KARACHI: As a boy, Asif Patel would take apart toys and transistor radios, relying only on his sense of touch to rebuild them, having been robbed of his sight by a rare condition that meant he was born without eyes.
Now a renowned mechanic with his own workshop in Karachi, Patel’s story is a rare tale of success in a country which offers few opportunities for the blind.
At a small workshop that employs seven people in the city’s Lasbela area customers come and go, leaving their cars in the trusted hands of their old mechanic.
Patel, 44, makes his way over to an older Toyota, pops open the bonnet and places his hands inside, feeling the out-of-tune whirring of the carburettor and carefully making adjustments.
“I used to play with those things and I used to break them,” he tells AFP of his childhood.
“Whenever my dad brought things I would open them up, then try to fit it back how I opened it, and I saw how it worked.”
Pakistan has nearly two million blind people, according to the Fred Hollows Foundation, with more than half afflicted due to treatable conditions like cataracts.
Opportunities for the blind, like those with other disabilities, are few and far between, with many sight-impaired reduced to begging on the streets to make ends meet.
They often have to deal with social taboos surrounding disability and have little by the way of government facilities to aid them in public spaces. Many are rejected by their own families.
Not so for Patel. “No, I was encouraged at home,” he says.
The key to his success, he explains, is his keen sense of touch. “It is important for us that we touch, and see how it is, and what it is.”
After dropping out of school, he found a part-time job at age 15 at an auto-workshop and was assigned the task of dismantling a clutch plate.
“I had to open the clutch plate and they were a little shocked because they thought my confidence showed that I had worked somewhere else too,” he said.
The next part of his training involved taking apart a gear box.
“I said ‘yes’ and lay under the car and saw that the clutch plate we opened was put in with a flywheel and the area behind it is the gear,” he said.
“So mentally I figured out the rounds of the gear and its foundations and in barely 15 minutes, I took it out and was done.
“When I opened and put the gear out, I gained their trust and they knew that this boy had some gift from God and could do this work.”
He eventually bought his own car to train himself further in the intricacies of auto mechanics, and started his career swapping out engines.
And he is keen to distinguish himself as a true “mechanic” and not merely a fitter of parts, which he says any child can do.
“A mechanic’s work is to diagnose. Anyone can become a fitter. The main thing is to diagnose if there is a problem and why it is there,” he said.
“So it is a gift from Allah that I can find out what the fault actually is.”
Fahad Younis, a 30-something client with his own car import-export business, drops off a Nissan Platz for repair. He says Patel’s customers come for one reason only: the quality of the work.
“He fixes the problems whatever they are,” he said. “We give him all our cars, big and small.”
It has not always been a smooth ride.
“Once I was experimenting with the engine and petrol and was squirting it in. It caught fire and I had to throw sand on it to put it out,” Patel said.
Another time a jack collapsed while he was working under a car, dropping the vehicle on him.
“I didn’t worry too much about it, just lifted it up, put in another jack and carried on working,” he said.
While some might rue their luck at being blind, Patel says he prefers to count his blessings — and insists he doesn’t really think of himself as disabled.
“If I ever felt that I was handicapped from something, I would not be able to do what I am doing right now,” he said.
“If you do not have something from birth you do not think it is missing. But if it is there and taken from you, it hurts more.”