senses

Smelling a Sight, Hearing a Look

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What does a person blind since birth ‘see’? We asked 16-year-old Renuka Shinde.

Renuka Shinde dreams of things she hasn’t seen before. Sometimes her maths teacher appears in them and, by smell, touch and voice, she knows the teacher’s appearance. It takes quite some time to imagine a person. Creating a memory, however, doesn’t take as long; a handshake and a short conversation are all she needs. She does this by feeling the flesh over the little finger muscles and the thumb muscles, judging your height from your voice. The memory is filed away like a visiting card.

When Renuka walks, it’s the walk of a blindfolded kid at a birthday party. Her hands move like lowered antennae and her splayed feet stay close to the ground. Shuffling across a room takes her thrice as long as it would anyone else. The purpose of this is self-preservation. Otherwise she walks into doors, brushes against cupboards, and trips over things lying on the floor. But sometimes there’s only so much you can do.

One day her teeth met with a desk as she bent to pick up a bag, and a quarter of a tooth snapped right off. It was excruciating, but, more than that, it was embarrassing. At 16, asymmetry is felt even more keenly.

When the sun creeps through the window by Renuka’s bedside in the Kamla Mehta Blind School in Dadar, she sees a flat curtain of colour. This colour, which is slightly different from the colour of night, tells her that this is daytime. She flips over and out of bed; there is always work to do, and, anyway, it’s better than having no work at all. Dimly aware of the birds chirping outside her window, she opens the hostel door. Her friend Sarika is outside—she knows this by the sound floating out of a radio in the hall, where Sarika listens to music in the morning. She hears the flip-flop of her own slippers on her way past the music room, where the unbathed and enthusiastic gather with their instruments and let fly (mostly with harmoniums), to the communal bathroom, a large place where the sharp snap of sloshing water interrupts the puzzled coos of pigeons above her. She returns the bucket to her room, walks down the corridor again, and counts 27 steps on her way down to the ground floor, passing the medical room (“It doesn’t smell like a medical room because there aren’t too many medicines inside,” she clarifies, “The medicines are in a fridge in the dining hall.”). Along the way she might bump into a rampant herd of children on their way somewhere, and even if they didn’t puncture her eardrums, she would feel their presence by the sudden overpowering smell of Lifebuoy soap. She heads for the canteen to sip on tea with seven Parle-G biscuits while the kitchen clangs, clatters and hisses.

Then, since there’s not a moment to lose, she returns to her bed and leans against a wooden headboard to study till 10:30 am. She’s always studying something or the other, this girl, running her fingers over invisible bumps on large pages. Until lunch. Or until someone whacks her arm and runs away. “I know who it is. I always know who it is. Every hand is different. If Sarika or Triveni hit me, I can tell right away!”

On her third day in this world, Renuka’s parents got the confirmation they feared: she would never see. Don’t bother with operations, doctors said to her parents. A few years later, her parents travelled from Kandivali, a distant Mumbai suburb, to Dadar East. They took her to talk with people at the school, smell its smells, and hear its sounds, and then they left quietly without telling her—a few days before her fifth birthday.

Then comes the most dramatic part of her day: going to college. Anyone who has ever been a pedestrian in Mumbai will know how even its pavements are, how polite its drivers are, and how the street holds absolutely no surprises. Renuka isn’t fazed by this because hers is a fixed route, and people along the route have seen her for a while.

Carrying her writing slate in a bag, Renuka opens the creaky front gate and steps outside to a lane in one of the most congested parts of Mumbai, the lane that leads to Dadar station, used by nearly half a million people everyday. Taxis honking at cyclists, buses honking at nothing in particular. Renuka has to reach the bus stand two streets away where buses No 66 and 43 take her where she needs to be—Ruia College.

On the way she can hear tapping from a phone booth, the stove at the tea stall, and can smell a new consignment of clothes to the dress shops, as well as the strange and wonderful smell of refined cocoa from a chocolate shop. At the bus stop, she hears buses whine to a halt and people fight each other to get on. Others guide her to the right bus, where she smells and hears the rumple of newspapers. Ten minutes later the conductor announces the arrival of Ruia College, and Renuka prepares to climb off.

A short walk from the stop, the first things Renuka notices about her college are the sounds and smells of the food outside. “There are many, many people who stand outside.” She smells the vada-pav and idli. A model of self-control, she ignores it and heads directly to the school’s centre for the blind, the Vidyarthi Pratinidhi Mandal. If there are no early lectures, she hangs out with friends. But there are four classes to attend, so there’s not much hanging out.

By 5:15 pm, she walks out to the bus stop. There’s the smell of tired people. Even the bus moves like it’s tired. But not her. She gets back and studies till seven, has dinner, and meets with friends at the library until lights out at 10:30 pm. But what are lights to her? She stays up in what we’d call the dark, propped up on her bed, a slate in one hand and a writing tool in another. “I’m a poet,” she says. And she writes and writes until the world outside goes utterly quiet.