A few weeks back I was strolling the cosmetic aisle at Longs drugstore looking for eye makeup remover. As my eyes searched the shelves, I saw Revlon hypoallergenic eyeliner, Maybelline mascara for extra long eye lashes, eye color pencils in royal blue, smoky green and cedar brown all stacked precisely for the eyes to find. Along with the eye makeup remover, I also slipped in a green eyeliner pencil in my basket. Standing in the eye makeup section took me back to a moment a few years ago. My father, his brother Ambi and I were seated in Dr. Prema Padmanabhan’s office at Sankara Nethralaya in Chennai. Thanks to my lessons in Hindi conjugation in high school I understood Netralaya was Netra+alay or house of eyes.
My septuagenarian father’s second cataract had been delayed due to an infection in the right eye—the one yet to be operated on. Dr. Padmanabhan, clad in a lovely sunflower yellow sari explained to me in a cucumber calm tone, “Apply ciplox ointment in you father’s lower eyelid with the Johnson’s cotton bud.” Seeing my flustered expression, she clarified, “like applying kajal or kohl, apply a thin ribbon.” She pulled down her lower eyelid to demonstrate.
That I could do. So my preening before the mirror had actually been useful medical training. I don’t think my uncle would have been equally skilled in this technique. But he drove us each time from his house in Karpagam Gardens, where we were staying, to Sankara Nethralaya and back, navigating the potholes, scooters with helmetless drivers zigzagging like snakes and overcrowded buses spewing smoke. He handled the stop signals, which drivers interpreted as suggestions not rules, and the nonexistent lane lines without losing his patience or causing a jolt to my father who was recovering from surgery to his left eye. As we traveled in my uncle’s salt colored car with giant billboards advertising everything from hip hugging Levis jeans to heavily brocaded Kanjeevaram silk saris from Nalli, I also saw municipal school girls in their old, stained, green salwar kameez school uniforms, many without slippers on their feet. I noticed small temples with carved gopurams surrounded by clusters of tiny stores selling jasmine flowers and other puja items.
Had it not been for the loud honking of the cars overpowering the temple bells, the veshti clad priests with sacred threads around their bare torsos could have been from the days of my father’s youth in the 1940s and 195’s when Chennai was called Madras and traffic consisted of bullock carts picking people from the train station or foot pedaled cycle rickshaws transporting children to school.
I had gone from Berkeley halfway around the globe to help my father as he went through cataract surgery in both eyes. Yes, the technology had improved from the time when his grandparents had lived – tin those days, if you developed cataract, you remained blind for the rest of your life—that is if you were lucky enough to have survived the influenza pandemic of 1918, and other serious illnesses like smallpox, cholera, severe famine allowing you to actually grow old in natural manner. Then I remembered my father’s mother coming to Bombay for her cataract surgery in the eighties. My father religiously administered the eye drops, my mother cooked and served her, yet she lost sight in both eyes and spent the last ten years of her life going to the toilet and navigating the house from memory, tying her nine yards sari without looking into a mirror for adjustments.
That had been when lens implants had been newly introduced. She developed a cough during one eye surgery and the doctor could not place the lens correctly. The story about what happened with the other eye surgery is still cloudy. But then she grew up in a time when life really was hard—she got married at sixteen, left school after third grade and lost three children in childhood—two to diseases and one got burnt by firecrackers during the Diwali festival. She said about her vision loss, “If God wills it I have to accept it.” Of course she spoke in Tamil and I have tried to translate her words.
I tried to take many precautions to prevent any eye infection for my father after cataract surgery, washed my hands a gazillion times with Dettol liquid soap and air dried my hands before applying drops in my father’s eyes. In spite of all the care, I almost pierced my father’s eye once while applying eye drops—luckily no significant damage was done. After that, I the scientist became superstitious, and told my father not to sit on the brown wooden chair anymore when I applied drops.
My uncle’s family doctor, also in his seventies, semi-retired, and who drank ghee like milk would drop by and see my father and me with arms outstretched drying our hands with the help of the ceiling fan before the eye drop application procedure. He would comment in his crackly amused voice, “Seeing you two – to me, it looks like you are offering praise to Allah or Christ, I don’t know whether you have chosen one God yet!”
I had meticulously planned my trip – I would attend to my father and the rest of the time I would work on the book I was writing. But in Chennai, that plan soon fell by the wayside. Here, everyone we knew came, sat and chatted while killing mosquitoes with electric wired tennis raquets and drinking coffee. The family doctor not only advised me on how I should clean my father’s eyes—rolling the sterile tissue into neat triangles,; but also stopped by for three hours in the afternoon to chat about corrupt politicians, the reservation system excluding Brahmins, his grandson, and where one could get the best idlis and vadas.
One day during our two hour wait for Dr. PP maam—as the eye surgeon was called, I saw a little child of about four also sitting on a wooden bench with his mother. He seemed happy, smiling sweetly. His mother told us that she had come all the way from near Kolkata – the little boy was totally blind and she hoped that something could be done to save the child. Looking at her crumpled nylon sari and the child’s clothes, I knew they were not well off. The amount that she had spent to come to Chennai showed her desperation. I hoped the doctors could restore the child’s vision.
Back in Berkeley, standing in the Long’s checkout line with my basket, I realized I did not even know the name but I could clearly see the child’s face. I wondered how many poor children suffered from congenital cataracts and other ailments that had a cure? With many of them being desperately poor, I wondered about how many of them could afford these sight saving surgeries.
I handed a $20 bill, got the change and walked out of Longs. I totaled the amount in my mind–$7 for the green eyeliner, $9 for the eye make up remover. I had spent $3 for a latte, $12 for a top on sale—a total of $30. Not an atypical day for me. The amount for an endowment to provide for an annual cataract surgery to restore sight at Sankara Nethralaya – – $750. My father had sent in the money soon after his own successful surgery so that a cataract surgery could be performed annually for a needy person on the date of my mother’s passing, however I have yet to follow his example.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a scientist and poet who grew up in India and now lives in Berkeley. Her essays, poetry and fiction have been published including on Perspectives on NPR, India Currents, Berkeley Daily Planet as well as in anthologies – She is Such a Geek, Dismantle, Red Skirt Blue Jeans, the best of 60 years of Spectrum, and in Ursa Minor.