I had woken up in some mundane hotel behind the bus station in the rural town of Latur in eastern Maharashtra in India. The water was out. The power was out. I had lost my favourite necklace the previous day in the commotion that is Indian train travel. Wifi or internet access was nonexistent in my residence, and to make matters worse, there was no coffee, anywhere. Mind you, I do enjoy a good chai, but all I wanted was a cup of coffee.
See, I was in the region photographing the issues farmers faced with climate through drought, flood, or bizarre weather patterns, something quite common to the area. That morning I was to be picked and driven through the rural areas by motorbike by a lovely man I had meet on the way to Latur. But by the time he came to pick me up I was in a grouchy mood, put on a semi smile, and said “Let’s go”…but what I really meant was “Let’s get this over with”.
About halfway my friend driving the motorbike turned to me and suggested we take a look at an NGO on the side road for a bit. He didn’t quite mention what the NGO was about, but I was ready for a break and agreed to stop. When we arrived, I was taken aback by what I saw.
A tiny innocent looking woman named Mira was walking around, and as she got closer I realized she was blind. My friend called her over, and she smiled. She recognized his voice. My friend told her that they had a foreign guest to see the NGO. I introduced myself, and to my surprise she responded fully in English.
“Welcome to our community, we make mats, and other items using old clothing”, she said. “That’s amazing”, I exclaimed, and her face lit up as she tried to contain her laughter and excitement. She led us inside a small dark warehouse where there were other blind members of the community busy sewing and stitching different materials. It was one of those moments for me. You get them occasionally, the feeling where you are awestruck, and you shiver slightly since goose bumps are not enough. I’ve seen some crazy things in my life, but that morning thinking back to getting ready in my hotel being all moody, the last thing I expected was this.
Mira stands proudly in the room of her creations.
My friend introduced me to an older man who had just walked in. He was the founder of the organization and the community. His son joined us shortly after, and began to explain everything that they were doing in the community.
“The people here come from all over the region. Blind members of rural areas are segregated, they barely survive and they play no role in society. My father saw that issue and dedicated his life to not only supporting the blind community, but restoring their dignity and giving them the ability to live a normal life. Through the business practice and production we do here, the community members are able to earn an income, have a social life, and feel empowered. We even have marriages within the community!”
I continued to walk from building to building, taking photos, and seeing the different activities. There was a pond for water catchment, rooms for sewing, rooms dedicated entirely to education on numerous topics, and even a residence area equipped with a playground for the children.
After the photo session, discussions, and walking around, we sat down for a tea with the father and the son. I looked out in the sunny common grounds where the sewing buildings stood. I phased out for a second. I remembered the morning. I chewed myself for not being grateful 100% of the time in my life. I realized I was exactly where I was meant to be at the moment. I came to India to photograph the marginalized, and I was damn happy that I did.
To be born blind in rural India’s harsh farm lands is tragic. To take those circumstances, and despite all adversity, find a means living with dignity, is heroic.
I turned to Mira as we were leaving. I had a newly sewn bag in my hand. I told her her the bag was beautiful. She just shrugged her shoulders and laughed a little, “Thank you sir”.
GSP SWADHAR is an initiative of Grameen Shramik Pratishthan-GSP a not for profit organisation founded by Mr. Harishchandra Sude. It is an innovative alternate rehabilitation model for rural persons with disability. GSP has been striving for the social and economic empowerment of rural disadvantaged sections- rural persons with disability, women, and marginal farmers, landless labour and ultra poor families in Latur district of Maharashtra since 1981. Learn more here on their Facebook page.