A short, sharp sound had woken me with a start. It was that hour before dawn when the night is at its darkest. At such a time, it is best to drink some water and go back to sleep. To start thinking then is to open the lid of the unthinkable. Better to return to the interrupted dream. But what was that noise — like the snapping of a twig on a cold night? As my vision adjusted to the murk, I realized it was the book-case. Its door had swung open, and one of the glass panes had hit the corner of the writing-table. The report could have become a gunshot in my dream.
As the book-case stood open, I began to make out the spines of the books — silent, erect forms, comforting in their regularity, but strange and nameless in the dark. I could not somehow take my eyes off them and, as I looked, I heard a stir among the crows in the tree outside my window. I had read in a little book about birds, the other day, how crows dream and get delirious if the moon comes out too brightly from behind the clouds, and how they settle down again after a while, without quite waking up. They sleep on the high branches like black fruit, beyond the reach of cats, falling off only if they die in their sleep. Sometimes, when it is very quiet, you can hear their droppings hit the ground with a soft, wet sound.
But I wasn’t thinking about the crows. I kept looking at those other upright presences in my room. Standing stock-still in the windless dark, they seemed to have willed the door to open — something needed to come in or go out, a secret exchange between darkness and writing while human readers slept. I imagined the words draining out of the books until they stood empty and blank-faced in the small hours. Then, as the hour of the wolf passes, dawn breaks and eyes open, the black marks are returned to their places again, where they settle in as if nothing has happened.
Reading a book in the waiting room of an eye-hospital is an odd experience. I took my cousin for her glaucoma check-up last week, and after she was called into one of the curtained chambers, I found myself reaching into my bag and pulling out my book. Usually, in places like this, I prefer to watch the people, and reading is the last thing on my mind. As I watch, shreds of writing begin to form in my head and a vague anxiety starts building up: should I jot down what I see, or would that spoil the naturalness of what was happening around me, taking away from the pleasure and profit of looking? (Is forgetting the secret muse of fiction?) But I had felt like reading something dry and hard the evening before, and an invisible hand on my shoulder led me to Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. I had bought the book when it came out in the mid-Nineties, and kept it for after I had read some more Dostoevsky. But that might never happen, I thought.
Coetzee had lost his young son in an accident a few years before he wrote this novel. It was as if he had asked himself before sitting down to write it, How would Dostoevsky have confronted this loss and turned it into writing? As the younger writer’s leaden and perverse fiction — Dostoevsky’s adopted son had actually outlived his father — started settling into my soul, a bitter grey infusion, if that is at all the right word, began to rise inside me, like the taste of gall recalled at the end of the book. Yet, I could not, and would not, put it down. It was only the thought that I had to get up early the next morning to take my cousin to the eye-hospital that made me close the book, switch off the light and force myself to sleep. So, when I found a chair in a corner of the crowded waiting room, I gave in again to the pull of that dark matter.
The father is visiting the son’s grave with a woman who had been the son’s landlady. They are walking in the cemetery through the “avenue of the dead”. “He has begun to cry,” I read on page eight, “Why now? he thinks, irritated with himself. Yet the tears are welcome in their way, a soft veil of blindness between himself and the world.” It was at this point that I suddenly became aware of where I was doing what I was doing. I looked up from the page. My reading glasses had turned to a blur the sea of human forms on the other side of the book. I took the glasses off, and a young man’s face came into focus a few rows away from me. We found ourselves looking at each other’s eyes, for neither of us happened to be dry-eyed. It was only in an eye hospital that one had the licence to look unabashedly into other people’s eyes. A nurse came to check if his pupils were dilating, gave him one more drop in each eye, and a fresh cotton-pad to dry them with. There was no embarrassment between us. He had assumed that our eyes were wet for the same reason. But when I put on my glasses again, he noticed the book on my lap. That put us immediately in different worlds, and a shadow of something less open passed across his face.
I went back to my book. The father has found the son’s grave: “The mound has the volume and even the shape of a recumbent body. It is, in fact, nothing more or less than the volume of fresh earth displaced by a wooden chest with a tall young man inside it.” I began to find what followed unbearable: “There is something in this that does not bear thinking about.” Looking up from the book, I drew comfort again from the blur of real faces around me. It was oddly liberating to be able to sit among strangers who found nothing unusual in my tears. Gradually, with a finger in the book to mark where I had stopped reading, I began to get absorbed in the theatre of mortal vision around me.
Impaired vision, I realized, unless it is incurable and has to be lived with, suddenly turns able-bodied people into helplessly dependent creatures. If we are used to being able to see, then temporarily losing that ability feels like the ultimate form of vulnerability, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. So, the grotesque human chain in Brueghel’s painting of the blind leading the blind appears to be an extreme, and bathetic, depiction of a real human need to hold on to one another while stumbling through the unknown.
I saw versions of this need everywhere in the room. It created an atmosphere of simple surrender to helplessness and unfamiliarity in that coldly-lit space of waiting and anxiety, where helpers and the helped were brought together in passing tableaux of dependency and impairment. To take out a book in such a room — to become, as Keats had imagined, the “picture of somebody reading”, an image of self-containment and solitary pleasure — felt, all of a sudden, like a perverse thing to do, even if the book I was reading came with its own, profound, heaviness: “This heavy head, these heavy eyes: lead settling into the soul.”
I remembered how, in a less familiar city far from home, I had once gone with a friend to get my own eyes tested for glaucoma. And as he sat reading his book in the waiting room, a series of extraordinary tests opened up for me a world beyond my imagination. I was looking, for the first time, into my own eyes. Each of them turned, as the doctor looked, into a strange and terrifying planet — tiny, but with expanses of fire-rimmed light that sometimes became a sea of blood, the depths of which were impenetrably dark. Is this what an astronaut sees, I wondered, in that last fraction of a second as his ship explodes in space?
We emerged, after my tests, from the hospital gloom, which had made me forget about the atropine. It was like walking into a washed-out photograph. My eyes riddled with the glare of June, I was grateful, as I stumbled through a maze of too much light, that I wasn’t, for a while, alone.
I finished The Master of Petersburg in another waiting room — of a pathological lab, where I had taken my father for an x-ray. As I looked up from the last page with eyes wiped clean by a great book, they fell on a small white box on a shelf in the next room. The label on the box said, “Old and current semen”.