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Sheer Grit

by Jayanthi Liyanage

Do you have a dream, or think you can achieve something in the year which is just emerging?

“My cannon, the recorder” - Kamal Rajapaksha.

Then, as Goethe, the German poet, once said, begin now. For this is the story of a young man who, when he realised he did not have to be engulfed in sorrows for being partially-sighted, staked everything else to accomplish what he wanted - and did it. It is a story which could inspire many others to seize and tame rough winds - if only they are brave enough to be confident that they can outlast the challenge.

For Kamal Rajapaksha, the sixth grader from Magulagama Primary School, Kuliyapitiya, the little he could see was all he knew about sight. The first bell of "something was missing" became an overwhelming siren of alarm for his family, "When my teachers saw that I always went close and peered at the blackboard while other boys were happily seated at their desks," Kamal remembers.

When he realised that book work was becoming worse than "hard labour" with the sight in both eyes failing, Kamal dropped out of school. For the next three years, his parents moved heaven and earth, oscillating between western and ayurvedic physicians trying to find the elixir of sight for their only son among four daughters - three older and one younger to him, and the other, his twin.

“Love for music triumphs over handicap of vision”.

Kamal was diagnosed as having severe nerve disabilities in both eyes. It was a burden which his father, ironically a "village veda mahattya" eking out a living for his family through breaking stones at a granite quarry and supplemented by his mother labouring at a fibre mill, could scarcely contain.

Yet, if there ever was a messiah which K.P.D. Bandiya thought could ferry his enterprising offspring over the mirky waters of poverty, it was his unshaken belief in the power of edification. To him, education was more than God.

And all the quarrying, masonry, carpentry, ayurvedic healing, white witchery (shanthi karma), art and music this versatile man was capable of performing, he performed to earn as much as he could to empower his son with learning so that its mighty potential would reverse the setbacks of a failing sight. For those who care to give their tiny mite to lessen the pain of another, fate does reward at times, in mysterious ways. This simple reciprocatory equation was to crop up again and again in Kamal's life.

"We ran a small boutique, where my father would sometimes invite the differently-abled people walking past it to share a meal," says Kamal. "One of them saw me and urged my father to send me to Sandagala Resident School for the Deaf and Blind."

“Many pedestrians and motorists are blind-eyed to the White Cane”.

It was his first stay away from home and his family suffered more than him. "I was back in Grade Two, learning to study through Braille. But I wasn't discouraged as Braille opened to me all the learning and the joy of education that I had missed through my poor eye-sight," Kamal says. "It was also my first encounter with totally blind students and it gave me great pleasure to assist them to get about in school."

The tenure at Sandagala not only awarded Kamal the best results the school had obtained in GCE 'O' Levels for 23 years of its existence, but also awoke his inherent love for music, making him an adept player of quite a few musical instruments. Studying in Braille among ordinary students at his next sojourn, Saranath Maha Vidyalaya, Kamal earned one B and two Cs at GCE 'A' levels, qualifying for entry to the University of Sri Jayawardenepura.

"Braille could scarcely meet the learning demands of university studies and I studied by taping my lectures," says Kamal. "There are extra-fast Braille equipment such as Perkins Brailler typewriter but we could not afford them."

"I got my cassette recorder from Mrs. P.R. Amarasiri, Director-Legal Affairs of Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL)," which is one more instance of how one good turn can produce another. "While teaching Braille to a teacher from my village, I realised the difficulties she faced in travelling frequently to the Department of Education and thought that a telephone would be ideal for her. I had heard that TRCSL proposed to give telephones to the visually-impaired and went there to apply for one on her behalf."

The visit paved the way for the recovery of Kamal's one eye with TRCSL and the Public Trustee Department coming forward to cover the surgery costs. "After living for so long without sight, getting used to sight is another handicap!" he laughs. "I couldn't find my way home from hospital. We are used to memorising the sound of a ditch, a canal, a lottery counter or a junction where a vehicle turns. When we gain sight, there are more to see than hear which makes it difficult to figure out the directions."

"J'pura university gave me the eye of wisdom and the J'pura hospital gave me the eye of vision," Kamal says gratefully. "I cannot believe that a person is capable of seeing so much!" at 27 he has now completed his final examination in B.A. in Arts and awaits an opportunity to work in a social institution for the differently-abled for whom he feels so much.

"My parents who believed so much in my ability and sacrificed much to educate me are now ill and I am the one who has to take care of them along with my younger sister."

"When I marry, it will be to a blind girl," Kamal is adamant. "What one needs to succeed in life is not sight but humaneness, dedication and single-mindedness of purpose!"

His views and experiences

"One can do so much with sight, but some of those with sight do not act as worthy of it. There are people who, when passing a blind person on the road, deliberately trip him. If we request someone in the bus to tell us where to get down, chances are that he would quietly get down without telling us."

"Being totally blind and in full faculty of sight is easy. But being partially blind is a big problem. When I went out without the White Cane, several motorists assumed I could see and nearly ran me down while trying to cross the road. Many don't understand the siginificance of the White Cane and think all the visually-handicapped should be institutionalised.

"Compared to other countries, there are less facilities for the visually-impaired here. In New Delhi, one finds lifts with switchboards in Braille. One should at least have the right to go safely on public high ways.

There should be fences around pot-holes and other obstructions "I request the Government to give free train passes to the visually-handicapped. One journey costs double the fare for a blind person, as he has to be accompanied by someone who can see. Almost all the homes with a visually-handicapped member are poor as they spend most of their income on medication for the handicapped person.

"Many visually-impaired don't know that they can rise in life through education. There are many blind persons in Sri Lanka who have acquired a university education and can work on computers. But there aren't enough books translated to Braille which requires time, translators and money. There are more books available in cassetted form. I think the visually-impaired university students should get more funds from the Bursary and Mahapola to meet recording and battery costs, as they are high."

"Visually-impaired persons in Sri Lanka have increased due to the recent war, marriages among cousins and medical misadventures but facilities for them haven't increased. Don't make a visually-impaired person a disabled one. He only requires equal opportunity and assistance."

Dear Readers,

If you know of any "Sheer Grit" stories like Kamal's where men, women and children have battled the odds to overcome poverty, disability or other inabilities to succeed in life through sheer self-determination and will power, please share them with us, so that we could share them with other readers to inspire them in a moment of despair. Address your articles to the Features Editor, Sunday Observer, Lake House, Colombo 10.

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