DAY 1

 ‘Cow dust time’ heralded our arrival in Barmer -- my final destination after an exhausting journey from London.


British Airways had overbooked, resulting in an agonizing wait until thirty minutes before the flight was due to leave when fortunately a seat was found. However we then sat on the tarmac for over two hours while a ‘fault’ was put to rights.


The resulting loss of time meant that I missed using my sleeping ‘pod’ in Delhi airport as there was relatively little time to wait before boarding the aeroplane for Jodhpur. Again we were grounded and that plus headwinds delayed our arrival further.


As we landed I glimpsed the dome of the Umaid Bhawan Palace – but did not see it again – it would have been fun to see Bapji after so many years.


Prabhat Kumar Sinha ( Sightsavers programme manager) was waiting for me as I walked into the arrival area. His driver loaded my bags into the waiting car and we drove through the hurly burly of traffic, avoiding the dozing cows in the middle of the road. At the bus station we picked up the two photographers , father and son, who had come from Jaipur to accompany us for the next four days. After a reviving spicy lunch, at a restaurant nearby, we started on the four hour drive to Barmer


We talked – but I dozed as we were driven through the dry sandy plains – leaves on the trees – but very little else that approached the colour green. Goats, cattle, peacocks and the odd dog here and there, enlivened this sparsely populated area. People were few and far between. Where they did congregate so did the old tyres , rubbish, shacks and the detritus that is part and parcel of peasant life – never far away the sea of the ubiquitous plastic bags dancing in the breeze.



In spite of all that the brilliantly coloured turbans, chiffon and sequin fluttering on motorbike --and all the other incongruous combinations -- plus the scents and pungent smells, dark glittering eyes and flashing white teeth – produce an intoxicating exotic mix.


Arriving in Barmer we were driven to The Collector’s offices. Our car then collapsed with a puncture. How very lucky we were that this had not happened a couple of hours earlier in the middle of nowhere !


Bureaucracy reigned supreme in the Collector’s domain – interviews, forms in triplicate, rubber stamping and the attendant wait, eventually resulted in a permit to visit some restricted areas near the Pakistan border.

We were booked at the Hotel Kailash International where a special welcome awaited – a spot of red on the forehead, a bracelet tied around the wrist and a colourful garland of flowers around the neck before being shown to a comfortable room. After a quick shower, an excellent dinner – just the four of us, in the hotel ‘s vegetarian restaurant – we were ready for a good nights sleep.



Breakfast with Prabhat. Then off with the photographers, two medics and Mr Ranesh Mangal (Trustee of the local Eye Hospital ) for what turned out to be a 300 kilometer drive across the desert to within an arms length of the Pakistan border – a restricted area.


Our destination was a medical centre, in a small village, where a day of diagnostics had been planned for those in need from the surrounding countryside.


We stopped halfway on our journey to visit an extremely impoverished but welcoming family in their circular twig thatched house. All members of the family were painfully thin and undernourished – their water supply dire and their donkey, on which I was made to sit ( poor thing ) a much treasured possession.



An elderly woman, when examined, was found to be in need of a cataract op. Papers were written but Prabhat feared that that it would be unlikely that she would come to the hospital. Women are a low priority in the family.

Driving on we passed camels munching on branches of leaves, a large monkey, the ubiquitous cows ambling nonchalantly in the middle of the road and peacocks strutting in the scrub.


All was hustle and bustle when we arrived at the medical centre. Turbans ,walking sticks, crutches, silver jewellery and the multi-coloured cottons adorning the women created an entrancing spectacle.


Inside a disorganized crowd jostled for attention. First, to be examined and then , directed to various other rooms for further tests ,to see whether they were suffering from glaucoma, cataracts or just needed spectacles. Sadly, I was told, several who were blind came back time and time again in the hope that something might be done.



It was heart rending to see the parents with their blind offspring (so often genetic ) Fear, hope, elation and trust were all present. Over one hundred and fifty people had turned up – conditions were at best basic.

Those identified, for treatment in Barmer, were to spend the night there and to be operated on tomorrow. No time is wasted.

We lunched in a roadside shack – fortunately for me, we sat at a table as I feared that I would not have easily eaten cross legged on the sisal netted divans where everybody seemed so perfectly at ease. Tucking into the naan and various vegetarian dishes cooked nearby on a fire, we talked with the other medical staff who joined us.


Clambering back into the ‘people carrier’ we then drove deep into country to visit, firstly, the daughter of a relatively well off family – to see how she was getting on – having had her sight restored. Very well , it seemed – she was now married and with a kohl eyed infant ( not a good idea as Kohl is considered an irritant by the professionals )




Then on to see another girl who had a dramatic restoration of sight – but who disappointedly, had now dropped out of school and was not making the best of her new found liberty. She insisted in picking her nose throughout our visit.


Nothing could have been more different from our next visit.


Manisha, who was blind from birth, showed a quick and interested mind. Piles of newspapers and books – in Braille – bore witness to this. She is thirsty for knowledge and is obviously not only the most intelligent and well informed child in her family but most probably in the whole neighbourhood. Her younger brother is also blind from birth – and relies heavily on his sister. Amazingly he even plays cricket with a ball that tinkles !



The whole day was fascinating, humbling and deeply touching at times.


We eventually got back to Barmer at 8pm – stopping in the fading light to see a water reservoir on the way. Some water in it now but it will be dry by late spring . Life for these people is about surviving – but they have an inner strength and do seem happy --despite the hardship




Mr Mangal, Prabhat and I, plus Ashok and his son Vinayack ( the two photographers ) set off this morning, after breakfast, to visit the hospital in Barmer. After getting out of the car amid the melee of cows, rickshaws, motorbikes and humanity I was quite unprepared for my reception as we entered the building.


A sudden roll of drums , clash of cymbals announced our arrival. At the end of the carpet an assembly of dignitaries, surrounded by the waiting patients , welcomed me with flowers. Garlands were placed four times around my neck, and rose petals thrown over my head – lodging in both my hair and that of Prabhat.



After this splendid reception we wended our way from room to room to see the various services that the hospital offered : tests for spectacles, a demonstration of how the lenses are cut, the variety of machines used to facilitate diagnosis and prescription, a puffer to test pressure on the eyes -- and a look at the storeroom for medicine and other material.



All of this on the ground- floor around a central hall where patients huddled – no doubt apprehensive of what was imminent. There was also a room for x-ray, and one for a general practitioner and dentist to deal with other conditions that might arise.



I was given a lens -- used in cataract surgery – something that I was due to witness after lunch.


From the ground floor we went up to the first floor where other offices and the operating theatre were to be found. Above were the wards and resting rooms where nervous patients lay on beds attended by relatives – tables at one end were provided for those who wished for sustenance from the adjacent kitchen – where a large cauldron of vegetables was simmering. Others sat on the floor eating food that they had brought with them.



After the tour was over we repaired to the hotel for lunch before returning to the hospital.


In the building, now devoid of the previous throngs, we made our way upstairs to the operating theatre, Cleanliness was paramount – and strictly enforced. After being ushered through the ‘air curtain’ Vinayak and I were asked to take off our shoes and socks and proceed to a small changing room where we undressed and donned a sterilized gown, trousers and flip flops, To this was added a plastic cap and mask. Having thoroughly scrubbed and disinfected our hands we were eventually allowed into the theatre itself. The surgeon and other staff supervised three patients – two elderly men and one woman.


Covered by a sheet ( having previously been given a local anaesthetic, injected below the eye, in the ante-room ) they presented a somewhat macabre and surreal group with just one hole in the cloth through which an eye was visible.



I looked on, and Vinayak filmed, as the surgeon cut away the cataract – a little orange blob -- that was discarded. The then clear pupil was revealed – to be cut to insert the lens. No stitches were needed – and no blood was apparent as a saline solution was piped to the eye.


The surgeon worked deftly – and quickly. A pad was placed over the eye – the patient then got up and was shepherded outside to be taken upstairs , to bed, until the next morning when the bandage will be removed.


For the uninitiated or faint hearted it was not the easiest half hour – but impressive – and, for the patient, life changing.


After a welcome cup of tea we left to visit the plot of land, a kilometre away from Barmer, to be the site of a new Eye hospital when funds are forthcoming.


Three little boys, and their mother, stood by the roadside as we drew up. I was immediately struck by the glazed eyes of the older child – when I mentioned this to Prabhat he promptly went over to examine them. It turned out that all three boys were blind. Their skin was spotted ( Prabhat’s first thought was measles but this was not the cause – it turned out to be a skin disease ) their mother was unaware of the possibility of a special school – something that is to be followed up or, otherwise their lives will be wasted.


Having seen the proposed site – nestling between other projects – we drove a little further to the sand dunes. A camel and his keeper joined us both colourfully dressed, the former garlanded with flowers and sporting an elaborate decorated double saddle and the latter in flowing robes and scarlet turban. Raja, as the camel was named, was to be my mount.


Up the sand dunes we climbed and, slightly breathless , I mounted the kneeling beast. Nearly catapulted off , I managed to stay put and we set off leisurely upwards until I was able to survey the vast landscape at 380 degrees -- plains in one direction, hills and mountains in the other. The photographers clicked away and, eventually I dismounted for the others to take a turn. Frail Mr Mangal to the front and the solidly built 6’ 1” Vinayak behind him. Raja did not flinch.



Suddenly a white 4x4 leapt to a halt in the sand before us. Out jumped a couple of men in identical jerkins of black and white stripes. It transpired that one of them was Raja’s owner, his face adorned with a magnificent handlebar moustache. We chatted – he took me for another ride – and holding the reins from his pillion seat coaxed the animal in different directions by making clicking noises.


He then insisted we all visit his very exotic hotel where we were given tea and sweetmeats and I had my finger dipped in a vial of opium. Despite being spurred on to lick it, that I managed to avoid. Before we were given a tour of the newly built hotel -- bedrooms with the latest power showers / Jacuzzi , multi coloured lighting and a roof top bar – yet to receive permission – we were regaled with stories of how gold was smuggled by camel across the border from Pakistan until 1994. Raja, being only thirteen , was not complicit.


Tomorrow we witness the removal of the bandages of those who were operated on today. I hope poor Prabhat will feel better – he has the most awful cough – an allergy to the fine dust that pervades everything. He is the most engaging and informative man, enthusiastic, caring and dedicated to his work . As this involves constantly talking to others --his throat has little chance of rest.




My sister Bridget’s birthday. How different today is for both of us. At 10.30am I was driven with Prabhat, Ashok and Vinayak to the hospital at Barmer. Awaiting us was the dedicated manager. We later met the surgeon who was to un-bandage the patients of yesterday. Some were visually impaired others had no sight at all. First of all we visited the patients waiting on the top floor where they sat on the beds and divans, with their respective relatives, waiting to be summoned downstairs. Some were anxious, others impatient. With great difficulty they descended the narrow staircase to the floor below. Several times one feared a fall – sticks and saris, rags and bangles twisted and turned on stick thin legs as they clambered down.

Two at a time, in a small room, they lay on truckle beds . Bandages were removed and eyes cleaned. A torch was held to their eyes. Reality dawned slowly – the worry and upset in most cases dampened the reaction when the doctor held up his hand and asked how many fingers they could see. Some could not count, others were confused.


I was then asked, in several cases, to fit their new spectacles – difficult with headdress and matted hair. I felt a fraud as they both thanked and blessed me. Gathered up they made their way slowly down to the ground floor. Perhaps I imagined a slight spring in the step !




Eventually it was time for group photographs stage managed by the indomitable Mr Mangal. Firstly all the patients and secondly all the staff, from surgeon to pot wallah. About thirty five in total. My admiration for them could not be greater.

We then left to drive a few kilometres outside the city of Barmer to see the farm managed for a trust by Mr Mangal and that was home to about 700 sacred cows, most of which collected as strays. There were some prize bulls, to improve the stock, and a few calves . In the most beautiful landscape these lovely creatures, tended to by milkmaids in pink chiffon and gold bangles, live a life of peace and tranquillity far superior to the denizens of the city.



Herbs were being grown to help support the cost of running the farm. Methane gas was produced and piped in for cooking by the custodians. Fields sown with oats and watered by sprinklers, a vet on call, oleanders and other flowering shrubs planted along the perimeter of the stockade.



If I should come back in another life – let it be as a cow in India.


After another delicious vegetarian lunch in the hotel we set off for a small school that serves the needs of the poorest and often orphaned blind children. It is a boarding school -- run on the simplest lines under the guidance of their youthful Muslim teacher S’Ayed Liyaqat Ali.


An elegant figure in white, with a black turban, his serenity and sweetness of countenance was remarkable, and given that he too has been blind since birth, astounding that he was teaching these small children to read in Braille.



After showing me – a sighted person – the seemingly complex procedure of creating both letters and numbers in Braille he then asked the children to sing for me , to accompany him on an accordion on which he played. They sang ‘ we shall overcome’ – tiny dusty faces with dimmed eyes looking nowhere -- but strong of voice. I found it very moving and was full o admiration for S’Ayed and his dedication to these children.



On the way back from ‘ Readiness School’ we paused to pay a visit to the Barmer General Hospital – a large sprawling building where the eye surgeon also worked. Conditions were not good – the overall impression being of dust and dirt – even in the operating theatre. There was no comparison with the strict regime of cleanliness observed at the Eye Hospital. Equipment was basic, limited and I was told that several operations were botched or unsuccessful. A place that one would pray not to be taken to – even in dire straights.



Both Prabhat and Ashok seemed a little better this morning although still coughing – even I awoke with a slight sore throat. The dust is fine and everywhere. Today is my 70th birthday.


We drove to Chauhtan, a busy town full of small shops and stalls people and animals, the latter blithely unfazed by the traffic swirling around them. Motorized rickshaws, decorated Juggernauts, bicycles and carts laden with everything under the sun impeded our progress.


Eventually we drew up at a private school that had donated the use of one small building for a diagnostic eye camp – open 6 days a week -- to enable local people to be assessed before making the journey to the hospital at Barmer. it is a prototype that they would like to establish throughout the state. Run by one man – the equipment needed is quite modest.


Amidst the patients being examined , was a little girl who had her eye scratched – and made worse by a quack that her parents had taken her to see. Now beyond repair she will be blind in one eye for the rest of her life. The result of ignorance.


The headmaster of the school then invited us to take tea. I was given his chair in his office ( a custom observed for guests in this part of the world ). We then visited two classes – class 9 in English and class 10 in Sanskrit. The mixed classes were of about thirty pupils each. Well mannered children dressed in a uniform of red and navy.


They sang for us the prayer to the Goddess of Wisdom ( which they do every day ) in unison and with gusto.


Having bade farewell we drove back the 50 kilometres or so for a late lunch at the hotel.


When we entered the dining room there were already quite a few people there. A round table at one end was decorated with flowers and in the middle was placed an iced, heart shaped, cake. Balloons and a swag on the wall spelling out HAPPY BIRTHDAY completed the picture.


More people arrived from the hospital including an old lady who presented me with a large posy of roses. One or two were patients that had been operated on two days ago. It was very touching --especially when the elderly turbaned man bent to touch my feet. Cards were given to me together with a little model of Lord Ganesh – before I cut the cake with a knife that squeaked ‘ Happy birthday’. After thanking everyone we sat down to a buffet lunch.



Later we looked at some of the 2000 photographs that Ashok and Vinayak had taken – I was very impressed by the quality of the images.


Prabhat, Ashok and Vinayak then left for Barmer station to entrain for Jaipur a journey of twelve hours. I was sorry to see them leave. But before he left Prabhat gave me a simple illustration of how these cataract operations can change lives not only for the individual but for the family as a whole.




An old man who had lost his sight in both eyes was no longer able to work, although his son and daughter-in-law, with whom he lived, did go out every day to work on the land. A dispute arose because the old man complained that his daughter-in-law only left him two pieces of bread for lunch and he always felt hungry.


He remonstrated with her on many occasions but was told that she always left four pieces of bread for him. As well as feeling hungry he also felt angry with the girl for treating him badly.


On regaining his sight after a cataract operation he discovered that his daughter-in-law had indeed left four pieces of bread for him every day. It turned out that the dog of the house always ate two pieces – whether leaving two for him – which is unlikely -- or by polishing off the last two pieces while he was eating the first two which sounds more plausible.


Whatever the explanation the result was that he was able to return to work and that good relations with his family were restored ‘


Cow dust time again – tomorrow I return to England.




Ashok + Vinayak Khandal