Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur’s student Pratish Dutta who is visually challenged has proved that eyes are not required to see, one can see through his mind.
Pratish Datta who lost his eyesight when he was in college was awarded Professor Jagadish Chandra Bose Memorial Gold Medal from President Pranab Mukherjee for the best academic performance among outgoing students of the M.Sc courses in the science disciplines at the IIT.
His cumulative grade point average was 9.87 — higher than any other M.Sc student at the IIT. After graduating with mathematics from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, he joined the institute in 2010.
Born at Batanagar in north Kolkata to Prabir, a civil engineer with a government undertaking, and Ranjana, a home-maker, Pratish has depended on his mother for studies. She would read out his lessons and he would memorise them.
From his childhood he was dependable on his mother for everything. “If I studied 10 hours a day, my mother used to study 15 hours for me as she is instrumental in helping me understand the subjects since I could not read,” said a jubilant Pratish who thanked his mother after receiving the award.
Pratish was six months old when doctors told his parents that he had 'retinoschesis' , in which the layers inside the retina gradually get separated from each other, eventually leading to total blindness. By Class VIII, he had to use high-powered magnifying glasses to study.
It was in his second year at St Xavier's College that he lost his sight completely. Ranjana turned a full-time reader for her son and when he cracked IIT-JEE , she moved to Kharagpur with him. Pratish and his mother live in a rented apartment on the IIT-KGP campus. "We received a lot of help from people . His IIT teachers and classmates were very kind. At St Xavier's , College they would print question papers on A3 sheets for him," Ranjana said.
"My parents are my inspiration . They never made me feel that there was anything wrong. I received tremendous support from my teachers and buddies. My friend and classmate Fauzal Atik took great care of me at IIT," Pratish said.
His father, who is a civil engineer, also played a pivotal role in shaping his career. “My father always told me to give my best effort and I followed his words. At last, I have succeeded,” added Pratish.
"His mother would read out his lessons to him," said Pratish's father Prabir Datta. "All the credit goes to his mother. He even ranked second in the country in GATE this year. We feel so proud. My boy is no different... Rather, he has proved better than many,"Datta said.
Keen to take up teaching and research as his career, Mr. Datta has enrolled in a Ph.D. programme on Cryptology and Network Security at IIT Kharagpur.
His PhD guide Sourabh Mukhopadhyay is amazed at how a visually impaired person could score so high in a subject like Mathematics. "This has never happened in IIT, Kharagpur, or anywhere in the world," he said.
He could not solve a mathematical problem on a piece of paper because of his visual impairment.
“I could not even write a simple mathematical formula, all I did was remember it. I do all the calculations mentally and then dictate it to my scribe, who puts it down on paper,” 23-year-old Datta said.
“I would read out the lessons, including mathematical problems, and he would memorise them,” his mother Ranjana Datta said, adding that since Mr. Datta was interested in mathematics, she encouraged him to take up the subject.
But, this did not dampen Pratish Datta’s love for mathematics, or his zeal for pursuing a career in mathematical research. Not only was he able to do complex mathematical calculations but he scored the highest grade among all M.Sc. students this year.
“Pratish has an extraordinary mind and his way of learning is only through listening to lectures. But whatever he listens, it gets inked in his mind. We were also confused when he joined the institute, but he emerged with flying colours with his ability to rise above adversities,” head of the mathematics department Professor P.D. Srivastava said.
Sheer grit and determination can do wonders. And 23-year-old Pratish Datta knows all about it. Datta has been a topper all his life. He tells that if one tries, one can do anything; lack of sight is hardly an impediment.
You did MSc in mathematics at IIT and are known to do complex mathematical calculations mentally. How is that possible?
It goes back to my childhood. I lost vision in one eye at six months of age and had poor vision in the other. My parents felt that if I studied a lot, the pressure would damage this eye too. So my mother would read all my lessons to me and I would memorize them. Even maths sums were done mentally. I knew no other way to do it. Over time, practice made me perfect. I also manage to finish my exams in almost the same time as normal students. But a lot of higher mathematics is not just calculation but visualization too and I can handle that. Even Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler lost his vision in the last 17 years of his life. But he continued to do research. My mind is my eye now.
How did you cope with the loss of your eyesight?
I was doing my second year at St Xavier's College in Kolkata in 2008 when I lost vision in my second eye. I was shocked to suddenly see a dark world but my parents and teachers stood by me. As I loved studies, I decided to concentrate on that. All my happiness is related to studies. Even when I came to IIT, there were many questions about whether I would be able to cope. But my faculty helped me with a competent scribe, which itself takes the load off students like me. He's a computer operator here who understands mathematics symbols and has done presentations for various seminars.
The dean of student affairs also helped me find accommodation within the campus. I also have nice friends, especially Fouzoul Atik who studied with me in MSc. He would sit beside me, dictate what was written on the board, take me from one class to another, xerox pages for me...he was very happy when I got the gold medal.
Was it difficult to handle the pressure in IIT with this impairment? Your mother seems to have sacrificed a lot.
As I was able to see in childhood, I understood maths symbols and could do well. But for many others, the fact that higher education books aren't in Braille are a handicap. An attempt should be made to convert them so that others like me don't suffer. As for my mother, she has stood by me like a rock. Even when I said I wanted to study in IIT, she told me bravely, 'Go as far as you want, I will be with you.' And she did. She left Kolkata where my father is a civil engineer and came to stay with me, an only child, here at Kharagpur.
You seem to lead a normal life -you use the mobile quite well and have a Facebook profile. How do you manage these?
I have memorized the keys and functions of my mobile so I can use it effortlessly. I also have a computer screen-reading software called JAWS which reads out whatever text there is on it.
“My aim in life is to serve the nation by inventing tools that will help society,” he added