In India as elsewhere every girl or boy has fond and warm memories of his childhood, from the day he begins to talk to his mother and father in broken syllables. Invariably a child learns and recognises the faces of his mother and father, of sisters and brothers who play with him constantly, or the servants who prepare his meals or watch him play in a nursery strewn with knickknacks and toys. He must also remember the rich colours of the butterflies and birds which children everywhere always love to watch with open eyes.
I say must, because when I was three and a half, all these memories were expunged, and with the prolonged sickness (meningitis) I started living in a world of four senses – that is, a world in which colours and faces and light and darkness are unknown. If my age and the length of the sickness deprived me of the treasured memories of sight, they also reduced things which are valued so much in the sighted world to nothing more than mere words, empty of meaning.
I started living in a universe where it was not the flood of sunshine streaming through the nursery window or the colours of the rainbow, a sunset or a full moon that mattered, but the feel of the sun against the skin, the slow drizzling sound of the spattering rain, the feel of the air just before the coming of the quiet night, the smell of the stubble grass on a warm morning. It was a universe where at first – but only at first – I made my way fumbling and faltering.
It was good that I lost my sight when I did, because having no memories of seeing, there was nothing to look back to, nothing to miss.
I went blind in November 1937. At that time we were living in Gujrat, in the province of Punjab in northern India. After my sickness we moved to Lahore, a few miles away, but the procession of relatives who came to sympathise made my father ask for another transfer, this time to Karnal, where we had neither friends nor relatives. There we got a cottage on the canal bank, built in very peaceful and quiet surroundings. As might be expected, in the beginning it was tough for all of us – for my mother and my father, for my three sisters and my brother, and for me, too.
The illness had left me weak. The servants shirked me as though I were an evil eye personified. My sisters treated me with care, as though I were a fragile doll, and my mother wept. My father, who was a doctor in the public health service, was grateful that my spine had been tapped in time, for a delay in the lumbar puncture would have affected my mind or endangered my life. But he, like the rest, despaired.
A state of complete inaction therefore followed my blindness. In part this was due to the immediate shock of the illness, but more important still, the impasse was caused by ignorance of the potentialities of a blind child, since the only blind persons my parents saw were beggars.
But now, by fate or by the will of god, blindness had struck not only a child of the well-to-do, but that of an excellently trained doctor, who found his training in this instance useless. Still, his wide medical experience had prepared him for an acceptance of this tragedy, and he understood that any course of action must begin with the realisation that I would be blind for the rest of my life.
My mother, on the other hand, neither would nor could convince herself that my sight would never return; she did not have the medical experience of my father, and she blamed something in her past for the tragedy.
The family pandit, upon whose advice mother had relied almost from her childhood, was called in and consulted. “He knows more about religion and science,” Mother said with pride, “than any other pandit in our province.” I was taken before him, and for a long time I sat in my mother’s lap while he was lost in reflection. After a while, he took my hand and thoroughly examined the lines. Then he looked at Mother’s and he studied her forehead, mumbling steadily.
He said he found himself inadequate, and more pandits would have to be consulted. At his request, they were called and questioned exhaustively as to what atonement could be made. Although their analyses and remedies differed considerably, they all agreed that by doing penance for her sins, my mother could improve my chance of regaining sight.
They prescribed methods ranging from intensive prayers to strenuous physical exertions, and for a fee they agreed to perform part of the necessary ritual. Each pandit’s advice was carefully heeded. Since my mother knew that my father would scorn such methods, she kept them secret, making it doubly hard for herself.
Along with this religious counsel was coupled a series of visits to hakims (physicians who followed the Greek or Unani system of medicine).
These quacks prescribed all types of concocted drops to put in my eyes. The surmas, which were administered at all hours of the day and night, burned and stung my eyes; and the only soothing part of the otherwise miserable ordeal was the loving caress of Mother afterwards. One night when my mother was administering these eye drops, and I was protesting with loud cries, my father unexpectedly returned. He asked and I told him why I was crying. He was outraged.
He questioned Mother as to how long this had been going on, but she would not answer him. She was prepared to bear any outburst silently and the longer she stayed silent, the more irritated my father grew. He said harshly that her superstitions far surpassed those of any village woman he had ever known. He went on to say that any person with the slightest consideration for her husband would have readjusted her ways in ten years of marriage.
All his efforts to break her from her deplorable past had been in vain. He did not want his children brought up in such a tradition. Even then she did not defend herself. Just as my mother had silently suffered the verdict of my blindness, the self-abasement imposed by the pandits, and the pleading which preceded the administration of my eye drops, so now she suffered my father’s anger quietly. He forbade her to make any more visits to the hakims, and strictly prohibited the purchase of any more surmas.
Then he gently lifted me from her arms, and took me away. With steady hands, he bathed my stinging eyes. After this incident, even though we stopped going to hakims, now and then applications of surmas continued until I was eleven. But they were very mild, and my mother always obtained my consent in advance.
I remember other little tests my mother put me through.
One day she perceived that just before I arrived at a closed door I would stop and reach for the handle to open it. She began letting me go about the house by myself and she discovered that I seldom ran into things. She credited the hakim and the stinging drops, but every evening she would hold her hand up before my face and ask me to tell her where it was.
She used to shake her hand before me so that myriads of pores next to, below and above my ears could feel her hand even when it was a foot away. The air currents helped me to spot it. But she wasn’t satisfied with this. She wanted me to tell her whether the light was on or off. When I failed this test she was unhappy again, but I soon caught on and would listen for the click of the switch and then tell her. Sometimes she would flip the switch very rapidly time and again, but I would always count the clicks and give her the right answer.
Excerpted with permission from Face to Face: An Autobiography, Ved Mehta, Penguin Books.