Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Unbearable Blindness of Seeing

I am colourblind. As a kid, I used to wonder why they had the funnily named tube of Burnt Sienna in the oil colours box, when there was a perfectly serviceable brown at hand. And what was with those shades of green, all the same?

Drawing was fun, I particularly remember diligently copying out birds from a bird book onto the backs of dot matrix printouts that amma would bring from the physics department (Andhra University had recently entered the Age of the Computer). After making the pencil outline, we would colour it using that little Camlin watercolours box, the orange (was it?) one with 4 × 3 grid and the little slot for the brush. Those pictures are still lying at home, but the boxes have disappeared.

I'd foolishly expend colours in asymmetric quantities, perhaps I couldn't find uses for some of them. Within a few weeks, about half the little tablets would've been weathered into nothingness with the orange colour of the box showing through the bottom. Then you could shake out the rest of the tablets, tie a looped string through the box, hang it around your neck, and pretend that you were Captain Kirk, or Mr. Spock, or Dr. McCoy with your little box of magic, teleporting from the starship Enterprise (the bed) onto some strange planet (the floor), and the box would go "beep beep" as it detected signs of alien life/radioactivity/gooseberries ripening in the backyard, and off we would go. How whole afternoons used to fly by! What fun!!

Drawing in the company of other kids was often not fun. Because, that meant sharing your colour pencils and tubes, and sooner or later, one of them will throw out that terrifying request, "Pass me the purple, no?" And then that horrible moment of hesitation, when 3 or 4 different thoughts and hues would collide and jostle, demanding immediate attention. Should I take my time in picking the thing? Will that increase the chance of finding the right one? Or is it better to hand over an approximation quickly, so that they wouldn't notice my indecision? What is worse - to be slow, or to be wrong? When we go to the park to play cricket in the evening, will my reaction speed and accuracy matter to whoever is picking teams? The decisions of childhood are the most terrifying ones.

I think everyone must've noticed that I sometimes couldn't name the right colours, and preferred pointing out stuff instead of being precise with colour names like the others. Thankfully (or perhaps not?), they must've thought that it was because I was dumb, as far as colours went. Would it have been better for the rest of them to know that such an "ailment" as colourblindess? What is worse - to be dumb, or to be ill?

Life went on. We moved into a building which had a fantastic view of the sea. Almost every day, I'd see the ships of the Eastern Naval Command sail out of the Naval Base. Or else a gigantic cargo ship with "NIPPON STEEL" painted in giant white (I am sure, for a change) letters on the hull would lumber out of the port and head eastward, leaving a trail of sooty smoke. All the nautical activity, combined with a steady diet of Alistair Maclean novels ignited a craze for becoming sailor. Only, somewhere inside there lurked the nebulous thought that I couldn't, because I wasn't qualified.

By the time I was an Intermediate student, the drawing and colours were just memories, stuff that we used to do only when we lived on campus. The only time we even remembered those things was when we had to rearrange or clean the cupboard, and those printouts would show up, with the faded, embarrassing pictures on the obverse. Also faded were memories of helplessness.

Now life was mostly about maths and physics and entrance exams and spending the bus fare on samosas and cone cakes at Suresh Bakery. And chemistry. In second year, a childhood fear awoke again, and turned into something altogether more crucial and terrifying.

Titration. That one word spelt doom. The lab manuals would be full of instructions that made my brain freeze and eyes blur over.

Titrate the solution from the receiving vessel to the endpoint with HCl, when the phenolphthalein should appear a very light shade of pale pink.

they said. Pale pink? This is the kid who couldn't pick the purple pencil. pH paper was another terror, as was almost every single test for elements in chemical compounds. I got 25 out of 30 in the chemistry practical exam. Everyone got 29 or 30. The dumb kid was back.

Thankfully the entrance exams didn't involve anything to with colours. I waltzed into JEE counseling, with nary a care in the world. Counseling is where you get to meet a black box to which you input your rank and it outputs the likelihood that you will get a seat in the branch and IIT of your choice. My black box was spot on, it turned out. Ended up in the department and IIT he said I would end up in.

In the bustle of counseling day, they slipped in a medical exam. Height and weight were checked, and a blood sample was taken. Then they had that vision test, the one with all the funny Es and the letters receding from laughably huge to challengingly tiny. I read all of them off, and a couple of notices that were stuck in the notice board next to the chart, just for kicks. Those were the days when we thought every test was a competition, and no quarter was given.

Then the guy in the white coat pulled out a book. Black pages, with white circles in them. And lots of dots. He wanted me to read out the numbers. The first couple were easy enough, and then he really began pulling my leg by showing random dots and asking me to read out non-existent numbers. I made up a couple to humour him, but had a sinking feeling that this was actually important, a watershed moment, if you will. The fact that the guy kept flipping page after page, while everyone else was done in 5 pages only added to the suspicion.

4 years in college zipped past in a flash. I didn't do all that great academically, and any data I could've gained about my colourblindness (via bad grades, like the chemistry practical exam) was lost in the general noise of indifferent academics.

Campus selection season started, and after flunking 3 or 4 tests and interviews, I was one of the last few people to get a job. This happened to be at TISCO in Jamshedpur, and as campus jobs in 1997 went, it was one of the better paying ones at Rs. 11,000 a month. We were thrilled to bits. We were even more thrilled when we found out that TISCO would pay all of us the rail fare to visit Jamshedpur for an orientation programme.

And a medical test. Sheer dread. It was bad enough that we would have to strip to our undies and wander from room to room in the TISCO hospital while they collected all kinds of data. Not to mention the whole doctor-putting-hand-in-undies-and-making-you-cough routine, which surely was something that was conjured up by someone overdosing on Human Digest and Penthouse. Little did the rest of the gang suspect that none of this held the terror that the eye checkup did.

Sure enough, deja vu. The black book with white circles and dots. The same sinking feeling; at least this time I knew what was coming. The same curious looks from the medical staff, the pulling aside for one more round of testing, when all the other guys were done and ready to hit the town for some beer and chicken.

I don't think I ever received the appointment letter, and I don't remember any explanations either.

It didn't matter, because the MS admission and aid had come through, and I was off to Massachusetts. Since then, things have been relatively easy. I've never had to worry too much about colours, even driving tests don't check for colour vision, and I could tell the red and green of the traffic lights apart (but not the red and amber, or the amber and streetlights).

It's water off a duck's back now, and I can laugh at it and joke about it, and even use it as an excuse to slime out of responsibilities ("Hey, I can't do that UI design, you know my problem, no?", "Please don't ask me to help you in picking out the kameez, you know that I only pick blues.") It's just become a source of irritation - when someone uses insanely gradated colours in maps and charts and you can't tell the differences; when you can't see a red bird in the greenery that everyone else is ooh-ing and ah-ing over; when you run into the ubiquitousness of colour coding in daily life.

I suppose we're a pretty small proportion, 5-10 % of all men, basically. We aren't a large enough constituency to merit special treatment. So things will go on as they have. But it would be nice to once in a while run into someone who doesn't say, "Tell me what colour is this tablecloth!" the moment you told them you were colourblind. This happens almost every time. Without getting into distasteful analogies, imagine the equivalent of doing that when you meet someone in a wheelchair.

Please love us. We may be deficient, but we are also human beings only. ;-)

PS Colorvisiontesting.com has online tests for colourblindness. I've failed the test in exactly the ways they predicted. They explain why one is colourblind (it's all your ancestors' fault apparently, the dissolute rascals). There is no cure.


Space Bar said...

aw...only deep sympathy comes.

Shweta said...

Tell you what this is? this is sublimely evil! Paint a few childhood pictures, why don't you? Turn the screws in, god if anything is hitting below the belt, this is it.
Right fine! Behold me - a puddle of remorse, watery arms thrown up.
you win.

kbpm said...

you are much feelings about this, is it? so if i offer you a stout and claim its an ale, you will still be able to tell, right, i mean, based on taste? what is a traffic light here or a Fab-India kurta there? mere trifles.

Ludwig said...

[space bar] thanks!

[shweta] hee hee (as in loha garam hai. hee hee! types :P). what they say in Telugu, something about gummadi kaaya donga dusting off his shoulders! you as a puddle is a very funny image, though.

[kbpm] does it sound like i have much feelings about this? what part, exactly? :P and if you give me a stout and claim it's an ale (or vice versa), do i look like the kind of person who would care? mere trifles. zigzackly!

Ram Tekumalla said...

1. Would have been apathetic many years ago

2. Perhaps sympathetic when we used to hang out

3. Empathize with you now that I know most Indian folks just have not gone past 1 above. Try airlines, doctors(!) and TTD offices.

How many folks with Alzheimer's have you come across?

Shweta said...

‘Kumbulkai kalla’ my liquid left anterior tibial! If the whole point of the exercise was not to make the ignoble dissenters squirm, my ‘Moog moor tundoo’

Opaline said...

Aaw, I remember seeing colourblindness tests in my school bio book and wishing I was colourblind just so I could see the other picture.

The boxes were orange, I remember also.

Rakesh said...

Me too me too me too! I yam also seeying nothing only in some pictures. Only the dawts. But I yam not colorblind it seems; I am blind period.

But what's with this lame chapter from your autoB? Tch tch. Befits you as much a choga fits a skrawny priest.

Go p up your kilt.

Ludwig said...

[ramtek] TTD offices??!! What's with the Alzheimer's? Haven't personally come across any, I think. But are there in the immediate family.

[shweta] as we said, loha was garam. hee hee and a free hee to boot!


> wishing I was colourblind just so
> I could see the other picture.

hmm... this makes me feel much better!

> boxes were orange.

You're old enough to remember that?!

[karadi] jaa be saale.

choxbox said...

thanks for the link to this. truly eye-opening.

clueless said...

May be what appears brown to u and orange to us is the real brown ?
May be what is shaded nuance to us, is actually a singleton?
In anyways, we too r blinded ……for your sight .
It’s just that our population dominated and laid the rules .Else u ppl would have been on the other side , designing the black book with white circles-dots and we would have been struggling.

Ok fine …..I know I am blowing up the whole light-spectrum-analysis here or maybe not ..probably they dominated then ?

Nice post.Touché.