Bottle rockets set off horizontally are not cool, mmmkay?

(Or how I lost my left eye, like depicted in Hugo.)


I am blind in my left eye due to a firecracker incident. It is obvious and I often get the question as to how it happened. I usually answer "it was a fireworks accident, caused by a bottle rocket." I travel all the world and not everyone I speak with speaks English well enough to understand the term "fireworks" and "bottle rocket" even though they probably know what it is. I've sometimes used pictures to illustrate what happened (in fact, that is how it happened on the first day I met my wife in Thailand!). (I'll try to scan and put those pictures above someday. I even have digital audio tape (DAT) recordings of my wife and her friend reacting to that story as they comprehend what happened. :)

Regardless, for most people, the word "fireworks" rings a bell and they at least get that it was an accident due to fireworks. For many others, the term "bottle rocket" is familiar also and so they get it even better. But even then, at this point, unless people are really curious and question me further to explain the story, people assume it was something I actively did ("my fault" if you will, but I dislike that word) that led to me losing my eye.

But if people are curious and have the time to hear the story with a lot of parenthetical comments, this is how it goes. It was the first day of Diwali on November 15, 1982 (I actually remember it as November 11, 1982 for some reason --- maybe because I was 11 years old then). Diwali (anglicised, I'd argue since its proper Sanskrit name is "Deepavali") is an Indian festival of lights celebrated for various reasons related to Hindu (and Jain and potentially other religious) mythologies. It is celebrated by traditional festivities that include families getting together, lighting a lot of lamps, having various special events such as concerts particularly at temples. But the most important part to me growing up (I am a born pyromaniac) was by setting off fireworks.

By "setting off fireworks", I don't mean it in the sense that someone arranges a (sometimes spectacular) fireworks display people go "ooh" and "aah" over them, such as what we happens here in the US on the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve in various cities and a much better one practically every single day at Disney World (check it out, I had green hair then!). I mean that every one buys their own fireworks and sets them off during the three days the festival is officially celebrated (some will have an itchy trigger finger and some will have left overs). I do not know if things have changed in India but that's how it was then. People would literally blow up millions of dollars (yes, dollars) worth of fireworks during that period every single year.

I and my family were no exception. It is actually shameful for me today to say that we'd burn thousands of dollars worth of fireworks each year, just our family alone. Our neighbours were no different. This was our version of "keeping up with the Joneses" if you will. A group of people in my neighbourhood wanted to be the first to set off the most fireworks each year.

On that first day of Deepavali in 1982, I definitely claimed the "first" title in my neighbourhood. I woke up at 5am in the morning and went down to the front of my house and started setting off the so called "hydrogen bombs", a small round ball consisting of the explosive content tightly wrapped using a green thread until a small ball was formed and then some (the ball was about 5 times the size of the explosive content). The ball was enclosed by foil and a fuse was connected to the explosive content going through the green threading and the foil. These were the loudest and most powerful explosive firecracker "bomb" you could set off at that time. (You could get a more powerful explosive sound by wrapping very roughly a gram or so of sulphur in silver foil to make it a small ball and putting it in a small metal (iron) cup resembling a metal shot glass and then putting a long rod on top of it and using the rod as guide to smash the combination of rod + cup + sulphur ball force on a ground with a hard surface. It would produce a tremendous bang at times. Doing this was actually safer than the firecrackers I'd argue even though it sounds more dangerous.)

But anyways, back to the story. At 5am, I woke up my neighbours and one of my friends joined me. My neighbours on my right started setting off their own fireworks in front of their house and we started the usual game of who could be loudest and set off the most impressive fireworks to start with and so on. It was all friendly and in fun and no one was actually keeping score but there definitely was that mentality. I only mention this because India in 1982 hadn't opened up its markets yet and had a highly state owned economy and there were few ways one could play the "keeping up with the Joneses" game in terms of material goods.

The whole incident went like this. My neighbours were about 30-40 feet away on my right. My friend with me mentioned something like: "Look, they're setting off a bottle rocket towards us." And I said something like "So what, I'm not afraid" and I actually turned to look in their direction. The rocket did travel on the street and as I was watching it hit the footpath ("sidewalk") and angled upwards and went right into my left eye (it didn't graze my cheek, nose, or even get close to any other part of my body, just my left eye).

Bottle rockets tended to come in two broad types, either a cone shaped tip like the one that went into my eye or a flat topped one. The ones with the cone (and thus with a pointed, head) were known to be the exploding kind. That is, they would go up in the sky and explode (unlike the flat topped rockets without the cone that just went up in the sky and didn't explode). The rocket that went into my eye was the exploding kind.

Some survival instinct in me must've kicked because I pulled the rocket out and let it go behind me (where there was a lot of room in my house) where it went and exploded. My mother was watching me from the top floor window to make sure I was okay and her worst fears had come true. I ran back to my home, blood flowing down my cheeks, shouting that my neighbours had set off a rocket in my eye. Within a few minutes, my mother and uncle were taking me to a hospital. My neighbours had disappeared.

What I needed was specialised eye treatment. The first hospital we went to didn't have any but they did bandage my eye and stopped the blood flow. The second hospital had a renowned eye expert but she? was not yet in the hospital when we arrived (it was a holiday after all) and we weren't sure when she would. Finally we went to a nursing home ("Praba Nursing Home") where the doctor ("Ram Murthy", a famous surgeon) performed an exhausting surgery requiring several hours and sixteen? stitches and patched my eye together as best as he could.

But it was already too late just after the rocket hit my eye, since it had damaged my retina. The doctor patched my eye up in the faintest hope I would have some vision but he said the damage to the retina was not fixable (and it remains that way to this date, since it really means neural surgery and repair, i.e., fixing the nerve endings that connect to the brain via the optic nerve, which is beyond our means --- ultimately I believe stem cell research will solve this problem, perhaps even in my lifetime and we're doing some research related to organ regeneration that could help with that). I stayed in the nursing home for two weeks? to ensure that the damage didn't reach my optic nerve, where it had the potential to damage both eyes. I came across several eye damage incidents due to fireworks on my way to this nursing home (through the two hospitals) but the worst case I saw was here where someone was watching from a balcony looking down when the bottle rocket hit their eye and they lost both eyes since the optic nerve was damaged. So I was thankful for small favours.

In general, I shrugged this off since my right eye adapted very well at that point and only appearance seemed to be affected. I immediately coped with the loss of stereoscopic vision and within 2 days of getting out of the nursing home. The doctor who performed the initial surgery wanted to remove the cornea out to ensure that any infection didn't reach the optic nerve but my mother disagreed with that idea and we found another doctor (Ravindra, who is apparently now famous in Bangalore and I owe a lot of debt and gratitude to him in terms of him encouraging me to do well in life and that this incident wouldn't hold me back). This doctor agreed it didn't need to be removed if it was monitored and it was unlikely that after several weeks there would be an infection. But the sewed up cornea atrophied and shrank (but still remains in my left eye socket, just much smaller).

I generally benefitted from the overall sympathy and empathy afforded to me through my middle and high schools. I was teased on one occasion which I let roll off my back but in most cases I was sensitive (some of it was admittedly a fake sensitivity since I was more hot headed than I am now) and it lead to some confrontations which put an end quickly to any potential teasing or open discussion (though it did have me explaining to the principal at times and I always was able to articulate my position without any consequence). But I got over it as I got older, moved and changed schools and people were generally curious. I then wore a glass eye for many years. This was a PITA and I stopped doing it after my second girlfriend said that I looked better without it.

Today I still would say I'm a bit of pyromaniac and love watching fire and playing with it though I'm far more careful about exposing myself or my children to what I consider the more dangerous fireworks. I see nothing wrong with the festival per se, but I do think bottle rockets and such should be set off in a bottle and not pointed at people (this was a view I held before again with the shameful exception of what I did to my aunt).

There are many ironies to this story. The day BEFORE the incident (i.e., before the start of the festival), I did a similar thing to what my neighbours had done. Set off a bottle rocket horizontally towards my aunt who turned and ran in fear and the rocket went between her legs fortunately sticking close to the ground and didn't burn her clothes or even touch her in any way.

The other irony is that my mom had always warned me about playing with fireworks and I always said "I don't care if I go blind." I said that the day before the incident. My mother blames herself for this incident and probably will the rest of her life. In the US there'd probably be a CPS investigation. But I see this as a positive experience and I even feel a bit sad for my children here who can't go through real world experiences like that at an young age (of course I also realised things could be far worse off in my life, not just because of my eye, but because of my surroundings, something I feel Americans who don't travel outside the country miss). I feel I've led an extremely fortunately life and there are few situations where something has happened that made me reevaluate my perspective, philosophy or "Weltanschauung" if you will. This is one of them. I use the German word specifically to paraphrase one held by another German existentialist (Nietzsche): That which did not kill me made me stronger. I'm fortunate enough to have experienced very few of these in my life, and only a couple I believe, by "choice", including this one, but the humbling that comes with it I think is an important lesson to learn in life (at least in my case it seems this is the way I learn such lessons).

Like I said, I adapted. I didn't give up my pyromania but I can guarantee I was extremely humbled about fire from this incident. And even now, how I allow my kids to play with fireworks on the Fourth of July: sparklers only under my strict supervision (this is what I mean by this lesson making me stronger---I'm not afraid of fireworks, I'm far more respectful of them). So it seems like a harsh way to learn a lesson but it really was beneficial to me. It in some ways made me more determined to follow my passions, to not take things for granted, and give more to the world than I take from it.

Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken is often misinterpreted I think, but that misinterpretation would apply in this case I believe.


Addendum

The above missive isn't a judgement on anyone who sets off bottle rockets horizontally (it's just a South Park reference). It's just my story. If I were a kid I probably would put myself in the same situation again.


Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org