In India’s First Blind-Friendly Pandal, A Durga Idol Made Of 12,000 Nails Which Can Be Touched & Felt

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During Durga Puja, while all blind lanes, dingy alleys, corners and crannies in Kolkata are decked up in dazzling lights, colourful marquees and vibrant themes, Bengalees flock the streets in hordes. Sounds exciting, right? Now imagine how Durga Puja is for the visually-impaired individuals, who can’t step into the jostling crowd to blend in with the Puja madness or witness the artistic marvels at the pandals. To foster more social inclusion, Samaj Sebi Sangha in Kolkata has portrayed blindness as their theme this year, with a pandal exclusively dedicated for the visually-challenged.

What Durga Puja means for the visually-challenged

Ballygunge Samaj Sebi Sangha is a noted Durga Puja organiser in Kolkata, especially known for their attempts to create social awareness about many issues. “To do justice to our association name, which translates as ‘The Social Workers’, we try to inculcate some social consciousness through our Puja every year,” shares Arijit Maitra, General Secretary of Samaj Sebi Sangha.

Social workers Sumi and Shubhodeep Majumder, who have been working with blind children at Voice of World Special School, approached Samaj Sebi Sangha and suggested them to take up the cause of the visually-impaired.

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“We were so moved by the idea that we instantly finalised it. To start with, we interacted with students of Narendrapur Blind Boys’ Academy and Voice of World and asked them what Durga Puja means for them. Keeping in mind their ideas, dreams and emotions, we have tried to create an imaginary world in our pandal,” Maitra shares.

The organisers have extended special invitations to children from blind schools who have already staged different cultural performances at the podium near the pandal. They have also organised special surprises to fill those little minds with bursts of happiness.

The Durga sculpture made with 12,000 screws (Image credits: Arnab Dutta Gupta)

Every inch of the pandal has something to tell you

The entire stretch of the pandal has been lined by a tactile path, where visually-challenged visitors can walk independently, side by side with others. An enlarged sculpture of the Goddess Durga idol made using 12,000 screws, graces the entrance, which the visually-challenged people can touch to feel how a traditional idol looks like.

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Handicrafts in nails & strings, woodwork and paper cutting, made by trained blind individuals, adorn the walls and ceiling of the main pandal.

The entire set up exudes the essence of a world as seen by individuals deprived of sight, with artworks and sculptures spreading the message of empathy to all.

An artwork depicting blindness

To raise awareness about posthumous eye donation and how it can gift the blessing of sight to someone, the organisers have collaborated with MP Birla Eye Foundation. “Over 20 people have already pledged their eyes even before our inaugural ceremony. We hope more people follow suit,” informs Maitra. To ensure credibility, the volunteers are provided with a pledge certificate after they register for eye donation.

“A gateway installed near the pandal depicts a solar eclipse to pass the message that if we donate our eyes, then the light can come back to the visually-impaired,” he shares.

“We have also offered a stall to Blind Person’s Association who have been operating a Braille press in Bengal for a long time. Presently, due to a decline in external contributions, they are struggling with funds. We wish people pour in funds generously for them to continue their noble endeavour,” Maitra appeals to everyone.

Artwork showing the social exclusion of the visually-challenged

The voice of an inward eye

The 2018 theme for Samaj Sebi Sangha is “Sparsha – Anubhaver Durga Pujo” (The Voice of an Inward Eye).

“The freedom of the mind’s eye is the right that Ma has given us. No external evil or darkness has the power to enter the divine world we create with our senses of touch and sound that Samaj Sebi has complemented. Our Durga Puja, therefore, is far more beautiful this year. They have assisted our eye and heart to conquer what sight bars us from.” – reads the description on their website.

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but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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