In 1998, a visually challenged teenage girl approached Dashraj Gyawali with a cry for help. She had just completed her schooling and had taken admission at Delhi University (DU).
But she was being sexually harassed by her then landlord. And perhaps, not wanting to go through with the rigmarole and societal prejudice that comes from filing such a complaint, she had only one request from Dashraj – a safe place to stay.
“I don’t have an option, but to keep staying there because I wish to study. I have heard many stories of your compassion... Can you help me as well?” she pleaded.
Dashraj, also visually impaired, readily let her stay in his house – a government quarter in Timarpur –along with his family, having gone through his own share of struggles as a blind man.
He ran away from his home in Gumli, Nepal, at 21, after learning from a radio announcement that blind kids were being provided free food and education at Sri Hanuman Prasad Poddar Andh Vidyalaya, Varanasi.
His parents had not allowed him to study further, and so despite having to beg, he did so and reached the Varanasi school.
Today Dashraj holds an MPhil in Hindi from DU and is the retired Principal of a government school.
“So when she narrated her ordeal to me, I felt there is a need to make space for those like her,” says Dashraj, on how he gradually turned his house into a hostel for visually challenged girls from lower income families, who come to study further in Delhi.
For four years, he took care of all their needs till the neighbours began to object.
“People get suspicious when a man has too many women staying at his place. Initially, even my wife Nisha opposed this, but later understood that I was only helping poor girls,” the 60-year-old says.
Nisha also started helping him with his initiative, but neighbours’ complaints to the police led to raids being conducted at his house every few weeks, sometimes late at night.
Perturbed with police and neighbours, in 2002, the couple moved the girls to their own house, spread over 1.25 Gaj in the main market of Sant Nagar at North Delhi’s Burari area.
Here the Gyawalis began Vinayak Blind Women’s Welfare Society, with just two rooms. Over time, it has become a three-floor shelter housing 68 such students free of cost.
The couple stay on the ground floor, while the girls occupy the top three floors in just eight rooms equipped with fans and lights.
The narrow staircase leads to dingy, yet clean rooms with clothes hung on wires, books and belongings kept on shelves behind the beds.
The kitchen and drinking water facilities are on the third floor, and in the whole building, only the staying quarters on this floor have coolers.
“They heat up fast and we can’t afford coolers in every room,” Dashraj laments.
Other cost-cutting measure involves paying the two women who daily come to cook and clean only Rs 6,000.
“But they don’t complain,” he says, appearing grateful. Three times a week he organises music classes for the girls to learn ghazals and bhajans.
But the space constraints are his major cause for worry.
“The door is open for any woman who is studying at a university or pursuing a course here. Girls come to me saying they are ready to sleep on the floor, but only need a roof. Now how can I refuse?”
With no aid from the government or the corporate sector, Dashraj runs the hostel from his pension and donations. “Kuch log anaaj de jaate hain, kuch kapde, kuch paise. Kaam chal jaata hai (Some donate food, clothes. Some make monetary contributions. Somehow, we manage).”
The girls, between 15 to 30 years, are mostly DU students, hailing from Assam, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Few were abandoned by their families, few can’t afford lodging.
“Here, many have achieved tremendous success. They’ve secured jobs at banks, hospitals...few are working in the field of education. We even got more than 20 girls married!” Dashraj said, with pride.
Though Dashraj has made peace with the lack of aid from the government, the hosteliers are infuriated about the authorities’ indifference to the needs of the blind.
“What is even the point of writing about us when the government is blind to our needs? It is time for the government to take efforts towards relieving our plight,” says Mantra Devi Prajapati from Allahabad.
“We are very happy that sir has provided us free space to live in. He has done and is doing so much for us. We live like a family,” says Kusum Bisht, an MA Hindi student at DU, another resident.
Even Nisha, Dashraj’s wife and a cancer survivor, is dejected about how visitors, including social organisations, humiliate the couple.
“They question us on how we keep girls in the limited space, but we know we are doing our best.”
“When we registered this NGO, I planned to expand this into a hostel for at least 2,500 blind girls, but it didn’t happen.
Still, one day, I want Vinayak to have all kinds of training programmes for these girls so they can complete their education without any hurdles.”