This is the fourth and final installment in our ‘Month of Blind Women,’ a series of essays by women who are blind or have low vision presented by LightHouse Interpoint, the new literary supplement from LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco and cross-posted at The Toast. To read all of the essays from Interpoint, click here.
It was way back in the seventh grade when, during lunch hour at school, a little girl told her companion not to sit beside me in the cafeteria. “She has cancer, and you might get it too if you sit so close to her,” was the whispered but audible warning. I don’t know what was more shocking: that the child believed cancer to be contagious, or that she’d somehow assumed I was afflicted. Before I could decide how to respond, the duo had skittered further down the table.
My earliest memories of school are punctuated by this type of scene, and by seventh grade I was already quite immune to the comments about my appearance. A bunch of boys in my class called me ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost.’ They sniggered when I wore a hat and tinted glasses to protect my skin and eyes from the sunlight. I was used to being confronted with blunt and awkward questions, ranging from the crude (“Why are you so white?”) to the intrusive (“Are you adopted?”) and even the downright amusing (“Were you born in America?” — as if place of birth can be the sole determinant of skin color).
That was in Kenya, where I grew up, though I was born in India. I attended a predominantly South Asian school, where in the sea of brown skin and dark hair, I stood out as the pale, blond oddball. At the time, I was too timid to stand up for myself. I ignored the questions. Two decades later, I wonder if I should have been bolder, if in the face of these ubiquitous interrogations, I could have served up the plain truth:
“It’s called albinism. And no – it’s not contagious.”
Doctors have always told me that I see quite well in relation to other people with albinism – low vision is common among those in my situation – but I still have my moments of frustration. Because my eyes are very sensitive to light, it becomes harder to function in the bright sunshine that is characteristic of the weather in India, even when wearing dark glasses. Add to that an utterly chaotic traffic situation, and crossing the street becomes disproportionately stressful, time-consuming, and at times downright frightening. There have been instances when I’ve actually hailed an auto rickshaw at busy intersections simply to get to the other side of the road.
Nonetheless, I walk the streets like everyone else. Growing up, I used to feel disheartened about my eyesight, but I’ve learned to appreciate that despite this challenge I can still function independently. In fact, my eyesight is often the last thing on my mind as I navigate the streets of Ahmedabad, living the life of a foreigner in the town I was born. Continue reading Firangi: Confessions of an Albino Muslim in India