“Start with the chairs,” I instructed Kavya as soon as I received the text from my uncle, as we stood outside the camp deciding whether to first clean the entrance or the chairs where the patients were going to sit for the day. Due to its proximity to the open farms and having been shut for two years due to a corona, the entire place was covered in dust except for the doctor’s chamber, three small operation theatres set up by the team for an eye surgery, and the living quarters of the doctors, which were maintained by the workers of Khera Sahib gurudwara.
Khera Sahib is a small township situated in the Doaba reign of Punjab, which is just 2 kilometres before a big district called Garhdiwala. One will encounter a large, arched gateway on the left side of the highway, signifying a turn left onto a tree-lined boulevard called Sant Baba Harnam Singh Marg. Traveling along this road, one can notice the open farms and neatly lined lamp posts on either side as you proceed towards the gurudwara adjacent to which my uncle, Dr. Jagdeep Singh, ran his free eye camp for the past 8 years.
My uncle and aunt arrived at the camp around 6:30 a.m. I touched their feet, as a mark of respect, a common tradition in our country, followed by an exchange of warm hugs. Uncle was excited to introduce me to the administration and the village head, who was there to receive him. We all had another round of tea and snacks as they narrated a few stories of the place and how they had planned their day while the rest of the team started to clean the instruments for the procedures.
This camp, along with a basic eye check-up, was mostly focused on cataract surgery for those who either had no access to a proper hospital or could not afford to pay for it, as every facility around here was free of charge, and all they asked the patients in return was to do seva (help) for others. According to our country’s National Programme for Control of Blindness survey, there are over 12 million blind people in India, and 80.1% of these are blind due to cataracts.
As people started to disembark from their respective buses, we ran short of chairs. Slowly, the air grew thick, and there was a sudden warmth in the room. Everyone occupied their various positions, and soon the chaos looked orderly as they all conglomerated as one unit.
Einstein’s theory of relativity, which says that time is relative, was shown to be right for the first time. None of us knew what time it was until my uncle came out and asked me to join him for a cup of tea. The temperature outside had decreased, but the camp and our hearts were still warm. Finally, Uncle broke the silence: “When I had just passed out of school and was dying to get a seat in the medical college that year, the competition was really tough.” “I was really nervous; it felt like life and death to me, so I went to a gurdwara and genuinely prayed to God that if I ever got a seat in the medical college, you could use me to do as much seva as you want, and then when I got introduced to this place and learned that they wanted to start a free camp for people, I knew it was time to live up to my promise.” But you have given eight years of your life; I retorted that there is only so much your body can take. “If I can be honest, I will be lying to you if I say that the thought of giving up this place never crossed my mind, but the look of satisfaction on the faces of my patients and the blessings they grant to me and my family fuels me every single time,” he said as he looked out of the window, his heartfelt words sweetened the silence that approached us.
The next morning, I went to his door for our first cup of tea and to say good-bye to him and the camp. Even before we could properly greet each other, two staff members from his team ran towards us and requested that we make ourselves available at the camp site immediately. There was a mix of nervousness and a smile in her voice, and even after my uncle’s repeated request, she kept insisting that we follow her at once. Uncle and I held each other’s hands as there was still dew on the grass, and we ran behind her.
As soon as we reached the camp area, we saw a huge crowd that had gathered and was filled with moist eyes. We managed to find the two kids who were operated on yesterday and could finally, for the first time in their lives, see the world around them. They ran and touched everything for the first time, and behind them was their mother, who, after her operation, was also seeing her kids for the first time.
She ran behind her two children, holding and kissing them as they unclasped her hands around them and touched and played with everything they could. We walked back to my uncle’s room. There were no words for what we had experienced; he walked straight to his desk and held up the letter of his resignation, which he had written early this morning, and tore it into pieces. There was contentment and a smile behind his cries, and we hugged out our emotions that needed warmth. I stayed another day, helping the staff members in any way I could. Even after working for 10 hours straight in this cold winter in Punjab, nothing could tire our spirits. The morning episode replayed in our hearts, and like they say in Gurbani,
“the realisation of truth is higher than all else; higher still is truthful living.”