Light, sound, action
She's come into the spotlight with her support to Sanjay Leela
Bhansali's film Black. But, over the years, Beroz Vacha has
been playing a far more important role, opening up a whole new
world for the deafblind in India, finds Nilanjana Sengupta
In 1977, Beroz Vacha founded the Helen Keller Institute for
the Deaf and Deafblind in Mumbai in honour of the deafblind
woman who did pioneering work for the disabled. The institute
is in the spotlight today. Vacha's students taught actors Rani
Mukherji and Amitabh Bachchan sign language so they could
portray a speech-impaired deafblind girl and her teacher in
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Black. When asked how she feels
about the critical acclaim the film has received, the
76-year-old pauses before saying, "I am happy for Sanjay,
I am happy for Black."
For Vacha, her role in opening up a whole new world for the
deafblind in India has been much more significant. Often
referred to as the 'mother of Indian sign language', she was
the first to bring in the concept of total communication that
includes touch, in addition to sign language and finger
spelling sentences in the palm. When the feisty lady crossed
the finish line of the Mumbai Marathon's Harmony-sponsored
Silver Run this January, alongside Rajinder Singh Sethi, a
visually challenged and hearing-impaired teacher of Braille
(see Showing The Way, Harmony, February 2005), not many knew
her. Now, more people know her name, after the credits of the
film acknowledged her support. Vacha was pleasantly surprised.
"A credit line is too insignificant for someone like
her," says Bhansali, who first met Vacha in 1994 before
making his debut film Khamoshi on a hearing and
speech-impaired couple. "After the three hours I spent
with her, I knew I had found my Anne Sullivan [a blind Irish
woman who was governess and mentor to Helen Keller]." The
filmmaker had no doubt that Vacha would lend her support to
Black. "She may not have given birth to them, but she is
her students' mother," he says.
Vacha, a Parsi from Mumbai, plays the role perfectly-she is
stern, fiercely protective and, at times, downright indulgent.
She won't let her students fall, but she won't hold them
either, letting them learn their way through life. "Bachchan's
character in Black is modelled on Beroz and Sullivan,"
reveals Bhansali. The similarities are striking, but they end
on the screen. Once the tinsel wears off and the veneration
dies down, it is to Vacha's school that journalists flock for
the real picture.
Done with the interviews-they took up much of her time after
Black released- Vacha is back at work. There are people from
other deafblind organisations to meet, and letters to send.
"I'm just part of a wheel that keeps turning," she
says.During her 27-year tenure at the Helen Keller Institute,
the wheel has turned many times. The number of students has
gone up from three to 150. From a municipal building in
Byculla to the more spacious Aditya Birla Centre at Vashi, the
infrastructure has also come a long way. The institute at
Vashi has a swimming pool for hydrotherapy, occupational
therapy facility, an indoor gymnasium, and classrooms.
Financial support and donations trickle from individual and
group donors-a bulk of it for the Vashi centre came from
Rajashree Birla, wife of the late Aditya Birla.
Though paucity of funds is a serious concern, Vacha has not
waited for things to happen. Over the years, she has cajoled
her way into the coffers of friends, well-wishers and
philanthropists. Sense International India, a branch of the
UK-based international organisation for the deafblind, sent
her on a fund-raising trip across Europe in 1996 for the
construction of the Vashi centre. "God gives me the
strength," says Vacha whose workstation is surrounded by
messages from the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. An adage stuck
to her front door says, 'Nothing is more difficult, and
therefore more precious, than to be able to decide, and being
responsible for it.' The last five words are her addition,
underlined for effect.
Vacha's sense of responsibility is keen. In 1977, she quit her
job as the principal of the Education Audiology and Research
Society (also known as E R Centre), a school for the deaf and
blind in Mumbai. "These children needed a different
approach and I was willing to try," she says. With Rs 150
in her pocket, Vacha set up the Helen Keller Institute in the
home of a fellow teacher. "Not many took note of a school
that had three teachers and as many deafblind children,"
says Pervin R Mehta, 55, honorary principal of the E R Centre.
"But she never lost sight of her objective."
Earlier, as a 25-year-old, Vacha was a licensed pilot. Her
husband, the late Commander N H K Vacha, also a founder
trustee of Helen Keller, was posted by the Navy to Patna in
the 1960s, where she spent four years learning how to fly. In
1965, a chance meeting with a friend in Kolkata led Vacha to
the Aural School for the Deaf in the city. "In due
course, I knew that flying was not really my calling, teaching
the deafblind was," she says.
She had barely completed a month as trainee when the principal
insisted that she teach a girl who was born deaf, and turned
blind at 16. The experience strengthened her will and she
decided to make her job a lifelong commitment.
"The word 'enough' does not exist in her
dictionary," says Suryakant C Dalal, the 80-year-old
president of Helen Keller Institute. Five years ago, Vacha
introduced computers for the deafblind. "We had only just
begun adapting computers for the visually impaired, and she
was talking about the deafblind!" recalls Dalal. But
within a year, Vacha had deployed the Braille press at Byculla
and fitted it with computers. Other highlights included power
Braillers (they convert normal text on a computer screen to
Braille) and Braille embossers (to print text documents as
Braille sheets). Vacha is now raising funds to buy computers
for the Vashi branch.
The Braille press prints a bi-annual newsletter, Deafblindness
in Asia, distributed in Asia, Europe and the US. The 15
students who work here, all graduates from the Vashi centre,
also translate books and maps into Braille. Vacha supervises
this work. "She has no hidden agenda," says Mehta,
who was a teacher at E R Centre when Vacha was principal.
"She just wants to do the best she can."
For Vacha, each day begins with new ideas. She wants to
introduce judo at the Vashi school. That done, she plans to
follow up on the consolidation and expansion of the institute,
check the progress of the five students getting ready for the
National Institute of Open Schooling examination and, of
course, continue to change perceptions about the deafblind.
She is a practitioner of Reiki, an alternative healing
therapy. And she breaks into a maxim ever so often. Her
latest: "We can't take the future in our hands. We must
move along with the tide."
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