It gives us great pleasure to kick-start a series on remarkable personalities who have one thing in common – they have converted their ‘disability’ into ‘this-ability’. We have featured many such inspiring individuals before on The Better India, but we now wish to make a more concerted effort in this direction. In association with Trinayani, a not-for-profit advocacy trust working in the field of Disability, we will be bringing to you a series of articles under the topic “This-Ability” that aim to create awareness about Disability Issues in India.
Last week, the Hollywood film The Avengers reiterated our notions of superheroes being incredibly bulky, wielding extraordinary powers and looking every bit smashing. This would make it difficult for us to draw a picture of Charudatta Jadhav as one. The 43-year-Lead of several groups at TCS in Mumbai after all has roving, sightless eyes, wears mundane formals and can’t even walk too far without an assisting hand. But listen to his story and you might begin undermining Captain America or the Hulk.
On the day that India celebrates Vishwanathan Anand’s fifth World Chess Title, we tell you the story of a lesser known but even more courageous chess player. Jadhav has till now represented India in six World Chess Championships and two Blind Olympiads, compiled 32 books on chess, developed the world’s only talking software for chess, led the All India Chess Federation for the Blind (AICFB) for 15 years and scaled a 17,220 ft high Himalayan peak… among other things. A story goes that once a reporter who’d interviewed him presented three facets of his life to his editor as three different people’s stories, and all of them were approved. As we meet him in a large room at his office during his lunch break, the reason comes across. The man has achieved so much already that even if he lists facts, it sounds like he’s boasting.
Charu, as he is called by those who befriend him, lost his eyesight when he was 13, thereby adding one more to the number of India’s visually disabled population. At over 1.5 crore, blind persons may enjoy an advantage over other disabled people on some levels, but chat with one to know how uphill a life it can be.
“Chess is the only game where blind persons are at a level-playing field with the sighted,” he explains, talking of his early acquaintance with the game. “The time after my blindness was torrid, my father lost his job soon after.” He could easily have gone down the twisted vicious cycle of self-pity followed by unproductiveness but he credits chess to have uplifted him. “At 16, in a district-level tournament, my first as professional, I defeated all sighted players to become champion,” he reminisces. It was to be the turning point, the birth of India’s contemporary blind chess legend. At a personal level, the game began driving him forward – to perform professionally, to challenge social norms, to study and innovate and eventually pushing him to create more success stories like himself. Who thought of chess as a ‘boring’ board game with black and white squares?
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As Charu’s showcase began filling with trophies, his career began finding an echo in India’s little talked about world of chess. The AICFB, of which he has been the General Secretary, was formed after a lack of a national organisation for chess for the blind was felt. “We created a structure that encouraged blind persons to come forward and hone their talents,” he tells us. His august recognitions abroad too inspired many. Among these included being the first blind Indian to procure an international rating in Commonwealth Chess and the first VP of the International Braille Chess Association that controls much of the game today. For a blind son of a mill-worker from Kurla who loved playing chess, this ascent is an astounding story.
Perhaps it is the way blind persons are treated at chess that helps their passion. “All professional tournaments have the same rules for the sighted and the blind. It gives us a sense of equality,” Charu gestures. And needless to say, just like him, several blind players have beaten sighted ones at landmark moments in history.
The only difference in a game of chess for blind persons is that the moves are announced (‘E4, A6’ etc), the black squares are raised by 2 mm, every black piece has a dot on top and every piece has a tiny rod under it which goes into holes in each square. All that said, doesn’t a sighted player enjoy the advantage of looking at game position all the while, we ask. “Everyone asks me this!” Charu smiles, before retorting, “Look, all my initial moves are mapped in my mind, and so are the moves to counter my opponent’s moves. It doesn’t matter whether he sees what I can’t. I already have my input in mind!” Besides, blind persons are allowed to touch the pieces to know of their positions.
At perhaps the peak of his career, in 2004, Charu quit playing professionally to assume a leader’s role in honing young talent and organising tournaments besides taking up social work to give back to the community. The results of this difficult decision are apparent now, with 6000+ active players of AICFB, one of whom has recently beat Charu’s all-time high rating, 2053. “I’m only glad,” he admits, “I quit only to do more for players like him!”
As his smartphone rings, we realise he has business to cater to. It has a 5MP camera and has talking functions for every word on its screen. But this speech is super-fast and confusing, we allege. To which Charu replies, “For you maybe, but I understand. I have to keep up with my sighted friends and outdo them, right?” Superheroes are always in a hurry, after all.