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Meet Beno Zephine, the first 100% visually challenged IFS officer

Sandhya Ravishankar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:15 IST

Beno Zephine is polite to a fault, matter of fact and makes no bones about the fact that she insists on being treated on par with anyone else.

Zephine, 25, gets annoyed if concessions are made for the fact that she was born visually challenged. So much so that she has impressed the Union Government enough for them to alter the rules, thereby allowing her to become India's first visually challenged foreign services officer.

Sandhya Ravishankar spoke to Zephine for Catch

Besting bureaucratic inertia

"Last September I got word from the Ministry of External Affairs that I was selected but that I had to attend a series of interviews in Delhi," Zephine told Catch. "It was not a cliched interview but an interview with various officers on technical issues - like how I would work, how I would use computers etc," she said.

Zephine was told to wait until the rules were modified to induct her as an IFS officer. But after the interviews followed a nerve-wracking silence. The Indian bureaucratic machine was at its maddening best as files simply did not move.

"She cleared the exam with a rank of 343, did her interviews very well but some rules were constantly being cited to delay the process of issuing her orders," said M Boominathan, Director of Kingmakers IAS Academy, who coached Zephine for the civil services exam. "So we approached the ruling party and all politicians across the spectrum to accelerate the process," he said.

"It was a good journey for me - I won't say there were no challenges but I did not let them deter me" - Beno Zephine

This was the second time Zephine was attempting the civil services paper. "She did not do well the first time as the scribe she got was not very good and could not write what she wanted," explained Boominathan. "Beno was inconsolable when she did not clear it the first time."

On 12 June, an ecstatic Zephine got her orders. "It was a good journey for me - I won't say there were no challenges but I did not let them deter me," she smiled. "A lot of people have helped me with this, from the Prime Minister to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and even people like Mr Srinivasan of the Sanskrit Sangh," she said.

Model of fierce determination

Zephine's story is one of grit and single-minded focus on her goal. Schooled at a centre for the visually challenged - Little Flower School in Chennai - Zephine decided in the 11th Standard that she would become an officer of the Indian civil services. She went on to get her Bachelor's degree in English at Stella Maris College and her Master's in Loyola College, Chennai.

According to her parents, the turning point for Zephine likely came when she finished her 10th Standard exams in 2006. Zephine scored 464 out of 500 but was devastated by the score. "She lost a lot of marks because she could not draw the diagrams and her scribe did not know how to either," said her father Luke Anthony Charles. "She was terribly upset even though she stood first in the state amongst the visually challenged students," he said.

Zephine then told her father she wanted to meet the then-Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi - she wanted to ask him a few questions, she said. "I somehow managed to get an audience with the Chief Minister and Zephine boldly asked him why he never honoured visually challenged students who performed well, but that he went to the homes of normal students who excelled and gave them cash prizes. The Chief Minister was quite upset at that," chuckled Charles.

Six months later, Karunanidhi would issue an order that stands till date - a special cash prize for differently abled students who performed well in the board exams - Rs 25,000 for the first rank holder, Rs 20,000 for the second and Rs 18,000 for the one who came third.

Already a globetrotter

In 2008, after finishing her 12th Standard final exams, Zephine headed to Washington DC and New York, where she was the only visually challenged student among 400 others from 100 countries participating in the Global Young Leaders Conference of the United Nations. Zephine gave speeches at the International Monetary Fund as well as at the UN.

When her dad, a technician with the Southern Railways, could not afford the Rs 5 lakhs needed to send her for the conference, the Tamil Nadu government once again helped out, by sanctioning Rs 4.7 lakhs for her trip.

Zephine's success has come at a huge cost for her parents. "I spent all my money buying her all the books she wanted and I would take her to every single coaching class she wanted to attend," smiled her father Charles, a man of few words.

"I would read to her from books every single day," said Zephine's mother GA Mary Padmaja. "On average, I would read 250-300 pages out loud to her; it would go on for five-six hours. I did this until we got the computer software which read books aloud to her," she smiled. Exam time meant a special supplement of pomegranate juice and papaya juice for her beloved child.

Beno Zephine parents (Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar)

Zephine's parents Luke Anthony Charles and GA Mary Padmaja. Photo: Sandhya Ravishankar

Dream come true

Zephine heads to Delhi within the next couple of months to train as an IFS officer. "We need more audio books and books in Braille so that more visually challenged people can study and come up," she said.

"I think the government is launching every single effort to help the differently abled but it is now time for people to pitch in. The differently abled have ambitions and emotions too and we need to respect that."

Zephine's mother though walks around with a tinge of sadness. "My daughter's dream has come true and I am very happy about that," she told Catch. "But I will miss her very much when she goes to Delhi."

First published: 16 June 2015, 12:54 IST
Sandhya Ravishankar @sandhyaravishan

Sandhya Ravishankar spends her time sniffing out stories from the Southern part of the country. She is an independent journalist based in Chennai.