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Volume 3, Issue 2
Summer 2007:

Closing the Eyes to Open Them

Joel M. Bradley

Cell 2 Soul. 2007 Summer; 3(2):a17

Here, there is some conjuring set before you. If only there were a way you could close your eyes and receive the input, carried vibrantly on the clear medium of air, creating a canvas from the vibrating mechanism of the inner ear. Something vivid taken from the invisible. If condition allows, please let fall the lids, and gather together the nuances of air alternately compressed: it is probably the only way of creating a space blank enough to allow for imagining the unimaginable.

Welcome to India. An inferno of horns — automobile, rickshaw, bus — sweeps over everything with an intensity similar to the ambient heat — 115 degree temperatures that rather cruelly animate a sweltering, nearly insufferable blanket of polluted air. The city of New Delhi: a place where the traffic operates not by rules, but by echolocation — the unruly, practically insane laws of noise. Idling in a taxi you hired for less than the price of bad airport coffee, you sit waiting at an intersection ten vehicles abreast, all lines disregarded, noticing that every automobile side mirror has gone missing — most of them visibly torn off — almost as if to help make room for the feverish locomotion of the city's 12.5 million inhabitants.

Forget about having any air conditioning — sweat pours into your eyes in a trickle, burning…and beyond the cars, litter-filled gutters spill onto cracked and buckling sidewalks where bundles and bodies lie strewn beneath mottled shade trees, and shacks of wavy sheet-metal and debris rise like ghosts from the wavering dust kicked up by passing feet. Mangy dogs made of ribs and tufts of hair mingle with bony cattle; scraggly hens dodge feet and wobbly bicycles, pecking at the discarded scraps of street vendors pedaling their confections beneath illegibly rusty signs. A profusion of empty wrappers rattles randomly in the gusts of hot air sweeping the roadway. In all of it there is the smell of curry and cardamom, sweat, exhaust, and dust that makes you choke.

Perhaps, now content with the uneasy visual sweep from street to the muddled and angular concrete buildings and collapsing brick walls in back, your gaze magnetizes back to the bodies. People: people that sit, stand, sleep and act dead beneath their torn and tattered rags. Surely, some of them actually are dead, with more bone showing than flesh and no sign of movement. The air of the place, not wanting to be forgotten, seems to almost press down like a piston on this cauldron of despair, fanning its cooking fires, threatening annihilation. Sitting in your taxi, back suctioned to the car seat, you have stopped feeling invincible.

But there is one strange and striking riddle here: of all things, life — life itself — boils out from that decay, and with a ferocity that far exceeds the forces of misery that attempt to keep it from spilling out. A liveliness that is desperate, yet unforgettably and vividly alive.

Just then, startlingly, you feel a light pull on the wet sleeve of your shirt through the open window. Once — then again and again — frenzied almost. Looking over the sill of the car door, there she is: long gashes of scars across her brown, dusty cheek and forehead. You become aware of your dull heartbeat, and the fact that your breathing has now stopped. One arm and one leg are missing from her emaciated torso, torqued into the unforgettable shape of a C. Squinting, deep, dark eyes, in pain, pleading. A small girl — a child. "Mr., Mr.," she said, and continued to say…and continued to say…for far too long. She did not let go of the piece of cloth on my shoulder until my car finally pulled away into the mercifully anonymous traffic. You see, in India, children are deformed so that they can beg better.

You can open your eyes.

I still cannot forgive myself for doing everything I could — then and afterward — to unsee that girl, and to unfeel her touch — but none of us — not one — can afford to do so. Even so, I do not want you to get the wrong impression of what I saw.

Two days after the moment just described, I was alone navigating an old part of the city. I was skirting the outside wall of the tremendous, white domed city mosque when I caught a band of color calling out from a side alley. A bright green bush studded with pink blossoms hung over a low, (for once actually intact) brick wall. Beautiful — but reality quickly pursued: beneath it sat groups of people huddled close on scraps and bundles of dark, mostly frayed cloth. Lingering in the gravity of sheer contrast, I stared quickly enough to avoid notice, but long enough to see a father, bare-chested, sitting cross-legged on a burlap sack, and two young boys, completely unclothed and standing above him, bare feet on the ground, laughing like it was the only thing left to do with the world, and as if they were the only ones left to do it.

I left them feeling a little deceived at not knowing any longer what real poverty actually looks like — and feeling too, unsettlingly, a little less immune to it.

More than anything, these moments were not about the place or the people, but very uncomfortably, unmistakably and intimately about me. Breaking down the windows, doors and walls of ideas I had erected about how to live, what to value, and how to see the world. There were so many elements to feel strongly about — even during those first days of my trip — that I faced only two possible choices: let the feelings erode with time, swept beneath this or that carpet…or to instead interrogate them, asking any and all the questions I knew how to ask. Why did her face make me want to spin away in revulsion? Why did it make me want to scream, sob, or tear off my clothes and lie down in the street? Better still, how could I be so anchored in the inertia of an image that made me desperately want to run away? How did I do none of these things, stare straight ahead, and motor away? I admit it: all that asking made me very, very uncomfortable. I felt tired, and kept feeling it. It took every bit of strength I had to ask those questions, and it has taken me even more to live them.

Maybe there is a margin a truth to the saying that that all good questions simply end in questions.

Curiously enough, in going to seek out other experiences, cultures and ways of life, I was actually in the business of putting myself in relief — exposing myself to my own eyes. I saw things that scared me badly, things that impressed me, and many, many things that needed revision and repair.

However, as much as I would hate to depart a reflection with no trace of an obvious theme or catchy lesson, I do not really know what my aim has been in passing you these images. I still have not found any lasting way of evaluating those visions myself. They are still shifting, and I still spend moments trying to run away. It is just that I knew that I had to show them — that by seeing, I had become responsible for bringing them home.

So, take of all this what you can, and of what you can, what you will. It is not my right to decide what lessons these images might contain, or what you should feel, but only to allow you the chance to feel, and to feel deeply, even if you don't know what you are feeling. That is YOUR mystery.

I will leave you with the words of someone else, but with my wish that you, too, will remember to take a moment — or many — during these years to tackle adventures electric enough to make you ask the kind of questions you are unable to answer. And if you make a habit of absorbing the wisdom of the barely tried and largely untested, I am convinced of a last, crucial twist: you don't — absolutely do not — need to go to India to find them. If you would instead prefer to believe someone with acclaim, the French writer Marcel Proust once made the following claim:

"The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

At very least, in all of us, there is a responsibility to keep the eyes open — especially when it feels most impossible to do so.

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