He was blinded at the age of 12- an accident in the chemistry lab at school when his teacher gave him the wrong chemicals to mix over a bunsen burner. He would grow up to become one of the single most effective forces in the global battle against needless blindness.
Sir John Wilson was my grand-uncle (Dr V’s) friend and mentor- their friendship is the stuff of legends- it would light a million eyes and last a lifetime.
I met Sir John only once- and at a time when I didn’t understand how people can transform each other with their purity of purpose, breadth of vision and the sheer strength of what I have heard Dr V call- soulforce.
November 16th 1996.
Sir John and his wife Lady Jean were visiting Madurai and had been invited that evening to a family gathering. I was eighteen and miserably unhappy in my first (and only) year of engineering school. Back just for the weekend I was sent by my grand-aunt to walk the visiting couple over from the Guest House to my grandmother’s home next door where we were all gathered. I remember being nervous about this less-than-a-mission. And I remember that nervousness being chased away by the instant kindness and warmth of Lady Wilson (one of the most inspiring women I am privileged know). Like her husband she is tall and straight-backed while Sir John had (what I’d only up until that moment read of in books-) a wonderfully proud bearing. (proud as in noble as in dignified as in bordering-on-heroic proud without a trace of vanity or pompousness) I remember the deep line between his brows, the fineness to his features and his overwhelming courtesy. But on the short walk next door it was Lady Wilson who filled the silence: “There’s a half-moon out tonight John, but not many stars- three steps down now- looks like we’ve got quite a crowd here- Oh John! The children- how delightful- there are rows and rows of them!” (we were all seated from youngest to oldest- and now that I look back- I see that there were quite a number of us :)) …And I wish you could have heard that voice when she spoke to him. Fifty three years of marriage and you could still feel the tenderness.
At some point Lady Jean came up to me and said ” Now you’re the young lady who isn’t quite happy doing Engineering aren’t you?” (o’ my infamous reputation!) “My husband would like to talk to you.”
My heart sank. I liked this couple- so much that I didn’t know whether I could endure an Everything Will Be All Right Just Hang In There brand of pep talk (how ever well meant) from them without bursting into copious tears. But there was no help for it.
I followed her to the little table that had been set up for the two of them and sat down at Sir John’s side. He leaned forward to take my hand. “I think that piece of yours was simply marvelous, ” he said. And my sinking heart stopped sinking a little. Because this did not sound like the prelude to a pep-talk. And it wasn’t. Sir John (oblivious to all the impatient ophthalmologists around us) talked then of poetry and the horizons it opens up on experience, of his hometown in England where Kipling once wrote (“Now this is my visiting card that I’m giving you and when you come to England you must stay with us, and I’ll take you to see the house where he lived” …seven years later I would make that trip- with his wife. It was she who took me to see the startlingly lifelike statue of Kipling poised pen-over-paper at his desk, insisted on giving me an illustrated copy of his famous poem “The Glory of the Garden” ). And then we talked of all sorts of things- of Jane Austen and his own writing, of Indian dialects, family ties and spoken English ” I can’t quite place your accent- it isn’t American, and it’s not quite Indian”…and inbetween it all he would tilt his head a little and listen attentively to the riotous game of football that was in session out front. A smile of such sweetness as he remarked, ” Children sound the same in all languages don’t they?”… then- “Keep writing,” he said, “Don’t ever stop- it keeps you civilized.”
He asked me, very gently, how I liked engineering, and I said a little shame-facedly that I was “still- adjusting”. He asked then if I’d been forced to which I quickly and truthfully said- no- adding ruefully that I’d just sort of – landed there. He chuckled softly and remained silent for awhile before saying again, “Don’t stop writing.” And then an uncle came to tell me in whispered Tamil to stop monopolizing the poor man- because there were people who had Important Things to talk about waiting…
Later when it was time for them to leave I hovered in the background not wanting to take up any more of their time but hating to see them go so soon…Sir John shook hands all around and then half-turned to his wife and said,”Jeanie- where’s The Writer?” in a very split second I was before him and once more that frail hand with its strong grip held mine. Such old blue sightless eyes looking through and beyond me, “Now my dear-” (let me interrupt to say No One can say those two words as deliciously as a seventysomething year old Englishman) ” Now my dear you must write and send me some of your pieces- and I’ll send you one of my poems in return- is that a deal?”
Warm rivers of joy lifting me clear across the half-moon and not-many-stars in the sky :-)
…and looking back I realize what I didn’t realize then- that what made this encounter so special for me was Sir John’s unique quality of awareness and the compassion of his Listening Presence. It was this in him that reached passed the mournful facade of that phase and found what truly engaged my heart and mind… It meant so very much to me- meeting him when I did.
And then this morning almost ten years later cleaning an old drawer it All (in the proverbial way) came back to me with a peculiar kind of poignancy one part sadness two parts humbling gratitude. I wrote to Sir John that Christmas, a long rambling letter describing in deathwearying detail all sorts of trivia- he sent back smiling reply – along with the draft of a recent speech he had delivered at a Blindness Prevention conference (apologising for the not-quite-poetry of it all :-)).
The next year I dropped out of engineering school and began a degree in English Literature. Two years later Sir John passed away peacefully in his home in England.
In 2003 on my way back home after finishing Infinite Vision (dedicated along with my grandparents, to Sir John) I stopped in the UK and stayed three days with Lady Jean in Brighton. She lives alone in a house called romantically (and rightly so) The Cliff. It slopes over a wonderful garden to look out at a graybluecrash of sea. You can’t fit Lady Jean’s energetic cheerfulness, her warm practicality, her passionate and continued commitment to service or her deep understanding of Sir John’s collaboration with Dr V (Venka she calls him- with such old affection) into the mereness of sentences- so I won’t try to here.
But before I left her home, she gave me a copy of Sir John’s funeral service, that included a poem. Lines written on his retirement in the January of 1984. I read the poem sitting on the backporch of the home he had so generously invited me to come visit. It moved me to tears…even though I realize now that I hadn’t fully understood it- I couldn’t have from where I was then. And this morning stumbling across it in my drawer I read it again and though I’ve lived a little more into its meaning now- I know it is a rare piece of deep slow-yielding-wisdom that I will keep coming back to.
I suddenly remembered his old, half-forgotten promise to send me a poem one day. Eyes fill without warning at the memory of that promise tinged with such a warmth of understanding and encouragement and such an unfounded firm inexplicable belief in my capabilities. (I was not a writer then and am not a writer now (there is always something faintly ridiculous about being a writer unless you’re A Writer…but if you’re faintly ridiculous in any case- as I am it doesn’t really matter either way).
From Sir John I first learned (what I have since then been lucky enough to learn many times over) the beautifully cliched truth of how Entirely Possible it is- to borrow strength in moments of weakness from people who take the time to truly be with and Be-lieve in– you. Even if you’ve only met them once. Even if you are never to see them again.
There is a professional biographer who has been working for two years now on a book about Sir John’s life and its remarkable contributions to humanity. It will discuss in detail his successful efforts to reduce childhood blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency in South India, his tackling of river blindness in Africa and the incredible manner in which he turned the prevention of needless blindness into an international priority and rallied tremendous forces behind this cause…it will not tell of the incidental inspiration he gently placed in the palm of an unhappy engineering student with a passion for poetry and an unreasonable love for the world of words.
(…so I tell that story here instead. With grateful remembrance and a quiet joy.)
“To have tried on every mask and eventually to have confidence to walk unmasked.
Havng experienced many places to appreciate, in its infinite variety, one’s own place.
To achieve for one’s dependents and oneself, an adequacy
but to recognize its transitoriness and to hold possession lightly.
Having explored the potential of temperament and mind to be able to maximize that
potential and to harmonize its power into a way of equanimity.
From various experience and study, to crystallize principles of conduct and judgment
without losing the curiosity of the seeker nor the zest for enlightenment.
Despite failure to retain hope and the capacity for new enchantment.
To fear neither life nor death and, whilst seeking mitigation of suffering,
to accept the inevitability of loss.
To revere beauty and art without being obsessed by them
and to recognize a supremacy of the art of human understanding.
To feel the inter-relationship of all living things with compassion for all humanity.
Having explored love to have found with one person, in humour and grace,
the limit of understanding and fidelity; yet to recognize without fear
the aloneness of one’s individual being and to respect that aloneness in others.
To despise no manifestation of love.
To see the compassionate face and active force of God in every religion,
and having chosen one way, to approach holy ground there-
in the uncertain light of inadequate understanding- to see the majesty of God.
- Sir John Wilson
Jan 20th 1919- 24th Nov 1999
Extract from an obituary:
For John was not just an ideas man. He may have been able to recount the numbers who had contracted every known disabling condition in the way that others can remember great football matches, but he also remembered individuals, loved them, supported them and their families, never forgetting details of their personal experience. There are thousands of people all over the world to whom John was someone special. And he thought they were special too. He had absolutely no feelings of grandeur. He behaved with royalty and prime ministers in exactly the same way as he did with the person queuing up for the cataract operation.