Visit to Mathru - An Eye-opener

- by Pravin Shankar ( spravin@rutgers.edu )

Meet 5-year old Satish, a first grade student at Mathru - School for the Blind.


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Satish hails from a remote slum in Karnataka. His father is a painter and a drunk, and education was a word alien to him. Being blind, Satish was considered a liability and had a traumatic childhood, left to his fate, until a year back when a field-worker from Mathru spotted him. Astoundingly, Satish now is unrecognizably different from what he was when he first came to Mathru. He can speak fluent English, loves to use the Computer, and is extremely talented.


Meet Manjunath, a 14 year old chess prodigy. Here you can see him in action, playing against my friend, Ranjeet.

What may not be evident from the above photo is that Manjunath is blind! Yes, he cannot see. But in case you thought that would limit his chess-playing abilities, brace yourselves to be astounded. If you happen to play chess with him, you may not even notice that he’s blind. You do not have to tell him the move that you make. He simply touches all the pieces in the board, and can make out your move, and the entire board situation in seconds.

10 minutes later Ranjeet was checkmate. And I myself was checkmate trying to fathom Manjunath’s skill, having to imagine the board in mind and play, and still managing such a marvelous play.

Manjunath was not a chess prodigy from birth. Four years ago, he was found begging on the street, blind, parentless, and with a bleak and dismal future. But not any more. He’s now studying in 5th grade in Mathru school. Apart from chess, he also plays cricket, and I’m told he is a hard-hitting batsman. Now if you though playing chess without eyes was tough, what would you say about cricket!


Meet Manjula and Munindra.

12 year old Manjula hails from a remote slum in Karnataka. Munindra is 11 years of age. Both hail from a remote village near Bangalore, and until they were spotted by a field worker from Mathru, life would have seemed bleak to them, and their talent may have gone undiscovered. Gifted with a keen ear for music, and mellifluous vocal chords, Manjula recently started learning to play the violin, and in just 6 months, she already shows great prowess over the violin. She can also play the keyboards. Munindra discovered his talent in playing the percussion. An amazing tabla player, he can also play the keyboards.

God may have taken away their sight, but clearly, He has more than compensated for it by loading them with talent!


Mathru is home for more than 50 such blind children from unprivileged families (and even orphans). Here they are taught in English medium with CBSE syllabus, and apart from curricular subjects, they are taught art, music, games, vocational activities, everything that is required to make them able to take care of their lives independently.

Students at Mathru have won several laurels. A look at the shelf holding all the awards bears ample testimony.

Some of the students discovered their talent at art and craft, and heres a testimony to their talent. All the below art marvels have been made by the blind students at Mathru.

(the flower garland is made by them too!)

Words fail me to describe the amazing talent of these kids.

As far as school curriculum is concerned, the school follows CBSE syllabus, and currently has students from grades 1 to 5. Every year one grade is added. Books are transcribed in Braille. Heres a sample.

The book in the foreground is a normal book, and the book in the background is a Braille translation of this book. Its 10-20 times in thickness, and Braille is hard to read, but these kids can comfortably even read storybooks in Braille.

In case you wondered how they perform math calculations, heres how.

The kid above is calculating a multiplication problem we gave her (24 x 26). She came up the result, 624, in less than half a minute.

The kids are also trained in using the abacus.


Computers:

The thing that astounded me most was how proficient these kids are in computers, despite being blind. And remarkably, they use a “normal” computer with a normal keyboard and monitor. An example of their proficiency level is that last year, their exams were computerized. i.e. the question papers were in Braille but the answers were typed into a Word document by the kids. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Here is a video of 5 year old Satish typing a Word document.


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Notice how deftly he does tasks like changing font size, color, style, etc. Just amazing.


The Mathru Residential School was started in 2001 in Maruthinagar, a suburb of Bangalore by Ms. G. Muktha. She is a practicing lawyer in the Bangalore Courts and a Professor in a recognized law college in Bangalore. Her story is inspirational. She broke her foot in a bus accident and became disabled at the age of 22 when she was pursuing her post-graduate degree in Law. While disabled and facing all the resulting challenges, she resolved to serve the disabled. Since the disability of blindness poses myriad problems to those afflicted, she chose to devote her life in serving them. She single-handedly started the Mathru school and all the activities to educate and rehabilitate the blind.

The children at Mathru have a daily schedule that is adhered to rigorously. The day starts at 5.30am and includes 15 minutes of walking, generally in the company of Ms. Muktha and the staff. Half an hour is devoted to cleaning the school and hostel; followed by listening to the news on the radio – 15 minutes in Kannada and 15 minutes of English news. An hour and a half is devoted for bathing, personal hygiene, dressing, and breakfast. The staff looks after all this; and the older students help the younger and latest enrollees. The classes for the five grades are conducted from 9.45am to 3.30pm, with half an hour for lunch. This is followed by an hour and fifteen minutes for music classes and an hour for games. An hour is spent in community singing of devotional songs along with half an hour of just personal time. After another 10 minutes to listen to the news in Kannada, the children have 45 minutes for study time. Dinner is at 8.30pm and to bed by 9pm.

Mathru now has 6 teachers who are all blind themselves. Their dedication to the cause is inspirational. Mathru now also employs a full-time field worker to travel to the rural areas and locate blind students between the ages of 4 and about sixteen for admission to the school.

Ms Muktha and the field worker would travel to remote villages in Bangalore District to get blind children to enroll in the school. Getting the parents permission initially was not easy and she had to do a lot of convincing about the benefits of the school and her bona fides. They tell them that Mathru will bear all expenses of the child while at Mathru, including board, lodging, clothes and all personal expenses, including the cost of travel back and forth during vacations. Often when they come across blind or extremely poor or seriously ill adults, as a service, they are supported as well, both for education and/or employment.

The children are from economically and socially depressed families who cannot afford themselves 2 times meals. The mostly uneducated parents were not aware of the kind of schooling offered to the blind and how in a residential school, along with an education, they could and would learn life skills and be readied to lead an independent and self-sufficient lives. Up until then, their families considered the blind a liability. The children were restricted to their homes; and some were even locked up or tied down while their parents went to work in the fields. They were unkempt and barely able to take care of themselves. Once they were admitted to Mathru it took quite some time before they finally break out of their “shell” and slowly build up self-esteem and confidence. It takes a lot of effort and love for this to happen.

But clearly Mathru has until now been extremely successful in fulfilling this goal of providing education to blind children, in order for them to become self-confident, individuals; who will have the potential, confidence and self esteem to become independent, productive members of society. Individuals who do not accept their blindness to be a handicap!


For volunteering as well as donations (both cash and/or kind) please contact Ms. Muktha at +91-802-846-3992 or +91-98860-32632 or mathru_india@yahoo.com in India, or Pravin Shankar at spravin@rutgers.edu .


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