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Playing chess gives me a sense of equality: Charudatta

 
April 6, 2016

January 10, 1980 is a day that Head of TCS Accessibility Centre of Excellence, CTO, Charudatta Jadhav or Charu, is unlikely to forget in a hurry. Only 13 then and in school, Charu saw dark spots on the edge of his vision, and found reading what was written on the blackboard difficult.  A subsequent visit to the doctor revealed the cause—retinal detachment—for which there was no cure, leading to gradual but irreversable loss of vision.

It was then that Charu displayed a first glimpse of the fortitude that would characterize his life. Although advised to stay away from school—any additional strain, according to medical opinion, would only result in further deterioration of his eyesight—Charu decided, after two months of acquiescence, to go back and complete his studies. Convincing his parents and the doctor proved difficult, but he persevered. School would never be the same again for Charu. At this point, he could still manage to read by placing a book right under his eyes. Although his grades were adversely affected, he cleared his 10th standard examinations.

His insistence on a good education saw him complete a Bachelor’s degree in Arts from K.C College. This was in spite of the fact that he had to take up a part time job as a telephone operator, a situation necessitated by his father’s losing his job during a cotton mill strike in Bombay. An important development at this time in his life was the introduction to the National Association for the Blind (NAB). Their three-month course for people who had lost their eyesight was a complete revelation. With the aid of readers and audio books, studying was no longer impossible.

NAB also furthered his interests in another direction, one that would be central to Charu’s life. In his childhood, his blindness had restricted his enjoyment of outdoor games. Though a relatively good cricketer, that pastime too was snatched away. But far from dampening his love for sports, in a sign of the attitude he would display time and again, he had turned to chess—a game that he had only played occasionally until then— with an even greater passion, and in the year 1985, that passion would be rewarded. At a district level tournament, Charu left the organizers along with his opponents gaping when he became the only blind player to not just participate, but also win the tournament, and that too without losing a single game. This was in spite of struggling to tell the difference between a pawn and a bishop. Charu himself points to this incident as pivotal in providing him with the confidence that he could succeed in life, and that blindness could be overcome. He says, “Chess is the only game where we can play at par with sighted people without modification of any rules or any special consideration. That has given me confidence and a sense of equality.” And his was a career like no other. By the time he retired as a player in 2004, his first and highest rating was 2053 at the Commonwealth chess tournament in 2004, a feat that has yet to be surpassed by any Indian blind chess player.

Yet, it was not just as an exemplary player that Charu distinguished himself. He established the All India Chess Federation for the Blind (AICFB), an NGO, in 1997. He was the General Secretary of AICFB till 2013 and has now taken on the role of President. Under Charu’s leadership, AICFB has conducted more than 400 chess tournaments, sent 16 teams to different world championships and won three medals in the Olympics. It has also organized three international tournaments: Asian Championship (2003), World Championship (2006) and Chess Olympiad (2012). Charu also has the distinction of being the first non-European Vice President of the International Braille Chess Association (IBCA) and is now serving his second term.

In 2004, Charu took the painful decision to quit chess in order to devote time to create the adequate infrastructure to promote it among blind players. Since his career as a player and administrator often overlapped, Charu became acutely aware of the fact blind chess players did not have access to study material and software on chess. After spending close to two and a half years on research, Charu developed Talk 64, the first speech enabled chess software for the blind. He also played a key role in forming the DAISY Forum of India in 2006. DAISY or Digital Accessible Information System enabled portability and solved the problem of navigation by not relying on the print medium.

It had been a long road from when he had played his first tournament against sighted players, many of whom represented India in international tournaments—the S.K. Vaidya National open tournament in Sangli, in 1989. 1989 was also the year when he had graduated from K.C. College. When Charu’s father passed away in 1991, the responsibility of taking care of his family rested squarely on his shoulders. Charu became increasingly dissatisfied with his job as a telephone operator in Indian Bank. It was during this phase that he displayed a vision for the future and the self-reliance to find his own way in life. He recognised that with the growing adoption of computers in India, other avenues opened up where blindness was not a limitation. This prompted Charu to complete his diploma and then obtain an advanced diploma in software programming from Mumbai University.

Although a career in IT didn’t seem imminent at that time, Charu had already begun creating the basic administrative software for AICFB. After his retirement from chess in 2004, with more time at his disposal, Charu also began attending seminars and became increasingly determined to pursue a career in IT. A chance opportunity to attend a talk by S. Ramadorai left a lasting impression on Charu, who was drawn to the Tata Group by the shared ideology of never compromising on the principles that one stood for, and he was thereafter keen on joining TCS. That opportunity came along his way in 2007 when Charu joined the Life Sciences division of TCS as an Associate Consultant. During the course of his interview with Global Head, TCS Energy & Resources, Jayanta Banerjee, Charu was struck by the absence of any questions pertaining to his blindness, and was impressed and humbled by the maturity displayed by Jayanta in focussing on skill set alone. Under his guidance, Charu gained an understanding of the processes within TCS. In order to leverage Charu’s research capabilities, Jayanta asked CTO, K. Ananth Krishnan, to allow Charu to join his team in 2009. As a member of Ananth’s team, Charu first lead the ‘Speech for masses’ programme in the Innovation Lab in Mumbai and was later given the opportunity to work with K. Paddy. Charu’s other responsibilities included CTO Enable and the task of providing governance support to three Innovation Labs in Mumbai. According to Charu, his strength on the chess board, thinking strategically, has manifested itself at work too, and highlights his work of supporting strategy for TCS enable. He considers himself extremely fortunate to have met exemplary role models such as Ananth, Paddy and Jayanta during the course of his career. In 2013, he was given the additional responsibility of heading TCS’ Accessibility Centre of Excellence to build in-house capabilities and integrate accessibility within the DNA of the organization.

Charu’s iron will and zest for life show through in several fields. An avid trekker, he picked up the hobby from acquaintances he had made while playing chess. Thus was born his dream of a Himalayan expedition. After a three-week adventure course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling in 1992, Charu was invited to join an expedition to climb Mt. Shitidhar (17,220 ft), a peak that no Indian had climbed before. During the course of the expedition, Charu fell into a frozen pond, but was saved by one of his teammates. He decided to soldier on, and, having braved a cyclone and extreme conditions, Charu reached the summit, one of three blind people on the expedition to do so. A phenomenal feat. He has also been part of Algorithms by documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald. The movie follows the lives of three visually impaired teenagers from India and their mentor played by Charudatta Jadhav. The movie starts in 2009 with Charu and his team conducting a talent hunt from blind chess players to send the top two to World Junior Chess Championship for the blind, held in Sweden that year.

Having led an extraordinary life thus far, Charu believes that ‘Realise your potential’, a powerful initiative within TCS, is all about being aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses and approaching every assignment with a positive mindset. He concludes on an emphatic note, “I demand empowerment. You tell me the output expected, you give me the responsibility and ownership and I will deliver. If there is a risk, I am willing to take a hit. Once I decide to do something, nobody can stop me.”

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