Spectacles and Mahatma Gandhi

MANY PEOPLE REGRET having to wear spectacles. I am not a part of that crowd.

When I went to school and university, my eyesight was so good that I did not need to consider wearing glasses. However, many of my fellow pupils were not born with such satisfactory vision and were forced to wear spectacles. I felt that those who wore glasses looked far more intelligent than those who did not. I do not know when and from whom I got that rather ridiculous idea. My parents did not wear glasses until they were about 45 years old, by which time I was in my early teenage. Yet, I knew they were both intelligent long before they discovered that they were having to hold their newspapers and books ever increasingly further from their eyes before they finally resorted to wearing spectacles.

I qualified as a dentist in 1982 without needing to wear glasses apart from safety goggles whilst drilling teeth at the dental school. About three years later, I decided it would be a good idea to protect my eyes whilst treating my patients. Instead of goggles such as handymen (and handywomen) use, I decided to ask an optician to make me a pair of ‘specs’ with tough plain lenses. I was extremely pleased with my spectacles. Wearing them, I looked in the mirror and immediately felt more intelligent, however ridiculous this might sound.

As I approached my mid-forties, the plain lenses needed to be replaced with prescription lenses as my eyesight was no longer what it had been. After a year or so, I began noticing two things. First, at night I was seeing three red traffic lights where there was only one. Secondly, when sitting far away from the stage in a theatre, I could hear what was being said or sung but the performers on the stage were barely distinguishable from one another. Watching a play was a bit like watching from afar insects moving about. Enter my new pair of long-distance ‘specs’ and these problems were resolved. But now I had two carry around two pairs of glasses: one for reading and the other for seeing afar. The solution was to try bifocals, which I have grown to like.

My first pair of spectacles was made by an optician’s firm in Kent, near where I worked. Since then, I have had several pairs made extremely competently in Bangalore, India. Most of my Indian ‘specs’ have been made by a company called Lawrence and Mayo (‘L&M’), which has several branches in the city. We favour the branch that used to be on Mahatma Gandhi (‘MG’) Road, but has, since the construction of Bangalore’s metro train system, been located nearby in Barton Tower, which overlooks MG Road. This branch has supplied eye care for several generations of my wife’s family and at least one of the staff has known members of at least four generations.

L & M was founded in Calcutta in 1877 by two Jewish families, the Lawrence’s and the Mayo’s. According to Girish Bhagat (www.scribd.com/document/352875229/1-Case-Study-on-Lawrence-Mayo-2016-Only-Case-Study-Material), the two families:

“…set up optical businesses in two cities simultaneously: London and Kolkata. Later they went on extending their businesses all over the world … After Kolkata, they went ahead in setting up their branches over large cities of India. It soon gained the reputation as being known as authorised opticians to kings and viceroys alike …”

Apart from London and India, the company had branches in Cairo, Spain, Portugal, Colombo, Rangoon, and Singapore.

The families who established L&M were originally named ‘Lazrus’ and ‘Myers’. According to Vivek Mendonca, whose family took over the firm (www.brandyouyear.com/2020/06/dr-vivek-g-mendonsa-group-director-marketing-lawrence-and-mayo.html):

“They were Opticians, Watchmakers and Craftsmen of fine custom made Jewellery, which they used to embellish on customised spectacles for Royal Families, Prince and Princesses based on colour stones based on their coat of arms.”

Of the Lazrus family I found the following information (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/Community/exe/history/lazarus.htm):

“Frank Lazarus (s. of Mathilda Lyon and Lippa Lazarus of Plymouth), who married into a family who were among the founders of the Jewish community of Hartford Conn., USA, and who later returned to England. He was in the optical business and apparently had a business called Lawrence and Mayo, with a branch in India, and which is now one of the biggest and the oldest optical firms in India.”

Of the Myers, I have not yet managed to discover anything about them.

However, I have found that amongst their many customers, the Indian branches have served some well-known people including Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and J.R.D. Tata.  As if that were not enough, they have supplied eyewear to:

“…queens, viceroys, barons and other people of high repute chose Lawrence & Mayo as their personal optician. During the Wimbledon Finals of 1923, Queen Mary was spotted styling the Amulet inspired glare protectors from Lawrence & Mayo.” (https://youandeyemag.com/optician/lawrence-mayo/)

Although the quality of the work they have done for me is more than satisfactory, learning about some of their former customers is additionally gratifying.

Today, the 5th of January 2021, about two years since I last obtained a new pair of specs from L&M in Bangalore’s Barton Tower, I picked up a new pair from a local optician, owned by an Indian optometrist in London. I am about to give them a ‘test drive’ and hope that they will be as satisfactory as those made by Gandhi’s erstwhile optician. They are certainly better looking than the glasses that appear in many portrayals of the Mahatma.

Eye wash in Sarajevo

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, I used to visit the former Yugoslavia, where I had and still have many friends. Often, I stayed in Sarajevo (now in the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina), with Marija and her family. Here is something that happened on one of my visits. The account comes from my book about Yugoslavia, “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”.

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Marija, my host in Sarajevo, lived alone in her flat. Her husband, although an ardent communist, had fallen foul of Tito’s regime. Since the late 1940s, he had spent most of his life in prison. Many years after my last visit to Sarajevo, Liljana told me that her father used to be released from jail occasionally for short periods only to be re-arrested and re-incarcerated soon after. I was not clear about what he had done to deserve this. He must have been the ‘wrong kind’ of communist. Maybe, he had been a Stalinist and/or a supporter of Cominform. This organisation’s headquarters were in Belgrade from 1947 until 1948, the year when Yugoslavia’s relationship with Stalin’s Soviet Union began to go sour and the country was expelled from Cominform. It is possible that it was Stalin’s militant antagonism to Yugoslavia in the late 1940s that helped Tito to unify his ethnically diverse population.

During one of my visits Sarajevo, I noticed that the white part of one of my eyes had become completely red. It was a little uncomfortable as well. I hoped that no one would notice it; I wanted to avoid any fuss. So, I set off one morning to find a pharmacy, hoping to buy an eyewash, something like the British product ‘Optrex’.

As there was no way that I could possibly have explained what I wanted using my rudimentary knowledge of Serbo-Croatian, I decided that I would have to try to act out what I wanted. I wandered along the chilly snow covered streets, puzzling over how to do this. In the end, I felt too shy to try to attempt the necessary charade. I hoped that with the passage of time my eye would heal.

When I returned to Marija’s flat that evening, she immediately noticed my eye. In French, and sounding worried, she said that I might have caught something that sounded to me like ‘retinit’, a disorder about which I knew nothing. She succeeded in alarming me greatly by saying that there was an epidemic of whatever this was in Sarajevo, and that many people were being blinded by it. Next morning, she told me, she would take me to see a friend of hers, an ophthalmic specialist, at the university hospital. This also worried me. I remembered the depressing looking hospital that I had seen many years earlier when I was visiting Peć in Kosovo. My enduring image of that place was of its pyjama-clad inmates leaning out of upper-floor windows and hauling baskets of food up on ropes from their relatives, who were waiting outside the building on the ground below. The hospital in Sarajevo was nothinglike that.

I was introduced to the lady ophthalmologist, who then seated me in a special high-backed chair. A white-coated nurse approached me, carrying a syringe fitted with a long, broad-gauge needle. I must have winced in anticipation because Marija said,
Ne t’inquiétes pas. C’est seulement une piqûre.” (Don’t worry. It’s only an injection)
An injection … in my eye: I did not like the thought of that. She
laughed again, and said,
Regardez, le dentiste a peur d’avoir une piqûre!” (See, the dentist is afraid of having an injection)

Eventually, the nurse managed to squirt some liquid onto the surface of my eye, rather than into its interior, as I had feared was going to happen. The ophthalmologist examined it with her special equipment. It turned out, to my great relief, that I had an attack of conjunctivitis, which could be easily cured with the eye-drops that she gave me. After the clinical examination, we retired into her office. She rang for an assistant, who returned with cups of Turkish coffee and a dish filled with little cubes of lokum (Turkish delight).

 

I have lost touch with Marija and her family. All I know is that her daughter and son-in-law along with their child emigrated to the Seychelles shortly before Yugoslavia erupted into a self-destructing civil war.

The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.