If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. –William Blake
And now I hear in color.
It just started happening by itself some time ago. So now when I hear anything, I see light, flashes, colors, rivers of acidic photons winding their way across my dead retinal nerves. Ozzy Osbourne has a purple voice. Lennon’s voice is beige. You know Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam? He has a deep, rich, chocolate colored voice. Some people’s voices are red, and some are orange, but I’ve yet to hear a green voice. I sure would love to hear a green voice.
Notes of music too; a mid-range C is a warm brown color, and a D is more of a burning yellow. I can go over downtown and stand at the corner, and I hear one of the street musicians playing. He plays a C on his violin, and I hear a brown sound, and then he goes up up up until he’s hitting a C on the next octave, and this time it’s a brighter brown. And he keeps going higher and higher, sending a cycling rainbow of colors my way, but as he reaches C on the next octave, the colors have come full circle back to brown, only even brighter this time.
When Eddie Vedder sings a C note, it’s the deepest, richest, sweetest most fudgey brown anyone ever heard.
My friend Carl says all this is bullshit, but my friend Carl doesn’t know too much of anything. We’re great friends, though. He’s been my friend for a long time, maybe even before I became blind. I don’t know. Mommy doesn’t like to talk about that time, but I do remember what red is and what blue is and what green is. I like green. I sure would love to hear a green voice. Carl has an electric blue voice, so lively it makes me happy just to see it.
Once I went out onto the street to take walk and hear the leaves and flowers and sky and see the wind. My friend Carl was with me that time and we were about a block away from home. Mommy was at home but she didn’t know we’d gone out. We were on the pavement, just running along and talking, when suddenly there was a huge
explosion of black light in front of me. WHAM!
It grew bigger and louder and stronger, black scary light, hot and feverish. It filled my head and my vision and my hearing, and then when I thought it couldn’t get any bigger or louder, it kept growing and growing, huge and ear-shattering. It pulsed and pounded, louder and larger and brighter than anything I’d ever seen before. The black light seemed to seep into my ears and punch me there. My head began to ache and hurt, pulse and repulse, in timing with the pulsing mushroom of black light. The headache was soon all over me, crushing and twisting me this way and that. My friend Carl was very scared, and he kept asking me if I was alright, because I had fallen down and was holding my head in my hands and shouting loudly. I could see my own screams. They were scarlet.
I only woke up much later. I could feel my own bed under me. I knew it was my bed because right at the small of my back there’s a little bump that only I can feel. I have a very sensitive sense of touch. My Mommy says that that’s because I’m blind.
The first thing I saw after waking up was my Mommy’s voice. Normally her voice is a pleasant creamy color, but today it had flecks of gray in it. She asked me if I was alright, and she was crying, but she sounded relieved. I’d had a seize-her. I don’t know what a seize-her is, but my Mommy says I’m prone to seize-hers, and that they’re very dangerous and can happen anytime. I keep telling Mommy that I won’t try to seize her, whoever she is. She can go.
Mommy told me that I’d been out with my friend Carl, and then I’d heard a baby crying. I had never heard a baby crying after I first started hearing colors. Apparently, babies’ voices are horrible black mushrooms. It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. I don’t like babies now, at least until their voices take on a color of their own.
It’s a few days after that that Mommy takes me to the Doctor. Doctor’s waiting room is scary because it’s silent. I can’t hear anything, nothing at all. I can’t see anything. It’s not even black. Even black is something, but silence is nothing at all. I don’t like silence. It’s not golden at all. Golden is what water sometimes sounds like, most of all when it’s running real soft over leaves in the stream in the park.
Once my eyes get used to the silence, I notice that there’s a light blue tinge to the world. Air conditioning, I think, and I’m right. All sounds of wind are lightish blue. I can see people wave to me because a splash of light blue appears. I’ve caught people farting sometimes.
We wait a while. I don’t get bored waiting. I can make many interesting things out of sound. I can make mouth noises that look like rivers and canyons and mountains, multicolored landscapes and strange geographies. I can squeak my sneakers on the floor to get little spiky yellow fountains. I can make cityscapes too with sounds. If they’re regular pulses, beep then silence then beep, I get a picture of a cityscape.
I don’t know what a cityscape looks like, but Mommy describes it to me. That’s the sort of picture I get by making pulse sounds.
So we wait in Doctor’s waiting room, and then a voice calls out telling us we can go in. We go in.
“So, young man, what seems to be the problem?” he asks. He’s the doctor they recommended at the hospital after I became blind. He’s a specialist.
Mommy tells Doctor about my seize-her.
“But Doctor,” I say, “there was just me and my friend Carl. No girls. I didn’t seize anyone.” I start to cry a little. Crying is big gray blots on my voice.
Doctor sighs. He asks me to tell him what happened, exactly. So I tell him. I tell him about the mushroom, the black thing, the headache. I even tell him about my screams —
— “They were scarlet,” I say.
Doctor sighs again. “Now I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. I think this hearing colors is all in your head. You just need to snap out of it, young man. Imaginary friends and imaginary diseases are not for grown up young men like you. This only started happening recently, right?”
I nod yes. Young man. How I hate that term.
“Exactly.” He says it long and drawn out. Egg-sack-lee.
“But if it’s all in his head, why is it affecting him so much? Imaginary diseases never gave anyone headaches before,” Mommy says. Doctor explains about the power of the sub-con-shoes mind and so on. I start making mouth noises again.
Finally, Doctor tells me to stop imagining stuff, and gives Mommy medicine for me. He says it will help me sleep.
“I don’t need help sleeping,” I say, but Doctor thinks I do. We move out of Doctor’s office, and as we go, he shakes my hand.
Doctor thinks I’m making this stuff up, but Doctor’s voice is yellow.
I guess it’s hard to explain how it is. Once when I was not blind, Mommy showed me shapes. Things are said to have the same shape if they look the same even if they’re different colors or sizes, and I’d forgotten shapes existed until some time after I started hearing colors. See, when you’re blind, all of your world is focused on this map you have inside your head. My world is my map. In the map, Mommy is soft and chairs are hard and knives are pain. Mommy sits on a chair and holds a knife and cuts a sandwich for me, and I run my hand along her cheek and then across to the hard, warm chair, and then along her arm to her hand. I cry when the knife cuts my hand and Mommy cries too, and then in my map, Mommy is damp around the eyes. Eyes are things that let you see, and they have hair right above them. I don’t know much about eyes because whenever I run my hand along someone’s eyes, they don’t like it very much.
Every day I wake up blind, and every day I start building up my map. I feel with my hands, feel the mattress under me and the hard wood of the bedposts. The floor is cold and hard but the wood is hard and warm. Hot chocolate fudge sundaes are warm and cold and run along my tongue in droplets of taste. While I feel with my hands, I also hear, very very closely. Some things I only feel, some things I only hear. Some things I only feel with some parts of my body. The fridge, you see, is a whirr sound, and it’s a smooth surface on my hand but it’s a pain on my toe because many times, I stub it against the little blocks under it.
Then I started hearing colors, so my map had one more thing to attach to it, because now many things have colors. It’s strange how many noises there are around us. I have a very sensitive sense of hearing, but even I started noticing new sounds around me, sounds that used to fade into the nothing before, but now are a constant color in front of me. Some sounds are so faint that I don’t even know I’ve heard them until I see a splash of color in front of me.
Every sound, every type of sound, every musical instrument, every drumbeat, everything has a very special and distinctive … shape. Like I said, it’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. My cousin plays the violin and the cello. She has two violins and one cello, and when she comes over she plays them for me. What I meant about shapes was this: every tune played on a violin has a certain shape, and every tune played on a cello has a certain shape. The shapes of tunes played on one violin are different from shapes played on the other violin, but they’re more like each other than like the cello. And all three are more like each other than the shapes from an old acoustic that my grandpa gave my Mommy that she plays sometimes. A C note is always brown, but it’s a different shaped brown, depending on which instrument is playing it. Each musical instrument has its own shape, and many have a color too, but the color is usually very faint. The human voice is the only musical instrument with such a dominant color, and no shape at all.
When lots of instruments are playing together, I see different shapes on top of each other, like layers of bread and tomatoes and pickle and meat on burgers. It’s a lot of fun, looking carefully at each layer and shape to see what instrument it is and what notes it’s playing. My cousin performs with the school orchestra, and I go to her shows. I can pick out her violin playing amongst the other instruments there, even though there are 8 violin players, and a few other string sections, and all of the other violin players have the same brand and model of violin.
Mommy takes me to the big symphony orchestra on weekends. My friend Carl doesn’t go because he gets bored, but that’s all right. He isn’t blind. The symphony orchestra performs in a performing arts center in the city, so most weekends me and Mommy get into the car and she drives us there. Car drives are boring, but I play games. I try to arrange all of the traffic around us in my head, and we race other cars. I tell Mommy, let’s race that car, and she asks me which one. I tell her which one by pointing in the direction of the car, and then Mommy asks, the one that just revved up? And I say yes. In my head, it’s a bluish sort of color to my right, but for Mommy it’s a green convertible. A lot of the time, Mommy doesn’t understand which car I mean, and then I just say yes, that one to any old car, because Mommy gets upset if she isn’t able to play my games with me. She doesn’t want to show that she’s upset, but her voice changes color. I know. I hear.
The symphony orchestra is very big. It has 108 musicians, sometimes 112. Once, there was a flu epidemic in the area, and when we went to the orchestra, there were only 95 musicians. I know. I hear. I guess it might seem that having 108 different tracks in my head would be difficult, but it wasn’t. Maybe if they all played random things — but when they’re playing the same piece of music, it’s very easy to see. It’s beautiful. The double bass at the edges, going thum thum thum in a darker color, its shape interwoven with the bass drum. More towards the middle are the trombones and trumpets and they blow with the double bass so that it’s the same color, oh. String arrangements and they’re beautiful, and going up and down quick and slow, speed and slow and mixing together, and when they’re all at the same note it’s a single mass of color, each instrument vibrating in its shape and place and brightness, and then they drift apart, but they’re all complimentary to each other, so they form ordered, structured and yet madly organic, pulsating shifting moving vibrating colors —
I wish you could see it.
I wake up and I build my map but Mommy’s not there, where’s Mommy. Can’t hear her she isn’t in the kitchen
(the fridge is on it’s a whirr)
she isn’t in the living room where’s Mommy. Can’t hear anything outside no cars that’s strange we’re near a big street lots of cars where are all the cars all I hear is trucks
Mommy should be up by now she wakes up before me but where is she. Feels like morning right now, feels like what I feel like when it’s morning, not sleepy feel good feel yes. Mommy should be in kitchen right now Mommy should make me cereal Mommy should turn on TV to watch news but it’s not happening
Feel my way across the room and open door OUCH! Hit my head against the door, it was open, wood is warm and wood is hard and this time the wood is pain. Just feel the tears come up in my eyes because it’s morning and Mommy isn’t in the kitchen and the wood is pain and there’s too many pain anyway.
And then I hear Mommy’s orange footsteps on the walkway oh finally Mommy’s here and she’s wearing woolen socks they’re orange when she wears them and walks on wood floor paneling
(wood is hard and wood is warm and this time the wood is pain)
which she’s doing right now oh thank God Mommy’s here. Mommy hugs me and holds me and she says it doesn’t matter, Mommy’s here and I hold her tight. My map has a Mommy again and it’s not that scary now.
I ask Mommy what time it is and she tells me it’s 3am. I sigh and I tell her it feels like morning, and she hugs me and asks me, again? And I nod yes. This has happened before. My breathing grows more regular, and Mommy leads me to the kitchen, and she turns on the TV and watches the news. I fix cereal, and we talk on.
This has happened before. It happened two or three times, and Mommy was worried so she took me to the doctor. Doctor said that my body clock was being confused. Because I’m blind, my body clock isn’t constantly readjusted by the light levels, and ever since I started hearing sounds, the light levels around me are really erratic. So my body gets confused and 3am becomes 7am for me, and I wake up and I think Mommy’s not here.
I get scared.
In the city is a big University with many people who do science and research. One of them is interested in synesthesia – sense crossing, which is what I have. Doctor knows her from college, and he told her about me. She thinks I’m not making stuff up, and wants to meet me. I like her already.
She called up a few days ago and talked to Mommy. I was in the room at the time. Most people can only hear one side of a phone conversation that someone in the same room is having, but I hear both sides, so I heard the whole thing. After the introductions, she told Mommy about her research.
“I’m a lecturer at the department of Psychology here, but I try to get out of the lecturing bit of that as much as possible.”
Mommy laughs nervously.
“I’m also a borderline synesthete myself – “ Mommy gasps – “but the maximum extent of my synesthesia is seeing each letter in a different color.”
Mommy is getting more interested.
“Synesthesia is my main area of research, and I’ve met many people with varying degrees of synesthesia, but I would like to meet Sameer very much. Perhaps this sounds insensitive, but because of his blindness, he is in a very unique position to tell us more about the synesthetic experience.”
Wow. The synesthetic experience. I sound cooler already. And she doesn’t call me young man or your son or anything like that. Yup. I like her more and more. Over the phone, her voice is muddy gray, but most voices sound like that over the phone. I have to hear her in person. Maybe her voice will be green.
“You can come over to the University with him, or I can visit you at your home. I think he’ll like a visit here, it’ll be quite an experience, but it’s perfectly all right if you aren’t comfortable with that. Talk about it with him and let me know, please.”
Mommy says goodbye and hangs up. She leads me to the kitchen and we sit down.
“Well?” she says. “What do you think?”
“She sounds like a nice lady,” I say. “I want to meet her.”
Mommy holds my hand in both of hers and says, “Are you sure you’ll be alright? I don’t know what she’ll do. I didn’t like the way she said synesthetic experience.”
“No, Mommy, I’ll be fine. She didn’t mean any harm, you know, she probably just speaks that way.” I guess Mommy wasn’t too convinced, but she didn’t say anything.
“I really want to go. She sees colors too, didn’t you hear that? Maybe she can tell me more about the things I see. I want to go, Mommy.”
Mommy sighs, and says, “All right, then.” She calls up the lady and tells her we’re coming.
“That’s great!” she says. “When can you come? If you can, come by the metro. Has Sameer been on the metro, ever?”
“No,” Mommy says. “Why the metro?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just that there’s something I think Sameer will notice on the platform.”
And I did.
We went to the station next weekend. The place was noisy and colorful, but then so are many places. Mommy was anxious, I think. In the morning, her voice had black flecks in it. She only gets those rarely, like when she’s angry or irritated or worried. I spilled a bit of milk on the table and she snapped at me real bad. I don’t like it when Mommy shouts at me. I didn’t cry but I felt like it.
At the station Mommy bought me a milkshake. I really love milkshakes. I love strawberry milkshakes the most. Mommy tells me strawberry milkshakes are green. Maybe that’s why I love them so much. I love green things. As I was drinking the milkshake, I heard the train coming in.
I heard it from when it was far away. It was a very faint sound. In fact, I didn’t notice it all until there was a light golden cloud right at the edge of my vision.
“Is there a stream around here?” I asked Mommy.
“No,” Mommy said.
I was puzzled. I was even more puzzled when the golden cloud began to come towards the centre – meaning it was getting a bit louder – but as it came to the centre, it changed color. The nearer it came to the centre, the grayer and muddier it became. It was changing color, but very smoothly. It went from one color to another and I could only make out a difference in color after some time had passed, it was so smooth. Soon, it was no longer golden at all – it was a brick maroon color, and louder and louder.
It was the train. It sounded like a waterfall, shusha shoosha shush. But why was its sound changing color?
Suddenly, there was a spiky purple sound, very piercing. The whistle. The whistle was changing color too: purple to indigo to dark blue to blue. The train was getting near, and by now the sound was so loud it was hurting my ears. I clapped my hands over my ears and screwed up my eyes but it was still very loud. Chugga puffa shoosh and then it was there.
Mommy took me by the arm and we went inside the train. It was nice and cool, and I could see the light blue air conditioning again.
“So did you notice something there, Sameer?” the lady asked me.
I was a bit disappointed when I first heard her, because her voice wasn’t green. I get disappointed every time I meet a new person, because I keep hoping they’ll have a green voice, and they never do. I hadn’t seen the color green ever since I became blind. The lady’s voice was navy blue, crisp and calm and professional. I liked her voice. Her name was Aparna and she had slim, firm hands. After voices, hands are the first thing I notice about people. You’d never know it, but there are thousands, thousands of different kinds of hands. Had hands and thin hands and dry hands and moist hands and hands with skin drooping off and hands with skin stretched taut and hands with dry patches of dinosaur skin between fingers where the moisturizer doesn’t get to.
“The train changes color,” I said. My right hand’s fingers were on her lips, so I knew that she smiled when she heard that. It felt like a beautiful smile.
“I’d expected something like that. Tell me, did the whistle change color too? Did it become brighter or darker or anything like that, the closer it came?”
“Yes! Yes it did, it kept changing, closer it came the marooner it got. Yes! How did you know that?”
She explained something called the Doppler effect to me. Whenever something noisy is coming towards you or going away from you, the noise coming from it changes. Becomes higher or lower, depending. And for me, noises are colors, so I see changing colors when I hear changing noises.
“You know, you being able to see that also makes something else clear, and that’s that you’re really seeing colors.”
“What I mean is, there’s an actual connection between your auditory and visual centers. Your mind isn’t simply attaching a color to every sound based on, say, your emotional response or associated memories you have with the sound. Hearing colors is in your wires – either that, or you have a very cunning subconscious indeed.” She smiled again. “Oh well,” she said. “Let’s look around the campus, shall we?”
She held me by the hand and led me around the campus. What color was that sound, she would ask, and I would say yellow or red or a purply maroon or whichever it was. I told her about air being light blue, and water golden, and how my screams were scarlet that day. I told her Doctor’s voice was yellow, and she laughed at that. She was paying attention, I knew, because when we had been walking for about forty five minutes and were going across a grassy garden towards the Physics department, she asked me, “No green sounds? You’ve told me about sounds of every sort of color and shade, but no green.” So I told her about green. I think she was puzzled by that because she just said, “Hmm” and asked me if green was my favorite color. And I said yes, green is my favorite color, yes.
The Physics building sounded like many, many droplets of paint sprayed against a light blue sky. The campus outside was noisy, but a familiar sort of noisy, the noisy of cities or malls. The Physics building sounded like how Aparna described a Jackson Pollock painting to me later. It looked like sprayed droplets of color, but the closer you look, the more structure you find. Most of the noise came from a single room, and as Aparna led me by the hand, we seemed to be heading that way. When we reached the door of the room, Aparna stopped and told me, “This is the lab. There are lots, but we’ll go there later.” Then we went inside.
The droplets arranged themselves.
Aparna led me to a bench, where I sat down. The next instant, I saw the biggest, most solid splash of brown I ever saw. Pure. Deep. The word for it, I think, is intense. It was the most intense brown I’ve ever seen. It drowned out every other sound around me, in a way no other sound before had. I stared and stared, until it faded away gently, and the Pollock background came back.
The droplets arranged themselves.
“What – what was that?” I asked her.
“That,” she said, “was probably the purest brown you’ve ever seen.” I nearly yelled with surprise. She smiled again and explained, “That was a tuning fork, tuned to a C note. Pure, pure sound. Play with it, if you like.” She showed me how to set the fork vibrating, and how to put it on a resonance box to hear it loud. There was a whole set of tuning forks there and I played with them a while.
“What next?” I asked her, because this was getting fun.
“Well, what comes next might hurt, or it might make you pass out. Anything could happen.” Of course I wanted to try it, so we did. She got a steel string and stretched it taut between two knobs, explaining as she did so. “We’re going to match the vibration of this string to the vibration of the fork.” After she’d set the thing up, I set the fork vibrating, and put it on the box. A pure brown filled my vision. And then –
– another sound, another color, a bar, many bars, bars of slatted shadow flitting across and through, straight black and white bars, wide and far between at first, then getting narrower and more numerous, now there were lots of little black bars, then millions of tiny black and white lines across the pure brown sound. They seemed to multiply and multiply, and fill all over, crowding my vision and my brain until I seemed to forget the wall of brown behind them and saw just the black lines.
And then they disappeared. I saw just brown again, and after a second or two, even that faded.
The droplets arranged themselves.
“What was that like?” Aparna asked me. I described it to her. Again, she seemed puzzled. Now that the sound had died away, I could sense a weak but deep ache between my eyes. I told Aparna, and she seemed a bit worried. We went back to her building. On the way, we talked about ice-creams and grass, and my friend Carl and how we sometimes play hopscotch on the street.
I come back next weekend, and this time Mommy lets me stay the whole weekend there. I don’t think she really likes Aparna, it’s just that she respects her a lot, and she likes the way Aparna respects me, even though she’s a bit eager with her experiments. This time, Aparna introduces me to a lot of people, and it gets confusing after a while, but that’s all right. Everyone wants to know me. Aparna has a daughter, and I meet her, too. Her name is Anjali and she has soft hands, but her voice isn’t green either.
Aparna tells me about her synesthesia, how she sees letters and numbers in different colors. Every letter has its own color, so when she looks at black text, she sees a thousand little colored squiggles. Every letter is a pixel, and every word a little image in her mind. She learned to read at the age of four, and has the largest vocabulary of anyone she knew before she started her research, and it’s no wonder. Letters change color depending on the word they’re in, so each word has a distinct look; the color of every word is burned in her mind.
Some words look alike, though, so she is prone to spelling mistakes that most people would never make. For example, she tells me, she often writes nonsense words like “ihhfe” when she means “apple”, because in her mind, they both look the same, and she can only see the difference when she looks very closely.
Later, when she started meeting other people like her, she found many who were exactly alike in their sensations. She has met people who hear noises when they see colors; she has met people who see shapes when they feel object; she has even met people who see weak starbursts of color when they hear certain sounds; but I am the only one with such a sensitive synesthesia. Aparna says it’s because I’m blind, that’s why the synesthesia developed so strongly.
That weekend was beautiful. Anjali takes me to walk around the campus again, only this time it’s a quieter walk. In my map, the sky is heat that day. The sky is only ever two things, except when it’s nothing at all: heat and wet. Wet when it rains and heat when it shines, and this day it’s heat. Anjali takes me to a little park set to the side of the campus, and I know from far away that there’s a little pool there because I can see the golden splashes it makes against the bank. Here, the sky isn’t heat because the tree branches above block it. We sit down at the golden edge and Anjali tells me about herself. She’s in school, about a few months younger than me. She tells me about school; she tells me about the hundreds of kids who can see and hear, but not hear and see together. She tells me about the people and the things they do; it’s a world out there. I think she can see that I want it, want to be part of it, so she starts telling me about the annoying teachers and the bullies and the teenage politics. I want it all even more, even if that means I wouldn’t hear and see at the time.
“And how would that be like?” she asks me, and I realize that I don’t know. She, Aparna, the kids in school, the people in the college, everyone is just as alien to me as I am to them. All of them. Even, even Mommy. I’m like that man from Mars, a stranger in a strange land, but they all look like me and feel like me and have soft hands and soft hair and soft lips.
Anjali has met some of the other synesthetes that her mother worked with, and she tells me about them. She also tells me that sometimes, she would give them brush and canvas and ask them to paint. Paint the word love or droplet or vermicelli. Paint a tree as you hear it. Paint Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, she would tell them, and then paint Abbey Road. She describes some of the paintings to me, but I’m hardly paying attention, and when she asks me if I would like to paint, my eyes widen as I nod frantically yes, yes I would yes.
I wonder why Aparna hasn’t mentioned painting to me.
Anjali comes back fifteen minutes later with a canvas and five jars of paint. She makes me stand up and she stands in front of me, my left hand in her right and my right in her left, and she runs my hands along the edges of the canvas so I know how big it is and where it is and what the painting area is. Then she pulls my right hand down to the ground where the jars of paint are arranged, left to right, red then green then blue then yellow then black. Then she tells me, Paint.
And I try, Mommy, I try, but I can’t. I say a word, and I hear a word, and I see a word, and I see a thousand, a million colors in that single word. And on the ground beside me are five, red green blue yellow black, crude primaries. Yet I try. I dip my forefinger in red and I draw a stripe, but I miss the edge of the canvas, I dip it in yellow but then the two colors mix, and when I wanted blue my hand goes into black, I can’t see anything.
I can’t see anything except the million colors in the single word love, and I don’t know anything except that that word is green, but my hand goes into red, and I spill the green paint by mistake, tip the paint can over, feel the paint wind its viscous way across the grass, green grass Mommy says. And then I just tear the canvas down and sit down again, and I feel like crying again. Anjali sits down next to me and I hold her hand, and she doesn’t snatch it away even though my hand’s got paint all over it. She has green paint on her hand now, we both do. I can’t see anything.
Now I know why Aparna didn’t mention painting to me.
Anjali holds my hand and tells me about the other people, who could paint. She would tell them, Paint the most beautiful thing in your life. I try to think what the most beautiful thing in my life is, and I try to imagine painting it. And then I realize, I don’t remember what Mommy looks like anymore.
That night, me and Anjali sit talking.
“What’s your favorite color?” she asks me. “Green,” I reply.
“Okay. So you look at, say, a leaf, or a pear, and you feel a certain sensation in your mind. When you look at the leaf, your mind says, this is the color green.”
“But what is green?”
“Green is … it’s a color. It’s the color of a leaf.”
“Exactly. So the only way you know something is green, or red or whatever, is because your mom or your teacher or someone pointed to it and said, that’s green. And then they pointed to something else and said, that’s also green. And when you look at both of these things, you see something common about them, and you figure, that common property, that must be the thing called green.”
“Right,” I say.
“My point is that, independent of the objects with which they’re associated, colors have no meaning. Green is defined as the property common to both a leaf and a pear, and the color of a leaf and pear is defined as green, circularly.”
“But green is also a light wave with a certain frequency,” I say, remembering the evenings in which I had made Mommy learn all about colors and light and teach me about them, soon after I started seeing colors.
“No, no, I don’t mean color as in wavelength. I mean color as in mind sensation. That thing you have in your mind that comes when your retina is hit by a photon of such and such frequency. You don’t see a floating number there, you see a sensation, right?”
“Right,” I say, still not seeing what she was getting at.
“Now if you took a newborn baby and fixed his eyes, maybe put a filter right in front of the pupil or whatever, so that all colors are interchanged, like green becomes red and red becomes green, and maybe blue and yellow are swapped. Suppose you put this filter there, and never removed it as he grew up. Then when his mom points to a leaf and a pear and says, this is green, the kid sees what we would call red, because his filter exchanges green with red. But if you point to grass and ask him, what color is that, he will say green, because that’s what he’s been told. He sees red, and he says green. And if he’s never told about the filter in his eye, he will never know that what he sees is so fundamentally different from what everyone else sees. It will be the natural form of the world for him; maybe he will even see the beauty in a tree or a fern.”
I try to take this in; Anjali goes on.
“But what if everyone is born with their own filter, right from birth? Not a physical filter, but a filter as in the way our neurons are mapped? Which, by the way, is pretty likely, seeing as our minds are all wired so differently as we grow up and develop. So the mind sensation I call red is the mind sensation you call green, and the feeling you get from looking at a leaf is the feeling I get from looking at an apple. Maybe someone else gets the same mind sensation looking at a yellow banana. And we would never know, there’s absolutely no way to know, because color is relative. And what that means is that inside of us, we might all have the same favorite color. All of humanity would have the same favorite mind sensation; in my case, that mind sensation is triggered by red; for you, it’s green.”
I begin to see what she means.
“Which is why your case is so fascinating. Sound, you see, is a much simpler sense, at least for us, and you map sounds to colors – but not just to colors. You map sounds to the mind sensations we call colors. You can point to wood and say, this is the color of a C note. You pin colors in an absolute, not relative scale.”
But I cannot see.
My friend Carl is my best friend. We go everywhere together and we play together and we hang out at my place together. He’s been my friend for a long, long time, and I love him very much even though he’s a little dense, and doesn’t speak very much. That’s okay, I guess. People can’t help how they are, I guess I should know that pretty well.
My friend Carl loves the outdoors, so me and him, we go out together, on the street or at the mall or wherever. I shouldn’t go outside the house all that much without Mommy or some other adult, but my friend Carl takes good care of me. He’s very protective of me too, I know, because whenever the older kids around take my money or hit me or kick at me to make me fall down and hurt myself, he tries to fight back. He’s not very strong, but he’s my friend.
The great thing about my friend Carl is, he likes walks. I love walks. If I could, I would just go out the house and keep walking, keep walking, walk right to the edge of the ocean and then walk along the beach, golden wavefront to my left and beachside cafés to my right, with all the different voices and sounds and colors. I don’t like talking much while walking, and my friend Carl is fine by that too, so we’re great that way. It really bonds us together, all those three hour long walks along streets and sidewalks, in the hundred little parks of the city, down the stairways into the pedestrian underground and up the big stairs to the metal crossways over the busier roads.
Another thing about my friend Carl is, he doesn’t mind me touching him. The sense of touch is very important for me – hearing and touch, they’re practically the only senses I have. If you have just three tiny slit-windows to the outside world and one of them has a curtain drawn across it, then the other two become infinitely more precious. Problem is, most people don’t like someone touching them, their hands or their faces and lips or their waist or hair. I don’t know people by the way their face is; I know them by their voices and their hands, the temperature of their lips, the way the wrinkles form at the edge of their lips when they smile, the length of their eyelashes, he roughness of their cheek, the softness of that tender place at the nape of the neck right under the edge of where hair grows where it’s always warmer than the rest of the body, the shape of their ear, the feel of their hair. My friend Carl doesn’t mind; he understands.
Mommy loves my friend Carl too, probably because he’s always so nice and loving to me. Mommy loves cooking things for me and him, and he almost always has lunch and dinner over at our place. He doesn’t talk much about his parents, and I never ask. Mommy always tries to be nice to him, even when she’s annoyed with him for making me go outside where it might be dangerous and everything’s so scary. The only time Mommy has ever been really angry with my friend Carl was when we once went on a walk, and my friend Carl let me wander over to the middle of the road and a bicycle hit me in the left leg. I think it broke. I don’t remember much about that, I try not to think about that time because it makes me feel angry towards my friend Carl and I never ever want that to happen, okay? I love my friend Carl because he’s my best friend and there’s nothing he could have done, Mommy, I swear it was my mistake, Mommy, please don’t be angry with him, Mommy please Mommy I love you please.
My friend Carl didn’t like Anjali at first because he doesn’t like other people coming near me. It’s his protectiveness, won’t let down even though I told him she’s all right. He’s had too many experiences of people I thought were all right coming up to me, pinching my eyelid so hard I scream, kicking my knees and running away laughing a spiky yellow laugh. But then he saw that she really was all right, and he liked her then, because she liked him too. I guess that’s how it is, right, you like someone and they like you back, and it doesn’t matter at all that I’m blind and she’s a girl and my friend Carl is a bit dense and doesn’t speak much.
About a month after that first weekend with Anjali I start seeing green again.
I’m back at the university, and me and Anjali are over at the music department building. Anjali told Aparna about my painting, and Aparna thinks I should do the thing I’m best at. It’s just a hunch she has, but she tells Anjali to try it out with me.
As she leads me by the hand to one of the many empty practice rooms, down the big corridors with shiny floors that squeak multicolored spikes when you walk with sneakers on, Anjali asks me, “Can you think of an image and then think of the sound that would look like that?”
“I don’t know, Anjali, I never tried anything like that.”
“I don’t mean the exact sound, just a general idea, a direction to work to? Say you think up some beautiful landscape inside your head and then work backwards from there, turn color to sound?”
“I know what you mean. Just let me try it out. It’s a new thing entirely, you know, neural pathways I never walked down, like you say.”
She smiles at that. She always talks that way, it’s so cute. We reach the practice room and I sit down at the big piano they have there. Anjali pulls up a stool next to mine, and she guides my hands over the keys, the ivory and the wood and everything. She shows me how to press the keys, one by one, first slowly and awkwardly with just my forefingers, then with the other fingers. I feel the piano like I would a person; I hear its voice like I would a person’s, except I’m only hearing my own voice, through the piano.
Quickly, I grow fascinated with the instrument. I press a key, and a note comes floating across my vision, waving its color like a flag whipping in the wind. I can make colors – make colors! This, this is my palette. This is the million jars of paint I needed, this is where my fingers can walk on and draw a picture of love or Mommy or moist, soft lips kissing the tips of my fingers, most beautiful sound I ever heard…
And there I sit, at the piano, and I think I played all day, or most of it in any case. It’s amazing, how quickly my fingers begin to dance over the keys. The keys aren’t ABCDEFG, they’re colors, see, a C note is a brown and my forefinger can draw a brown sound by pressing like this. I pull up a picture in my head, simple ones to start with, and I draw them out, I look at it and it’s simpler than it sounds, playing the keys to get that picture. Love, and Mommy, and the birds, and the water, and Anjali, and her soft lips kissing the tips of my fingers after I’m done playing and sweating and shaking and happier than I’ve ever been before.
And she holds both my hands and she says, “That was beautiful,” and her voice has sparks of green in it, jumping me in the face. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and that picture, that picture of her saying, That was beautiful, and her voice pulsing with green sparks, every green I’d ever imagined and hoped and held inside me, that’s the only picture I never tried to make into music. I don’t think it can be done.
After that first time playing the piano, I keep coming back, again and again. I play and record the music, and later me and Aparna and Anjali sit and write the music down in music notation. I start spending most of my time there, until the university gifts me a piano and builds me a recording room in my house under their research program. Anjali starts coming over a lot.
Aparna wrote several papers that became quite famous in the little community doing synesthesia research, and even, to some degree, in the broader field of psychology. She co-authored several more papers with colleagues in the music department, analyzing my music. A CD of a few of the pieces, performed by me in the little recording studio, distributed along with the papers, became something of a cult hit amongst the college crowd. Now I hear the big symphony orchestra is going to start one of their performances with one of my pieces as the introduction, only with a lot of string arrangements added in. I’ll get Mommy to take me there when that happens, and I’m going to make sure my friend Carl comes along too this time, like it or not.
After the first spark of green in her voice, in about a week or so, Anjali’s voice became completely green; and not just some bland green, but an electric, rushing, bubbling, sparking, fiery green, full of lightning and wonder. I love her voice. I guess I love her. When we told Aparna about this, shyly and giggling, she was very nice about it. “I think,” she said, “that green is reserved for someone you love. It’s not just a physical neuron connection after all.” She was puzzled, but that’s a good thing. Puzzled looks lead to papers and discoveries and the Progress of Science, bless the grain of sand at the center of the pearl and Einstein’s frizzy gray hair.
Next, I’m going to learn to play the violin. Symphonies aren’t built on piano pieces, you know. String arrangements is where the art is, though my first love will always be ivory and wood and dancing fingers on my palette.
Aparna says I should join the university, in the music department. The professors there agree. I’m home-schooled, but they don’t think that’ll be a problem. They see a future; and I?
I see sounds.
Anjali comes over a lot. When we’re not in the studio or in my room, we go outside for long walks through the city, the hundred little parks and snug lanes. My friend Carl comes along too. He doesn’t mind and we don’t mind. He likes it a lot, the three of us together; I know he likes it because I can see the light blue colored wind he makes when he wags his tail and walks along with us. And we walk on, the three of us, long into the sunset, and when we’re not out walking, we sit and we talk. Sometimes we play hopscotch on the street.