“On the day the results were out, I was absolutely confident. I didn’t have to check my result.” the girl says with a smile.
The class – students preparing for competitive exams – falls silent, apparently uncomfortable with the touch of bragging in the girl’s voice. I too stare at the girl.
The girl’s smile broadens and erupts into a laugh, “I knew it! I was sure I’d fail!”
The girl’s self-effacing humour immediately touches base with everyone. We all laugh out loudly. She has won our hearts.
“And you know, I have appeared for umpteen exams – 18, to be precise. Two more and I would have crossed the “-teen” threshold of exams, with 20,” she continues to joke about herself as the laughter subsides. More smiles.
It’s been a year now, but this incident is fresh in my mind. I was witness to this girl talk confidently to aspirants about her umpteen failures and subsequent success (comprehensive success; coming up later). Against all odds. Her good humour cleverly conceals what she has gone through.
But then, this brave girl, Hiral Malvi, is no stranger to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Being blind – she has zero vision – is just one of them.
“As a kid, I was quite naughty. And also quite headstrong,” Hiral says,
“So it was a shock to me when I lost vision before I was four.”
She puts it so matter-of-factly, without the slightly tinge of complaint, you’d think you didn’t hear her right. But Hiral is quite objective about herself.
“One evening, a little before my fourth birthday, I suddenly started having blurred vision. Before long, I completely lost my eyesight,” Hiral recalls, her smile never leaving her lips.
“My father was an auto-driver and my mother is a home-maker. Even with the extremely limited resources my parents did everything possible for my treatment, including taking me to Nethra, Chennai. Everything failed. I was blinded forever. Just like my sister who lost her vision before she turned 3.”
Finance was always tight in this family of 6. It was simply not possible to offer any special facility for the two differently abled sisters. Things couldn’t have been worse for them.
The two girls were enrolled at a local institute for the visually challenged.
“I did all my schooling, right up to class 12, from V D Parekh Blind School. Often, Braille textbooks were not available in some subjects, so I had to rely on my memory and audio recordings.”
Hiral, in spite of all the limiting factors, did well in academics. When she cleared class 10, her interest and achievement strongly indicated she choose science stream. However, strained finances, among other things, dictated she opt for arts.
“I won’t say I was very committed till I finished graduation. I worked sincerely, but not very hard. And suddenly computers happened.”
Her voice betrays her excitement.
“I was absolutely swept off my feet! It was sheer magic!”
She had found her calling. From Braille to bytes, her life was set to change.
“I learnt about PGDCA (Post Graduate Diploma in Computer Applications) during my college days. I was thrilled that I, an arts graduate, too could study computers!” The headstrong Hiral emerged and without paying attention to naysayers, she applied for and was admitted to PGDCA.
“Many people were apprehensive when I, a blind girl, opted for PGDCA. But I was determined to master it.”
And master she did.
Once she cleared her PDGCA, she set her sights even higher: M.Sc. (IT), a course often considered comparable to MCA (Masters in Computer Application).
“The course turned out to be more rigorous than I had first thought. The schedule was hectic and the deadlines were often insane,” her giggles resurface.
“It didn’t involve computers just for fun; it was serious programming…. something so conceptual! But I had already been handling a variety of stress since long, so I somehow managed.”
I thought ‘somehow managed’ would translate to ‘barely passed’ or something similar. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In 2014, Hiral passed her M.Sc.(IT) with 92% – the first visually challenged student (repeat student, not girl) in the state to complete the course.
“By then I was already on the lookout of a good career with the central government or a bank. So I started my preparations during my M.Sc. (IT)”
In the middle of 2013, Hiral and her teacher from the school for visually challenged, Jagruti Ganatra, walked into a coaching institute. They met the coach and asked whether he’d allow Hiral to enroll.
While eager to help, the coach was visibly confused,
“But how will she read what I write, or my printed handouts, let alone solve questions?” the coach wondered aloud.
That was swiftly taken care of. Hiral carried a recording device to the class. She would attentively listen to every word the teacher spoke. Once home she’d play back the day’s lecture. A special software in her computer would read out all the PDF notes to her.
(How the computer had reached the humble household that Hiral was a part of is also one of the many feathers in Hiral’s cap. As one of the earliest visually challenged person to have finished the degree, Hiral won the computer as a part of the state government’s drive to help differently-abled individuals.)
Daily her father would come to drop her at the coaching institute. Two hours later, her brother or father would return to pick her up. Any waiting period was used in playing back the previous day’s lecture. Her co-students, all with regular vision, were impressed with her involvement, but getting decent marks, even in the practice tests remained elusive.
Not surprisingly, things were difficult. On the one hand, she wouldn’t be able to read anything that the faculty wrote during the sessions; on the other, it was impossible for the faculty to speak everything that he wrote.
So no matter how diligently she prepared, gaps remained. And then, she was also studying for her M.Sc.(IT).
The 4-month course ended, but she couldn’t crack any competitive exam.
In case you aren’t aware, the kind of competitive exams that Hiral was preparing for (Staff Selection Commission and IBPS Bank Exams) test quantitative, language and reasoning skills of candidates. Calculators are not allowed. (Such exams attract around 1.5 to 2 million applications, of which no more than 20,000 are finally selected from all over India.)
If you are a fully sighted individual, please take a moment to read the above paragraph once again.
Hiral had zero vision, and yet she’d be doing math and reasoning. Everything in her head. Without calculators. Without diagrams.
So why didn’t she give up since she didn’t clear the early exams, I asked. What kept you going?
“Oh, I think I had started to love the contents of the exams – they needed a great bit of logic and thinking. I found it too exciting to quit!”
And how were the exams going on, I ask.
“I had to seek help of sighted scribes in each exam. The scribes would read out the questions – puzzles, arithmetical computations, long passages, grammar, algebra, general knowledge…. I would understand the question, do things in my head and ask the scribe to record my answer.” (These exams are multiple choice types.)
“Things aren’t always easy for the scribe too,” Hiral laughs, “For exams that were conducted outside Rajkot, getting scribes willing to travel wasn’t all that easy. And often I wouldn’t understand some questions in the first reading, so the scribe would have to read it out again! It’s tiring for them too.”
But you weren’t successful in the early exams, I say. So how was it like handling failure?
I am met with the same disarming laugh.
“I think nobody likes failure, right? But I knew my road was a long one and there was no point giving up early. My parents, who have always been my Rock of Gibraltar, stood by me. And Jagruti madam remained my constant motivator.”
But before she tasted her first major success, a tragedy struck.
Hiral lost her father in 2014.
Hiral’s father Natvarbhai was the sole bread-winner of the family. With him suddenly gone, things went haywire.
“Not only did we struggle financially, but also emotionally. My father was a constant source of inspiration for me. Any time I’d feel low, he would encourage me,” her voice cracks, but she quickly regains her composure.
Her mother worked as a domestic help at nearby homes, thereby keeping the family afloat, but only just so.
“And then look what happened! I cleared not one but two exams after that!” she beams.
Hers was a resounding success, pun intended. She was selected at two different banks Central Bank of India and State Bank of India (SBI) through two different examinations. She chose the latter over the former.
“I have witnessed her struggle, her anguish, her grit, her losses, her resilience…But one thing I have never seen – she has never ever complained about her circumstances, personal or social. She’s always been a doer rather than a cribber.”
Jagruti Ganatra, who was her coach at the V D Parekh institute and who has accompanied Hiral at all exams and interviews outside Rajkot, told me some time back. I can only nod.
* * *
I am at the Gymkhana branch of SBI where Hiral works. Hiral successfully – and popularly – completed her probation at State Bank of India some time back. I stand aside, watching her deal confidently and patiently with customers.
“Since I take care of Customer Care, most of my time is spent explaining various technology tools my bank offers. I’m so happy doing this – staying in tune with technology,” Hiral tells me during her lunch break.
“Marketing and technology are two things I love, and that’s what I get to do here!”
“I aspire to grow to a senior role within this great organization. There’s so much to learn. I almost can’t wait!”
“And my seniors and colleagues are extremely supportive, but never condescending!”
“That makes me doubly proud that I am giving my best to my organization!” she says, finishing her lunch and returning to her desk five minutes ahead of time. “It’s been said so often, but I’ll still repeat. Differently able people don’t need sympathy, they need opportunity.”
Her satisfaction is palpable, her enthusiasm infectious, her potential limitless. Evidently she’s seeing that I am blind to.