Zeenath loves life and lives it through music. Deprived of sight at a very tender age, she defied her disability to become one of the most popular music teachers in Wayanad today. Here’s a typical day from the teacher's diary.
The morning is cold and misty and the KSRTC bus stand in Kalpetta is just waking up to its daily run. A superfast bus rolls into a grinding halt. The driver peeps out of his window. He sees the slim figure, hijab-clad, walking in with measured steps. The driver sounds his horn and says hello to the young woman. Zeenath boards the bus.
This has been her routine for the last nine years. The Kozhikode-bound bus from Kalpetta bus stand carries Zeenath every morning to the Kolathara Special School in Kozhikode, where she teaches music.
A story unfolds
There’s plenty of time for a long story as the bus winds its way along the hairpin bends of the beautiful Ghat roads. She turns pensive as her story unfolds. Zeenath was barely two months old when a freak fever left her blind for ever.
"We were five siblings to our parents Kunjahmmed and Pathu. About two months after I was born, I fell unwell with fever. I was badly hit by an infection in my left eye which soon spread to the right. There’s no hospital my Vappa has not taken me to in the hope of a cure. As a child, my disability was disconcerting. It hurt me a lot."
The disability meant she had to be sent to a special school. A change in the little girl's life came at the age of seven when Abdurehman, a teacher, appeared on the scene. He was with the Calicut School for the Handicapped in Kolathara. "As the teacher was on a drive to get disabled children to attend the school, someone told him about me. That's how I went to school. I was there until class seven. Everything was on Braille. Later, I went to the Muttil Orphanage High School in Wayanad, where I sat with kids with normal faculties. I took my SSLC with a first class.
Deep love for music
"I loved songs and used to sing with my elder sisters. That's how I took my baby steps in music. My first stage performance was on a special day, a day for the disabled. I won the third prize. But one of my most enduring memories is of the day I sang before the evergreen Prem Nazir. I was only in class two and was totally unfamiliar with the great actor's name. I did not know who he was. All I knew was that a VIP was coming to school and I was asked to sing.
"I sang the very touching 'Palliparambile Kaattinullil…'. It was about the dark world of the blind. I was told that Prem Nazir wept on hearing my song. He left, giving the school a huge donation."
Her father was Zeenath's biggest support and strength. "He was the one who drew out the singer in me. Whenever we had guests, Vappa used to ask me to sing for them. 'You should not leave without listening to my daughter', he would tell them. I remember waiting in the kitchen, eagerly waiting for Vappa’s call to sing."
Another memory is of the first time she sang for Akashvani. "I sang for Balalokam while in class seven. It was Kunjumol teacher who taught me the song. My younger brother recorded that particular song from the radio on to a cassette and I lay listening to it one whole night.
"I was Kalathilakam at the sub-district Special School Kalotsav and Kalathilakam thrice at the fest organized by the Kerala Federation of the Blind."
Zeenath's decision to join the Chembai Memorial Music College in Palakkad for a course in Ganabhooshanam brought about a change in her life. Life opened up an ocean of possibilities there and she embraced this with an open heart.
Life brings changes
"I began facing opposition to my musical aspirations the moment my uppa died. But God had better plans for me. I enjoyed every minute of my stay in the music college. I was specially blessed to have had such wonderful roommates. Mini from Payyannur, Ajitha from Koyilandi, Kunnamangalam-native Swaroopa and Leena from Vatakara were the best friends I've ever had. The five of us would go freaking out to dine, watch movies and even go up to the dam. They never left me out, nor did they treat me like one with a disability. The first movie I went to was Pappayude Swantham Appoos. I sat there, the movie unfolding in my mind.
"Playback singer Lathika was a teacher in our college. She made it a point to walk in to my class and congratulate me whenever I won a prize. I also remember Ramaswamy Sir who was gracious enough to invite me across to his place whenever he hosted Thyagaraja Aaradhana. At about that time, I auditioned for Akashvani and won a B grade as light music artiste. My studies over, I joined the Kerala School for the Blind in Malappuram, where I worked for three years. I also had a lot of students at home. I would even go out with music troupes for special ganamelas. My all-time hits were… ajare pardesi, unaru vegam nee sumarani and sandhye, kanneerenenthe sandhye…
"I joined the Kolathara school in 2007 where I once was a student. The first stint was as a part-time teacher. Three days of work and another three had to be spend there doing nothing. I could go home only if someone would come for me. It pained me no end to see others being put to trouble for my sake. For example, even if I did get a seat in the bus, the person accompanying me would have to stand all the way in the jam-packed vehicle. The thought of not being able to travel alone was truly distressing. It was my colleague, C K Abubacker Sir who gave me the courage to travel all by myself. I decided to take the plunge. And I did it. Now, I need help only to reach Kalpetta bus stand from my home in Pariyaram. From then on, I’m on my own.
"I seek help to board the bus to Mananchira from Kozhikode and the next bus from there. The trip back is the same. I've taken longer trips all on my own to Malappuram, Kannur and Thrissur. Now that I'm working fulltime, I don’t travel much."
Quite tech savvy
Zeenath can use her mobile with ease. A screen reader software installed on her phone reveals the caller's identity. "Be it a call or a message, I get to hear the sender's identity. The software makes the message audible." She reads the latest news and her favorite books on her mobile the same way. Zeenath is all praise for the software. It’s of immense help to the blind. "I work on my laptop. I can type very well in Malayalam," she adds.
However, despite all this independence and expertise, there's a tinge of sorrow that clouds her otherwise life of fulfillment. It's only when she thinks of a family that the reality of her disability comes to the fore. A lot of proposals had come her way when she was much younger. But they all fizzled out the last minute, all because of her disability. People would raise doubts as to how a blind girl could make the cut especially if she were to be a mother. Her mother too would turn apprehensive at the prospect of her daughter getting married. Would Zeenath be treated well? That was the mother's greatest fear.
"I'm 42 years old now. I work and earn my livelihood. I'm independent too. If good proposals come my way, let them. I always tell my students that the most important thing in life is to be independent, to be on one's own. Marriage is secondary. Once there's a break in studies, it's difficult to complete them. You can, of course, get married whenever you want."
There's one lingering wish, though… to be a renowned singer. This longing came the moment she shared stage space with Vaikom Vijayalakshmi.
The story is done. Zeenath walks up to her school, resolute and firm. Blindness is no disability.