My grandfather stood facing east, his back to the setting sun. Age had corroded his senses. Leaving scraps of him with his youthful shine. He looked up to the water tank ahead and said, “This tree has grown too tall, it needs to be cut down.” My younger brother and I, who were too young to understand the dramas of old age, giggled behind him. Since when did a water tank become a tree? How was he blind to what was in front of him by seeing what was not? You need more than the eyes to see. But it is, first and foremost, the eyes which sends whatever input the brain processes and gives back as what we had seen. When you receive a misinformed image translation, which do you distrust, the eyes or the brain?
The eyes receive images as light. The light, on hitting the retina, sparks the process of sight. The cones and rods in the retina converts the light into electrical signals which are transported through the optic nerve to other parts of the brain where they are processed and returned as what we see. So the process of sight starts from the eyes but ends in the brain. And the brain, sometimes, can be blinder than the eye.
In the spirits of new year celebration, I was out with a relative to share in the jubilation of the world around us. We were a good distance away from the maddening crowd who had filled up the road, dancing to the loud music playing out from a bar. We watched the throng in the distance, clustered over, in steady motion, like a colony of ants over food; we watched the light pouring over the crowd, how it faded along its range of travel till it blended with the darkness that engulfed us where we sat. Bats played around the building we perched by, shrieking and arching the gray sky. The sky held a weak glow radiating from the crescent moon and a few stars. She, spooked by the bats, suggested we changed location. I, holding nothing against them, said we should stay. We stayed.
Bats are not only believed by some to be forerunners of doom, but also to be blind. Some species of bats have poorly developed eyes which underperform in environments with bright lights. Some species have eyes as good as the human eyes. But no species of bat is visually blind by nature. When bats fly at day (although they rarely do because of their nocturnal nature) they navigate their path of flight with their eyes. And when they fly at night, echolocation comes into play. Ecology studies has shown that bats can accurately construct a clear mental map of their environment with sounds bounced back and forth through echolocation. So bats do not only see with the eyes, but with their ears and minds.
The night got denser with dew and my skin tingled in the cold. The view of celebration to the point of abandon still delighted me to watch. The crowd, still massed up in the distance, in the open, despite the cold, danced and drank away their time. I withheld my suggestion of calling it a night. We were running out of things to discuss, my relative and I. The bats still played around in stunts of acrobatic flight, their silhouettes spooky against the backdrop of the gloomy sky.
“Between blindness and mental imbalance, which do you think is worse?” she asked.
The question must have been spurred by the bats, which we falsely believe spend most of their lives blind, and since we were running out of discussion topics, I indulged.
“Why do you think so?”
She had earlier talked about her appreciation for art, and how seeing mind-blowing artworks made her look at artists as extraordinary people. Banking on the strength of that I responded:
“Imagine if you didn’t have sight, how would you appreciate those art works that took your breath away.”
“That’s right. But without a stable mental perception to translate what I saw from a splash of strokes and colours into a thing of beauty, how can it make sense to me?”
I saw her point. A splash of strokes and colours. A thing of beauty. When you read a story, your eyes see the words, but your mind sees the scenes, the plot, the theme, and every other thing which connects you to the story. Moreover, beyond the eyes, there are other ways through which a story can be absorbed: through listening – audio, and through touch – braille. But a painting? …
We agreed blindness was better because other senses were still intact, and the mind’s eye was still open to sight. When the brain is blind, the eyes, no matter how clear, cannot see.
It is with the mind’s eye we see dreams and imaginations. Both are blocks of images seen and moulded by the mind without labour from the eyes. And there are times when events from our dreams are stored in memory with the same vividness as events from reality. The truth is, you do not need eyes to see.
Ahmed Maiwada’s “Apple, Again” (a short story featured in The Year of Free Birds Anthology) follows the life of a thief whom was driven into retirement by his visual impairment. In this story, Sarkin Barayi, as he was called, meaning King of Thieves, sat in his parlour, translating with his ears every movement his wife, Naira, made. From the slap of wet slippers on the floor, the scent of Premier soap, showing him she just had a bath, to the audibleness of her voice, telling him where she spoke from and the angle of her face. All he did was detect a change in his environment and his mind constructed a matching scene in his head. The scenes he had built informed him his wife was leaving the house to meet another man. And with that realization, jealousy and anger built up in his chest and left a lump the size of an apple in his throat. He decided she had to die by his hands before she left the house. So he sat there, on a couch in his parlour, a plot in his head, seeing in his mind’s eye how everything was going to play out.
All four stories in the anthology (the other three written by Jason Snyman, Prosper Makara, and Manu Herbstein) show us how through sound, touch, and smell, the blind protagonists make sense of their environments, how they build up perceived images in their mind, how the brain is the true wielder of vision. The anthology brings to light some of the questions we nurse about the blind experience by bringing us closer to it. You see that even though they are blind, they can still, in their own way, see. You see that, truly, you do not need eyes to see.
A friend of mine, whose grandmother went blind in the late years of her life, said it all started as a diagnosis of myopia, which was concluded as one of the effects of old age. But, despite treatments, it kept worsening and she was later diagnosed of glaucoma.
The defect ate into her eyes, leaving a blurry effect over everything she saw. Sometimes she hallucinated, seeing things that weren’t there. She eventually went blind and the hallucinations stopped. Both eyes, still open, became devoid of light. The darkness spread from her eyes to her mood, dousing her in fits of depression. Someone who could recognise people, colours and the beauty of nature, now left to seeing a dark screen for the rest of her life. Adjusting at that age was difficult for her, she kept stumbling into things and falling and getting up again. Everyone around her had to adjust, too. Like being conscious to not abandon stray objects in the way. They provided her with a stick to walk before her, and with it she could spot things laying ahead in her path.
“So I can’t see my grandchildren’s faces again?” she lamented, repeatedly.
Her appetite for food was lost, her stomach filled with complaints she vomited every now and then. But the human mind and body was built with adaptability as an inherent feature. Over time she accepted her fate and adjusted. She could recognise her grandchildren by voice and, surprisingly, by touch. A palm of hers on the body of her grandchild could tell her whom she just touched. It was a thing of fascination to them, how the palms could not just feel but see.
My friend’s grandmother, despite lacking eyesight, could still identify her grandchildren by voice, by touch. But my grandfather, in the last years of his life, despite having his eyes open to light, could not make out distinctions between his grandchildren’s faces. And he kept seeing water tanks as trees.
The Year of Free Birds is available for free download here.