sulabh swatchh bharat

Tuesday, 22-August-2017

SPARSHGANDHYA: FOR THEIR MINDS ONLY

A lone ranger battles against severe odds to bring out two current affairs magazines for the blind in western India

For the average person who can see, it is difficult to think like a visually challenged person. That is the exact challenge that confronted Swagat Thorat – journalist-turned-theatre personality-cum wild life photographer and documentary filmmaker.
But above all, Thorat is better known as the Braille man of India – when he wanted to launch India’s first Braille magazine. The first issue of ‘Sparshgandhya’ periodical, published in Marathi, came out in 1998.for-their-eyes-only-1
It all started in 1993 when Thorat was working on a documentary film project on two blind schools in the western Indian city of Pune. In 1997, he staged ‘Swatantryachi Yashogatha,’ a Marathi play on India’s freedom struggle on the occasion of India’s 50th Independence Day, with 88 blind artists from these two schools. 
The act created a record for having the largest number of visually impaired artists in a show. It finds mention in Guinness Book of World Records and the Limca Book of Records. Thorat went on to produce a live audio drama based on Helen Keller’s biography.

Childhood Fascination
“As a child, I was fascinated by people who could not see. Every day on my way back from school, I used to encounter a group of blind astrologers. I would stop and talk to them for a few minutes. Their experiences fascinated me. I wanted to know how they carry the darkness along with them. At times, I would blindfold myself to be in their world. I realised we have forgotten to use so many of our senses,” says Thorat. 
While working on the stage production, which required extensive travel, he had the opportunity of observing them from real close quarters. Their discussions were mostly about stuff that they had read. But, back in 1998, very few books were available in Braille. The children wanted to read more. 
Thorat had always been fascinated by the world of the blind. This was his calling. “There was a need you see. Television and radio were there but the absence of reading material was adding to their isolation. They were imaginative but these mediums did not allow them to dream or create a space for themselves,” says Thorat. 

Blind Dilemma
But writing for the visually impaired proved to be the real challenge. He had to understand a world devoid of light and comprehend the dilemmas blind people faced in real life.
“To write for the blind you have to think like one of them. I wrote for the sighted but this was a different ballgame altogether. Their world is full of senses that we have lost since we can see. I needed to retrain myself. Suppose you are writing a recipe for them. So ‘fry the onions till golden brown’ will become ‘fry for two to three minutes’. It is simply amazing to learn about their own interpretations of colour, size and shapes. It is an eye opener. The sighted do not think like that,” he quips.
During the Indian festival of lights, Diwali, 1997, the first festive issue titled ‘Sparshgandhya’ came out in Braille. Diwali issue is an integral part of Marathi literary culture; every publication in the western Indian state has a special issue but never before had anything been published in Braille. But people started demanding more than just an annual publication. This is how the fortnightly magazine was born.
The other biggest hurdle Thorat faced was to convince people that the blind needed a magazine of their own. When they first started, even parents questioned why their wards needed a newspaper. Apart from that, there were the normal challenges like funding issues. But people wanted to get involved with ‘Sparshgandhya’, and donated generously which keeps the publication going till date. Some backers, though they can see, even learnt to read the Braille.

Money Issues
The magazine mostly runs on donations and subscriptions of individual readers who can afford. It runs a scheme where people can donate the subscription fee Rs 1,200 towards taking care of annual subscription for those individuals who can’t pay for the paper. Thorat himself invested more than 4,00,000 Indian Rupees to procure a Braille printing machine and to rent an office space in Mumbai. This investment in 2007 helped create the first bi-monthly issue of ‘Sparshgandhya’ which was published on February 15, 2008. 
Thorat started with 100 copies. After six years, the circulation has reached 430 copies per issue. Subscribers re-circulate the issues to others and the magazine commands a readership of more than 24,000 per edition. Most of the copies are gifted to schools for the blind and nongovernment organisations working with blind people in Maharashtra.
Raman Shankar, director of NAB Braille Press, says “The creation of a Braille magazine is a significant step towards empowerment of the community. It is one of the mediums which goes a long way in making us close to being equal with others.”

Corporate Deafs
“It is heartening to know that my work has helped change the perspective of the sighted towards the visually challenged. But we have also created a record of running a magazine without a single advertisement till now,” says Thorat, whose repeated calls to corporates and advertising agencies have fallen on deaf ears.
“Advertisers somehow fail to realise that these people too are consumers and need everything that we do. On the contrary they need more,” he adds. Even today, they have 3, 000 readers on the waiting list but Thorat doesn’t not have the money to publish more copies. However, Thorat was successful in bringing out yet another Braille magazine in 2013. Titled “Drishti’, the Hindi publication gets help from Reliance Foundation, the do-good arm of India’s Reliance Industries Limited. Though ‘Sparshgandhya’ publishes everything that is published in mainstream media, the magazine takes care not to hurt the sentiments of its readers. “The publication has articles on politics, society, governments, health and carries profiles of famous personalities. We also publish articles on cooking, yoga and all other aspects of life. Our readers may be blind but their needs are just like yours and mine,” Thorat says.
It also has an editorial page just like any other publication where views on various issues that affect people, like corruption, governance, politics and other matters are discussed. However, stories relating to astrology, cricket and crime are not carried in ‘Sparshdnyan’, though news about cricket is published in ‘Drishti’.

Content Conceptualisation
“I don’t believe in fate but in hard work. So, we leave astrology aside. Cricket is all over the broadcast media. As for crime stories, these affect everyone emotionally. So imagine the impact it may have on the blind, many of whom battle depression throughout their lives. Both the magazines provide the visually challenged with material they can intellectually engage with. It started at a time when people felt the visually challenged did not need higher education or intellectual stimulation,” Thorat says with a lot of conviction.
“Since most of my journalist friends do not charge us for writing, we are able to provide such a large variety of articles. Also my family members help me in production. That’s how I am able to keep the costs low,” he adds. The concept of ‘Drishti’ had been in Thorat’s head for long. He wanted to publish a magazine in Hindi which would have a much larger readership. He wanted to reach out to more and more blind people. That dream finally came true in May, 2013 when Nita Ambani, chairperson of Reliance Foundation, launched the first issue.
‘Reliance Drishti’ is the first ever monthly Hindi news magazine published in Braille and circulated all over India. It has a reporter who is partially blind. “It helps as she is able to give us a much better understanding of their world and their needs,” says Thorat. We publish around 900 copies every month which are donated to organisations for the blind. “Every copy is read by at least 80 people, you know,” says the man.
However, Thorat has not limited his activities to ‘Drishti’ and ‘Sparshgandhya’. In his aim to reduce the problems of the visually challenged, he has designed calendars in Braille, conceptualised and designed Braille stickers used in lifts and public places. The lift stickers help visually challenged people to operate elevators by themselves. These are now used in more than 100 lifts all over Mumbai. The numbers keep going up as more and more people get sensitised about the needs of the blind.

Fostering Self-Dependence
“The whole idea behind the magazine, stickers and calendars is to make a visually challenged person self-dependent. For a blind man or woman, even day-to-day tasks, which we take for granted, are a challenge,” says the man with a mission.
“We get about 600 to 700 letters to the editor every month. Our readers range from ten-year-old children to 80-year-old people. More than half of our readers are between 18 and 35 years. When a blind person writes to you about his or her thoughts after reading a magazine, it gives you a different high. Our annual issue on general knowledge has helped many to land quality jobs. Blind people do not forget what they learn by touching,” says the editor-in-chief. That way ‘Sparshgandhya’,’ meaning knowledge by touch, has been an apt nomenclature. Vinayak Dhoot, a post-graduate student from Pune, says, “Whatever I have achieved is because of these two magazines. We listen to a lot of things but remember what we read. Today, I have the confidence to appear in competitive examinations.”
Thorat is now busy taking his life’s mission of helping the blind beyond Indian shores. His organisation is developing an in-house Braille magazine for Rotary Cheshire Homes for the Deaf and Blind in Canada and the Canadian Helen Keller Centre.
“I’m a blind man, I’m a blind man and my world is pale / When a blind man cries, Lord, you know there ain’t no sadder tale,” cult band Deep Purple crooned. Swagat Thorat’s mission is to rewrite that tale.