Mountaineer, Girl Guide, lawyer, social counsellor, negotiator, research scholar and human rights activist. Anjali Sen Gupta uncovers the many facets of Kanchan Gaba, who has been blind since childhood.
Kanchan Gaba was only eight years old when her world became dark. She was in Std II, and one morning she woke up to see… nothing. "I rubbed my eyes several times and then screamed out in horror. I felt the world closing up around me…" Doctors said she had glaucoma with retinal detachment. “I was too young to understand what I had lost,” she says, but her parents refused to believe that their daughter had become blind. She remembers their mood; for one year, they took their daughter everywhere possible for treatment. They finally reconciled themselves to the fact that their daughter would never see again.
"I was admitted to the Calcutta Blind School. I started learning Braille. My mother tongue was Punjabi, and the medium of instruction was Bangla. So even though I scored 94% or 96% in all subjects, I got only 36% in Bangla,” Kanchan remembers. “I was determined to excel in that subject too.” In her Std X exams, this strong-minded young girl topped the Handicapped Section in West Bengal. She then finished her Std XII exams from Lady Brabone College, and went on to go to law college on a national scholarship.
In school, she had joined the four-and-a-half year Girl Guide programme with other children, all sighted. "Once again I was happy. The programme included first-aid training, tent pitching, fire fighting, forest and mountain trekking." Along with completing her secondary and higher secondary level exams with elan, Kanchan completed her Girl Guide course – learning first-aid, survival skills in a jungle, walking over wooden bridges, crossing streams, etc.
Later, Kanchan did a full-fledged course in rock climbing at the Darjeeling Institute of Mountaineering, scaling the Tenzing Rock, the Gambhu Rock and the Sandakfu. She won the state's Best Girl Guide medal, and qualified for the national meet in Adra, Purulia. Here, she defeated nearly 600 non-disabled competitors from all over the country to win the President's award, presented by Shri Shankar Dayal Sharma, in 1994.
The President of India is the chief patron of the Bharat Scouts and Guides, which is affiliated to the International Scouts and Guides, headed by the Queen of England. Kanchan has represented India twice at international Girl Guide meets: in London (1997) and Bangladesh (2001).
In London, she was the only blind person among 700 participants. The gruelling competition’s 40 challenges could be completed by only 40 children, Kanchan being one of them.
She did everything much faster and better than others. "I climbed the difficult Harrison Rocks, abseiled from a 150 feet high tower, rappelled down rocks and did river rafting...," and scored much higher to win the Best Girl Guide in the World Award.
Queen Elizabeth II, while presenting the award, admitted, "I would not have believed Kanchan’s story had I not seen her perform with my own eyes." A dinner was hosted at the Buckingham Palace in her honour.
In 1997, Kanchan received the SCORE award for Sporting Excellence (in the blind category), given to her by Kiran Bedi, and the Neelam Kanga ‘Successful Woman’ Award in 2003, presented by the Mumbai branch of National Association of the Blind.
Why did she take up law as a profession? “I have been very competitive since childhood,” she reveals. “Law is a prestigious profession, and it also lets me help people who need assistance.” For her studies, she had a reader who recorded relevant material for her. She studied by listening to those recordings as there were “no Braille books at that time”.
She started work with a senior lawyer while in her fifth year of L.L.M., organising briefs for clients and doing consultancy work. Today, she works at K.D. Associates, and is a successful lawyer in Kolkata, dealing with intellectual property issues.
Computers are a great help when she is preparing her briefs. She has screen reading software, and uses CDs a lot. She also has a reader for her work.
Kanchan is a person of myriad interests. She has worked on a year-long research project on the plight of women prisoners in Bengal. Her work was supported by the Scholar of Peace award from the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, an NGO headed by the Dalai Lama. “I have a background in both sociology and law, and women’s issues always interest me,” explained Kanchan. The second reason for her choice of subject was more personal. “There is a belief that disabled people only work for disability. But given a chance, we would like to serve society as a whole.” She has presented her findings at a seminar; and hopes to publish them soon.
“If you want to be a lawyer, you have to be a good talker,” she advises. “It is your mode of talking which influences your client. You have to be very communicative.”
Why she does what she does is motivated by a strong desire to transform the social mindset that takes blind or visually impaired people for granted, or views them as fit only for charity.
She feels that she has been lucky that she has found good people to help her. Society functions on a give-and-take basis; if you want something from people, then you have to contribute your share too – whether you are blind or not.