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project Fifty years ago to the day, India marched bravely on to its tryst with destiny.

The future lay before it, burnished with the brass polish of hope, of promise.

Fifty years later, the hope has been corroded by despair, the promise nulled by mass negligence.

Or has it? Is the mood of mass cynicism, of all-pervasive despair, really justified?

Is there -- really, truly -- no hope left?

That seems to be the consensus -- but we disagree. Because to yield to despair would be to forget one basic truth of that long ago day when India grasped its destiny with both hands.

And that truth is this -- it may be true that the Gandhis and Nehrus and Patels and Ambedkars and others led the nation towards the goal of Independence. But what really made it possible was the selfless sacrifice, the commitment, the belief and faith, of hundreds of thousands of citizens as ordinary as you and me.

That was our biggest strength then -- and it remains our biggest asset today.

For every corrupt politician and apathetic bureaucrat, there are a hundred citizens working, in their quiet, unassuming fashion, to put a smile on someone's face, to improve the quality of someone's life, to take Life by the hand and lead it one step forward towards the light.

And it is those little people we focus on here, in Project Hope. On them and their little lives and little achievements. Because it is there -- in these little people with big hearts -- that the real promise of this country rests.

Presenting the first in the series: George Abraham

Project Hope/George Iype

'The blind don't need charity'

The longest journey, they say, begins with but a single step.

George Abraham In George Abraham's case, it began with a simple train journey -- from Bangalore to Cochin. Simply put, the then 16-year-old wanted to travel on his own; his parents were against the idea.

George Abraham, you see, is visually impaired. Since the age of eight months, when he sustained damage to his retina, Abraham has not been able to see more than six feet in front of him.

But any deficiencies in his eyesight were more than compensated for by the clarity of his mental vision. "What they need," says Abraham, referring to the estimated four million Indians below the age of 21 who are visually impaired, "is not protection, but understanding and acceptance. What they seek is self-reliance, confidence, ambition and motivation."

Abraham, needless to say, made that train journey on his own. And in the process, wheels were set in motion that has taken him to a plane far, far higher than any he had in mind at that time.

Today, he is the mind -- and the heart -- behind the proposed World Cup cricket tournament for the blind, scheduled to be held in India between November 17 to 28, 1998.

This is his story:

Abraham was born in London to parents, both engineers, who had emigrated from Kerala. However, by the time Abraham was two, his parents decided to relocate to India. And, says Abraham, around this time they took the decision that was to shape their son's future. "The greatest good my parents ever did me was to send me to a school for normal children, rather than an institution for the blind. They brought me up like a normal child, never gave me reason to believe I was different."

This decision, however, brought with it inherent problems. As George's schooling progressed, in institutions ranging from La Martiniere in Lucknow, Frank Antony's in Delhi and Kendriya Vidyalaya in Hubli, it became a struggle to keep pace with his classmates.

George Abraham "They could all read books, but I could not even see the letters. So my mother had to read out the lessons, my father helped me with my maths. More importantly, they instilled confidence in me, and that turned out to be my greatest strength."

From school to St Stephen's College, Delhi, where he did an honours course in Maths, followed by a Masters in Operations Research -- all of which in turn led to Abraham's joining the advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather in Bombay, where he rose to become accounts director.

This, by and of itself, would have been achievement enough for anyone, let alone a person suffering from a visual handicap. But for Abraham, it was merely a halfway stop on a journey that had begun with him boarding a train in Bangalore.

In 1989, Abraham went on an official trip to Delhi and chanced to visit a school for the blind. "It struck me then how very lucky I was. I saw in that school children who were made to feel that blindness was a handicap, that opportunities for them were limited or even non-existent. I compared this with my own parents, who had never given me cause to believe I was inferior and I thought, there but for the grace of god and my parents, go I.

"That incident had the impact of a hammer blow. I realised, then, that what blind people need is not sympathy, but opportunity. Look at the stats -- India has four million blind under the age of 21, but less than 200 institutions to prepare them for life. Teaching materials are scarce, trained instructors scarcer. And at the end of it all, the only thing they have to look forward to are 'careers' in cane weaving, candle making, embroidery, knitting...

George Abraham "I thought this was unfair. I wanted to make them equal, productive, self-reliant," says Abraham.

And the vehicle he choose, to carry him to his goal, was the game of cricket.

"Sports develops qualities of confidence, initiative and ambition. The playing field is a simulation of life, there you go through all the emotions of life, happiness, anger, anxiety, eagerness, enthusiasm, irritation, excitement..."

It was a crossroads for the fast-rising advertising professional. Abraham, faced with a choice, did not hesitate -- he quit his job, and set out on the road that led to the cricket fields for the blind.

Figuring that awareness was the first step, Abraham set out to make a telefilm, an upbeat one, featuring the triumphs of the blind, portraying the visually impaired as a normal human being with a little physical problem. He wrote to the likes of Satyajit Ray, Shashi Kapoor and Sai Paranjype, seeking guidance with the project -- and Kapoor, he recalls, instantly responded with help.

Abraham put together the broad script and submitted it to the government-run Doordarshan television authorities. And received, in return, deafening silence.

Around the same time, he chanced to visit Dehra Dun's National Institute of the Physically Handicapped, where he watched blind children playing a game of cricket. "I immediately decided to dedicate my life to cricket for the blind." In March 1990, Abraham wrote to the country's leading cricketers, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, informing them of his plan to hold a cricket tournament for the blind. Gavaskar's reply was immediate, and positive. 'Anything I can do to help, I will,' the master batsman assured Abraham.

Abraham and seven others then formed the Society for Communication and Research and, under its aegis, he began writing to people and companies, travelling the length and breadth of the country trying to sell his vision.

George Abraham Through his ad world contact Tara Sabavala of Lintas Advertising, Abraham arranged a meeting with her father, S A Sabavala, vice-chairman of Tata Sons. He also approached the then Tata Steel managing director, Russi Modi. In both places, he was asked for a project paper.

Abraham had by then invited 24 blind teams from across the country to participate in a tournament scheduled for September 1990 in Delhi, with a proposed budget of Rs 250,000. However, a month before that date, Abraham's pockets were still to let. Citing the Mandal riots as an excuse, Abraham got the tournament postponed to December.

Around end September, Tata Steel responded with an offer of sponsorship to the tune of Rs 100,000. And once the bandwagon began rolling, the likes of Colgate Palmolive, Parle and the Delhi Rotary Club clambered on board.

With cricket fan Madhavarao Scindia agreeing to be patron of the tournament, getting to meet then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi proved easy. And he readily agreed to inaugurate the tournament.

In December 1990, thus, the first Tata Steel Cricket Tournament for the Blind was conducted, with the likes of Rajiv Gandhi, Scindia and Russi Modi among the audience.

"It was a huge success," recalls Abraham. It also became the first of a regular annual event, with sponsors ranging from Coca-Cola, Brooke Bond, Hindustan Lever Limited, Tata Steel, Titan Watches, Lipton and Kirloskar Electricals.

Abraham, typically, wasn't prepared to rest on those laurels either. Thus, he put together the Association for the Cricket for the Blind in India, and embarked on the ultimate project -- organising the Cricket World Cup for the Blind.

The first step was to approach the embassies of British, New Zealand, and Australian governments in India with details of his proposal. In 1996, the Australia India Council sponsored his visit to Sydney, where he presented his ideas before the Australian Cricket Council for the Blind.

That was just a beginning. By year end, he had formed the World Blind Cricket Council, a body registered in London and of which he is the chairman.

The WBCC first standardised the rules of the game, then drew up a schedule for international fixtures. And first up on the calendar is the World Cup for the blind, scheduled for November 1998, in India.

Participating nations include Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India.

"Our budget is Rs 9 million, and we are in the process of getting sponsors," says Abraham. "Meanwhile, as a curtain raiser to the big event, we are planning an Asia Cup for the Blind in December 1997, with India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka participating. The event will be held in Gwalior."

As always, recognition showered down on Abraham. In 1993, the Sanskriti Foundation honoured him with an award recognising his work for social and cultural development. In 1996 came the ultimate accolade, when the International Olympic Committee invited Abraham to Atlanta, to run a lap with the Olympic Flame.

Again, the achievements, and accolades, appear more than enough to satisfy the most hyper of hyper-achievers. But Abraham, typically, tends to shrug off his achievements and talk of those to come. "Right now, we are busy constituting the SCORE awards for sporting excellence among the blind," he says. "And there are other projects in the pipeline."

And even today -- 23 years after that first solo train ride -- Abraham traces his inspiration, his drive, to that trip by rail from Bangalore to Cochin. "My parents let me loose into the world when I was 16," he recalls. "Today, I want all blind people to follow me, to get out there and do things on their own..."

At the end of it all, my mind goes back to Abraham's basic premise. That it is opportunity the blind need -- not pity.


So simple, you have to be blind not to see it.

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'Given the opportunity, the blind too can master the art and technique of cricket'

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