TThe stage was set. The audience was all ears. The little girl took to the mike. Like a seasoned speaker, she began. She talked and talked. Without any pause or hesitation, she poured out all that she knew about Chachaji. She concluded with a thundering applause ringing in her ears. Stepping down, clutching the gift earned for the best oration, she was smothered with handshakes and hugs from her overjoyed teachers and loving kisses of her teary eyed, proud parents.
That was a little more than two decades ago at the Little Flower Convent for the blind. The winner that day is now, none other than the 25-year-old Beno Zephine, who has created history after becoming our country’s first, completely visibly challenged officer of the external affairs ministry! She was ranked 343rd in her batch in the 2013-14 civil service exams.
“I was in my nursery class and that was my first attempt at public speaking. My joy was doubled when I realised how happy my parents were”, Beno recalls the memorable day with a smile. “It gave us tremendous faith in her potential after her maiden speech, which fetched her the first prize”, Luke Anthony Charles talks fondly of his daughter.
That was the beginning. Beno, the bold and brilliant, notwithstanding her handicap has talked her way since, to become an IFS (Indian Foreign Service) officer, an achievement that would inspire many.
A normal childhood
Homed in Chennai, at Villivakkam, Beno was born to Mary Padmaja and Luke Charles. Charles is an employee of the Indian Railways. Bruno Xavier, her elder sibling, is an engineer working in Canada.
“We were shocked and disheartened to know our child was born blind. It was miserable. We feared for her future, like any other parent. But, we accepted God’s verdict and decided to name her Beno Zephine. Beno means God’s child and Zephine denotes hidden treasure. Soon, as days passed, true to her name, she proved to be a God sent gift. Beno was a bright and happy girl”, Mary Padmaja, recollects affectionately. Beno grew up in a joint family along with her father’s relatives, which she says helped her in a big way. She was treated without any special consideration, which actually helped her.
After her schooling at the Little Flower Convent, she did her graduation in English literature at Stella Maris College, and her Masters at Loyola College. “I enjoyed my childhood and my studies as well. Never once did I worry about my future. I had strong belief in myself. Yes, I am a differently abled person! I do accept it and I expect no sympathy from others. Why should I? I am not less or inferior to any one! One should understand that the differently abled also have their own dreams, aspirations like any other. I believed in sharpening and strengthening my other senses to weaken my weakness and to move on. I am very positive about achieving my dreams”, Beno’s statement, was loud and clear.
The dream of civil service
Civil service was her dearest dream which she held close to her heart. “The seed was sown when I was in school, in my eleventh grade to be precise. Till then the confusion prevailed, whether to be a lawyer or a lecturer,” she says.
“My father and my teachers played a big role in planting it. I was basically a talkative girl. My father, who noticed it early, encouraged me to participate in all the elocution competitions that came by. Like fish to water I just took to it. My teachers in school happily nominated me to speak, within and outside the school, as and when occasions arose. I never let go of any opportunity to express myself”, Beno recollects. Her father made her listen to the radio news and the current affairs analysis aired on all major channels every day. He was Beno’s resource person and most of his salary was spent on her books!
Beno’s father had excellent raw material to work with. “Any topic under the sun, Beno was ready to experiment on. She was good at extempore also. From cancer awareness, environmental or social issues, to world politics, the subjects varied. The intense interest developed in national and international topics, drew her to the idea of the civil services”, comments Charles, who made it a point to take her along with him to as many places as possible. “I never let her miss any family function or public meeting. I wanted her to hear and feel the world and understand the different characteristics of the people and their mindsets. Beno was like an overflowing question bank. Her quest to know was amazing. She sought answers from people, places, books, and experiences. Every word she heard was promptly registered and saved for future use”, Charles proudly comments.
Her mother chipped in too in a big way. “My mother was my trusted reader. She would read out for me whenever and whatever books I chose. Her workload increased when I reached college and the coaching classes. The volume of books had doubled by then. It was not possible for me to scan all the pages and read through my laptop. But not once has she refused or shown her displeasure!” Beno says.
Charles has more to add about his daughter who is his world. “Beno never bothered us with any demands or needs. Her passion was books. She loved good food like all children but she never insisted on her favourites. She was very mature and understanding even at a young age. She could sense our slightest change of mood. “Let me complete my studies and get a job, then I will take care of you”, we remember her reassuring us, while she was just a primary class student. She would only get irritated on certain issues like wasting water or electricity! ‘It’s public wealth’, she would proclaim! We used to tease her, calling her ‘Collector Beno’. Yet, she never disclaimed it since the idea had already taken root in her mind!”
Before writing the civil services exam, Beno completed her post-graduate studies. “After I completed my Masters I got selected as a probationary officer in the State Bank of India. During the group discussions I turned out to be the best of the candidates. It was a wonderful experience. My finest moment was when I could buy my father and mother each a small piece of gold with my first salary”, Beno happily recalls.
Her strength she says is her self-confidence. But there have been moments of despair too, though they didn’t last too long. “During my undergraduate days when I made my first attempt at the civil service examination, I failed. It really put me down. But not for long. I decided that I should not be failing in my preparations at least. And that paid off well. The second time it was much easier and the score was excellent”.
Whom does she attribute her great success in the civil services? “I thank God, my father and mother who have sacrificed everything, and all my teachers who have made me what I am. My college mates who treated me as one amongst them, helped me to be independent. The coaching classes were also very fruitful”. Advanced technology also came in handy. The software JAWS (Job Access With Speech) was an excellent tool to work with.
Beno has a passion for literature, which she says was also an additional advantage. Literature was not a mere study of classics and poems and dramas. It was also the study of various periods, the cultural, economic and social issues associated with those times. It taught rich lessons of social history, all of which helped her in preparing for the exams. Getting into the IFS was a big high for her. “I admit that I was not sure of getting into the IFS, though I was trying for it. Till date there has not been a precedent of a totally blind candidate getting into the IFS. I was at the pinnacle of joy when I heard the news.”
Meeting Sushma Swaraj
Beno was invited to Delhi to meet the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who took the decision of appointing a hundred percent visually challenged person in the Department, weighing talent above disability. “I was greatly inspired and motivated when she said that she had great faith in my ability and talent and was sure that I would make an efficient officer. I promised her that I am ready to serve to the best of my ability, in any department, anywhere, for my country”.
Her life is her message
“Lamenting one’s disability will not take one forward. Strengthen your strengths and weaken your weakness. That will be the key to your success. She maintains that one should be equipped to take the right decisions at the right time. Without understanding people and situations through education and wide exposure, it is not easy to make balanced decisions. “Generally in our society, we are used to seeing the father taking the decisions in a family. And the mother implementing it. Children grow up accepting it as the standard rule to be followed. Not many would dare to defy, either by habit or of the fear of rejection. I would say that decision making is a woman’s right too, which adds dignity to her status, just as the economic empowerment, within the family and society”, Beno concludes with her brilliant smile, ready to move on, touching many hearts with her determination. Beno knows that the difference between the impossible and possible lies in determination!