By AC Kurian
PM Samuel who shed light on the lives of blind children with his own life was a beacon of light in a world of darkness. Samuel, the Superintendent of the Sharp Memorial School for the Blind, was laid to rest in the lap of the Himalayas on 10 May, 2021, surrounded by the beauty and song of morning birds in the lush Doon Valley.
Samuel, from the Pullolil family in Kerala, arrived in Mussoorie in 1976 as a social worker after being a missionary in various parts of Asia. His excursions took him to Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Delhi, and sometimes to Mumbai. A large ship took him to places like Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, where he went to serve the poor with Operation Mobilisation (OM). After his marriage in 1980, he took the initiative to provide education and basic medical care to the surrounding Garhwal villages with his wife, Sumana, from the Chiramukathu family, an exceptional nurse and registered midwife, together with the Doon Medical Project team in partnership with Landour Community Hospital.
In 1986, Samuel, with his wife, took charge of the Sharp Memorial School in Rajpur on a measly starting salary of Rs 700 and Rs 600, respectively. The school, which was only up to 5th class, was on the verge of closure due to lack of working capital. On 25 January, the night before India’s Republic day, Samuel realised there was no money to buy ladoos to offer to the students in celebration. Samuel said a prayer, “Lord, you know our needs…”. After the flag hoisting ceremony the next day, a little boy approached Samuel with two bags full of ladoos and said that so-and-so sent it. After placing the bags on the table, Samuel turned around to thank the boy and found the little boy had disappeared. To this day, no one knows who sent those sweetmeats.
A few years later, the walls of the administrative building which had once served as an old Inn for English gentlemen who sought rest before traveling to the cooler hills in the heat of the Indian summers, were crumbling. Samuel, a man of unwavering faith, wrote letters to numerous funding agencies who all rejected his plea for help. One day, while taking photos of the now collapsed building, Samuel was praying and reflecting on the future of the school when the postman approached Samuel with an envelope. In it was a cheque for the exact amount needed to start repairing the building.
Similarly, Samuel also prayed about another building on the campus – a musty, dark horse shed used by the British Raj that was in very poor condition. The building housed classes for visually impaired and sighted children up to 5th class. Students gathered in the low-roofed classrooms to learn their alphabet. After months of trying to convince funders of the worth of this project, a generous donor stepped forward as a tribute to his sister’s ministry among the Blind in India and work was able to be started. Workers were shocked to find large poisonous snakes dwelling in the hollow walls. Accordingly, it was a relief to finally be able to dismantle and rebuild a safe, state-of-the-art education centre for the students, which continues to stand today in excellent repair, and over the years, expanded to accommodate the growing needs of the students.
Sharp Memorial School for the Blind, India’s first school for the Blind, was established in 1887 in Amritsar, Punjab, after a British missionary named Miss Hewlett miraculously regained her eyesight subsequently a year after losing her vision to a bout of measles. Hewlett recognised the importance of helping the visually impaired and vowed to help the Blind whenever possible. She petitioned Miss Annie Sharp, who, upon her suggestion, obtained special training for this type of work. Sharp thus initiated the work of helping the Blind on the hospital campus in the far west of the country. As the work and the needs of the Blind grew, it was apparent that a healthier site, away from the busy hospital campus in the bustling city, would be more appropriate for the children. Sharp, with Hewlett’s assistance, moved the North India Industrial Home for the Blind, as it was known, to its present setting in Rajpur in April 1903. Fatefully, within 15 days of the move, Sharp suddenly passed away after contracting cholera. Her sister in Lahore, Dr Maria Sharp, who is said to have occasionally volunteered at the school, decided to join as staff. She arrived in Rajpur on 2 June, 1917, but also died suddenly eight days later on 10 June of cholera. The school, which had survived only with the generosity of the Sharp family and others who had supported the school in India and from the UK, was handed over to a mission called Zenana Bible & Medical Missionary Fellowship (BMMF), which is now known as Interserve. Christoffel-Blindenmission (CBM) provided financial support, and other aids and appliances over the years.
In recognition of all that the Sharp family had done and still continue to do, the school became known as the Sharp Memorial School for the Blind. Two sisters gave up their lives while in service. Today, the same can be said of Samuel, a person who persevered against all odds to keep every need supplied and to keep the school running despite major and minor hurdles over the last 36 years.
Samuel, who himself was not a qualified teacher when he began in 1986 with just 18 students with visual impairment, championed a vision with his wife, Sumana, for robust education to empower the Blind especially girls fighting against all odds against discrimination and inequality. He set about learning Braille to understand the instructional needs of the students. He helped to get the school accredited with the Basic Shiksha Adhikari, Uttarakhand. Later, in partnership with local schools, CNI Girls Inter College in Dehradun, the Blind high school students were integrated to study and learn with sighted students.
Sumana, his wife, who is currently the school principal, has made a significant contribution to the training of the Blind and Low Vision in the country by formulating an innovative curriculum that develops the skills of Blind and Low Vision students. Her curriculum, designed to provide partially sighted or Low Vision students to read and write in print, has received national attention, and has been adopted across Asia through the training programme she has taught as a certified Low Vision Teacher Trainer in association with CBM. PM and Sumana continued to empower the students by partnering with local and national communities, schools, and universities. Today, the school is in the forefront of using Information Technology to teach the visually challenged students, which would not have been possible without the generous support of the Bartimaeus Charitable Trust.
At the spacious and beautiful campus set against the backdrop of the Himalayan mountains, hundreds of Blind and sighted students have found their way into the world, set up for success in every way during their stay. Students have become professionals in a variety of fields including, aviation, banking, business, IT, and healthcare, shining in every avenue, with some returning to work at the school as teachers. With the support of other local institutions and the practical support of special education teachers, the school offers a path up to BA and BEd level education and teaches social, technical, and economic skills. Students regularly earn certificates and awards for academic success and for their involvement and achievement in sports, painting, and other extracurricular activities. The school has been a peaceful haven for guests from all over the world who arrive to learn valuable skills to bring back to their parts of the world.
As several students came from the Doiwala Block to join the school, Samuel received funding from Dark & Light Blind Care in the Netherlands to form a team to help the people of Uttarakhand. This Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) programme included eye camps to identify and treat eye infections, provide prescription eyeglasses at no cost, and perform eye operations, particularly cataract surgeries, in partnership with Drishti Eye Institute and the Herbertpur Christian Hospital. Health workers were trained to provide health and hygiene education to the communities and to identify individuals in need of aids and appliances such as wheelchairs, tricycles, etc. In partnership with the Bajaj Institute, education of the Deaf-Blind was formalised.
It was far from an easy job to run the institution, which continues to primarily run on donations and charitable contributions. There are cases of families who have been too ashamed to be associated with their visually impaired children – often abandoning their children at the school and not supporting or being in touch with them. For such labour, you need compassion, courage, a servant-heart and a willingness to dedicate all hours of every week and weekend at this residential school. Samuel clearly possessed all these attributes and was uniquely qualified to help in every situation that arose. His compassion was on display during those nights where he personally carried and rushed children who needed hospitalisation. Samuel’s servant-heart was apparent when he was called to help with a clogged toilet – himself cleaning and fixing toilets and making sure the school had adequate resources such as food for the students, grain for the cows, and health and hygiene products. It was apparent he prioritised the safety and cleanliness of the campus.
During Samuel’s administration, many lives were touched. Samuel himself conducted marriages, funerals, and other innumerable events. He supported students who had come from traumatic and unhealthy situations and made sure elderly buajis who had lived all of their lives on campus remained encouraged. Samuel managed the accounts meticulously, entertained many visitors and answered phones at all times of the day. Perhaps it takes 36 long years to begin to understand the extensive responsibility in supporting people with visual impairment, deaf-blindess, and other disabilities. Samuel was devoted to creating a culture of confidence and resilience. His work was involved with transforming lives. A job at a boarding school is not uncomplicated and Samuel’s position teaches how to be more empathetic, more accepting, and how to care for and deeply love strangers in the midst of personal and cultural trials. In his last four years Samuel mentored a successor to take over the administration of the school as is perfectly fitting due to his direct familiarity with the decades of detailed behind-the-scenes work.
Samuel had the courage to go where most would not. He believed in guarding the core identity and mission of the school despite enduring hardship and opposition from those who had other motives – those who could never comprehend the labor of love that encompasses this work. It is an undignified tragedy for those who instead of shouldering each other’s burdens and triumphing together in shared joys, upended their support and neglected to show kindness and respect. Thankfully,
Samuel did not bow down to naysayers. Instead, he focused on his work and fulfilled the mission given to him with silent endurance, humility, integrity, and honour. His enjoyment and knack for humor is well-known.
Without a doubt, Samuel’s fondest memories would be the faithfulness to God over the years for helping to fulfill every need that the school had even when it seemed impossible. Although Samuel served an often thankless role, hundreds of stories keep pouring in from all over the world of the countless lives he touched. A few short years ago, the state recognised Samuel’s honesty, dedication, selflessness, and hard work by presenting him with a prestigious award called the Uttarakhand Ratna Award. On 10 May, family and friends from all over the world gathered to attend a virtual homegoing service for this wonderful gem whose dedication to the school remains unparalleled. We have lost a great light, but PM Samuel’s legacy and life of service in a world of darkness will never be forgotten.
(The writer, Arackal Curian Kurian, is librarian at Wynberg-Allen School,