Mariyam Cementwala

Mariyam Cementwala

The Universality of Truths

by Mariyam Cementwala


            From the Editor: Mariyam Cementwala is a leader in the National Association of Blind Students. She was a 1997 NFB scholarship winner. She now studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She also told the student seminar audience about a recent experience abroad. To understand her tale, you must bear in mind that in Braille the word "right" is written dot five r. This is what Maryiam said:


            What I am about to share is a true story and a little frightening now as I look back in retrospect. I called this bit of it "The Universality of Truths."

            Though I had been to Mumbai (Bombay) many times since moving to the United States, I anticipated this trip to India with special fervor, because he was supposed to be quite a man, the tall, dark, and handsome son of one of Mumbai's wealthy industrialist families. His father was an exporter of imitation jewelry, and he helped in the family business. A side note to everyone in my family was the fact that he had an eye problem. After all, I had the same eye problem. The important thing was that he was an eligible bachelor of twenty-five from a good Muslim family and interested in meeting me. Never mind that the concept of an arranged marriage was as foreign to me as the planet Mars. So with some trepidation and some girlish excitement I began this philosophical adventure.

            I readily expected a few things that happened to me. When I traveled using my cane on the streets and in public in Mumbai, people would gawk. I expected that some would wail, "Oh you poor thing," or some other pitying comment. I expected that some would be curious about my big white stick and what was wrong with my foot, and that all would be over-helpful, over-cooperative, and basically try to over-do everything. But, because I thrive on even a shred of optimism, I expected that some would actually understand or come to understand blindness as I have come to understand it through the Federation as we live it. In fact, I secretly hoped that Mr. Dot Five R would transcend culture and be able to embrace NFB philosophy as well as me.

            I did not expect a few of the things that happened. I didn't expect that the streets would be so small, cramped, dirty, and crowded with rickshaws, taxis, buses, cars, and trucks going every which way at whim--that life for sighted and blind people alike would be so disorderly. I kept trying to listen for parallel and perpendicular traffic but heard instead only a clamor of honking horns and traffic going every which way. I wondered if the techniques I had learned in order to become a competent traveler in Ruston, Louisiana, would still be effective in metropolitan Mumbai or anywhere else in the third world, for that matter.

            One night, as I was walking in a tiny crowded lane, a rickshaw (a sort of motorized bicycle used to carry passengers) crushed the bottom of my straight cane. I felt a pang of defeat. I wondered how I could advocate independent travel when I was struggling myself. But then I realized that true independence meant control. I began using a sighted guide as and when efficient. Though my confidence waned after the rickshaw incident, I also refused to stop traveling alone to places. The bottom line was that I came to believe I actually could somehow figure out a way to do things, asserting myself in the streets as the cars came to a crashing halt, just as the sighted were doing. I wondered how the blind did function in the third world. Maybe Mr. Dot Five R, who had been to one of the finest universities in India, would shed some light on this question.

            New Year's Eve came and brought with it the possibility of meeting him. Unfortunately, as it turned out, he had a prior engagement, so I celebrated New Year's Eve there as anyone else might, eating, drinking, and dancing at Radio Club. That's where I met a seven-year-old blind girl who was being taught Braille by her mother. I found that the only reader this child had in school was her mother because of the lack of economic resources in the education system. But from the start this child was being taught that she could do anything any other kid her age could do.

            Finally arrived the long anticipated evening. My cousin and his wife told me the reason for Mr. Dot Five R to meet me was to find out more about what an NFB training center was like, a prospect which I found exciting. In India there is no equality of opportunity among either the sighted or the blind. The rich have it good. They have access to information and education, but the poor don't. The rich blind have a chance to better their lives and escape the constraints of the third world if they choose to. The poor blind compete for bare survival, just like their sighted counterparts.

            Here was someone who was interested in making his life better and had the affluence to do it. As we approached the porch of the restaurant, we were greeted by his brother and sister-in-law. He was awaiting me at the restaurant entrance. At first glance he seemed tall and not too bad looking. There was a quiet, aristocratic reserve about him. I would obviously have to be the first to speak. This was not hard for me. We exchanged polite greetings and walked inside. I noticed that he clung to his brother's arm and sat down at the far corner of the booth. As I got to the table, conveniently the only seat available was in the corner across from him. When I asked my cousin to read the menu items containing mushrooms, I noticed that Mr. Dot Five R was just sitting passively. While the food was coming, my cousin, sensing a lull in the conversation, nudged me and said, "Maybe you should start talking about the center now."

            I turned to Mr. Dot Five R and said, "So, what's the first word you think of when you hear the word blind?"

            He looked aghast: "Blind? I don't know."

            I said, "Well, do you consider yourself blind?"

            "Oh no, I'm partially sighted. I have a deal of vision yet."

            "Really," I said coyly, not liking this arranged-marriage situation anyway, but wanting to give this guy a good try. Smiling and remembering Dr. Jernigan, I asked, "So how many fingers am I holding up?"

            "I don't know. I can't see your fingers from here."

            "Then I'd say you were blind." I was taking the liberty of being slightly impertinent in making the point. "Look, I didn't really see myself as a blind person for a long time, but I've come to realize that blindness is not a tragedy or anything. It's not the end of the world. There is no shame in it." I moved on from semantics. I found out that this man hadn't learned Braille or cane travel, and I wondered how he had worked, studied, and lived for so long here.

            "Well, I have a full-time chauffeur," he said. "I am totally dependent on my father and brother in the business. They do the business. I just do the correspondence work. Right now I am totally dependent."

            Sadly I asked, "Are you happy?"

            "I am pretty content."

            "Well if you are so content, why seek out rehabilitation?"

            "Well, I don't mind if it changes, but it doesn't need to change--there is no urgency to it. I'm a curious person and like to seek out information." (I wondered if it was information or women he was seeking.)

            Hearing this, I thought, "Maybe there is still hope." During dinner we talked about my training at an NFB center. Mr. Dot Five R thought it preposterous to say that blindness could be reduced to an inconvenience. "After all," he said, "It's not so hard to eat when you are a blind person. I see what's on my plate with the little vision that I have, and I eat what I want and push aside what I don't want. How would you eat if you were blind?"

            When I tell you this next part, I want to assure you that what I did really happened. My friend asked, "Mariyam, you didn't really do this, did you?"

            I said, "Yeah, I did." I turned to him and said, "Let me see if I can answer your question about eating as a blind person." I pulled out a pair of sleepshades worn at the center from my purse and wore them and began to eat, and then asked, "Do you want to try?"

            "But I eat sloppily as it is, especially noodles," he said.

            "Everybody has a hard time eating noodles, sighted and blind alike--that's not something intrinsically associated with blindness." Later on my cousin suggested that we all gather at his house to chat some more. Great, I thought.

            When we arrived home, they asked where we, meaning the six of us, should sit, indoors or outside on the terrace. Mr. Dot Five R's sister-in-law suggested it would be cooler outside, so Mr. Dot Five R headed outside, and I followed, assuming that everyone else would follow. Instead the sliding glass door shut behind me, and I was left alone with this supposedly perfect match in the dark. Searching for a neutral subject, I said, "So I hear you studied sociology. You got your bachelor's degree in it? Did you have a particular interest in the field?"

            "No, I just did it because it was the easiest thing to get a degree in."

            "What--I didn't quite understand?"

            "Well all the other programs just seemed too difficult. I wanted a degree, so I studied sociology."

            "What would you like to gain from blindness training?"

            "I want material independence, you know, to pick up a book and read it, to use a computer effectively, to go where I want to go--the skills, as you call them."

            "The skills will do you no good without the proper attitude. Here in Mumbai I'm struggling myself to find appropriate alternative techniques, but what really matters is whether you have the control. People acquire skills anywhere and get by, but if you don't have the self-confidence and the positive attitude to use your skills and take control of your life, what good are they?" At that moment I realized how much the Federation had given me. In Mumbai I didn't have the skills I needed, but because I found the Federation, I was able to work out the skills. But a healthy attitude is the first step.

            He said at that point, "Well you know, I don't really care about superficial independence; I mean I am happy with everybody else making decisions for me. My father knows best. My brother knows all. They are very competent--that's no problem. I'm happy with them making my decisions."

            "I could never live like that," I replied. Then I said, "Look, I realize that I've lived in the U.S., and things are different there, but I live on my own. I pay my own bills. I carry my share of responsibilities. Occasionally I turn to my parents for help and advice, but sometimes I don't listen to what they say. I make my mistakes and learn from them. I find that, as you gain your own experiences, you become a better decision-maker. This does not depend on where I am but who I am and what I believe."

            "Well I'm content with things as they are now." I began to wonder if this man could really change.

            He said that he believed God controls destiny, and I realized at that point that I couldn't do much to help him. I said, "I completely disagree with you. I don't doubt that God does control our destinies, but there is something to be said for individual responsibility for choices. Think of it this way, God cuts out the fabric, but we have to decide what we would make with that fabric: a dress, a skirt, with embroidery, without it. But we make it ourselves. Accepting one's blindness is not intervening in fate; it doesn't mean that we give up.         there is a blind woman in Mumbai, and the bank where she works told her that she couldn't take the test to be the head of the foreign exchange department. She fought the system and won. She took the test, and now she controls a department."

            "I have no need to fight the system," he said. I realized that at twenty-five this man had woven a straitjacket for himself, whereas a seven-year-old girl looked to the future. He had chosen to blow his chance. At the end of the evening his sister-in-law told me that she would love for me to come over and meet his parents.

            I exited at that point, saying, "You must excuse me, but I've had three glasses of coconut water, and I must use the bathroom. It will hit my system eventually." I left her with this, "You know it's not for you or me to decide what he wants. It's really up to him. He says that he is content with his life, and, if that's the case, there is nothing you and I can do. I want you to know that it's not my skills that have made me confident. It's all in the attitude. Sometimes skills fall short, and when they do, the attitude helps us find solutions. That's what makes me successful, and that's what makes everyone I know who is blind successful. That's something I can't give him unless he wants it."

            By the end of the evening I became keenly aware that people are a product of their environment. When my family pressed me about whether I would marry him and take him up as a challenge, I said, "No, I feel that in this case his jewelry really is all imitation. Maybe he'll change; maybe he won't. I hope he does, but I don't think I can take up this challenge."

            I had always wondered if an arranged marriage by my family would work out for me. Now I knew.