Tucked away in a tiny lane, the Kumudben Dwarkadas Vora Industrial Home for Blind Women makes its presence known through a timely beep that cuts through the air, loud and clear. This is to aid the women staying in the hostel; once they hear the beep, they know they’re home.
The home is quiet and the narrow stairways echo distant sounds of laughter and shuffling feet. The first flight of stairs leads to a spacious room lined with old wooden hand looms, where 45 women are trained to make cloth. The next flight leads to our desired destination: a bare room lined with colourful chattais (mats). More than 30 women come in pairs and walk silently on to the mats arranging themselves – through touch and feel – into perfectly straight rows.
The women are initially quiet. Most of the women – who are aged between 18 to 35 years – are from different towns and villages in Maharashtra. We are strangers to them. To do away with the initial awkwardness, and to calm our own nerves, we share with each other one thing we have never done but want to do. Despite their shyness, the women open up about their aspirations – not so different from our own. Ameera has completed a computer course and wants a job. Madhavi wants to attend night school. Some want to learn massage. Some want nothing else but to travel to places like Germany and America, or wear skirts and jeans.
What brings these young women to this home? While many have been to school in their home towns, special schools for the visually impaired run only till the 7th standard. After that, they must enrol in a regular school, but many drop out during this difficult process of integration. With an incomplete education and no employment, these women don’t have much to do, and come to this residential home to learn vocational skills: hand loom, brailler (through which they write stories), paper-bag making, packaging, and cooking.
“Think of vaginal lubrication in terms of a sewing machine,” says gynaecologist Shrutika Thakkar, as she begins a session on the body. “Just like the machine needs to be lubricated, so do your private parts.” She uses handmade tactile aids to help the women feel and imagine organs and cells – the ovaries, the uterus, the egg, and the sperm.
As the sheets are being passed around, I sit with two women, Tania and Namrata.
Tania lives in Dharavi. Her father works in a hospital, helping doctors take x-rays. Since we are now discussing pregnancy, I ask if she ever wants to have a child. “Yes,” she says enthusiastically, followed by a crestfallen “But I can’t.” As a child, she underwent an operation. There was an excess of water that had collected somewhere around her back. To drain it, the doctor operated via the uterus, destroying her chance of having children. “You could consider adoption,” I tell her. “But I want children of my own!”
Namrata is quietly listening to our conversation. She made her way from Assam to Bombay five years ago, leaving her brother and sister behind. Like Tania, she came in search of a vocation and found it at the Andheri home. After some hesitation, she tells me about her boyfriend, a native of Bombay, whom she met a year ago. All three of us share a good laugh when I jokingly say, “He’s only good if he cooks for you.” “He does!” she says.
Next up are male genitalia – a novelty for most of the women, who giggle incessantly as this is announced. The women divide themselves into three groups: A for America, B for Bombay and C for Canada. Nidhi Goyal, a gender and disability rights activist, describes the condom as a chattri (umbrella). I have to suppress a giggle. The image of defending oneself from a shower of sperm with an umbrella seems hilarious. I look around the room, hoping one of the giggling girls will give me company but the room is silent. To my surprise, the women grasp the concept just fine, nodding and listening to Nidhi attentively.
When bananas are distributed for a condom training, the women are warned not to eat them (although one does, despite the warning!). Nidhi assures them that they will not be practicing on bananas all their lives. Laughter erupts again. “We wonder if this (sex) happens in reality!” says Ameera. “Of course! it may happen to you, someday!” I respond. Whether the laughter is out of nervousness, or excitement, or both, is hard to say.