Simplicity & Sophistication

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication – Leonardo Da Vinci

Early morning van ride to T. Kallupatti, a small town an hour’s ride from Madurai. We pass through the crowded city streets and eventually hit the open road. We cross a small herd of goats, watch men slumbering in the back of a lorry amidst crates of vegetables and banana stalks, we pass through a small town and see a man on a scooter with four small uniformed children squeezed in with him, a young girl with her hair tied up in ribbons swings on an iron gate, we pass carts of coconut vendors, palm trees, rain trees, vast dry fields dotted with thorny acacia bushes.

Am accompanying the medical team for the 154th eye camp sponsored by an unassuming retired school teacher, who happens to own a wedding hall. For the last thirteen years the last Saturday of every month he converts that hall into a screening eye camp site for Aravind. He’s been doing this kind of work since the early 60s when he became a regular volunteer with Dr V’s government eye camps. As a young man he left his degrees and ego behind during these camps, changed bedpans, rinsed patient’s mouths, fed them, carried them in stretchers, no task was too humble or too low. He is a man who thrives on the spirit of service. A lean,  active khadi-clad seventy-something-year-old pillar. When our van pulls up outside the camp site there are already fifty patients waiting for us. There are plastic garlands of marigolds and roses across the entrance.

The crew springs into motion — there’s a rhythm, a musicality to their movement. In less than fifteen minutes ten different work stations have been set up. Makeshift vision testing and refraction cubicles, the doctor’s exam table, ocular pressure testing benches, a lens fitting and grinding unit, a counseling table, a review case area… The young doctors, the sari-clad nurses, the upbeat camp organizer all of them exude an eager cheerfulness. In the way of the villages everyone speaks a little louder than strictly necessary. There is something paradoxically invigorating about these camps. Despite the dust and the heat and the intermittant power supply, despite the utter lack of creature comforts — or perhaps because of — an energy is summoned from within. There is a raw honesty to this kind of work.

Within minutes of registration opening, every corner of the hall hums with activity. Barefeet, leathery brown skin, missing or deeply damaged teeth, sunken cheeks, impossibly bright saris, hanging earlobes weighted down with chunky gold earrings, or sometimes empty, so many of the men bent over long wooden staffs, these are the people of the 30 odd villages around T. Kallupatti. The faces of everyday, back-of-beyond southern India. Suffering writ large on some faces, others bright-eyed, adorable in their rustic innocence. They are a talkative group of grandmothers and grandfathers — and everyone is practically a neighbor.

Lanky, young Dr. Sandeep is great with the patients and the rest of the crew. Efficient, clear, kind, firm. He’s having a blast. But when a patient has waited too long to show up at the camp and their eyes are in bad shape his face grows serious and his voice takes on a genuinely pained note. “Grandmother why didn’t you come earlier? What do I do with you?” There are patients sitting on chairs on either side of his reminiscent of the operating table set up at Aravind. He swivels from one side to the other. A cup of hot tea cools in front of him unnoticed. At each station patients are seen one at a time, the flow is smooth, swift. They have the camp scene systems down to a science — and an art. I want suddenly to help in some more direct and immediate way than the notes I am scribbling in my pad, so I join the volunteer crew for a brief while walking wobbly patients from one station to the next.

There are a dozen other Aravind teams in a dozen different locations working in parallel across Tamil Nadu. More than half of the people we screen today have cataract. By the end of the week they will have been operated on and returned to their villages, their homes, and their fields.

There is a lot of sophistication at Aravind today — there have been a series of upgrades since the 11-bed clinic days. You see it in the cutting edge glass-fronted research center, the wide, graceful spread of the new Aurolab building, the air conditioned waiting rooms, the pillared entrance of Laico…but that all that sophistication holds hands with the sweat and simplicity of these eye camps is where a big part of Aravind’s power lies. Am glad I made this trip today — even though I’ve been on several of these eye camps before. There’s always a sense of returning to the significant core of it all.

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