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A tale about determination and grit

Rasika Dhavse

`Where there is a will, there is a way,' say the students of the Poona School and Home for Blind Girls, who wholly manage the school's commercial massage centre. Rasika Dhavse reports.

Rita Divte is all confidence, as she explains the process of a Swedish body massage. With a professional air about her, the 20-year-old talks of the various muscle groups involved, explains the movements she employs to loosen them, points out the bottles of aromatic oils that aid her work, and emphasises the feeling of relaxation she wants for her client. Her fingers move nimbly and her face shines with the perspiration of hard work. In no way does Rita let on that she is completely blind.

The same is the case with her friends — Bhagyashree Saravate, Sulochana Javadkar, Archana Patil and Pramila Gade — students of the Poona School and Home for Blind Girls (Kothrud). Together, they wholly manage the school's commercial massage centre that was inaugurated a few months ago.

Massage training is the newest addition — and the most popular too — to the blind school's list of vocational training activities, which include cane weaving, candle making, handloom work and tailoring. The primary reason is naturally its potential to generate a higher income than the traditional means. In today's world of escalating costs, the money earned by the girls from making candles or purses or weaving handloom cloth or cane baskets is almost pathetic. All this is what prompted massage training to be initiated at the school. The credit goes to a Pune-based consultant-homeopath and cosmetologist Dr Deepa Sathaye and her friend Dr Parag Mankikar, along with the school authorities.

It all began two years ago, when Sathaye witnessed the inauguration of a blind school by a Mumbai philanthropist, Mafatlal Mehta, at Alandi, near Pune. Her friend Dr Parag Mankikar provided her with the right idea. "He explained to me that our long-term contribution would be to teach them some skill that would enable them to earn their living. We needed something that would require very little in terms of infrastructure or investment from them, if they wished to go out and set up their own establishment," explains Sathaye.

She then met with Archana Tappikar, the principal of the girls' blind school in Pune, who got the approval of the school's managing committee."We decided to begin with a pilot project," says Archana. "Two girls — Subhadra, who is partially blind, and Ramani, who is completely blind — would report at Deepa Sathaye's beauty parlour at 7 a.m. each morning for six months, two years ago." "I had to train them in everything — right from personal hygiene to English conversation to human anatomy, to different massage techniques," says Sathaye, recalling those initial days, when she was as much a student as a teacher. "It was entirely a novel experience for me too, having never trained visually impaired girls before."

The two girls then went on to be inducted as apprentices in Sathaye's parlour, working on her clients and even doing home visits. "I knew that when these girls go out and take this up as a full-fledged profession, they would not be able to afford the set-up of a parlour. Home visits is what they would have to do, and I wanted to make them independent enough to do that too," she reasons. Feedback from her clients proved to be a valuable asset, and the girls were honed further. The school authorities then provided Sathaye with a separate room to train more girls. A proper curriculum was chalked out, examinations with external examiners were arranged for, and the first batch of seven visually impaired masseuses walked out, ready to begin work.

Says Sulochana Javadkar, one of the first batch, "My first reaction was shyness. Then came the practical problems of speed and strength. Once the concept took root in our minds, our interest grew."

Recounting those initial days, Deepa points out, "These girls come from socially low backgrounds, and my first lesson was to explain the concept of a massage." With a smile, she remembers how her students would ask her if the clients were suffering from some ache or pain, and hence required a massage. "The word `relaxation' is absent from their lexicon, and such an attitude had to be inculcated," she adds.

The training over, the next step was to engage them in some meaningful employment and make the venture commercially viable — therein lay its true success. The logical way out was to function as any independent commercial massage centre and take in clients. Consequently, an outhouse was taken up on the school premises. It was then renovated and fitted with the necessary plumbing and electrical infrastructure, and the centre was thrown open to the public, offering a full body massage, along with head, hand, shoulder, back and leg massages. The very first three days brought in one client, and inquiries for further bookings have been pouring in.

More girls are now eager to join in. "Initially, they also did not understand the concept of a massage, and hence would laugh at us," says Bhagyashree Saravate. "But now when they see its potential to generate income, they too are keen."

Today, this first batch of students stands on the threshold of a brighter future. Looking back on the journey, they ponder over the lessons they have learnt and the various problems they encountered. And they are unanimous in their appreciation of their Deepa "tai" (elder sister). From their teacher, she had to become their mentor too, instilling in them the confidence and courage to go on. All the efforts have paid off. The bright curtains, the clean interiors of the centre, the neat rows of sweet-smelling aromatic oils and the piles of fresh laundry — all have a tale to tell. Of grit and determination and hard work.

The most important transformation has been in the girls themselves. With an easy self-assurance, they move about their business. With pride, they clean the centre and begin business. With a smile they welcome the client, help her wash and change, drape her and begin the massage. They work independently, or cleverly synchronise their movements on different parts of the body. The massage over, they don't lag behind on customer care niceties.

With concern they inquire if the client is feeling relaxed and good, and as a parting gesture, take down her address, phone number and birthday for future communication — all in braille.

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