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New Spectacles – Warped Vision

Living in a different country it takes time to learn new ways, new perspectives and new understanding. My latest experience started with me breaking my glasses, needing a replacement pair and getting frustrated at a few days delay, despite paying decent money and a guarantee they would be ready by a certain date.

I was frustrated, and fractious. Partly at the delay but also because I was getting headaches from not having lenses to read and work by.

Then this young lady, Vidya, put things in perspective.

I have put off having a maid for 10 months, despite persistent pressure from my landlord. I didn’t want someone ‘looking after me’, cleaning, cooking, etc. I am my own person. I like my own personal space. There is also something in my mind about people who work like this having the title, un-mentioned, of ‘servant’. That I am very uncomfortable with.

I met Vidya when I moved into my current flat. She worked for my landlord as maid and ‘nanny’ to his small daughter, but left his employ to go and be married. As is the way here she moved many miles away, to South India, for an arranged marriage. She was to spend a month or two seeing if the arrangement would work out before commiting. For whatever reason the marriage was called off and Vidya returned home. In the meantime my landlord had employed someone else. This left Vidya without full emplyment.

My landlord suggested I could ‘do with the help’, again. Could I look at employing her a part time? This was partly to help me, but also to provide Vidya with an income. I thought about it and decided ‘Yes, I would’. It was more about me helping than wanting help.

Well, Vidya is a star! She never complains. Always has a smile. Works hard and wants to work harder. She has made a big difference to me enabling me to concentrate on what I need to do. She is also helping me with my Hindi, and enjoying learning English… or at least my version of it.

And then a big dose of self realisation occurred, as I was waiting for my glasses to arrive.

Vidya invited to me to her village to meet her family and community. I went with my landlord. A couple of kilometres from where I live. Half a kilometre along a pot holed track from the main highway, full of mud and puddles. As my landlord had not been before we stopped at the junction of the track and highway while he called her to get directions. Vidya turned up at the road in pristine shalwa, despite the severe rain, thunder and lightning the area had just experienced – and the biggest smile on her face that we had actually made it!

We had delayed visiting by an hour and a half due to the heat. The heat had dissipated to be replaced by a torrential interlude. She was worried we wouldn’t come at all.

In the car, she directed us through the tracks to her community. A small group of buildings surrounded by major construction works. How on earth she had managed to walk through all the mud and dirt to the road and for her clothing  remain in pristine condition, is beyond my comprehension. The only conclusion I can reach is that Vidya floats everywhere. But, then, this is a skill that is seen all over India – however the conditions may dictate, the women always appear to maintain their clothing as is just washed.

We parked at the edge of a construction site and Vidya led us to her home. The community actually consisted of a corridor with ten, or so, rooms off of it. Each room containing a family of 4, 5, 6 or even 8. The rooms were no more the 4 metres square. Cramped, dark and so hot!

Again, big smile lit up the room, trebling the wattage of the single bulb hanging above the doorway. I was introduced to her mother and 2 brothers. Her father was away working. We were invited to sit on a bench with a mattress on it. Above us was a ‘shelf’ which was another sleeping bench. Opposite was table tops had the big water pots you see the women carrying everywhere here in the morning.

And a bottle of water. That was for me. They had spend money getting me filtered water. Vidya knew that most foreigners can’t drink the water in most places, regardless of how clean it may be, due to the different tollerance we have. It works in reverse – many Indians, Asians, etc have difficulty with British water because of the chemicals in it and the different bacteria in our respective stomachs to deal with our normal local conditions And some biscuits.

Vidya asked if I wanted anything to drink. ‘Vidya Chai’, I replied. She makes a lovely version of the sweet, milky chai. It also meant the unbroken water bottle could be returned to the shop. It was obvious they had little money so anything they ought may have meant less for what they really needed for themselves….at least that is how it was processed in my Westernised thinking.

The heat was uncomfortable, but not unbearable. But I could only imagine what it would be like in a few weeks time when the temperature would creep up past 35c …. and in April and May head above 40c.

It was still raining, slightly. But it was good light for photographs. I had taken a portrait of Vidya recently and created a print for her. Part of the reason for this visit was to get some family images. Her mother loved the portrait I had taken and I felt honoured to be invited to their home.

They had all dressed up in their finest. Vidya’s two brothers less happy as they would have rather been playing out in the rain in their old clothes. As always the children were the most expressive. It is difficult to have photogaphs of adults smiling. It was a brilliant couple of hours. As I took a few images and showed the models on the lcd screen more and more got involved.






 So why the title ‘New Spectacles – Warped Vision’?

This visit was truly humbling. To be invited with such warmth. To engage with all ages. To be offered biscuits and water when they had so little themselves. To find out the mattress we had sat on on our arrival was borrowed so I would have something comfortable to sit on … when they sleep on the stone themselves.

I had just paid a fair bit of money for a pair of glasses. I was getting tetchy that they hadn’t arrived on time.

Then I experience happiness money can’t buy. A dignity that doesn’t require tangible materials.

I had these images printed up, plus others not shown here. I got two sets done – one for Vidya and one for her to share with others I had made the photographs with. The smile when I gave them to her was worth any pairs of glasses.


It’s not the glasses I need to see the world with. It is the mind behind them to recognise the world and the remarkable people who inhabit it.

© Rob Thomas

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