Sightless but full of vision
- Unique IFS recruit impresses the French
Paris, April 30:
A blind Indian girl from Chennai in her twenties is opening the eyes of the French.
Beno Zephine, the only blind person ever to be recruited to the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), is taking the well-ordered, impeccable foreign policy environment in the French capital, where diplomacy was born, by storm.
Zephine, who joined the IFS in 2014 against the advice of those who interviewed her for the civil services examinations, has been posted at the Indian embassy in Paris - her first overseas posting - for seven months now.
Mohan Kumar, India's ambassador to France and a native Tamil speaker like Zephine, has found a blind teacher to instruct Zephine in the French language.
Myrem Dogan, the blind teacher who can write French in Braille, and her blind student have spent every morning, five days a week, in the last six months imparting and receiving one-on-one French lessons.
New recruits to the IFS - "language trainees" or LT for short - compulsorily spend their first posting learning a foreign language. The French language has been an obsession with Zephine as long as she can remember.
In a spirited, hour-long conversation at the Indian embassy here, Zephine told The Telegraph how she had gone to Alliance Francaise in Chennai when she was in lower kindergarten asking to be taught French.
Amused teachers at Alliance Francaise had sent her away, telling Zephine she was too young to be taught French in a formal set-up structured for adults.
When she joined the IFS, Zephine saw a second chance to fulfil her childhood dream of learning French. She cited that language as her first preference to the ministry of external affairs as a probationer. That helped earn her the opportunity to be posted to Paris as a language trainee.
The French are amazed beyond belief that India has taken the challenging and unconventional step of recruiting a blind girl to the ranks of its diplomats and posting her abroad to represent her country.
Zephine's presence in Paris has opened the eyes of Quais d'Orsay - the French ministry of foreign affairs - to the possibilities of what European diplomacy could do for its own talented but visually challenged career aspirants.
The French government's chief of protocol told the Indian ambassador here that New Delhi had done what French diplomacy had not attempted in its centuries-long existence.
Other French foreign ministry officials, people who wear their country's diplomatic achievements on their sleeve, said with a tinge of envy that while Europe boasted of its record in facilitating normal lives for people who are variously challenged, India had stolen a march on them in Zephine's case.
India normally sends all of its language trainees to one specific institution in Paris to learn French. When word spread here about the arrival of India's first visually challenged diplomat, eight Parisian institutions offered to instruct her in the language.
Kumar chose one of them, the Groupement des Intellectuels Aveugles ou Amblyopes (GIAA), different from the institution where the external affairs ministry's language trainees usually enrol.
In part it was because Dogan, the teacher offered by the GIAA, is also visually challenged.
Dogan and Zephine are using a software called Jaws, which the external affairs ministry has procured for the one-on-one language classes. Zephine is now proficient enough in using Jaws to be able to operate her iPhone as well.
Her superiors at the embassy, Kumar and deputy chief of mission Manish Prabhat, have so far deputed Zephine to eight diplomatic conferences to represent the embassy on her own. She has been a sensation at each of these.
Talking to her, it is easy to understand why: she is precise and assertive for her age and words come out of her mouth in a torrent. At times, it can be unnerving when it is unexpected.
After her morning classes with Dogan, the language trainee works in the political wing of the embassy in the afternoons.
In the run-up to the French presidential election, Kumar wrote in the "IFS Google group", a private blogging site where Indian diplomats give free vent to their views, that Zephine's assessment was that Emmanuel Macron would come out on top.
This was remarkable because the pundits had been predicting a different result, as with the US election in which the pundits and pollsters were the biggest losers.
The ambassador wrote: "I asked her to predict the outcome of the French presidential election... and her answer was careful and considered. She is leaning towards Emmanuel Macron but with the caveat that any untoward incident (of a terrorist nature) between now and May may tilt the balance in favour of the far-Right leader Le Pen. Not sure I could have put it any better than that."
The Paris posting has been eventful for Zephine's personal life too. She got married in December - an arranged marriage with a boy from Tamil Nadu.
She had had proposals when she was undergoing training, preparatory to her posting, at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration in Mussoorie.
They were from IAS officers, but Zephine said: "I did not want to get into a marriage where I would be abroad and my husband remained in the domestic civil service. Then we would be living apart."
She said she was also determined that she would not marry anyone who was getting into a relationship with her out of pity.
"I was looking for someone who would treat me like a normal person."
Having achieved so much in Paris in such a short while, Zephine is by no means resting on her laurels. She realises that she has barely begun a new journey in life, far away from her native Chennai. She has just enrolled for her PhD in a university back in India.
Her thesis will be on existentialism, appropriate for France, where Jean-Paul Sartre is identified with the idea.
But Zephine's thesis will have a native touch: she has begun her research on existentialism with the works of Marathi poet Arun Kolhatkar.