As a kid, I had weak eyes. My Grade 1 teacher Miss Elisabeth noticed this when I used to get up from my seat situated at the end of the class, walk up to the blackboard, read what was written, go back to my desk, write down what I had just read and then repeat the same exercise. She was concerned enough to tell my Dad this on the very first Open Day that took place for Grade 1. The very next week, there I was, patiently waiting in the reception areas of ophthalmologist clinics all over the city with my very worried looking father. They diagnosed me with weak eyes, I would need glasses, both eyes had different problems, I would need to undergo therapy with eye machines over the next few months to train my weak eyes to focus better.
I didn’t know about the seriousness of my eye problems then. Years later my Dad told me about it. My memories of these events were happy. Every time we went to the clinic, Dad would take me to have ice-cream or juice in a parlour just outside the building housing the clinic. The clinic was in Pune. It would be a fun day travelling from Chinchwad either on Dad’s motorcycle or when my grandmother came along, we took the bus. Also, that is my only memory of Double-Decker buses in Pune. They got phased out years ago, after an unfortunate accident.
I had a distant cousin, whose hair was greying at a rapid pace, she was just a year younger than me. Both of our doctors were in the same building in Pune, we had fun, both of us didn’t really care about the seriousness of our problems. Our dads, on the other hand, were a different story. We used to sit in the parlour drinking our milkshakes with our dads bonding over our problems. Those were fun days.
I hated my spectacles. These weren’t like the cute, fashionable pair of glasses kids wear today. My spectacles had black strings attached to them, to prevent them from falling on the floor in case they slipped off my nose. The frame was big, brown and had to be broad as the lenses were made of heavy glass. I was the first kid in my class to have glasses. It was 1998 and kids with glasses as a sight wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today. I was constantly teased by classmates whenever the teacher wasn’t around. It was embarrassing and humiliating. I remember clearly being called “Gangadhar”, from Shaktiman. It was tragic to have this 1990s-iconic character be used as a reference to tease me every day in school. It lasted for a year, the teasing, my classmates then moved on to the next subject to make fun of. It was a relief.
I remember this incident very vividly. The first day of class where I had to wear the doctor prescribed glasses. I wailed and howled at home, but there was no choice, I had to face it, rather wear it. My classmates could not control their laughter when they watched me the first time walking down the corridor, my bag on my shoulders, my tiffin bag in my left hand and a grumpy face with gigantic glasses. The shame I felt! What was the crime that I had committed to suffer such an excruciating punishment?
But there was this girl in my class I remember, Pooja. She had kindness in her eyes. She was my partner for the day on our desk. After the first period, she sensed the sadness in my eyes. She said, “You know, you don’t have to feel that bad. You can remove them and not wear them for the rest of the d, if it makes you feel better.” I did the exact thing, removed that hideous piece of metal and glass and shoved it in my bag and closed the zipper. The rest of the day was uneventful.
Years later, in 2015, I remembered that incident with Pooja out of the blue. I felt like contacting her on Facebook after having been out of touch for more than 8 years. I narrated the incident, which she clearly had no memory of and finally said, “Thanks, you were good to me that day.” She dismissed it like it was just her being herself, but for me, it was one person out of that class of 60 students not teasing me and making me feel better with one small sentence. We are not really in touch with each other after this chat, but it felt good having finally “thanked” her.
Over the years, I’ve learned to live with my glasses, they’re an extension of my physical being today. I could have lenses made or I could go and have the LASIK surgery performed on my eyes. But I don’t feel like parting with them now, after having lived for over 2 decades with them, they feel like companions for the rest of my life.
At the very beginning of the summer, after I was done with the second grade, I fell down a steep staircase and fractured my left hand in 2 places. That was the first major surgery, anyone in my family had ever gone through. It was expensive, I would learn about that later. My hand was in a cast and I had ended the fun that I was going to have that summer, at the very start of that summer.
My father was extremely worried about how fragile I was after my fracture incident. My hand had literally broken at 2 places. The doctors had a very long surgery trying to repair it. One of the metal rods that they wanted to insert to support the bones slipped and moved further down my hand internally. I was an only child at that time. I can understand the anxiety he must have faced through the entire process.
In retrospect, these 2 events which took place: Me having weak eyes and then fracturing my left hand, had a lasting impact on the person that I am today. The constant teasing I faced that year, made me retract in a shell of my own, I became an introvert. Making new friends does not come easily to me. I trace that down to these incidents. I taught myself to enjoy my own company. I convinced myself I don’t need people to go through the day. I guess this must be why I enjoy myself so much at the movies all by myself with my popcorn. Having friends became a choice, not a necessity.
Sports and I have a simple equation which can be described very easily: Indifference. I don’t understand sports because I never tried to either play them or even at least learn how to play them. I was all up for playing silly kid games, but the minute things graduated to cricket or basketball or one of the more organised games, I backed out. My father told me years later, he himself was a top-level college badminton player. But he never found the heart to push me towards anything that had a lot of physical activity. He was petrified, after the 2 incidents in my life: my eyes and my hand, and the realisation of how fragile I could be if anything went wrong. The life that my brother lived, pretty much made up for the sports that I didn’t play. With his state championships, he played so much that in retrospect it was enough for both of us.
Do I regret it? Not being a person with an athletic facet to his personality. No, I don’t. I can’t help it now. The only time I miss it is when I am unwittingly part of conversations involving sports, where I must really try hard to not make that face that says so bluntly: I don’t give a fuck.
But what these 2 incidents did to me, was propel me toward books.
Having an identity is an important aspect of growing up. You need to fit in somewhere, to not feel left out. What are you in that world that’s out there? As a kid, you go into a huge building every morning with a thousand other kids, segregated based on their ages. You interact with almost your entire class of roughly 60 peers and all the teachers that come and go hammering on so many different subjects day in day out. There’s the pretty mean kids’ group, the smart boys’ club, the football players, the basketball players, the teachers’ pets, the creative kids: singers, dancers, musicians. These would be the coveted groups I would aspire being part of. Unfortunately, I fell into the category of a fat kid with glasses. I was the sole member of this club. My search of an identity drove me towards books. I found solace in the adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Narnia seemed to be the country I would love to migrate to. For some reason, Hardy boys never appealed to me. They solved mysteries in groups, I didn’t really have anyone with me to go on these sleuthing trips. Nancy Drew filled in that void, going all solo solving mysteries that seem so stupid and child-like now that I think about the plots. But she trumped Sherlock any day. My vocabulary of that time could never match up to what Arthur Conan Doyle used and sitting with a dictionary to read was something I would never imagine myself doing. I was always a “what it means in the context” reader.
I read so many books as a young student, I’ve really lost count. My personal collection is sizable. My mind has developed the capability of reconstructing the world that the writer created with his words. It’s given me the ability to overthink, sometimes it’s bad, mostly it’s been good. I’m going to live only one life on this planet. I won’t be having all the amazing experiences worth having. There’ll be constraints: physical, financial and even if I find a way to surmount them, there’s time. And I don’t think I’ll have the luxury of turning back time, afforded to Dr Strange with the eye of Aggamotto hanging around his neck.
Nevertheless, reading gives me the ability to live vicariously, as many amazing lives there possibly can be worth living, through the writer’s beautiful words.
I read Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter this week and one of the quotes from Mark Twain that he referenced in his book stayed with me:
All is a dream. God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars—a dream, all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you. . . . And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought.