(19 Feb. 1968 – 22 Sept. 2019)

It is impossible not to be impressed by Tamollanghan (Conquering Darkness) – the autobiography of a strong and sensitive person told in a straightforward, thoughtful manner. Sajida Sheikh-Meshram born in a middle-class Muslim family of Hyderabad becomes blind in a childhood accident. With her father’s support she travels to Mumbai and studies in a series of eminent schools including the Kamala Mehta Dadar School for the Blind and colleges like Wilson College and SNDT. She outshines her ‘normal’ classmates not only in studies but in poetry recitation and debates. At the Andheri Industrial Home for Blind Women, she trains herself in a range of skills from tailoring to cooking to home management. She learns telephone operating at the National Association of the Blind. From the wide world of the metropolis she is thrown into the villages of Chandrapur where her husband works as a Zilla Parishad teacher. From Hyderabad to Mumbai to Pune to Chandrapur – Sajida’s life takes many ups and downs which make the core of her autobiography.

Sajida’s autobiography straddles the inner, the domestic and the public worlds. It tells the compelling tale of how a woman with a sharp mind and a tenacious disposition overcomes the twin challenges that life throws her. On the one hand is the challenge of her own blindness and on the other hand is the challenge of discrimination and indignities that the outer world heaps on her through their words and actions.

Written in simple, almost conversational Marathi, Sajida allows us entry into a world that not many have access to. She describes how the blind measure cloth, how they pour tea into cups, give the baby a massage and a bath, how she has a mental map of the house that enables her to keep it spotless clean, how she learned to draw water from the well and lift the pot without spilling a drop. Sajida talks to the reader with a directness that has neither self-pity nor self-praise.

Revanand and Sajida Celebrating their Wedding Anniversary

There is a seriousness with which Sajida and her partner Revanand approach even the most frustrating situations. For instance, when Revanand’s family insists that he should marry a normal girl even though he himself is blind, he explains why it is important for him to marry a well-educated blind person like Sajida. He uses the examples of many blind couples he has met in Mumbai who are happy together. Similarly, when Sajida’s mother wants a Muslim name for her grandson, it is up to Sajida to make a list of names like Sameer and Sahil that are acceptable to her parental as well as her marital families.

The book is filled with the characters that Sajida meets – many are unkind or ignorant but many more are friendly and helpful. There are also beautiful moments like the candlelight dinner at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences where Revanand was completing his Masters in Social Work. Sajida describes in detail her dress, the decorations, the food and the excitement, and how Revanand’s friend Mathew a Ph.D. scholar acted the ‘eyes’ of the newly-married couple that evening.

In the entire book Sajida comes across as a voice advocating on behalf of the blind. She insists that the blind can not only be self-sufficient, they can contribute equally to society as any other person. Her message to parents of blind children is to ensure that the children are educated and independent – not to make them diffident and dependent by employing full-time nurses and maids.

At the Rally for Rights of the Blind, Chandrapur, 2012

Sajida rues the fact that unlike Mumbai, people in Chandrapur have a disparaging attitude towards the disabled. In order to do something about this, she started a social organization called Samajotthan in 2012. It was a tough work as employment generation activities did not bring in results and the charity show she organised did not manage to raise any funds at all. Unperturbed, she persevered by taking out rallies of the disabled in Chandrapur to raise consciousness about their issues. Between 2016 and 2018 through Samajotthan she organized three extremely successful Sahitya Sammelans (literature festivals) for the disabled – the last one in Nagpur was attended by the well-known Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure. She started a hostel for blind girls called ‘Willpower’.

Inaugural Session of Literature Festival for Blind and Disabled, Chandrapur, 2016

Unfortunately, Sajida Sheikh-Meshram died in 2019 leaving much of her work incomplete. It was her wish that Samajotthan should continue to work for the educational, social and economic upliftment of the blind. Although she writes that she expects her partner Revanand to fulfill this wish, it is really the responsibility of society to respond to her last request.

(Tamollanghan will be published on 5th December 2021, 10.30 a.m., at I.M.A Hall Chandrapur.)

– Paromita Goswami