Before I spoke with Mohammed Salih, I had several thoughts running through my head. Salih is visually impaired. I thought about how difficult life must have been for him and the hardships he must have endured.
To my surprise, things didn’t seem to look that way. Without sight, he’s able to memorise and visualise ten chessboards at a time. He’s also won several championships across the country in the visually-impaired category and has beaten players who don’t deal with the disability. Today, at the age of 30, he’s amongst the first few visually impaired individuals to be validated by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). To top it off, he’s also a law graduate.
After my conversation with Salih, I discovered something that I didn’t expect. I realised that his only challenge or difficulty wasn’t in dealing with blindness – it was in dealing with people like me.
The initial years
Salih was born in a small town in Calicut. “I was blind from birth”, he says. “It’s hereditary. My father and two sisters are also completely blind.” The one fortunate aspect was that Salih knew no other way of life – so he coped with his disability quite easily. “I was a very happy child, and nothing really bothered me! Despite my situation, I would still climb trees and play with other children even if it was difficult to do so!”
Unfortunately, Salih still had to start on a back foot. Nobody in the family was aware of any school that would support children with visual impairment. His father was a maulvi in the mosque, and his initial exposure to an education was in the madrasas. “This was my father’s only source of income. We always had financial challenges even though we lived in a village.” Until about the age of nine, Salih had no opportunity that could allow him access to a formal education.
The discovery of a lifelong passion
To his luck, a friend told Salih’s parents about a residential school that was 40 kilometres away, meant only for the visually impaired.
This, for Salih, was a life-changing experience. “I had a lot of fun when I started with the school. For the first time, I met so many people like me! We would weave baskets, learn handicraft, play games designed for us. This included variations of cricket and other sports! The seniors and juniors enjoyed a friendly and playful banter. I have very fond memories of those times.”
It was in this school that he would discover what would become his passion in life – the game of chess. “In the fourth grade, I was introduced to this game by a senior of mine. I was immediately hooked to it. I loved that it was a thinking game.” Every single day, his only aim would be to play chess with the school senior. Soon, his flair for the game was noticed. With just three years of practice, he was chosen to represent the school in a chess championship in the seventh grade. “I played against some of the best players in the state, and I emerged quite strong.”
Salih showed incredible promise in chess, and he needed further nurturing. Unfortunately, as circumstances changed, his new found passion was set to be dormant for a while.
The new school
The school for the visually-impaired only functioned until the seventh grade. Beyond that, students had to join another school. “My family was too weak financially to enrol in a different school for the blind I had to join a regular school.” In the new school, Salih was singled out due to his disability. Even then, it didn’t stop him from mingling and trying his hand at different activities. “I took part in quiz competitions and elocutions. In fact, I won the first prize in the ninth grade for one of my speeches,” he recalls.
With a sense of hesitation, I ask if he ever felt’ left out’ or upset in the new school. After all, he was in presence of those who did not have to face what he did. “Not at all! Everyone was good to me. I was happy that everybody else had sight and they could pursue so many things in life.”
Salih’s euphoria, however, was shortlived.
Moving past limitations
“I remember a distinct experience that left me quite upset. The school was located on a hilly area and all the children went out to play. My teachers wouldn’t let me join them! They were so concerned over my inability to see that they would often never let me take any risks. This would irritate me and I really missed my old school. I know they did it because they cared, but I felt like I was restricted.”
After having experienced this several times, Salih had made his decision. He ran away from the school and decided to not go back. “I wanted to experience the world and do things, and I no longer wanted to be around people who were limiting my freedom. I wanted more activities and less of the rote form of education.”
Despite his urge to leave the school, Salih stayed on just to write his std. 10 exams, but only after his parents coaxed him. However, he never attended school until he took the all-important Board exams. “I studied everything I needed to at home and got through it.” He eventually went on to complete his 11th and 12th grade as a day scholar, a course in literature and now, he’s on his way to complete his LLB. In fact, Salih has to merely collect his certificate after which he will be considered a qualified lawyer. “I did my LLB only because of interest and it also gave me time to pursue other things.”
His actual plans, however, were quite clear – his passion for chess was reignited, and it was in college that he decided to take up chess seriously. “I was never happy with the traditional form of education. I thoroughly enjoyed playing chess and my interests clearly lay there.”
The journey to success
From this point on, there was no turning back for Salih. He kept his focus solely on chess while completing his studies. He soon started playing with people who were not visually impaired in order to improve his game. “Those with sight had a clear advantage; they could see me feel the chess pieces and predict my moves. It was also frustrating in a match with time limits, as I would take longer to play.” Despite these challenges, Salih would still beat several players and continued to improve his game.
He went on to win chess championships while in college and also placed first in the state championships. Not one to stop there, he also reached the second place in the South-Indian championships. Today, he has travelled to every city in India to play in various tournaments against contestants with and without visual impairment.
“Those who weren’t blind could go home and practice on their computers. I could do no such thing – I only had people to practice with. I remember that many of them would show up with their chess coaches! I couldn’t afford that. I taught myself and practiced continuously.”
I wonder if this has ever discouraged him. “It was interesting – The only discouragement I experienced was from those in my own community! Other visually impaired people would tell me that I was wasting my time! Why pursue such a pointless goal? I’m a little different that way… If someone says that it’s impossible, I will go all out for it. I’d rather experience it for myself and learn.”
“Even today, I face financial difficulties. People ask me to focus on my studies and an alternate path. I will do no such thing. I am extremely passionate about chess and nothing will stop me.” Salih has now found another passion – teaching and training in the field of chess. “I already train people in organisations and schools. I earn through this. My next goal is to start a chess academy. This can help me monetarily and also help me teach more people. I strongly believe that chess can help a person become more intellectually astute.” His dream to start a chess academy is in process and you can be a part of it – by contributing here.
Salih’s dreams don’t end there though. “I also want to play in the World Championships. It will cost a lot of money. I don’t know how, but I’d like to be the first visually challenged person from India to get there.”
As we were coming to the end of our conversation, I finally saw it – Salih had no real ‘impairment’, ‘disability’ or ‘challenge’ – atleast he didn’t see it that way. These were words put forth by others. Not once did Salih sound like he had a ‘struggle’; he almost seems to enjoy his situation and plays the hand he’s dealt! More importantly, he recognises his limitations but isn’t limited by it.
His only real difficulty must be in dealing with people like me, who felt that he has a hardship to deal with. The only real challenge for Salih, if anything, is in handling people who impose limitations upon him and assume that his best path was to ‘play safe’.
“I really believe that people should take more risks and even fail if necessary. I am who I am because I took risks. People overanalyse and overthink. Just ACT.”
It’s quite easy to put someone else in a box and decide what they can or can’t do.
It’s even easier to do that with ourselves.