An eye on success

Sibi Arasu | Updated on January 24, 2018

Going places: 25-year-old Beno Zephine was ranked 343 in the UPSCexams last year. She is seen here with her parents at their Chennai residence. Photo: R Ravindran/ The Hindu

Chennai girl Beno Zephine, India’s only visually impaired foreign service officer, hopes she is the first of many more to follow

For 25-year-old Beno Zephine, being outspoken is the only way to be. “My first extempore speech was when I was in LKG,” says Zephine when we meet at her residence in Villivakkam, a neighbourhood in west Chennai. “I was asked to speak on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthday, or something like that. If I remember right, the options were either to write or speak and I, of course, chose to speak.”

That was just a small beginning for the woman who is now India’s first visually impaired foreign service officer. There were many more extempore speeches, debates, sleepless nights in school and college, as well as months of preparation for the competitive examinations. Through all of this, Zephine’s father, Luke Antony Charles, 55, an Indian Railways employee, and mother, Mary Padmaja, 49, have stood by her. Living in a joint family, Zephine also has an uncle, an aunt and their children for extra support. The doorbell and the telephone haven’t stopped ringing since the news of Zephine’s appointment arrived last month. And the family hasn’t quite tired of telling journalists the secrets to her success.

Worth the wait

It was in June 2014 that Zephine came to know that she’d not just cleared the UPSC exams but also secured an all-India rank of 343. She didn't expect the confirmation of her posting to take more than a year. “I think this one year has moulded me a lot,” says Zephine. “When I was in Delhi to meet the officials at the department of personnel and training, they all said that my follow-up was both persistent and good. An official told me, ‘You were bothering us without making us feel bothered. These qualities will help you in the future’,” she says.

Not one for choosing favourites, Zephine’s optimism didn’t let her down as she patiently waited for news of her posting. “I was not fixated on the IFS. I wanted to get into the services and was not particular about which branch I make it to,” she says.

After completing her Master’s in English literature from Chennai (Stella Maris and then Loyola College), Zephine worked as a probationary officer at the State Bank of India (SBI) even as she prepared for the civil services exams. “I must have attended at least nine different IAS coaching centres, and in all of them I was the only person without sight,” she says. “They were all quite helpful and the other students were quite curious. I read a lot of Braille books and they all wanted to know how it works.”

As for exam fears, she says it was her parents who were really tensed. “I’m an eleventh-hour learner and I would carry 10 Braille books to the exam centre. My nervousness would disappear the moment I stepped into the hall. Once inside, I was totally relaxed,” says Zephine.

Support systems

Zephine credits her entire family for more than just her success. “My father doesn’t let me sit still for a moment. He pushes me to participate in various events or asks me to read up on some topic or the other,” she says. Charles has always taken time off from work and other family duties to drive Zephine to her classes all through her years in school, college and coaching. Mary Padmaja, on the other hand, has been the ‘voice’ in Zephine’s life. “She reads out anything that I wish to learn. I use a software called JAWS (Job Access with Speech), which reads out any text on the computer screen. Though the amount of reading needed for IAS was massive, my mother helped me with all the notes and the texts,” says Zephine.

Looking ahead

An alumna of Little Flower Convent, a Chennai school for the visually and the hearing impaired, Zephine didn’t face discrimination while growing up or while pursuing higher studies. At peace with herself, Zephine is not impervious to the importance of being socially acceptable. “Acceptance is important. I know that one of my senses is not working, and nothing can be done about that. What I can do is move forward with the help of my other senses and resources.”

She hopes that her selection as an officer in India’s highest ranked service is a boost for not just her family. “Somewhere down the line, society has to accept that we’re not less in any way, only different from others. We have the same views, aspirations, talents and abilities. And it’s not that someone has to be generous or charitable to accept me. I’m not inferior. I am what I am and I have found the right place for myself,” says Zephine.

(Sibi Arasu is a Chennai-based journalist)

Published on July 17, 2015

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