[ “It’s very sad to let you know that Bapin’s pet daughter Dinah passed away on October 14th, 2008.
I am saddened to report that Dinah has left us. She collapsed at 3:45 PM as my co-worker James Feldmann was trying to make her stand up from her bed under his office’s desk. She would not stand up and needed to be lifted onto a cart by two other colleagues, John Baroncelli and Robert Pena. She was taken to Robert’s car and driven away to the Animal Medical Center in NYC.
The doctors found that the fluids in the sac around Dinah’s heart filled up again. They had to flush out the fluids but 15 minutes later the fluids filled up fast. There was no other option to curing the tumor and Dinah’s primary doctor recommended to have her put down. James and Robert were at the hospital with Dinah and I was in my office here in San Francisco. I was on the phone with the doctor with an interpreter and we talked for a long time. We all decided to let Dinah go at 6:30 PM.
Dinah will be cremated and her ashes will be put into an urn.]
Bonding between Bapin and Dinah
A Bold, New Life For a Deaf-blind Man and His Dog Companion
By Robert R. Schwarz
The young deaf-blind man on the jet about to take off from Detroit Metro leans downward in his bulkhead seat and vigorously strokes his yellow Labrador retriever. Passengers and flight attendants smile and whisper comments of compassion for a man and dog traveling alone and now, for the first time, entrusting life and limb to the extraordinary adaptation of each others’ limited senses.
But no one knows the story about this man with the long-bill denim cap at whom they’re stealing glances. He is 27-year-old Anindya (Bapin) Bhattacharyya, who two nights ago was “telling” members of the Rochester (Michigan) Hills Lions Club about having just graduated from the University of Arkansas with a major in political science and now offered a job in the governor’s office as a policy analyst for disabled people. Bapin was also relating a few amazing chapters from a life dramatized with pain, incredible perseverance, spiritual faith, and a leap in emotional maturity.
The Lab dog at his feet on the jet was Dinah: 21 months old, 64 pounds, expressive, obedient. She too had a poignant story.
Together day and night, the two that week had just completed 24 days of regimented training at the Leader Dog School for the Blind in Rochester, Michigan, reportedly the only school in the United States with a specialized program that trains deaf-blind people to walk freely and not be constrained to only one walking route.
With Bapin during the training had been Kenneth Sting, a 55-year-old machinist from Seattle whose trip to Rochester had been arranged by the Seattle Capitol Hill Lions club. Rigors of this unique training limit it to two or three students for any one instructor.
[Caption: Bapin and this reporter communicated through his trainer and interpreter, Keith McGregor. Trainer and student used the tactile American Sign Language during which Bapin touched Keith’s fingers as they exchanged signs. Bapin used his seven-key TeleBraille machine for interviews.]
Bapin’s climatic events last June as both a university graduate and new master of a prestigious Leader dog would have appeared impossible two decades ago. He was born deaf in Telari, India, south of Calcutta. Nine years later he was blinded by a fellow rugby team mate who, jealous of Bapin’s appointment as team captain, scooped up hot ashes from a fire one day and threw them into Bapin’s face.
Instead of devastating Bapin for life, the incident forged him and his father, a high school math teacher, into a goal-oriented father-son team. His father taught him to speak, a difficult feat for any deaf person. For four years the family searched unsuccessfully in India for a school for their deaf-blind boy who spoke only broken Bengali. Eventually Bapin was accepted by a school for the blind in Calcutta.
Knowing neither English, Braille, or even sign language, and with his father always interpreting for him, Bapin in 1983 received a scholarship for the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. A few years later he became the first deaf-blind student at the University of Arkansas. “I had to educate them how to make appropriate accommodations for me and other students with disabilities,” Bapin says. “I also persuaded the university to hook up Braille in the computer lab.”
“I wanted a companion” .
Bapin’s desire for a Leader Dog begun was stirred during his early days at Perkins. “I wanted a companion, and the students were complaining that I kept bumping into them in the hallway. I walk fast, you know.” Two years of solitary apartment living in Little Rock finally evoked a special prayer from Bapin, who had since become a Christian. “I wanted God to send me a dog to keep me company.”
He was an outstanding student. Soon came a scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind. This led to his acceptance at the Leader dog school where, he says, “my first challenge was not learning how to curb my dog but my appetite in the dining room.” “Bapin is unique,” says Paul Fugate, an interpreter for 115 deaf students in the nearby Bloomfield Hills public schools. “He didn’t know English, and now he has very few flaws in it. He can read Braille as fast as a secretary can type, whereas 85 percent of blind Americans can’t read Braille.”
When asked one day for more details about his life, Bapin’s answer was converted from the TeleBraille and scrolled across a word processor display window: “See my Web page.”
But trainer McGregor wryly says: “Nothing in the world substitutes for a Leader Dog. Nothing will ever replace companionship for a deaf-blind person. What I need is more instructors. There are ten people on our waiting list, and it will take a few years for me to get to them.”
“An anxious wait for a life long friend”
The jet turboes whine louder for takeoff, and Bapin waits as anxiously as he did that afternoon three weeks ago when he and Ken stood erect in their dormitory room waiting to meet their dogs for the first time.
Keith walks in the first yellow Lab, Skinner, and hands the leash to Ken, whose hands immediately feel for the dog’s features. Uttering sounds of unmistakable joy, Ken begins to unceasingly pet his new friend. Then Ken leaves and returns with Chica and gives her to Bapin. It is Bapin’s first dog, his very first pet ever. (This will later become a problem.) Bapin reaches for the Lab’s tail, as if to make sure it is wagging. It is. Ken and Bapin are left alone. The moment demands it. That night Kenneth and Bapin go to bed with Skinner and Chica chained to a wall a few feet away. Bapin soon gets up and moves his bed within inches of Chica. The next morning he complains boastfully to Kenneth that he didn’t get any sleep because of Chica licking his face. “It’s a very heartening experience having a new companion to share my life with,” Bapin says.” I know Chica will love being my guide as well as receiving my loving in return. I’m looking forward to developing a strong dog and see how it grows up just by hanging by me.” But sadly, it wouldn’t be Chica.
The school at Rochester carefully matches master and dog according to each other’s temperament, size, and walking speed. For example, the large, 17-month-old, 79-pound Skinner – a somewhat mellow male – was given to Ken, a stocky, reserved man. Chica, 59 pounds of face-licking energy, went to the extroverted, light-weighted Bapin.
But the all-important bonding between the two men and their dogs is a slow and – for the dogs – wrenching process. Chica and Skinner during their recent eight months of “pre-student” training, had become naturally attached to their trainer, Keith. Still, the Labrador retriever, unlike the German Shepherd, which is no longer the school’s majority breed, is the preferred Leader dog because it readily adapts to a new master.
Dogs, however, “are by nature neither clingers nor slaves,” points out author and professional trainer Joel M. McMains. “Each is his own animal.” Yet, writes Jeffrey Masson in his book Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1997), “Dogs need to speak and be spoken to, touch and be touched, love and be loved.” Masson, a graduate of the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute and author of several other books on dog psychology, adds: “Even if the dog has had his share of misery in the past – and here is the great lesson we can take from dogs – and he somehow manages, without benefits of analysis, to overcome the past, to emerge from a time of sorrow with a strange kind of optimism: He wishes to love again. He must love again. We are drawn to this capacity in a dog: it corresponds to something in us which has been lost somewhere …”
Both Bapin’s and Ken’s dogs were “recruited” from the school’s puppy program whereby people are given a young female dog which they later bring back for breeding. The female is whelped in the volunteer’s home and the litter brought back to the school for careful screening and eventual placement with blind students.
A Leader dog cannot be striving for human attention, aggressive towards other dogs, too strong to be controlled, nor afraid of traffic or walking up and down fire escapes. They are also screened for their resistance to being spooked by surprise situations or threatening objects, such as the life-size lion statue which has tested many a dog in front of the school’s administration building.
Students are screened in their homes by Keith, who makes sure they are legally blind, can walk with a cane, are physically and mentally competent to take care of a dog, and financially sufficient. If deaf, they also must be able to sign.
Dog and Master Become Fellow Classmates
Training for Bapin, Ken, Chica, and Skinner begins shortly after 6 a.m. when the dogs are taken to an outdoor run to relieve themselves. At breakfast with 22 blind students (several from Spain), Bapin and Ken chat with Keith about the upcoming training day. More than a dozen Labs are stretched out calmly at their masters’ feet.
An hour later, a training cadre of 72 men and women attired in khaki shorts and “Leader Dog” shirts maneuver students and dogs out to the 14-acre school complex; this is done gently yet with the precision of military drill under the overall direction of Bill Hansen, a retired Air Force colonel. Except for meals and some R&R time with Chica and Skinner, Bapin and Ken train until the conclusion of a lecture at 8 p.m.
Bapin, Ken, and the dogs learn hand signals: “forward,” “left,” “right,” “sit,” “down,” “stay,” and “walk faster.” Leader dogs learn to guide their masters away from oncoming cars, construction zones and other dangerous obstacles. They are not trained to listen for telephones or door knocking, for which most deaf-blind people have electronic devices. Chica and Skinner have one job: to guide.
Trainer, student, and dog each have a special challenge during the training. For Keith, it is to teach the dog “a sense of responsibility” for its master; for Bapin, it is learning to cross a traffic intersection; and for the dog, it’s leading its master away from objects that overhang their walking route. It is critical and often painfully slow for master and dog to learn what to expect from each other.
The most dangerous situation for the deaf-blind person strolling with his dog is crossing a busy intersection. Whereas the blind person can listen to traffic, neither the deaf-blind pedestrian nor his Leader dog can read traffic lights. The dog, however, would probably risk its life to pull his master away from an oncoming car. Today Bapin and Ken carry cards that read: “I am deaf and blind. Please tap me on the shoulder when it is safe to cross.”
Do Chica and Skinner know that their masters are deaf and blind? Keith doesn’t think so. He believes the dogs, after working with their masters for a year, know something is different about this particular human yet are responding to only what they have been taught.
Everyone rests on Sunday. Students may go to church, but without their dogs. Keith rests a painful shoulder and arm from the constant stress of Bapin and Ken using his outstretched palm as a notepad for some of their hard-pressing signing. Occasionally the pain forces him to use an assistant interpreter.
The school, with its six task-busy buildings, has grown quite a bit since its one-farm-house operation in 1939. There were no Leader dogs for the deaf-blind in 1981 when Keith joined the kennel staff. Then one day eleven years later, he got the urge to ask a deaf-blind student how many people like her in the United States needed a Leader dog. The demand was awesome, she replied, but no school would accept a deaf-blind student because there were no dog trainers who could sign.
So, Keith McGregor, then 30 years old, started taking college courses in the sign language unique to deaf-blind people. Today, married with three children and a German Shepherd (“Valentine”) who has whelped 20 puppies for the school, Keith is earning a “deaf studies” degree at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. Among trainers at the estimated 14 guide dog schools in America, Keith is likely the only Leader Dog trainer in the world who is skilled with tactile signing. His commitment to his work, he says, arises from the commitment and bonding he sees between master and dog in the homes of students he visits later.
Bapin and Chica Face a Crisis
Six days into the training, Bapin is confronted with one of those life-changing crises which, depending on a person’s response, is either a blessing or curse. Chica was refusing to lead. Perhaps, Keith thought, she was over-reacting to the strangeness of human deafness; perhaps the dog was still completely attached to Keith, with whom the dog had naturally bonded during the five months of training before Bapin arrived.
Bapin becomes stressed. Some of it comes from worrying if he has passed his final college exams for graduation this month. The malfunction in his PC adds to the stress. But a more serious issue emerges: Chica is Bapin’s very first experience with any dog! Having a dog so close to him all the time is behaviorally and emotionally alien. Bapin is never quite sure what Chica is doing on the leash; he expects her to walk in a straight line like a robot and not ever to stop to sniff anything.
“I was slow to understand what a relationship to a dog really means,” Bapin says later. “I had never felt this kind of emotion for an animal. I found myself loving her, yet I didn’t keep a balance between this love and her need for discipline.”
Dog psychologist Masson comments: “Learning to know somebody intimately is often the beginning of dislike, sometimes even of contempt. Among humans love often does not survive a growing acquaintance, but in a dog love seems to grow with acquaintance, to get stronger, deeper. Even when fully acquainted with all our weaknesses, our treachery, our unkindness, the dog seems to love strongly – and this love is returned by most dog-owning humans. We, too, seem to love our dogs more the more we get to know them. The bond grows between us and our dogs.”
So Keith replaces Chica with Dinah, another yellow Lab that had been trained originally for Bapin but was edged out by Chica. At 64 pounds, the 21-month-old Dinah is larger but calmer and more trainable than Chica. “I was hit hard and miss her,” Bapin says.” But I now understand that God had planned it that way so I would know that a dog isn’t just a thing to work for me but also to love.”
But the training ahead for Bapin and Dinah is designed to “wash out” any student or dog who cannot work as a team with mutual trust.
A test comes when Keith drives Bapin and Dinah to the nearby Oakland University campus and, under his watchful eye, has them walk an obstacle course of winding sidewalks, student-filled hallways, elevators, and multi-level stairwells. It prepares Bapin and Dinah for any future days at his University of Arkansas campus. Bapin and Dinah begin to bond, a process that normally takes ten days for a blind person with a Leader dog but up to 21 days for a deaf-blind student because the dog never hears any voice command from its master. A deaf-blind person’s relationship with his dog, however, is stronger, like that of a father and son, Keith says.
Though fast becoming friends, Bapin and Dinah face a more severe test. It comes during the last training week when Keith drops off Bapin and Dinah in downtown Rochester and tells them to take an hour’s stroll by themselves. Keith stays in the van, always a block or so away.
Up and down residential streets and across busy city intersections walk Bapin and Dinah, learning to trust each other in the give-and-take of leading and learning to understand each other’s moments of doubt and hesitation. There is a tense moment at a street corner where a curbless sidewalk slopes towards the center of the intersection. Dinah leads Bapin towards the intersection but her master wants to keep going straight. Keith springs from the van and leashes Dinah back. “You two,” Keith tells them, “will eventually have a meeting of the minds.”
A dog wants certainty and “is no friend of indecision,” writes author McMains.
An hour later, Keith drives ahead to wait for Bapin and Dinah at the school’s satellite training center in downtown Rochester.
He has just finished signing “congratulations” to Ken, who waits inside with Skinner.
Bapin and Dinah soon round the corner. Without any previous mapping or compass direction from Keith and with only their super-keen sense of orientation, Bapin and Dinah finish their stroll of many zigs and zags and walk quickly, assuredly right up to the front door.
“I’d Like to See America”
When asked one day about the pain of being deaf and blind, Bapin types thoughtfully on his TeleBraille: “I wish I could see America; it’s so different. There are times I want to do things that need to get done but I can’t do them without the help of a sighted person. I get frustrated when I have to call for help and then get turned down because the person is too busy or asks me to wait a day or two. I think being deaf is not much of a problem for me since I was born with it. I can remember how I had many advantages just being able to see. Although I’ve accepted my blindness and have adapted well to it, this doesn’t mean I no longer think about being blind. Whenever I run into a barrier where my blindness is a factor, I say ‘I wish I could see.’ A good example is right here in this room. I got my notebook computer the other day and ran into a problem because the software I need to access my drive requires Windows, and you know I can’t access Windows without a sighted person to help me install it.”
Bapin, a Baptist, relates his faith life: “I rely on God everyday to help me in every endeavor and also to give me peace of mind.” His favorite Bible story is about the blind beggar whose sight was restored by Jesus. “When people ask me how I feel about being blind, I tell them: ‘Hey, I can see the light. I see in a spiritual way.'”
Has he forgiven that youth who blinded him with fire ashes? “I haven’t seen him for 17 years. He lives four or five blocks from my family. He’s from a poor family and a lower caste than my family, so our families don’t get along. I have completely forgotten about him. I don’t have any bitter feelings. I will confess, though, that I probably haven’t fully forgiven him, although I know God expects me to do that. He hasn’t shown any regret. Maybe I’d change my attitude if he expressed regret.”
Ken’s own moment of pain comes during the training came two days before “graduation.” It is his birthday, and all day he sits morosely alone in his room with Skinner. That night Keith and two colleagues bring Ken a birthday cake. Ken smiles and weeps.
Friends for Life Now Homeward – Bound
Bonding between Bapin and Dinah