Mumbai through a blind man's eyes
What is it like to live in a devastated, chaotic, disorganised city like Mumbai - without seeing eyes?
What is it like to be blind in a city known for its potholes, dug-up roads, collapsed flyovers, savage traffic, rotting garbage heaps and suffocating crowds for the last 40 years?
I'm talking about Mumbai, of course, a city that has looked ruined and bombed out as long as I've lived here. Roads are perpetually potholed and under repair; flyovers collapse; pavement are always being dug up for laying one cable or another; mounds of garbage fester in the middle of thoroughfares, scavenged by stray dogs, cats, crows and cows.
What if you had to move this nightmare city completely blind? In February 1991, I blinded myself for a week to find out the answer. Entering the dark black world of the blind meant taping circles of black cloth large enough to block out most of the even peripheral vision over both closed eyes.
I had spent a week at the National Association of the Blind in Worli, learning the basics of pathfinding with the red-and-white cane used by the blind. There wasn't much to it - you sweep side to side about a foot in front of you to detect obstructions. I practised for several days in the corridors of the NAB itself.
They say that when you shut off one sense, others develop to compensate. In my case, I realised that my skin - specifically on my cheeks and nape - had become extra sensitive to light, heat and air. A tingling warmth I felt on my skin would tell me I was near a window or door.
I started my day at Worli, near what used to be the passport office, one of Mumbai's most crowded spots then, with vendors, bus stops, and passport and visa seekers. With me was a photographer but we had agreed that she would stay at a discreet distance behind or in front of me, intervening only in an emergency. If I stumbled, she was not to come to my help.
Over three days, I travelled sightless through Mumbai by bus, train and on foot, from Churchgate and Worli to Dadar and Matunga. I did not bump into anyone though five sighted people collided with me; I somehow managed to get about, feed myself, and enter and exit a local train at peak hour. But by the end of the day I was a quivering, clammy wreck of raw nerves. I learned not how handicapped I was but how handicapped Mumbai was in providing for its most vulnerable populations.
I'd never thought having a Udipi dosa and coffee could be so traumatic. My snack arrived on a wobbly plate, clearly not designed for a blind customer, which rotated arbitrarily each time I touched it, shifting chutney and sambar. I groped for the sambar, missing it, spilling it, soiling my clothes, quaking with anxiety.
At the counter, I realised I had not organised my money. All the currency notes felt alike, as did many coins. People stepped up to help, my money was taken from my hands and counted back to me, and the restaurant paid somehow. If any of them had pocketed some notes, I would never know.
Of all venues in Mumbai, none has people more self-obsessed than at a public toilet. When I found one in the afternoon, bladder bursting, I was savagely pushed aside or crashed into by more people in five minutes than in the entire day. A blind man has no way of knowing when he is standing exactly in front of the urinal or whether he is aiming correctly. Peeing is Russian roulette.
By evening, at Churchgate station, I was amidst the worst crowd of the day, with no one apparently concerned or even aware that I was blind. My cane was of no use; I had no way of knowing when I was too close to the platform edge. Worse, if the empty space in front of me turned out not to be the door into the train but the empty space between coaches, I'd only find out when I fell on the tracks. Fortunately, just then the train clanked in. I was helplessly swept into it by a tidal wave of passengers, like a leaf in a storm.
My experiences as a blind man in Mumbai were printed in the Indian Express and triggered a flood of responses from both blind and sighted persons, pointing out a slew of ways in which Mumbai could be made friendlier for the sightless, leading to an ambitious two-year project called No Barriers!
Forty years later, Mumbai's environment is, if anything, worse for its residents, both blind and sighted. Next week's column will dig deeper into how Mumbai's issues of civic access have turned it into a lethal city not just for its blind but also its children, elderly and sighted.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at email@example.com Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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