I was at the nearby Indian restaurant, the one I frequently visit, sipping from a glass of chilled lassi and turning the pages of a recent New Yorker. Most of the tables were unnoccupied – it was still early – and the R.D.Burman tunes coming through the speaker seemed louder than it usually did. I was unable to focus on the article; I looked out of the window, at the vacant street and the blue sky beyond. After a while a pair walked into the restaurant, an unusual pair that made all eyes turn towards them.
The woman – a short German with dark hair and a pair of slim spectacles balanced on a sharp nose – somehow seemed familiar; I must have seen her at office. She was helping the man – an Indian, blind, and carrying a stick – by holding his hand and directing him across the maze of tables and chairs. They settled down at a nearby table, and the woman began to flip through the menu, reading all the items: “Mulligatawny soup, cheese pakoras, onion rings….pappad…raita…chicken biryani…fish tikka….cheese chilli special…” He stopped her at a couple of places, considered the dish for a while, asked if a variant was available (“something with Paneer?”). She went through the list meticulously, reading the sub-text of some exotic dishes if the name wasn’t self explanatory. The conversation seemed louder than most usual conversations – it was as if one had to speak up to compensate for the missing visual element in the interaction.
When they had decided, they gave their respective orders (she spoke in German while giving her’s : “Ich hätte gerne…” – typical for a German to revert to the native tongue at the smallest opportunity). From bits of the conversation that followed I could gather that he was new to the place, and they were not yet familiar with each other. The woman kept looking at his eyes from time to time, like any ordinary couple would do, and it made me wonder if familiarity with a blind person would lead us to stop looking at the eyes altogether, and instead focus completely on the voice, and learn to communicate different moods through voice: the smile, the affection, the sympathy, the anger. Without such audio cues, how difficult it must be for the blind to get an impression of the other person’s thoughts? Perhaps it wasn’t too difficult, because we do offer – unconsiously – such cues all the time?
My attempts at trying to observe and listen to their interaction were short-lived: soon the place filled up, blocking not just my line of vision but also filling the air with the buzz of a busy restaurant. But my mind kept going back to them, to this dimension of interaction that I had never given any thought before.