It was a lazy afternoon when Mohd Asif called. I had retired six months earlier. I was all ready for a quick siesta when he called. Asif said he wanted to meet me, and I asked what the purpose was. Asif had come to Mumbai from Kolkata, and somebody had suggested that he should meet me. “I need your guidance about my career. Can we meet today? I will be returning by the evening flight,” Asif said. “Come over, I stay at Thane,” I reluctantly agreed.
“Sir, I am in South Mumbai at present. It will take a long time to reach Thane. I request you to meet me at Chembur, it will be convenient for both of us.” I was about to call off the meeting when he said, “Sir, I badly need your guidance. Please don’t say ‘no’.” That request took me by surprise. I agreed to meet him at Shoppers’ Stop at Chembur. (Unfortunately, this landmark has vanished from the scene now).
I reached at the appointed time. Just as I was settling down in the coffee shop on the second floor, I heard a voice, “Tell me where is your lift please”. I instinctively knew that he had arrived. If you look down from the coffee shop you can see the entrance door of Shoppers Stop. Two or three shop attendants rushed to help him as they noticed that he was folding his white stick. They escorted him to the lift on the ground floor. On the second floor I moved near the lift door to receive him.
I looked at him as he came out of the lift. He can’t see at all, I thought. Asif looked chubby and innocent. He smiled as he heard me welcoming him. “Arrey Sir, why did you take the trouble of coming to the lift. I was coming to the coffee shop anyway.” We settled in the coffee shop.
Asif was a young man and he had done Master’s in Business Administration. This boy is so fluent in his English, I thought as we engaged in small talk. He spoke about his life so far. “Sir, I come from Bhagalpur in Bihar. I was born with weak eyesight. Sometimes my grandma who could not see my plight would say, ‘It would have been better if you were dead.’ I became totally blind at the age of fifteen. But before that, my uncle took me to USA. He had settled down there and had married an American girl.”
I was realizing that I had met an extraordinary person. There was not even a hint of negative tone or a sense of inferiority in the way he spoke or generally carried himself. On the contrary, he came across as a confident young man.
“You may say, Sir, that I have an American mother! That’s the kind of relationship I had with my American aunt. I am grateful to her; I will never forget what she has done for me.”
“Like? What did she do?”
“The country, its culture, the language and the school – everything was new and alien to me. Anyone who saw my progress card then considered me hopeless boy. I failed in all the subjects in the first test. But such was the influence of my American mother that I scored well later, scoring A grade in all subjects and regained my lost confidence. I earned a few accolades too.”
Later he returned to India. He was the first visually challenged person to graduate from St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Asif wanted to appear for IIM entrance examination but there were no arrangements for the visually challenged persons to appear for the entrance examination then. He complained to the Disability Commissioner and took IIMs to the High Court. The result was that some seats are now reserved for the disabled students in IIMs. Later on Asif secured admission in Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development, popularly known as SCMHRD. Dr. MS Pillai was the Director of the Institute then. A high-ranking Government Officer watched Asif’s presentation and he was instrumental in introducing this young man to President Abdul Kalam!
I was quietly listening to his story. It was obvious that an extraordinary young man was sitting in front of me. I also realized that he was not only extraordinary but also ambitious. Interesting man, this Asif, I thought. God had given him blindness but counterbalanced it by placing extraordinary persons like his American mother, Dr. MS Pillai and President Abdul Kalam in his life!
“Young man, what can I do for you?” I asked, and meant it too. I did not see where I can contribute to his career.
“Sir I have heard a lot about you. Dr Pillai also mentioned you to me. I want to be Vice President HR, like you were in your company. I need guidance. What should I do?”
I was perplexed; what advice could I have given him? Asif had shaken IIMs, he had met the President of India, he had many ‘first’ to write in his CV. And I was a novice. Though I was not visually challenged, my parents were always worried about my future – and they were not unjustified in feeling so, I had given them very little hope when I was of Asif’s age! I almost developed a feeling of inferiority listening to his story.
I kept thinking and sipping my coffee. My thoughts would not be palatable to this young man, I guessed. That the visually challenged persons can’t see your face is a boon in such a situation, I thought.
“Sir, you are so silent?”
“Eat this blueberry muffin” I told him as I felt that this might keep him silent for a while. I was searching for my words to respond to his question.
“Tell me, Sir” he nudged me again.
“Look, a wrong question begets wrong answer,” I said as I searched for the right words to express my candid thoughts.
“Sorry? I could not follow you”
“I did not appoint myself as Vice President or VP. Somebody decided and offered me that position. Those decision makers could as well have promoted someone else or held me down at a lower position. Whatever we wish to be in life, I mean to keep our life’s goal in terms of positions in corporate world is sheer foolishness, that’s my belief.”
“What should I do?”
“I say this in lighter vein that my company did not make me VP – that’s because I am a born VP – Vivek Patwardhan! Jokes apart, whatever we wish to be in our life should be achievable through our actions. Designations and positions are given by others. Do not mistake people in high positions as well-developed human beings; there is no correlation. Remove this position-based goal from your mind at once. Great persons do not need crutches of the organizational ladder.”
“It’s okay Sir. I wish to be the head of HR Department.”
“Perhaps it is okay to have that as a target; but it is not at all practical.”
“Why do you say that, Sir?”
“It’s alright to say that visually challenged persons can do any work, but in real life I do not know of anyone being appointed to such a high position. If there is any visually challenged person appointed at that level, it is an exception. It may not be unachievable for you to head HR in an organization, but it is certainly a rarity and an exception. One in a million. That’s why I feel that it is not pragmatic to keep it as a goal.”
“Why is that so?”
“Look, you will be competing with professionals with sight when you apply for the position of HR Head. The decision makers will, in their judgment, ‘play safe’. Whether they should do so can be debated, but remember in this ‘race’ to take up HR Head job, the professionals with sight will always have an advantage over you.” I was feeling bad as I spoke about this bitter truth.
“Why can’t they see my competence?”
“That’s not the issue. You may be competent. But someone else is going to decide on the appointment. I am speaking about the way a common recruiter will think; his mindset.”
It was clear to me that he did not agree; he did not see my point of view. His body language disclosed it clearly. And I too felt bad about being brutally honest about my views. I did not wish to hurt him, and I knew I had at least discouraged him badly. We were silent for a long time sipping our coffee.
Growing increasingly uncomfortable with the silence and he must have decided to break it. “I never liked the blueberry which is inside this muffin. But I must have eaten dozens of blueberry muffins and I am okay with it now.”
“Think that my views are like blueberry. You have not liked them, but you will appreciate eventually.” Suddenly the tension was released and both of us laughed.
“Don’t embarrass me, Sir. I can’t understand this – why can’t I get it when I have everything required for it?”
“I really do not have an answer, Asif, to your question. The famous Marathi author has written in one of his stories: ‘A fisherman on the high seas spreads his fishing net. Sometimes the sea brings fish to him and sometimes it takes fish away from him.’ Life is like that!”
“What should I do then?”
“That’s a difficult question. Let me think. First step would be to remove all thoughts of competing with others. You have always won whenever you tried to overcome your hurdles and fought for yourself. Instead of saying that you are visually challenged, I would say that you have a world of experience which is different from what sighted people have. In that sense, you are very unique! That uniqueness will propel you to a level different from others.”
“So, what exactly should I do?”
“Hmmm…. Honestly, even I do not know. All I know is that you have experienced this world differently than us, and you should build something on this uniqueness. As Osho says, nature creates everyone unique. Nobody is superior or inferior to others. He says that the Mango tree does not tell a rose plant that it is bigger. And the rose plant does not say it bears better flowers to the Mango tree! We have to build on our uniqueness.” I thought that I was making the conversation too philosophical; I asked, “What do you do Asif, I mean what is your occupation?”
“I work with Price Waterhouse Coopers as a Consultant.”
“That’s a good job. You get invited to many organizations as a speaker; do spread good message by your life story. You may try blogging. You will reach wider audience through blogs.”
Asif was listening.
“You have leadership qualities. If you somehow focus on your uniqueness, your life can be inspiration to many.”
Asif probably did not see the point I was making. I also stopped there. Asif wrote to me after three or four months. ‘I did not like your thoughts when we met. But somehow, I could not get rid of them, the thoughts stayed in my mind. Gradually I understood the full import of what you were trying to convey, and I now see the points you were making,’ he wrote.
Asif ran short marathons of ten Kms. It is difficult for blind persons to run without holding a guide’s hand but he runs only on voice guidance now. He is preparing for a full marathon. So far, he has run four marathons, and about 450 Kms! He is preparing for a full marathon. Asif is popularising football among the visually challenged. Among the sixty countries which encourage football among the visually challenged, India is ranked twenty-nineth.
Asif has worked on a project with Chhattisgarh Police, it’s their ‘Digital Inclusion Project. He worked with Nandan Nilekani on Aadhar and related work, and has done splendid work to spread awareness for inclusion of differently abled persons in the Society. Mohd Asif has discovered his mission in life – to work for inclusion of differently-abled persons. He continues to address and inspire students and take the message of inclusion to the next generation.
And this is not a complete list of his achievements.
I am aware that I have not played any role in his success. He had the talent, latent then, and he would have met his success anyway. My conversation with him was a learning experience for me. It was a tough and difficult conversation. I wanted to make sure that I did not hurt his feelings, and that I did not discourage him and yet convey my thoughts clearly. It was undoubtedly a strenuous and difficult act like rope balancing.
Looking back, I was not really talking to Asif; I was talking to myself. It was reflective but with a sense that I understood it too late in life. I guess those who have sight take longer time to gain insights – at least this is true about me.
I remember a story which appealed to me: Lord Yama went to an old man and told him, “Your time is up. Come with me.” He replied, “Oh, I have just realised and understood how to live my life; can’t you wait?”
Why did it appeal to me? Is it my story?
Vivek S Patwardhan
(Watch Asif’s video https://youtu.be/4CkJW5QKqEY)
Notes: Published with Asif’s consent. Original story was published in Marathi on my Marathi blog ‘Maazhiyaa Manaa’. I have already written about the first blind date. It had shaken me to the core. The second blind date was no different in its impact.
Feature Pic Dylan Nolte on Unsplash
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” **** “Aroehan: Creating Dream Villages in Mokhada by 2025: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, Reduction in migration by 50%.”