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'Everyone suffers from some handicap... You have to surge on'

Last updated on: December 17, 2013 15:04 IST

'Everyone suffers from some handicap... You have to surge on'

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Abhishek Mande Bhot

When she was 14, Sonal Mehta was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. By 15 she had lost all her vision.

That very year, she appeared for the all-important Class 10 SSC examinations and scored 82 per cent.

Two years later, she came ninth in her Class 12 HSC examinations.

She has never looked back ever since.

This is the inspirational story you should be taking lessons from.

Sonal Mehta is visually challenged.

She has been that way for a little over 25 years now. For 20 of those years she has been a teacher in English at the Government Polytechnic For Girls in Ahmedabad.

She likes to see her condition as a 'state of being' and not a handicap.

"Everyone suffers from some handicap or the other," she says over the phone from Ahmedabad where she lives with her husband. "Sometimes it is physical, at other times it is psychological, social or economic. You just have to figure out how you are going to deal with your state of being.

"People like me, who have a physical handicap, cannot afford to be psychologically handicapped as well. You have to surge on."

Mehta has been doing just that all these years.

After graduating in English Language and Literature, she did a PhD, becoming the first visually challenged woman at Gujarat University to do so.

In the Department of English, she is the only visually challenged person to be awarded a PhD.

Sonal Mehta began to lose her vision when she was 14 and was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that eventually leads to complete blindness. Along with that she had to let go her dream of becoming a doctor.

"I was heartbroken," she says, "I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember."

She was 15 by the time she lost her vision entirely. "It was the beginning of my Class 10," she recollects. "It was frustrating. All my dreams were shattered. I was still very young. I didn't know what to do."


Image: Sonal Mehta
Photographs: Sonal Mehta is Gujarat University's first female visually challenged PhD. She is now 43.

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'I may not be a medical doctor but I still have a 'doctor' before my name'

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Sonal Mehta refuses to dwell on the past. All she will say is that after those initial months of frustration she resolved to make a name for herself.

"Look at me now. I may not be a medical doctor but I still have a 'doctor' before my name. That isn't so bad," she laughs on the other end of the telephone line.

The attitude of family and friends had a lot to do with her success.

After she lost her sight she was never made to feel any different. "I wasn't isolated or treated with kid gloves. If all my siblings were lighting crackers, my parents helped me do the same. If they played Holi, I was never stopped from doing that myself.

"My friends also never treated me any differently. The support I received from them and my family really made me see myself as being no different from them."

She appeared for her Class 10 examinations with the help of a writer and graduated with 82 per cent marks (an achievement even for a sighted person).

In Class 12, she stood ninth in the Boards and went on to graduate in English Language and Literature with a First Class score, complete her Masters and then her MPhil where she topped the class before completing her doctoral thesis on the female characters in the works of R K Narayan.

Along the way, she also topped the Gujarat State Public Commission examinations for the post of a lecturer in English at the Government Polytechnic College in Ahmedabad.

For 15 years she commuted between Gandhinagar, her maternal home and Ahmedabad, a distance of about 30 km by bus.

***

Sonal Mehta remembers the day she stumbled on the staircase of a cinema hall while getting to her seat. She doesn't remember the movie they went to watch but she remembers the name of the theatre -- Shalimar in Gandhinagar where a shopping mall now stands.

She was taken for a routine eye check up, only to be told that this was something far more serious.

For a long time she did not know the seriousness of the problem. "I would be taken to the doctors, my eyes would be tested, I would be made to sit outside as the doctor spoke to my parents and then we would return home.

"At home everyone had long faces; there were whispered conversations that I could hear from the other room. That was pretty much how I figured that I wouldn't be able to see for very long."

Sonal is the youngest of six children; there is a 10 year age difference between her and the eldest child, her sister. Her only brother is nine years her senior.

"I remember this one incident when I was 13 or 14. I still had sight and like all girls my age I used to admire myself in the mirror.

"My brother caught me doing that once. He told me something I'll never forget.

"He said there was a lot more to me than what the mirror showed me. That I wasn't ordinary or like the other girls, I was different and that I shouldn't be bothering much with my looks."

That advice has stood her in good stead, she says.


Photographs: Courtesy Sonal Mehta

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'We are living a life like any other normal couple'

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Mehta also admits that the universe has conspired to swing things in her favour.

After she completed Class 12 examinations her story was all over the papers. After reading the reports, a retired civil engineer, GN Kharod, sought her out and offered his help. "For three years after that, he was my eyes," says Mehta.

Though she knows Braille she prefers audio books and Uncle Kharod, as she calls him, was her reader.

"For hours, he would read out to me and help me with my studies. I had always been bright right from the beginning. I remember I was also quite good at sketching portraits.

"It took some time for me to make that transition -- from being a sighted bright student to one who had to depend on someone else for everything related to her studies."

Those were frustrating times, she admits, but she adapted. "When you jump into the water, you learn to swim, don't you? After the first few months of dejection, I got over it."

She told herself that she still had her other senses and they were good enough to take her through.

Since she had always loved reading, literature was the obvious choice of subject to pursue. Her MPhil and doctoral thesis was on the works of R K Narayan.

"I'd always liked his works as a child. My first impressions of Narayan were Guide, the film. I do not have a lot of memories of it because I watched it as a child. I came across the television serial Malgudi Days after I had lost my sight. I was drawn by the innocence of Malgudi Days; it reminded me a bit of my own childhood," she says.

By the time she graduated, Kharod had introduced her to his friend, RB Sudiwala, also a retired civil servant, who would be by her side for the next 17 years.

"Sudiwala Uncle really made a world of difference to my life. Without him, I don't think I would have been able to study as much as I did.

"He would read out all my books, recommended reading material, make notes and we used to then discuss them. He would proof-read my papers, thesis, everything.

"He wasn't a blood relation but he did so much for me. And he didn't charge me a single rupee."

***

She was 39 when she lost her father and the other father figure in her life, Sudiwala.

"It was just my mother and me at home. That was when I first began to feel the need for a life partner. Like everyone else who seemed to seek me out at the right time, Ushir Shah was introduced to me by a common friend. He had heard of me and he wanted to meet me.

"Initially we were just friends and then one day he confessed he liked me and proposed marriage."

They discussed what would be an unusual relationship. "I wouldn't be able to cook food for him or serve him tea. He would have to take care of me and it couldn't be the other way around," Mehta pointed out.

Shah had figured all that out for himself and the two were married.

"He, like his parents, is very progressive. He doesn't think twice before fetching my shoes and making me wear them. How many men you know would do things like that for their wives?" she asks.

She lives with her in-laws and says they have been very helpful too.

"We are living a life like any other normal couple. We go out for movies and plays; we listen to music; we go for walks and vacations."

Chak De! India and Ferrari Ki Sawari are among her favourite films. In literature her taste leans towards the classics -- Anna KareninaCrime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights. There are about 4,000 audio books in her computer.

***

As a teacher she feels it is important to get students involved in the classroom. Once that is done, half her battle is won.

"Also, remember that I teach in a girls' polytechnic college. Girls tend to be more sincere than boys so that helps too," she says.

When she needs a visual aid to illustrate a point, Mehta simply takes print-outs. She uses voice-recognition and reader software to help her navigate the Web as well as her phone, a Nokia C5 that is adaptable to it.

"For paper correction, I seek help from junior lecturers. I usually give them the key to the question paper and they correct it based on that. In case of difficulties, they approach me."

Eventually, Sonal Mehta hopes to pen her memoirs.

"Perhaps when I've crossed 50?" she says. "I have some time for that. Till then I'd just like to enjoy my life."


Image: Mehta was introduced to Ushir Shah by a common friend. They have been married for four years now.
Photographs: Courtesy Sonal Mehta

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