours, his hand on her forehead. As the time to consign her to flames drew near, he got up and went out for a breather. By the time he returned, the body was gone, but Kamal had no way of knowing. He sat down at the same spot and thought the body lying there was his mother’s. It wasn’t. He held on to the stranger’s body until he learnt that his mother had already been cremated.”

Left: Khurshida Bano, 28, from Gujarat — a shopkeeper “adept at separating stones from rice”. She and her four sisters all suffer from optical atrophy. Right: A blind man touches the time.