The Meaning of Seeing Things

Sydney, Australia.
When you’re at school in Sydney it’s quite a thing to wear glasses. They can be a beacon for bullying; inviting all sorts of taunts from immature minds unimpressed by what was sometimes called ‘facial furniture.’ It must be quite a challenge to self-esteem; one can only imagine. I couldn’t say for sure since I’ve always been blessed with twenty-twenty vision.

Hatiya, Bangladesh.
It was just another moment in the tea shop, years ago; the usual one in Hatiya, Noakhali. Late afternoon was giving in to early evening. The tea was sickly, the conversation as the breeze, without strength and waning. In such moments there’s little to do but gaze across the strip of road that gives way to the bridge over the canal, and ponder what merit there is in breathing-away an afternoon in such fashion. My village friend Situ was there, similarly waiting for some conversational front to arrive and stir the place to humour or interest. That’s when the pair of glasses came in the uneven doorway of the shop.

They belonged to a university student, hair carefully combed, shirt tucked in; neat, respectable and typical. He sat a bench or two behind us.

‘Those glasses aren’t real,’ Situ said. ‘What?’ I asked, slightly smiling at the unexpectedness of the statement. ‘They’re not real. They have plain glass,’ he said, ‘Young people wear them to look smart.’

I suppose it’s not surprising, given people pump toxins like Botox into their faces to enhance their looks, but in the village it was amusing. Why indeed if it was a matter of fashion he could not have chosen sunglasses like everybody else? ‘You’re not serious?’ I said to Situ. I had to be sure.

‘Excuse me?’ I said to the guy, ‘I need to borrow your glasses.’ He took them off in that unquestioning, nonchalant way villagers do; in the village things generally run their course unchallenged, everybody wanting to see, without a hint of prediction or inquiry, what will happen next.

It was uneventful. Sure enough, they were fitted with plain glass.

A few moments later the glasses were gone, off towards the bridge over the canal and their home. Situ and I took amusement from the absurdity of human beings, playing with others’ perceptions in such a futile way; what is there to do about vanity?

La Paz, Bolivia.
The trouble with South America is it’s a long way from Hatiya. I used to feel that when I lived there; why I’d made my English class study Tagore, so at least we could talk about Bengal. You won’t find him on any syllabus.

The Bolivian capital is an unlikely city, clawed out of an Andean valley three thousand six hundred metres above sea level. It’s the world’s highest capital. In La Paz, the sunset is one of shadows rather than light, as the rim of the high plateau sends a gradual line of darkness across the bowl of the city. The temperature drops a few degrees at the shadow-line; noticeable enough to want to stay sun-side for as long as possible.

It was at that time, as late afternoon was giving way to early evening, that I’d met my student Bernie by the witches’ market. A thirty-something-year-old secretary, she’d asked to meet because she wanted to buy me a farewell gift, for I was set to start a new job in Nicaragua. She wanted to present me with a traditional Aymara coat, in black and red with pre-Columbian style embroidery across the front and sleeves; easy to find in the souvenir shops in that part of town; shops that competed for space with those selling the supplies of ritual offerings: potions, twigs, coca leaves and dried llama foetuses, used by local ‘priests’ in sacrifice to Pachamama, the mother-spirit of the Andes. Pre-Columbian religions live on in Bolivia.

It must’ve been because I was leaving La Paz, a city that had become familiar and full of friends. It’s probably why I remembered Hatiya, the village I’d also regularly left, and funnily enough those glasses came to mind.

Wearing my new coat I let Bernie lead me down past the grandeur of San Francisco Church and across the square to where there were yet more stalls of clothes and trinkets. In more or less an unbroken row were the sellers of glasses' frames, which came with plain glass in them when you purchased them. I’d told Bernie the story; we’d decided it might be amusing if I wore plain-glass glasses to my farewell party, where I would be able to take ‘glass-wearing’ photos to send to Situ. He’d laugh when he opened the attachments on a computer in Dhaka.

There was the usual bargaining with sellers, and we’d laugh as they offered discounts at the optometrist’s to have the prescription lenses fitted. Eventually I settled on a black steel-rimmed pair Bernie said suited.

The following afternoon, the last of several farewells, since Bolivians were rather social people, I sat at a touchingly long table on the lawn of a restaurant in the fashionable Zona Sur district of the city. Zona Sur is at a lower altitude, and thus warmer. Another student, a doctor called Fernando was there, as I waited for the other guests, for Bolivian time to reach the place. Bolivian time is somewhat later than Bangladeshi time. As we waited I played with my glasses.

As a prop they were great. With Fernando I’d practised the various postures: the pensive glasses hanging by one of the handles from the mouth; the confrontational looking over the rim whilst addressing people; the holding them in your hand for emphasis like a pointer; all the opportunities people who really wear glasses have.

I asked Fernando if they’d work in the classroom, and rehearsed ‘do your homework’ with glasses on and off, asking which was more compelling. ‘If you wear those people won’t talk to you,’ he joked. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because you look so intelligent they’ll be scared they might say something stupid!’

The guests arrived. ‘I didn’t know you wore glasses?’ everybody said. They’d known me for more than a year and never seen glasses before, and here’s an interesting thing; people are so unwilling to trust what they know. ‘Try them,’ I tempted, and one after another they put the things on. ‘Do you need them only for reading?’ some asked. ‘The prescription is very minimal,’ many said, being too polite or unsure to challenge me outright. There was only one student with enough courage to say it: ‘These are not real!’

Through lunch in the afternoon sun they heard of a rustic tea shop in Hatiya and the glasses became the source of much mirth. For me it was especially nice, since with them just sitting there on the table, it was as though in some way the village at the flatland mouth of the Meghna was sharing the enjoyment of the high-Andean gathering.

Granada, Nicaragua.
Glasses are quite annoying. I can understand why people take them off, how easy they are to lose; leaving them on a table or the arm of a chair. My little experiment taught me that, especially in Nicaragua.

I’d settled into one of those gorgeous colonial villas, Spanish-style, that make up the city of Granada. It belonged to an ageing couple who’d taken to renting rooms to travellers, mostly Americans.

There was an open courtyard in the middle of the house; the spacious tiled living room on the street side; and many bedrooms including mine, a little wooden add-on up a few stairs in the corner. The very Catholic household was shared with two kindly servants, a parrot, a cat, and two turtles in a bucket.

There were many guests, but it was an American girl, Christine, who I’d become friends with; and although there were always departures and arrivals, it wasn’t all the guests the Nicaraguan couple started calling ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ like they had with us. For me it was quite a feat since they spoke no English and my Spanish was worse than most of the guests.

When not teaching English, when Christine wasn’t helping at the orphanage, we used to steal across the street where there was a café specialising in iced coffee. It was a godsend in the Nicaraguan heat. I recall our Nicaraguan mother making incredibly tasty yet simple meals of beans and rice; father calling us to the table from across the street. I remember too how father, when we’d walk down the street, used to yell after us, ‘la sombre! La sombre!’ It means, ‘the shade! The shade!’ He wouldn’t let us walk on the hotter, sunny side of the road.

Christine was rather impressive; a literature graduate who wore glasses herself, and all kudos to her, as soon as she tried mine she declared them a fraud. I told the story of a Hatiyan tea shop and a La Paz restaurant.

There are photos of me around Granada wearing glasses. The house guest who’d accompanied me to take them thought it odd I only needed them for photos; so I told her the story too. When we got the prints back she’d said, ‘You know, you really do look better in glasses.’

It happened many times: my Nicaraguan mother or one of the servants had come across my glasses lying somewhere around the house. As caring as they were, they’d put them aside, warning as clearly as they could manage in Spanish, ‘You should look after your glasses. You’ll lose them.’ There was only Christine to provide the knowing, bemused look.

Meanwhile I’d loaded the Granada glasses photos onto the internet, typed the address for Dhaka and pressed ‘send’, to make Situ laugh.

Sydney, Australia.
These days those glasses live on a shelf somewhere in the Sydney house, a pair of innocent-looking respectable spectacles that cannot improve anybody’s vision but mine; for just to hold them is to conjoin the unwinding of a lazy Hatiyan afternoon, the communion of a La Paz farewell and a home in Granada with a parrot, a cat and two turtles in a bucket.

In Hatiya I don’t see that guy wearing the plain-glass glasses anymore. Fashions have moved on, and the latest, all the rage in Kolkata, would seem to be those jeans with random pleats in their legs so as to make them look perpetually unironed. Now why would anyone wear jeans like that?

Feel like getting Nicaragua noisy, knitting yourself silly in Bolivia or fishing and floating in the Bay of Bengal?

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Meaning of Seeing Things

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