Tap, tap, tap. The walk was slow and seemingly interminable. A distance that I could have covered in less than five minutes took me a stumbling 20 minutes. If a policeman had asked me to walk in a straight line then, I would have failed.
I was one of the participants of a preview walk organised by the Delhi Walk Festival that aimed to get people to experience public space as a visually impaired person. For 45 minutes, a group of Delhi residents and I navigated an otherwise familiar market blindfolded, with a slim, white walking stick.
We were led by 45-year-old Baldev Gulati, a blind entrepreneur who lives in Delhi’s Paschim Vihar area with his wife and daughter. The aim of the walk, said Gulati, was to make the participants understand the challenges of Delhi’s streets, as faced by people who could not see.
“Hold the walking stick with your wrist at an angle and tap right, left and centre in a wide arc to get an idea of the area around you,” Gulati instructed us. “Tap, tap, tap constantly. You will be able to tell if there is something close by or if there is a dip in the road you need to be careful of.”
We practised for a while, but when the walk began, each step was slow and measured.
“In Khan Market one has to walk by a temple, a few hawkers, navigate pavements, all of which help participants experience a visually impaired person’s daily routine,” Kush Sethi, co-organiser of the Delhi Walk Festival, had said, explaining why the tiny market was chosen for the lesson in empathy. “During the festival [slated for November], the walk will also take you through a park and, hopefully, make you try gol gappas and several other things while blindfolded.”
Gulati said he wasn’t convinced when he was first requested to curate the walk. “We did a few trial walks...but it wasn’t till after the first official walk that I realised people were talking, I was seeing an attitudinal change in the people after the blindfolds came off. I realised that the walk also started a conversation among passersby.”
For our walk, each blindfolded person was paired with a companion giving minimal directions. As I navigated the path before me, my anxious companion was the only thing that stood between me and possible injury. In some time, we switched roles and I realised the stress of guiding her out of the path of oncoming traffic.
By the time we reached Gulati, he had managed to squeeze in a smoke break. He asked me to throw his cigarette butt in a dustbin and giggled good-humouredly when I told him I was blindfolded and couldn’t see where the dustbin was.
Blind since birth, Gulati’s childhood was not easy. At an early age, his father abandoned their family because Gulati and three of his sisters were born blind. Left to raise four children on her own, their mother worked at the administration department of Rashtrapati Bhawan, where she was employed for the next two decades.
Despite financial hardships and being at the receiving end of people’s pity and prejudice, Gulati built a spice business – NP Agmark Masale. At the spice processing unit he started in Ghaziabad, a majority of the employees are disabled in some way. For the past year, Gulati has also been teaching at the Department of Social Work, at the Aditi Mahavidyalaya in Bawana, where he has been conducting similar blindfolded exercise with his students.
“Most people who are visually impaired don’t need help. When I started college, for the first few months nobody even realised that I was blind. We are comfortable with our methods of traversing the city, but the polite thing to do would be to ask a blind person if they need help, and if they say ‘no, thank you’ then leave them alone, because taking their hand and trying to direct them could end up with them losing their sense of direction.”
Gulati’s sisters are also teachers. His elder sister is employed with the Delhi University, while his two younger sisters teach in schools. Now, Gulati has a driver to get around, but he remembers a time when he depended on public transport.
“There was no attention paid to accessibility back then and I used to travel by the rashly-driven Blue and Red line Delhi Transport Corporation buses,” he said. “They would never stop at the bus stop, leaving the passengers to run after the bus. I would miss buses, or sometimes, miss being hit by them.”
Walking blindfolded, I was aware and afraid of every single pothole on the road, cars parked in ways that cut off pedestrians, every wire or rope that hung too low. An added nuisance – people stopping ever so often to take selfies, suddenly made the fancy Khan Market seem like an obstacle course. My sense of direction depended on a whiff from the nearby restaurant and the directions of my seeing companion.
During the walk, several people stopped and stared at us. Some asked why we were walking around with blindfolds, others thought it was a game, and one person followed a blindfolded pedestrian declaring loudly that this was offensive to people who actually could not see – a comment dismissed as “faltoo” or useless by Gulati.
“The point of the walk is also to make people realise the little ways in which the Delhi government is failing us,” he said. “We don’t see ourselves as less able than anyone else, but not fixing potholes, not regularising parking increases our chances of having accidents.” Gulati once injured himself after crashing into a motorcycle while walking down Talkatora Road. “It wasn’t too bad,” said Gulati. “I was taken to the hospital, but mainly because my mother was anxious.”