The Eyes of the Beholder

12 min read

Radhika loved Amitabh Bachchan. His iridescent screen presence across the theaters of 1980s India, lit up her life. Her heart skipped when his songs played on the radio, her head in the clouds, feet off the ground—

“Stop that humming! Sounds like a chicken being strangled. And why do you seem taller, Radhika? Don’t hold your head up so high!” 

Mother’s orders rang across the hallway and the tune died on her lips. She slouched her shoulders in a bid to look smaller than her five feet six inches. 

“Why did God make you so tall,” Mother continued, aggrieved. “Look at your cousin Sharada, small and petite. And fair!”

Radhika drew in a breath, betting on Mother’s next words. Had to be one of three: either Mother’s attention will be drawn to her lips (“they’re fat, bite them in please!”), or Mother will remember that people did not usually associate Radhika with her (“Colleagues think Sharada is my daughter not you, resembles me, doesn’t she?”), or—and this was the option Radhika always gunned for—Mother catches sight of her younger brother Venu outside (“Back to your homework! A plain daughter and foolish son, God has done me ill!”). 

Radhika decided to help her along. “Oh Mother,” she began virtuously, catching sight of her brother through the window, “Venu will get a heatstroke cycling in the hot afternoon sun!” 

“Not at all! Physics assignment keeps me safe!” Venu’s voice sprang from the door at the corner. He seemed to be in his room, and what more, to have been listening at the door. “But let Rad go out, can’t get any more tanned, can she?”

What a pest of a fourteen year old brother. Radhika peered outside, trying hard to distill the blurry images she was seeing through the window… could she have mistaken the fisher woman’s profile to be Venu’s? Her eyes hurt as she squinted further. If only there was a magical cure for her short-sighted vision. 

“Please do not contort your face like that!” Mother cried, horrified. 

“I wouldn’t, if I had spectacl-” but Radhika regretted the words almost immediately as the minefield erupted. “Spectacles!” Mother spluttered. “How about a blind groom as well? Who else to marry a tall, dark girl with ugly contraptions at her eyes! Spectacles, it seems!” And there could be no reining in the tirade now.

During Radhika’s patient moments, she did endeavour to sympathize with Mother. After all Mother was divinely beautiful, said to have set hearts aflutter in her prime by the slightest of smiles. She had also been an obedient daughter, marrying the groom her parents chose—a tall, dark, fat-lipped and uncommonly unhandsome man. The years thankfully also proved him to be an intelligent one, as he rose quickly through the governmental ranks to keep the family ensconced in high comfort. His only mistake however, was passing on his genes—both in intelligence and looks—to his daughter. Radhika’s earliest memories were of Mother’s disappointment that she looked nothing like herself, while Cousin Sharada did. Adding spectacles to this mix was the tipping point, Radhika understood that. 

But how she needed them! She was nine when her Math teacher declared in the exam hall that since the question paper contained printing errors, she would write the correct questions on the large blackboard. Radhika, sitting at the tenth row where the alphabetical order had placed her, realized, to her dismay, that she could hardly make out the white squiggles on the board. With an exam in progress, she could neither look into her neighbours’ sheets nor move into the rows ahead to copy the right questions. She later discovered that she had lost thirty precious marks in that exam—only to gain a fierce thrashing from Father, and a newfound respect for his belt. He would listen to no excuses, so she confided in Mother that the issue lay in her eyesight. Mother frowned, threw Radhika’s novels away (reading would tire the eyes), and asked the cook to increase the proportion of carrots in her diet. 

Vitamin A did not help. Now twenty-one, Radhika’s eyesight had only worsened. Any object over two feet away turned into blurred pixels. To cope, she became adept at copying notes from her friends during breaks, and over the years, keeping only those friends that didn’t mind what they saw as brazen laziness in the classroom. Even though she had a photographic memory—remembering any textbook she glanced at—she adopted a devil may care attitude with her marks; for the efficacy of the 1980s printing press employed by her Engineering college meant she still lost them. She had also perfected the art of looking through people; her short-sightedness prevented her from recognizing most. Now everyone at college thought her to be either haughty or distracted. 

Radhika had learnt to accept her lot. After all, what was more important, getting married or being able to see? But sometimes, the unfairness did rankle. Especially at the movies, when she had to hear Amitabh Bachchan’s dialogues and not actually be able to appreciate the subtlety of his facial expressions. Once out of earshot of Mother, she picked up the tune again. 

The door to Venu’s room was ajar. “Stop that Radhika! You sound like a strangled-”

She crossed over to him in two strides. “Finish that and I will actually strangle you,” she snarled. 

“Truce!” Venu backed to the wall, his hands up in surrender. 

Radhika stopped short, suspicious. “Why?” Ever since he had grown a head taller over the summer, it was unlike him to back off from a physical fight. His odds to win had increased, and he could always go crying to Mother about the “abusive elder sister” if he didn’t. 

“Because,” he began calmly, “I believe you and I can profit from each other.” He reached for his shelf. “You are excellent with Physics assignments and I have this.” He dangled a pair of spectacles, one that had clearly broken many times, and was held together by sellotape. “Cousin Giri threw his away and I retrieved it from the trash!” He ended triumphantly.

“How is it okay for Cousin Giri to be stupid, buck toothed and yet wear spectacles when I can’t?”

“He’s a boy, you’re a girl, but that’s besides the point,” Venu said impatiently. “You can wear these and go to your precious movies. In return, all I ask is that you do my assignments on Laws of Motion.” Radhika hesitated. “C’mon Rad, you can actually see the Bachchan.”

Radhika swallowed, letting herself consider that glorious possibility. She could easily go for movies alone. The theaters were dark, no one—especially Mother—would know if she put on spectacles there. But Venu was failing Physics. She couldn’t let him cheat. 

“How about I teach you instead?” 

“No, you do them. These laws of motion can hardly help me in the harsh reality of life. Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set… what can Einstein’s laws know of this?” He drew to his full height, channelling somber heroism.

“Newton’s,” Radhika corrected automatically. “Not Einstein’s.” 

“Exactly. See, there’s no saving me. Don’t be blind now, Rad.” She raised an eyebrow. “Not blind, meant foolish.” He remedied hastily, holding out the spectacles. “Just try these on and decide for yourself!” 

She took the spectacles and closing her eyes, placed them on the bridge of her nose. With a deep breath she opened her eyes, slowing turning around the room, surveying it as if for the first time. 

“What do you think?” Venu asked eagerly. 

“I can see… Everything… Clearly.” She struggled with words. There was Venu’s chair, his shelf, his excited pimpled face… “Those photos?” She pointed at some stuck on the wall above his bed. “Is that one of us on your second birthday?”

“Well yeah… so yes or no, Rad? Wait is that tears? Are you crying? I can remove the photo! You looked funny in it, I thought!” Venu looked at her worriedly. “Oh Rad, please stop and remove those spectacles, your tears will only distort the lens… what if Mother walks in? We’re dead–” But Radhika just flopped on his chair and cried her eyes out for the world around her that she could finally see. 

There was now no chance that she wouldn’t take Venu up on his deal. She did not even mind when he offered to bunk his Physics tuition so that they could catch the evening show of Lakhon Ki Baat. The movie didn’t feature Amitabh Bachchan, but so what! Radhika was dying to try out true sight. In the safe darkness of the theater, Radhika surreptitiously wore her spectacles, cherishing every scene that came after, on the large screen before her. What a splendid treat it was! Later they missed their bus home as they waited in line to buy Gold Spot colas. But even that turned out for the best—for it was an amicable conversation they had on the long walk home, sharing woes about parents, Physics and the continued overdose of carrots in their diet. Her brother was almost likeable at times. Why he even let her wear the spectacles on the road a few times, and how curiously clear the world became! Large hoardings with funny taglines, bus route signs that made the city so navigable, the nods of people as they passed you by. 

She was filled with lightness after. Yes she still couldn’t read the board in class and had to put up with her friend’s exasperated, “Rad why don’t you try—like a regular person—to take notes when Sir writes on the board!” And she missed the college heartthrob smiling at her, simply because she couldn’t see it until he was an arm’s length away. She also did not catch Batra’s Shoe Place Sale sign and had to walk back three kilometers in the rain after hearing about it from her friends. But she only had to remember that there was finally one place in the whole world where she could see like a normal person… and all was delightful again!

A week later, Father called her into the study. Mother was there too, fidgeting on the sofa. “We have a proposal for you.” She said, as soon as Radhika walked in. “The boy is three years older, very handsome by his photo-”

“What?” Radhika said. 

“What what? Don’t make a scene, Radhika. You have a wedding proposal. And honestly we must thank our stars that it even came for you instead of going to Sharada. She’s so much prettier! This boy studied in CET, you know?”

“The same college that I am studying in!” She exclaimed. 

“Yes, one of only two Engineering Colleges in the state, and really, so difficult to get into!” Mother remarked placidly. 

“How come it wasn’t a cause for celebration when your own daughter got into it, but such a deal when this stranger has studied there?” 

“It was always celebrated, Radhika.” Father said quietly. “To find a boy as intelligent as you, it has been hard. But this fellow attended CET. He already has an admit to MIT in the US. Family is respectable. They are visiting us on Sunday. If they like you, we will fix the marriage.” There was a tone of finality. 

“But-”

“No buts! It’s high time you were married.” Mother said. “Giri was telling me that he saw you with a tall boy outside Laxmi theater some days ago. The last thing we need is for people to think you’re a flirt also!”

“That was Venu!” Radhika protested. “Giri couldn’t have seen the face!”

“Nonsense, Venu had tuition then!”

“Well yes, that he did.” She agreed reluctantly. Her recent elation was ebbing away. If she married the boy, she would have to be short-sighted in USA! How could she find her way in an unknown land? She wrung her arms in Venu’s room. “I’m going to strangle Giri for spreading rumours!”

“Well, we got the spectacles from him.” Venu reminded. “You must be blind as a bat by the way, Rad. I overheard Giri tell Sharada his eye power was -5.50. That’s high! But you use his spectacles comfortably. How do you survive without them?! Like day-to-day… reading bus numbers and all?”

“I know the kids who usually take bus 80B, so when they do, I do too.”

Venu shook his head. “You need spectacles, can’t marry without them.”

“According to Mother, I cannot marry with them.”

“Rubbish. My friend’s sister Geeta is your senior and she often remarks how your erm… hair is thick, eyes are doe-like, and if I remember right, that if only you stood straight instead of stooping all the time, you could be a regular beauty!”

Radhika felt a warm glow inside. Geeta was known to be a connoisseur of style and looks. 

“See, you are pretty.” Venu squeezed her arm. 

“Well, Geeta hasn’t seen me with spectacles.” Radhika said practically. “But I don’t mind my short-sightedness here, it’s being short-sighted in USA that scares me. I can marry a boy in our city without any trouble. And hey, you and I can always go for movies together!” 

“Then let’s send this USA groom on his way. When he visits, you could pretend to be really annoying—you don’t even need to pretend for that…”

“Venu!” 

“I’m serious. Or tell him that baldness is hereditary in our family. That ought to scare him off.”

“Show me one photo where anyone in our family is bald?” Radhika said wryly.

Venu paused meditatively. “Tell him Mother wears a wig. Even better, that you’re wearing one!” 

Radhika thought Venu had a point. Why not scare the groom off? They held multiple discussions on what would be the right amount of unpleasantness to sound plausible enough to lead to immediate retreat… There wasn’t much time. The way these arranged marriages worked, once the groom’s family saw the girl and gave their approval, the wedding was as good as fixed. 

They finally decided that Venu would tell the groom that Father was in debt, and Radhika would let slip that she was going to fail her exams, needing an extra year to pass her Engineering degree. And then they prayed for Luck to shine on them. 

When the groom’s family arrived on a rainy Sunday morning, it seemed as if Luck was on their side. Venu got a chance with the groom almost immediately—he and Cousin Giri were tasked with taking the groom’s family, under the protection of large umbrellas, across the fields to the house. At the first opportunity, Venu leant towards the groom, when, “Hey Venu, right? I meant to ask you something!” the lanky young man turned to him.

“Er… Me?”

“Yes, would you know what the score is?” The groom continued eagerly. “India vs Sri Lanka is on. We’re batting, one wicket down as I left home…” 

“Um,” Venu wasn’t a fan of cricket. But Giri had overheard. “I say Venu, run over to the watchman and find out the score? He’s constantly listening to commentary on his transistor!” 

The groom began to protest but Giri would have none of it. And by the time Venu found the watchman and got the score from him, Giri had already led the family into the house. Venu cursed himself and entered through the kitchen to find Radhika. “Failed,” he said miserably shaking his wet new shirt, before Radhika could ask anything. 

Now the onus was fully on her. After what seemed a nail-biting eternity, the parents from both families suggested that Radhika and the groom have time together to speak privately. Radhika knew that in such “girl-seeing” ceremonies, at most the couple got 5-10 minutes to talk. So she hastily began, “My exams just got over-”

“I know! You’re in the Civil Department? My friend is a lecturer, Unnithan Rajan. I think he taught you Structural Design?”

“Oh Unnithan Sir!” Radhika tried to nod politely but her insides churned. She had topped Structural Design. 

“Yes, he speaks highly of you! Almost a rank holder every year, he says. Impressive. I did Mechanical—everyone said I have a keen eye for observation that suits Mech best. But I wish I did Civil. What about you? Any subject you miss?”

“English literature,” Radhika said plainly. That should deter this Engineering enthusiast.

“Wonderful! Who is your favorite author?”

And on and on the groom went, somehow managing to elicit longer and longer responses from her with each question. She had to admit that he wasn’t a bad chap. Had her sight not been a problem, she might have even yielded to consider his suit. But how could she live in a strange land, with only half her vision, and having to hide that fact from everyone else. The thought frightened her beyond reason. Their plans had failed. The groom had smiled on his way out. “It went well, Radhika” Father’s quiet reassurance only made matters worse. “They seemed to like your Mother’s tea.” 

Oh, why hadn’t they thought of adding salt to the tea. Or breaking all the biscuits! Or puncturing the groom’s car! There were so many more ways of sabotaging the morning and the ideas seemed to strike so late. Venu took up permanent position next to the phone. “If the groom’s family calls, I will say wrong number,” he comforted Radhika. 

But when the call finally came, Venu was in the toilet. As he stepped out zipping his shorts, he heard Father say, “They loved her… want to fix a date!” Mother immediately went on about how “Sharada could never get a match as wonderful as this!” and Radhika rushed past everyone to fling herself on Venu’s bed, wailing. Venu watched in helpless dismay, then stared outside his window to the lashing rain. 

Thirty kilometers away, the groom stared at his tea. The radio next to him crackled in a low volume—an interview on Akashvani with the reigning star, Bachchan—but he was lost in thought. There was something about the way his prospective bride looked that struck him as odd. She was intelligent and beautiful no doubt, but she seemed to peer earnestly at things… squinting as if she couldn’t see clearly. His family hadn’t noticed but he found his observation troubling. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably and wondered—would Radhika be terribly affronted if he suggested she test her sight for spectacles?


About the author

Vaishnavi Nair Kolli is a writer who makes a living off the techworld from nine to six, and retreats to writing about the ones in her imagination post. When her characters do not obey her directions, she succumbs to mentos, movies with happy endings, and dark hot chocolate. Vaishnavi has written two novels in different genres: OK Now, Who’s My Santa? (#27 on Amazon Best Sellers) and Aided By Austen, which have both found kind readers and modest fame. She is currently finishing up her third novel—her first foray into fantasy!

About the artist

Elakkiya is an artist and illustrator who likes to experiment with different mediums and subjects in her art. You can find more of her work @madraspencil.

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