‘I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.’ ― Maya Angelou
Two days ago I woke up to severe pain and tearing in my left eye. I went to my eye doctor who said I had a corneal abrasion. Every time I looked up, even if I held my left eyelid down, my reflexes would try to open both eyes at the same time. Every blink was exacerbating the abrasion. The doctor bandaged up my left eye, covering half of my face, and said I had to lie down in a dark room for 24 hours.
The next day she uncovered the eye to examine it, said it had mostly healed but she bandaged me up again for another 24 hours to be on the safe side.
It was 48 hours of darkness and – surprisingly – light.
Being easily stimulated I did my best to keep everything muted – conversations, activities, my environment. (Really, try talking to someone with your eyes closed; I found it very difficult.)
My south-facing bedroom windows let in a lot of sunlight. The curtains remained shut all day. Like Al Pacino in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Insomnia, I became sensitive to every crack of light that entered my room and did whatever I could to cover them up.
Despite being on a heavy dose of painkillers, opening my right eye more than a fraction agitated my bandaged left eye. So I walked to the dining room for meals with my eyes closed. I ate with shut eyes. The flavours of the food became heightened. I could tell the different spices used. The scent of the tuberose in a vase in the living room felt more powerful when I walked past. It was as if I was playing a blind character in an amateur play; it didn’t feel quite real, but I was along for the ride.
Except for sending one email, there was no internet for me. No films. No writing. And – the toughest – no reading. I did catch up on my podcasts though.
But mostly, amidst the sounds of construction outside – Dhaka is a city in perpetual growth – and the repair work being done in an apartment somewhere in our building, there was just me lying still in a dark room with my eyes closed.
I’m not a stranger to dark rooms. I was a photography major in college and pulled many all-nighters in the darkroom, developing and printing my work. I was aware of how conversations with other students in the darkroom became confidential in nature, the darkness cushioning our words, making them less garish, less stark and overall less frightening.
There is something about a dark room where thoughts are safe to be examined and uttered.
I’m not a stranger to eye problems either. I know all the major eye specialists in Dhaka. I’ve had three eye surgeries, the last one less than a year ago. While I have had other health issues, my troubled eyes are a recurring matter. As with an otherwise robust friend with a persistent throat problem asking himself, what is he afraid of saying? – I have often wondered: what is it I’m not seeing?
I’d like to be less of a stranger to being still. My last trip to India was meant to incorporate Vipassana, a ten-day silent meditation retreat. While almost all of my friends in India have done it at least once, the mere idea of it for so long had chilled me. Sit in silence all day for ten days and meditate? No, thank you.
Then a friend told me that I might be awfully good at decluttering my possessions but I had never decluttered my mind. This was language I could understand and be inspired by. A scheduling conflict meant the Vipassana didn’t happen last month, but the interest is still there for the next time.
While these two days in a dark room were not entirely silent, there was definitely a meditative aspect to it. And this was where I experienced light.
When working on films, my days were processed with numbers – the ones in my budget and its endless variances, the number of days till shooting began, my mind a constant calculator, my heart counting to the date the intense stress would at last be over.
For a long time now I have been thinking in words. What I remember of a party is who had said what. I articulate my inner world through the English language. I rejoice when I find the exact term that captures the specific nuance of what I want to communicate. My days are experienced almost entirely in words.
Before I studied photography I did art. It was such a part of my identity for the first half of my life that my parents thought that’s what I would pursue as my career. For more than 20 years, however, I haven’t picked up a pencil or a paint brush.
Lying in a dark room these two days my mind stopped grasping for the right word to express my thoughts. It moved seamlessly to images instead – drawn and coloured images. Instead of thinking in words I thought in colour.
For someone who has spent most of her years dressed head to toe in black and living in almost all-white interiors, I have actually always loved colour. It’s difficult to describe the exquisite pleasure I felt while lying in my dark room examining colour combinations in my head (no, that wasn’t the painkillers talking).
Yellow and dove grey. Mint next to white. Hot pink and tangerine. Black and white and kelly green. Burnt orange against medium-dark grey. Old gold dotted over dark red. I thought in made-up fabrics and colour palettes, and it delighted me. When my word-brain took over I labelled this medium-dark grey ‘75% grey’ and the dark red ‘Rajasthani red’.
I pictured colour combinations on sketchpads. I thought in never-drawn watercolours. One image after another – of flight, of movement, of dance – seemed to capture how I felt, and I had no need for words to describe it. The closest I can get to it now is: peace-spreading. A warming calm that started at the heart then slowly filled every vein. That sounds alarming and a trifle ominous, but the sensation was uplifting.
And lying in a dark room for two days I felt intensely grateful. Grateful that I was living with my mother. Grateful that I was in Dhaka. Grateful that I would shortly be able to read books, watch films and write emails. Grateful for the meditative time out. Grateful that my cornea looked out for me and alerted me to a problem so I could take care of it. Grateful that my word-brain got two days of rest so that my image-brain could re-awaken. Grateful for the colourful daydreams.
‘Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.’ ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
The American podcasts that entertained, informed and fascinated me in between the colourful daydreams. All are free to listen to online and as an MP3 download via their websites or iTunes:
99% Invisible Hosted by the brilliantly named Roman Mars, this weekly podcast tells stories behind architecture and design. I learnt about the time a plane crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building and what happened to the elevator operator there; radio stations that send seemingly random numbers into public airwaves – a system used by governments to communicate with their spies right under the noses of those being spied; the evolution of magazine covers and how its display in a shop determines where the cover lines get written.
Planet Money I listened to how raising the price of a taxi ride in New York at peak times can benefit everyone; how an economist using economic theories advises people on their romantic problems; and some modern day issues that are worth betting on.
The Dinner Party Download A very clever idea indeed: each weekly episode covers all you need for a stimulating dinner party: a joke, lesser-discussed current event, history lesson, recipe for a cocktail, look at food, excerpt from a new book, music playlist chosen by a musician and an interview with a film personality.