Imagine that a strange disaster had destroyed all the books that had ever been written. What remains is a single copy of each of them.
There is not a single printing press, or photostat machine. Internet, too, has gone kaput. Millions cannot be asked to share a book. So how do we get a copy of a favourite book? Not to make things irredeemably dark, let us assume there are typewriters. So the easiest option available is to type down the book, from start to finish.
What if a Malayali drunk on nostalgia wants a copy of Kottarathil Sankunni Menon's 'Aithihyamala', a collection of nearly 130 Malayalam folk tales. He has no choice but to pick up the last surviving 'Aithihyamala' and begin typing. The size of the alphabets are smaller than normal and the book runs into nearly 1,000 pages.
An expert typist will take five to six minutes a page. At this rate, the man will have to spend 85 to 100 hours of his life to finish the book. Thankfully for normal humans, such horrors exist only in the realm of fiction. Ever since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the late 15th century, no man has ever had to struggle a fraction of this to get hold of a book he loves.
Not so for the blind. For them, this dystopia, where no book exists, is their reality.
Now, here is a blind teacher who has taken it upon herself to type down, from start to finish, all the books – classics, epics, autobiographies – she thinks blind children should read.
The epic teacher
Baby Girija, the braille teacher at the Government School for Visually Handicapped in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram, is mostly in front of the brailler, which is a braille typewriter with six keys in addition to the space bar. Each of the 52 alphabets in Malayalam is represented by two to six dots in braille language; a braille alphabet is an arrangement of dots within a small cylindrical space. Therefore, the blind will have to press two to six keys on the brailler to get a particular alphabet on thick braille paper.
If you thought merely typing out 'Aithihyamala' from page one to the last was one of the worst forms of torture, this 1,000-page tome is just one of the 52 books she had transliterated into braille over the years. And at least half of them, like 'Panchatantra' and 'Balaramayana', are as voluminous as 'Aithihyamala'.
A single page in 'Aithihyamala' or the 'Bible', where words are packed like passengers in an after-office train, will spread over four to five braille pages.
Girija teacher's 'Aithihyamala', the only braille version of the book, is collected in a whopping 32 volumes. Her 'Panchatantra' runs into eight volumes. Her Bible stories are in nine volumes and 'Balaramayanam' consumes 11 volumes. Vikramaditya Stories come in 13 volumes.
Girija teacher's thick braille books, spiral-bound and covered in semi-transparent blue sheets like a PG thesis work, now fill a large glass shelf in the north-eastern corner of third-floor library of the school. Though she had completed only 52 books, the volumes run into nearly 200.
Paradise for the blind
“This is hard work, stressful and at times I feel frustrated, fed up,” Girija teacher said. “But when children run up the steps and ask me for these books and then tell me that they loved the stories they found in these books, I feel ashamed that I had felt the pain,” she said.
School headmaster Abdul Hakkim said that there were students who had read almost all the books Girija had converted into braille.
'Chachaji Kathakal' (Nehru's Stories for Children), 'Charithram Thiruthiya Sastra Prathibhakal' (Brilliant scientists who rewrote history), and 'Panchatantra' are the most popular among the blind children in the school.
“Even my older son who is studying in a normal school has not read Nehru's 'Tryst with Destiny' speech. Thanks to Girija teacher, my blind daughter studying in the fifth standard has,” said Amina, a parent.
The school headmaster said that Girija teacher was doing this for no extra pay.
“This is something she does after her routine teaching work. She is here in the library even during holidays,” Abdul Hakkim said. Girija teacher is single, and she lives in a women's hostel nearby.
Her braille books are open to those outside the school, too. “The blind can come and read these books in the library,” Abdul Hakkim said. “We don't lend out the books, except to our students, because it will never be returned,” he added.
Being the only copies for the blind, they are priceless, too.
A pianist's gay abandon
For Girija teacher, the transliteration work is highly mechanical. A volunteer reads to her and she punches the braille keys almost simultaneously. When in full flow, Girija teacher throws her head around like a pianist lost in the music, her hands striking the keys almost involuntarily.
“I don't really take in the meaning when I am typing. It is only when I proof-read that I get a sense of what is written,” she said. Girija teacher was born blind but she still has a unique visual sense.
“I will not be able to explain it to you but my father has made be feel the birds. He has made me touch the crow, the pigeon, the hen. I know how each of their feet and feathers feel like. I have allowed them to peck at me. So I know how each of their beaks are like. My mother and my sisters, and now their children, press vegetables and flowers in my hands. I will not mistake a rose for a hibuscus, or a dog for a cat. Except for the colours, which I am unaware of, I know almost everything about most things in the world,” she said, with a loud laugh.
The God delusion
What about the Gods she had written about. “I am told that those with sight have given Gods a human form. A God is not someone you can touch and feel like a crow or a vegetable. It is not even like wind. Can anything that is not felt physically be described? Perhaps anything indescribable has to be everything. Like you, I too have no idea what everything looks like. But I am not foolish enough to give it a human form,” she said.
Girija teacher is simultaneously working on two books now. Quran Stories is one. The other work is perhaps her most ambitious, a transliteration of Kerala Service Rules for blind government servants. “The KSR work might run into 35 volumes,” she said.
At the moment only a single glass cupboard in the library is filled with her braille books. Pointing to a largely empty glass shelf near the entrance door of the library, diagonally opposite to the one that is full, she said: “I want to fill this shelf too with books. But I don't know whether I can or will get the time.” Girija teacher has just three years to retire.
But her bigger worry is that volunteers are drying up. She now has the school sweeper and close friend, Omana, to read the books to her.
At times, the parents of children also volunteer. But other regulars have either aged or have moved out of Thiruvananthapuram. “Someone has to read to me or else how can I work,” she said.
Volunteers can contact her at 9744761458.