“First Sight”

Anita Singh, 5, and her sister Sonia, 12, live in a small, rural village in West Bengal, India. It is one of the poorest regions in the world. Until very recently, both sisters were blind. Sonia and Anita were born with congenital cataracts, dooming them to only the faintest awareness of light and dark. This is a curable condition if cataract surgery is performed while children are young enough for the brain and eye to reconnect and recalibrate towards sight, as most people understand it.

There are 40 million blind people in the world. 12 million of them are in India, approximately one percent of the second most populous nation on earth. 70% of that collective blindness is curable if the condition is addressed when the patients are children. Poverty remains the real reason for a lifetime in the dark. Most families cannot afford the travel costs to go for surgery, let alone the surgery itself.

An average cataract operation in India costs in the region of $300, totally accessible to most Westerners but at least 3 years salary for a rural worker in India. As a result this surgery has been out of reach for Sonia and Anita. The consequence has been that they have been totally dependent on their parents and relatives, a fact that places strain on relationships and limits the options of their parents in breaking free from this cycle of poverty.

Sonia and Anita both attend school in their village but they only go there so that they can receive the free lunchtime meal. This is also the only time that their parents can work in the fields without having to worry constantly about the safety of the girls. Blind children tend to attract some compassion while they are young but as they age they become known as “mouths with no hands.” Marriage is the number one priority for young women in rural India; blindness precludes these girls from this option. They are also considerably more vulnerable than sighted woman to sexual assault.

Recently Sonia and Anita were identified as suitable candidates for cataract surgery at an outreach camp for the blind. This camp and the girl’s subsequent eye surgery were made possible entirely by foreign donations. As a result the girl’s lives and the lives of all those around them will change forever. This essay is an attempt to tell the story of this change. It is designed to show what it meant for the girls to live in darkness and then to show their journey to the simple miracle of cataract surgery. It then attempts to show their wonder as they begin to experience their movement out of darkness into the world of form and light, a world most of us take totally for granted.