New Delhi: Uma Phago has no memory of seeing a human stomach, not even her own. But she remembers very well what a stomach feels like. After her sister gave birth by Caesarean section, Phago ran her curious fingers along the stitched-up abdominal ridge. The sensation never left her mind.
In the Indian outsourcing company where she works, her job is to transcribe what American doctors record on their dictaphones. They send their files at sundown to India, and a team of 5,500 Indians works while the doctors sleep. Every so often, the dictation involves a Cesarean, and Phago’s ears perk up with fascination.
Different tune: Visually challenged employees engaged in medical transcription work at Vindhya E Infomedia Pvt. Ltd in Bangalore. (Photo: Kiran/Mint)
Phago, one of eight blind workers at CBay Systems Ltd, takes longer than most of her colleagues to type up the details. But because she is blind, she seems to get more of a thrill doing it, imagining the lives of the faraway patients and squeezing from each assignment a quantum of pleasure that is ever rarer in the tedious, soul-deadening world of Indian back-offices.
In the dark, drab office where Phago works, her sighted colleagues stare all day long at their screens, conversing only rarely with one another and never with the doctors they assist. Working behind a virtual wall for foreigners you never meet is not for everyone. The grinding, repetitive, anonymous nature of much outsourcing work is one reason why even the best Indian back offices struggle to retain good employees longer than one year.
But Phago, who has been here for more than a year, has no plan to leave. She was hired as part of CBay’s corporate social-responsibility experiment, and although the programme reflects only a tiny corner of a vast industry, it has turned up an unexpected truth: Blindness seems to infuse the outsourcing transaction with a warmth and a mystique that the sighted often fail to see, almost as though outsourcing were made for the blind. “It’s our advantage, this imagination thing,” Phago said. “Our whole life, we are imagining.”
Phago, who lost her sight when she was 3, learnt long ago to make technicolour mental sketches from the most humdrum touches and sounds, and so when a Caesarean tape arrives, she thinks immediately of her sister’s ridged belly. As she transcribes, she wonders if the scar, on some unknown American woman, would feel like that one felt.
She speculates about how the cut was made, if it hurt, what instruments were used. Her imagination prances from one picture to the next. So vivid are these conjured portraits that, when the occasional dictation reports a patient’s death, Phago often buckles over her keyboard and cries.
She is 24, pencil-thin and as short as a girl half her age. She is the kind of person who grows amused at her own thoughts in the middle of uttering them and constantly interrupts herself with smiles and giggles.
They have little to giggle about where she comes from. Phago was born in the village of Ananden Busti, on the other side of India, in West Bengal. To get there from Mumbai requires a swaying train trip of more than 1,600km. Then, it is a 3-hour jeep ride to Darjeeling, followed by 2 hours on a bus into the countryside.
The final leg, not easy on the sighted, to say nothing of the blind, is a 1-hour walk over hilly terrain.
At the walk’s end is a bleak, mostly illiterate village, to which a metropolis such as Mumbai can seem as foreign as Paris. Phago grew up with seven sisters and two brothers, the descendants of people who have spun for centuries in a cycle of poverty, ignorance and low expectations. As a child, Phago was unfortunate even by the standards of the unfortunate. A searing fever stole her sight, before visual memories could imprint themselves on her mind. When her sisters and brothers went outdoors to help on the farm, she remained inside, feeling of no use. It was fertile soil for insecurity. But a titanic resolve sprouted instead.
She studied with vigour, first in a middle school for the blind, then in a mainstream boarding school from class IX onward. She relied on Braille and on the kindness of people who read aloud to her. And she did so well that, upon graduating in 2003, her principal told her she had a choice: There was the path of least resistance—a return to the rhythms of history in the village—or there was the steep, treacherous and lucrative climb to Mumbai.
She chose Mumbai. Her parents said no. Her father became angry. Her mother tried suasion. “You are blind, and you are going very far,” she told her daughter. “We don’t know what will happen to you.”
But Phago ceded no ground. “If I stay here, I will be a burden,” she argued. Lobbying from her principal won over her parents at last.
Not long thereafter, Phago, with her principal in tow to help establish her, set out for India’s biggest, brashest, fastest city.
Mumbai proved no less bewildering for a blind migrant than it is for everybody else: the horns squawking, the cars and motorbikes plying everything but their lanes, the buses lunging at pedestrians.
Phago took a room in a women’s hostel, where her fellow tenants regularly screamed at her in the local Marathi language, which she didn’t understand. Showers were allocated in a time-share system that required her to bathe at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning. Because she could not read the schedule, she kept bathing by mistake in the wrong slot.
Such missteps apart, she plunged headfirst into Mumbai’s possibilities. She signed up for vocational training, learning how to operate a telephone in a call centre.
Then she enrolled in a correspondence college programme, reading textbooks with the help of social workers and sitting for exams with sighted students. She signed up for software classes on the side.
Three years after she arrived, she heard about a surprising offer from CBay. An executive at the company was acquainted with a social worker who assists the blind, and together they had devised a plan whereby CBay would hire a small group of blind workers, less for business purposes than for the sake of compassion and the thrill of a challenge.
Phago was one of a dozen interviewed; she and seven others passed. She went through months of training in medical terminology and ranscribing began in early 2007.
Aside from a brother in the army, her siblings never studied as she did and never got far. Most still live on farms in Bengal. None has a job involving a desk or a computer or customers on the other side of the world. It is not lost on Phago that the sighted ones stayed stuck and the blind one got away.
Nor is it lost on Phago or her colleagues that, in outsourcing at least, the blind really do have more fun.
After years as poster children for a rising India, back- offices like this transcription centre now struggle to satisfy workers, given their burgeoning ambitions and the often thankless anonymity of the job. “It becomes very monotonous work,” Parameswaran Venkataraman, who worked for years in the back offices of Sapient Ltd, Convergys solutions Ltd and General Electric Co., said in an interview in Bangalore last year, after leaving to start his own research firm. He reflected an increasingly common sentiment.
But for those differently built souls who survive on their imaginations, the day-long drone a foreigner’s voice on the headphones can be the perfect stimulus to dream.
Vishal Rao, another of the blind workers at CBay and an accomplished pianist, violinist and flautist, listens to that drone every day, and he, too, fantasizes about the lives behind the amputations and infections. As he daydreams, he types. Special software plays back what he has typed in a synthesized voice. He toggles back and forth between the dictation and his own transcript using foot pedals.
When he presses his feet to the pedals each morning, he feels his handicap washing away. “From 7 to 4, I forget that I’m visually impaired,” he said. “Once I leave, there are circumstances, there are events, that make me feel that something is lacking. But in that particular time, from 7 to 4, I am happy. I can pretend to be a doctor.I may not be able to perform an operation,” he conceded, for even the most lively imaginations have limits. “But I can be a theoretical doctor.”
©2008/International Herald Tribune