Eyeless in Goa
One of our first stops in downtown Panaji is at Goa Optilab, a rather flashy place near some big-name shops apparently established for the busloads of Brits who descend on Panaji for cheap shopping. They don't stay long. Their lanky children sulk before mountainous piles of short-legged jeans while their flushed mothers scrabble for designer T-shirts in another pile. One or two are shopping for sunglasses in Goa Optilab. The shop front has the usual display of frames and photographs of smooth Italian men in wraparound sunnies or blonde bombshells sporting tortoiseshell numbers and, of course, svelte and sultry young things in skinny jeans and Ray-Bans. Not an Indian face among them. But, as we are about to find out, Goa Optilab is nevertheless a very Indian establishment.
We have a fellow traveler to blame for our feverish love affair with the optometrists of India. We met him in Fort Cochin, where we were stranded when India's transport system, including its ferries, came to an unexpected halt courtesy of a national transport strike.
"What do you think of my specs?" he asked. "Aren't they great?" They were pretty good, we agreed. "And so cheap!" he crowed.
Surprisingly, or not as things turned out, we never actually saw him wear them for any length of time, but we were hooked, and so began our love affair with the optometrists of India. Our flirtations followed the usual path: delight, frustration, emotional scenes, and moments of bitter disillusionment, but in the predictable way of the incurably besotted, we went on in our pursuit of the ideal, despite every indication that it was unattainable.
My traveling companion, Sophie, was the first to experience the yearning. "I'd love to have some bifocals," she said dreamily, somewhere near the Old Synagogue in Fort Cochin. "Some prescription lens sunnies would be wonderful," she sighed in the dark recesses of a warehouse where stacks of old doors became mountains and the smell of rotting wood was strangely pleasant.
"Rimless would be good," she mused over a magnificent pile of spicy crabs in a restaurant overlooking the sea. She disappeared on the following day in an uncharacteristic blaze of morning energy and later told me she had caught the ferry to Ernakulam and had single-handedly tracked down the largest optical shop in the city. It's not generally the kind of thing you look for when you're traveling, but it was a discovery that was to have a marked effect on our subsequent experiences of towns. "Where is the optical shop?" became our catch-cry as we descended from trains, disembarked from ferries, tumbled out of rickshaws, and pedaled into some little place, unmarked on any map.
I was enthralled as Sophie described her first encounter with the optometrists of India. I was envious and could hardly wait to be initiated into the peculiar rites of the seeker of spectacles in this part of the world. There are no flies on these optometrists. They don't fiddle about like the ones back home. For one thing, you don't need an appointment. You just show up at the shop of your choice. You want spectacles? They test your eyes on the spot using the latest in computer technology. You are led from the bright showroom into a small, darkened area somewhere behind the counter. After some stumbling (it is very dark) and some small talk ("You are from Australia? Do you know the Ashburton Post Office?"), you are seated in front of a screen. For a few moments, you are subjected to something that appears to be a video game, in which you are driving a car at great speed and, before you get anywhere, you are run off the road by a bus, and a disembodied voice says, "Thank you very much." Then a dark figure leads you back into the light, into the hands of the bright girl who is dragging out drawer upon drawer of spectacle frames. "Your prescription will be ready in a moment," she says sweetly.
In Ernakulam, Sophie decided to begin modestly. I was impressed by this unexpected show of restraint. She bypassed the bifocals and went for the rimless. She described these in great detail, as if there was much to describe about rimless spectacles. Of course, I was proved to be wrong. There is more than meets the eye to the rimless spectacle, as we were about to find out. On the following day, she threw herself onto the early ferry and floated off to pick up her rimless spectacles. She returned, waving a shiny spectacle case in triumph. At first glance, they were a success. Smart little green studs held them together in the places that count: the arms and the bridge of the nose. She put them on.
The effect was interesting. Somehow, the studs on either side of her nose did not line up properly. On my suggestion, she took the rimless ones off and placed them, arms outstretched, on a flat surface. They would not lie down. One thin green arm remained in the air, waving for help perhaps. We propped up the table with newspapers, in the hope that the sagging floor of our eccentric room was the real culprit. Still, they would not lie down. I decided to put them on so that Sophie could judge for herself. "You don't really notice until someone tells you," I said unconvincingly.
We needed a second opinion. We knocked on the door of the room next door, where the intrepid English family we'd met on the boat in the backwaters of Kerala were staying. They were very obliging. The rimless glasses went from one face to another and then back to Sophie. We stepped out onto the shaky balcony for more light on the subject. There was no getting away from the fact that, charming as they were, glinting seductively in the evening light, the little green studs did not line up and that the artisan who had drilled the holes in the lenses may well have suffered from astigmatism, remarkably undiagnosed, given the game he was in. The consensus was clear. The rimless pair would have to be returned. Evening was falling on Fort Cochin. The shadows of stories that reach back a thousand years were closing in. In our room, the little green arm waved for help all night, but we were caught up in the magic of the place and did not see.
The next day was Sunday and we were leaving on a train, heading north. We left early for the station so that there would be plenty of time to return the rimless pair and demand satisfaction in the kind of confrontation Indian business seems to thrive on. We would demonstrate the shortcomings of the spectacles. The girl at the counter would shake her head from side to side, step back, step forward, take them gently from Sophie's face, examine them carefully, shake her head again, and call for an expert opinion. The demonstration would be repeated to an ever-increasing audience. There would be heated discussions and cooling-off periods. A mutually acceptable bargain would be struck. Prepared for our part in the impending performance, we jumped off the ferry only to find that ”Vithayatil Opticals since 1949” was closed for the day. A great metal shutter had descended over the display window.
In the village of Benaulim, on the Goan coast, there were no optical shops, but in nearby Margao there were plenty to choose from. We chose the smartest, opposite the central park, but it was soon obvious that it was a very expensive establishment and a little unscrupulous. Heather had her Ernakulam prescription, but I was led away to a dark room for an eye test, emerging a few minutes later feeling like Michael Schumacher after a bad race. The smart young thing behind the counter informed me that they would not provide me with the prescription unless I ordered a pair of specs then and there.
"No worries," said Sophie cheerfully, "you'll just have to get another prescription."
I groaned inwardly but remained stoic. Stoicism, I had realized, was an essential quality for any extended amount of independent travel in India. You take things as they come. You trudge on. You trudge on in the heat and the dust, over the puddles, around the cows, through the crowds and, even when you think you cannot take another step, you trudge on. So we trudged through the hot and dusty park to the other side, where there were several more optical shops with enticing displays of extraordinary frames dangling on strings like Christmas decorations. Myopia Utopia.
In one such window display, I saw a pair of Wayfarers, the kind of sunglasses favored by the Blues Brothers and my growing son. The perfect gift to bring back for someone who would not exactly be impressed with the stone elephant I had earmarked for him in Mahabalipuram at the beginning of our trip. The woman in the shop was very obliging. She knew all about the Blues Brothers and all about brothers in general. It appeared she had several of her own. She was one of those go-ahead Goan women favoring no-nonsense western dress: the dark skirt and the white shirt replacing the dazzling sari and giving the street crowd a more subdued and disciplined look, draining it of color and madness. Her shop seemed a model of efficiency. We felt like we were dealing with someone whose exacting standards were at least a match for our own. When Sophie showed her the offending rimless pair, she was suitably horrified. While they discussed a replacement, I was led away by a young assistant for another eye test, even though my head was still pounding from the effects of the first.
This time, I had to climb a very narrow vertical staircase to a cavernous loft where there was a low ceiling and little light. Sitting at a long wooden table was an elderly gentleman of a professional disposition. He looked at me kindly over his own spectacles and invited me to sit down. We discussed the weather, Australia's performance as a cricketing nation, the relative merits of oranges and pineapples, and finally got down to the subject of eye exams. He said, quite candidly, that he differed from most of the young guns of the city. Certainly, he had the latest equipment.
"We must be keeping up with the times," he chuckled.
So I had my minutes at a small desk in front of a screen. The cars screamed by in the way that they do, the throbbing in my head intensified, and I presumed my eye test was over. But he was a man of his word. His methods were different.
"I will be asking you some questions now," he said, pulling a chair out for me at the long table.
“What was my position in the family?” he asked, making notes on a large pad of paper. So, I was the youngest? Ah, this was significant. He looked at me from across the table. He looked for a long time. And was anyone else in the family myopic? Siblings? Parents? Grandparents? Great grandparents? I found myself explaining the fractured nature of the family, being Russian, being refugees, being separated, being lost in war. All of this came out. His venerable head moved from side to side in an understanding kind of way.
"Such a sadness," he said, "such valuable data lost. Eyesight is also a casualty of war."
We became very gloomy in the loft. I felt as if I had been bereft of light for many days. "Never mind," he suddenly said, "you are in the right hands now." I stood up, thinking it was time to go. But it wasn't. I was asked to sit down again while he searched through a long wooden box full of circular lenses. We tried a few in front of the right eye and then a few in front of the left. The right eye, he said, was considerably weaker than the left. I suddenly felt guilty, as if I had purposefully neglected my right eye and had got away with it until now. He was magnanimous. He felt that, as the youngest sibling in a family of exiles, I had no choice but to have a weaker right eye. I nodded miserably. We tried several more lenses. Occasionally, I could see through them and they would be put aside in a line along the table. Finally, he was satisfied. We exchanged some more words about citrus fruit, and the Russian revolution, and a Russian mystic who had come to India at the turn of the nineteenth century, whose name neither of us could recall. He did write a famous book, though. Neither of us had read it, but you can't read everything, can you? We spent a few moments lamenting this undeniable fact. Finally, I said goodbye to the optometrist whose face had become indistinct in the gloom. Then I made my way gingerly down the stairs to the well-lit shop where Sophie was trying on yet another frame.
"What do you think?" she asked me as I blinked wildly, cursing the fate that had condemned me to this life of the younger sibling in a family of exiles. Eternal myopia.
Between us, we ordered five pairs of spectacles. Sophie finally got her bifocals, a new rimless pair, and some sunglasses. I followed suit with the sunnies and a natty little black-rimmed pair of workaday glasses that held the promise of many a late night catching up on reading. I asked about my prescription.
"It will be here soon," the Goan lady promised.
I looked up into the black hole above the staircase where the optometrist was presumably making some sense of our session. I wondered if he had been the youngest child in his family. It wasn't likely. He seemed to have such a firm grasp on life.
Our problem, as usual, was time, or rather the lack of it. We were leaving Benaulim for Panaji the following afternoon. We offered to come back in the morning to pick up the spectacles. The Goan lady would have none of this. "I shall send my assistant out to you tonight." Was there no end to her efficiency? We left in the best of moods. That afternoon, we took our last walk from the beach beside the lotus-covered ponds, past the tall haystacks where the black piglets raced, squealing around the indifferent brahman bull, through the village where the Kashmiri traders displayed their shiny wares, and back to our little cottage, lost in foliage and the smell of perpetual summer. Time passed. The sky darkened quickly and the mosquitoes rose in little clouds. We lit a coil and some candles and waited on our illuminated island in the middle of the garden.
"Perhaps he's lost."
"Perhaps he's not coming."
We waited. A little after seven, we heard the sound of a motorbike coming to a stop outside the gates. Our man from Turakhia Optics had arrived. He appeared disheveled and slightly shell-shocked.
"It's hell on the roads here at night," he said.
We got him a cool drink. He drank gratefully, mopping his brow with a large white handkerchief. Then he took out the spectacles from a large plastic bag. By now it was totally dark, except for the wavering candlelight and the red tip of the mosquito coil. I went into the cottage to see if there was any electricity. No luck. This was typical of Benaulim. I found the flashlight. I was determined we should see our new spectacles that night. Outside, at the table, the obliging optometrist's assistant was bending back the arms of Sophie's new rimless glasses so vigorously that they seemed in danger of becoming armless as well.
"This is very flexible material," he said, smiling in the dark.
Sophie put them on and I shone the light in her face. The effect was startling, but she said they felt comfortable. Next came the bifocals.
"I can't see a thing!" she shrieked.
"It takes some time to adjust to bifocals," murmured the assistant, soothingly.
We were considerably cheered and had another drink. The assistant asked us about opportunities for a young man with his particular skills in Australia. Then it was time for me to try on my specs. Even under torchlight I could see that the frame for the sunglasses was not the one I had ordered, but I was beyond caring. They looked OK. The ordinary glasses were less successful. I could see nothing out of the left eye — quite interesting, considering the documented weakness of the right. I said nothing. The assistant had another drink and steeled himself for the journey back to Margao. We wished him luck. He said he might see us in Australia. We were encouraging. We stumbled back to the cottage.
"Why can't I see?" moaned Sophie.
"Take off your glasses!" I said sharply.
So here we are in Panaji, capital of Goa, city of cathedrals and Portuguese buildings, winding streets, window boxes, sounds of choirs rehearsing for Christmas. We are in the Goa Optilab. Sophie is showing an earnest young man her Margaon rimless glasses. He is suitably horrified. "I have never seen such poor workmanship," he says. Sophie is determined to leave India with a pair of rimless spectacles. "What about you?" asks the young man. I am thinking about the two pairs I have left on the bed of the guesthouse. I am also thinking about the headache I developed on the one morning I wore the sunglasses and how the spectacles make my head spin unless I shut my left eye. "No thank you," I say politely.
We get back to our little guesthouse and find the left lens has fallen out of Sophie's Margaon sunglasses. It looks like a giant green teardrop.