This is part of my column One-Eyed Mama where I share the everyday miracles I encountered in my life while dealing with vision loss
After a year and a half of rapidly deteriorating vision in my left eye – and after consulting doctors in various parts of the globe and trying alternative systems of healing like Ayurveda – I finally took a tough decision.
It was time for surgery.
Okay, well, it wasn’t entirely my decision. It had a huge dose of my mother’s iron will in it – she reminded me at least once a day to find a good eye surgeon, and herself became a part-time researcher in retinal procedures. She wouldn’t let me rest until I took action.
My ophthalmologist and others in India said surgery wasn’t a great idea because the outcome is not very certain and there are high risks involved. Ordered by my mother, I landed up in London, but once again faced rejection from various doctors for various reasons.
Finally, one intrepid surgeon accepted my case: (drum roll, please) Professor James Bainbridge at the Moorfields Eye Hospital. I knew he was the right choice for me because he was attentive, matter-of-fact and quietly confident, and everyone I spoke to said he was the kindest doctor they’d known, and besides, he is the official eye surgeon for the Queen’s household! What works for the Queen would work for me, I reasoned.
So began my London adventure, and a WhatsApp group called ‘London Surgery’ was promptly created. It comprised my husband, who would accompany me from Delhi, along with my brother-in-law and his doctor wife. I ended up staying with them for two months, enjoying their loving hospitality, and in return filling up their ears with my incessant chatter and stories about India and thoughts on life and Buddhism.
The WhatsApp group also initially included my mother-in-law, the matriarch who managed the family dynamics remotely from Kerala, making sure I was thoroughly pampered and attended to at all hours, but whom I had to sadly remove from the group because then we couldn’t share pictures of the food and drink (mostly drink) we were enjoying since Amma wouldn’t approve, since she is a health and safety nut – basically, a mom – and even though all four of us are in our forties, we still don’t always do what is best for us.
THE OUTER WORK
The surgery itself was on the day of my brother-in-law’s birthday so the poor guy couldn’t have any party or anything. We are karmically connected in more ways than one. I prayed and chanted fervently before heading to the hospital, and was inundated with wishes and messages from my family and friends back in India. I visualised taking their blessings along with me like an army of gods to the hospital.
The next few hours went perfectly to plan. My left eye was marked with an arrow and the head nurse conducted a long interview to assess my health. I was briefly annoyed when my journalist husband began arguing about Brexit with her, but only because it took her attention away from me; it was my day and I would have it.
The last thing I remember before being sedated was my anaesthetist marvelling at the size and scope of Narendra Modi’s PR machinery. When I came to, I was lying on the operation table and a pair of tiny forceps was floating about in my eye’s vitreous, pulling away courageously at the devilish epiretinal membrane that had clouded my vision. A tiny pointy vacuum cleaner gallantly sucked all those bits away. I had to stifle a giggle at the sci-fi experience of it. For a few moments, a wave of bright blue and all sorts of colours floated about in my eye originating in a point at the centre; it was so beautiful I would have cried if I wasn’t sedated and lying on an operating table.
I drowsily asked Professor Bainbridge why they weren’t playing music. Isn’t it standard operating procedure? “We used to earlier. What would you have liked?” he asked, looking deep into my eyes, literally – into my retina to be exact. “Classical,” I said. I had meant Indian classical ragas but he probably understood it as Western classical. “Hmm, yes,” he said, agreeing it was a good idea.
When the surgery ended, the doctor congratulated me, “Well done,” and stated that he was “very pleased” with the outcome, as if I’d achieved something very clever and fine. Of course, it was his own tremendous expertise that ensured nothing went wrong, though there are several horrible ways a vitrectomy can end.
Then began the healing process, and weeks of discomfort, some pain, and tolerating the side effects of medications. In the meantime, another kind of operation was taking place, inside my mind and the space called my ‘self’.
THE INNER WORK
My eyesight issues began at a point in my life when I had ‘vision’ issues in general (or was it the other way around?). Some called it a midlife crisis; others said it was the empty-nest syndrome; still others said it may be trauma brought on by the pandemic. I lost my direction and sense of purpose. Things I used to be passionate about faded in importance. The career I had ambitiously built careened off-track. My family became the centre of my universe. I couldn’t ‘see’ beyond them to look into the future. I felt somewhat useless and hopeless.
I asked Dr Krishna Das at the Ayurvedic health centre I visited earlier this year about this blank wall in my life, at a time when I am truly happy and have got everything I ever wanted. “Human beings experience this sense of emptiness either when they’ve lost everything or when they’ve achieved everything. You’re blessed it’s the latter for you,” he replied. “From this point on, you can fill up this emptiness with God, and truly do God’s work.”
But, unlike the doctor who was on the path of bhakti yoga, I still didn’t know what God’s work was, and what God wanted from me. I asked my husband what I must do. He got me books and more books, so that our study needed more bookshelves and our bedroom was drowned in words. He is a gyan yogi – for him, knowledge is the key to enlightenment.
But all the books in the world couldn’t answer this strange, hideous question inside me: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?
I asked my cousin about it. She shared an anecdote about her mentor Guruji (Nirmal Singhji Maharaj, 1952 – 2007): “My friend asked Guruji, what is the purpose of life? He replied, karam kaatna. We are here to pay our karmic dues. My friend asked, so what should I do in this life? He told her, time pass kar. He explained that we must count our blessings, be happy, create good causes, and just pass the time.”
Guruji’s advice sounded very simplistic at the time, but while ‘passing the time’ with my eyes largely closed during my healing process, those words came back to me.
I asked my devarani (sister-in-law) if she ever thought about her purpose in life. “My work as a doctor is my purpose. I’m helping people every day, saving lives. It gives me great satisfaction to do that, I’m happy where I am,” she replied, and I thought to myself, she’s a karma yogi.
Then she asked me with a laugh, “Do you always think so much?”
In truth, I never did think so much. For the first 30 years of my life, I followed social diktats. For the next 18, I followed my heart. Now, after becoming ripe, fat and content, I am shedding my skin-ego and emerging from sleep, staring at a blank expanse, confused where I am.
LEARNING TO SEE
The doctor had warned me that my vision wouldn’t be perfect post-surgery but would be considerably better than earlier. While I waited for my retina to stretch back to a healthier shape, I watched the sky over London, went for walks by myself, prayed, read books. Then, suddenly, there was a dazzle of moondust in my life: my younger daughter took leave from work and came over from Brussels to spend six precious days with me in London.
She wouldn’t let us sit at home even for a minute, so we went sightseeing every day. I was overwhelmed as much by the heat wave in England as with motherly love.
One day, we toured Westminster Abbey. With the audio guide in our ears, we made our way around the 753-year-old church, marvelling at the architecture and the famous names on the memorials – kings and queens and scholars and artists. At the end of the tour, we found ourselves at the ‘heart of the cross’ – the central point of the abbey, which is built in the shape of a cross.
The multimedia guide talked about Jesus, and how he gave up his life to save humanity. In sober tones, the recorded commentary by Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons asked us to look around ourselves there in the abbey, and to consider what our own purpose in life was.
I looked around – at the impressive statues, the milling crowd, the incredibly high ornamented ceiling that dwarfed us all. Sweat trickled down my forehead. Then, beside me, I saw my daughter, also looking up and around, listening to the audio guide asking her the same question.
There it is, a voice in my head said. In flesh and blood. There’s your purpose.
It was hiding in plain sight, really.
My purpose is to bloom where I am planted. To do whatever best I can, wherever I am, with whatever resources I have. To be grateful for my blessings, to pay my karmic dues with fortitude, to offer my seva (service) to the world with generosity and humility.
To pass the time.
My sister-in-law is right. I really don’t need to think so much. The path will reveal itself. I just have to show up.