Blindness

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Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

I wake up at night. Pitch black. The bed moves, as if I'm in the beginnings of an earthquake. I'm on a ship. In the middle of the Pacific. And I need to pee.

I feel around, find a wall, make my way to the bathroom, do the needful. Why is it so dark? I can't see my hand in front of my nose. B and I fully closed the shades at night in our cabin, before going to bed. I didn't realize how effective those shades would be. It's been a long time since I've been in such total darkness. I feel around, trying to find the clothes I hung to dry in the bathroom. My pants have mostly dried, but my thick cotton socks are still sopping.

I head back to bed, thirsty. We left a water bottle on the table; where is it? I slowly sweep my arm around several inches above the table, hoping to make contact with the bottle. Failure. I find only the book I was reading last night, and my glasses.

The male line of my family is prone to poor vision. There was a time when I had a -5 prescription, my dad had a -10, and my grandfather had -15, My grandfather slowly went blind over the years, the soda-bottle lenses of his glasses increasingly unable to compensate against the effects of diabetes. What would he have done in my situation?

I feel around on the table, very carefully. My grandfather was incredibly organized, with or without sightedness. At his home, he'd navigate back to his room, open a drawer, and find a small item exactly where he remembered leaving it years ago. Sight makes us lazy, forgiving sloppiness. It's like the way cell phones have changed the way we make plans with others, making us more comfortable with half-made plans we hope to flesh out along the way.

Some time after my grandfather lost his sight, he and my father were heading to a small corner market a few blocks from the family home in Kolkata. My dad held his father's arm, as they wended their way through the streets. Then the power went out. Everything flickered and disappeared -- street lights, lights from homes, the sound of televisions. Pitch black. My father must have exclaimed. His father didn't. He just continued on, leading his son through the dark to the corner store. "Two more steps, then take a very large step," he told my father, guiding him over a gap in the sidewalk. My grandfather led my father safely to the store, and back home. In the land of darkness, the blind man is king.

I spend another minute, trying to find the water bottle, my hand running across every manner of unfamiliar shape except the one I'm looking for. Finally, I get up, find the shades, and pull them open a tad. Light streams in. There's the water bottle, right in front of me, mocking my sense of space and touch. I take a drink, and climb back into bed, falling asleep to the ship's slow rocking.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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This page contains a single entry by Anirvan Chatterjee published on September 22, 2009 6:55 AM.

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