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Being Beno

Beno Zephine.   | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

The small, whitewashed library in the foothills of Kaithamalai in rural Tamil Nadu resonated with Beno Zephine’s deep voice. It was a breezy morning in March, 2012, and she was talking to some 100 children from the surrounding government schools. The library had just been inaugurated and Zephine was a special guest. With her father Charles by her side, she spoke about her journey to thunderous applause. Wherever she goes, Zephine has a knack of drawing people to her. Perhaps it’s her voice; or the earnest way she speaks.

Earlier this month, Zephine joined service as an Indian Foreign Service officer. The 25-year-old is the first 100 per cent visually-challenged IFS officer. She secured the 343rd rank in the 2013-2014 UPSC exams. A probationary officer with the State Bank of India until recently, Zephine had just come home after work when she was informed of her selection by the Ministry of External Affairs. “I realise the extent of my responsibility and will carry it out sincerely with the support of my senior officers,” she says.

Having spent all her life in Chennai, Zephine has left the familiar behind and entered a whole new world. “But I’ve never troubled myself by thinking too much about the future. I will focus on the training for now and give it my best.” Born in Chennai, Zephine studied in a convent-run school almost 15 km from her home in Villivakkam. Her father dropped her off and picked her up every day. And then, one day, Zephine decided to travel by herself. “I’ve always been independent. I love to walk alone and explore places,” she smiles. And adds, “My family never treated me like a differently-abled person.” When she was in standard IX, Zephine boarded a town bus to school. She continued to take the same bus — route 27D — to college.

These bus journeys taught her a lot. For one, she learnt to deal with all kinds of people. “The first thing I would do once I seated myself is talk to the person next to me. I’d start with ‘What’s your stop, akka’?” she says. She would gauge her neighbour’s demeanour based on their tone of voice and speak accordingly. “The environment we live in has a lot to teach us. If I’m exposed to a new place, for instance, I would first acquaint myself with the right directions to get there.”

Zephine likes to collect new experiences from her encounters with the world. “I’m a jolly person,” she grins. “You can often see me in a mall or a restaurant with friends.” These friends are her eyes. So is her mother Mary Padmaja. “She is my reader. The best thing about her is that she would read any book I gave her. She would never impose restrictions.”

The civil services drew her when she was pursuing her post-graduation. “I spent four to five hours studying every day,” she recalls. “Five hours worked for me. But qualitative study matters more than the number of hours.” During the pressure-cooker moments, what’s most important for a civil services aspirant is support from family and friends. “My friends understood if I didn’t call them and my family let me be if I spoke in monosyllables when I was in the midst of preparations.”

She talks about sour mangoes from the tree in her courtyard, her gang of five best friends…but there are times when Zephine sounds older than her age. Despite a stream of interviews to the media, delivering talks in schools and colleges, and hopping from one felicitation event to the other, she is ‘neutral’. “Once you put in your best efforts in a task, it will yield results on its own.”

Nothing can disappoint her, she says. “We’re too precious to let disappointments enter our minds.” However, she has a side that only a select group of friends are privy to. “I have a lot of friends, but very few close ones.” She knows her new job will consume her life and she’s game for it. “There’s so much to learn; this is just the beginning.”

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 10:34:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/akila-kannadasan-speaks-to-the-first-visually-challenged-ifs-officer/article7429507.ece

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