In five minutes, they see again In five minutes, they see again The People's Eye Charity: The amazing story of two Lower Mainland men who have given the gift of sight to 40,000 poor people in India , and are still at it Mike Roberts, The Province "He who eats what he earns through his earnest labour and from his hand gives something in charity, he alone knows the true way of life." -- Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion Blind or nearly so, theirs is a journey of fading hope.They have come to see two men from the Lower Mainland, two sons of the Punjab who return to mother India each year with the gift of sight and the promise of a normal life for the destitute and forsaken. To date, the selfless efforts of these champions of the poor have restored the vision of 40,000 Indian villagers. Surinder Kainth and Kamal Mroke arrived in Canada from the Punjab as young men. Surinder is a Burnaby mill worker and home renovator, a happily married man devoted to his family and community. Kamal is a successful restaurateur who owns the popular India Bistro on Davie Street , as well as interests in the upscale Copper Chimney on Hornby Street . He lives with his wife and their two children in Vancouver.Both men could easily have turned their backs on India and her poor, lived affluent lives in Canada and thought no more of the horrors of their homeland. Instead, each day, Surinder and Kamal tuck away cash in copper kettles. Generous customers and friends stuff tens and twenties, sometimes hundreds, into these kettles. And every February, Surinder and Kamal gather that money and spend a month among the downtrodden of Punjab, co-ordinating and funding the restoration of their sight through teams of Indian doctors, nurses and volunteers.It was Surinder who, eight years ago, founded Natar Sewa Manch (People's Eye Charity). Four years later, after befriending the missionary man he now calls "brother," Kamal agreed to join Surinder in his annual pilgrimage.In the early years, there were only a handful of eye camps. Last year, 12 camps performed 7,400 operations on people from 300 villages, introducing thousands of subsistence farmers to the benefits of corrective lasers and prescription eyeglasses.Next year, the "brothers" plan to sponsor 15 eye camps at a cost of $37,500. "Forty per cent of Indians have eye disease," says Surinder, whose grandmother was blind. "It's the pollution, the dust, and the fact they have no medical care. "God gives us a good country and good health. Our small efforts, that is the least we can do." For Kamal, whose aunt was blind while he was a child, it is a matter of blunt philosophy."You know what? I give you food, a million dollars or eyes on the table. What will you grab?" he asks. "Eyes. You're hungry and you're blind, I can feed you, but you're hungry tomorrow. But if I give you eyes, you can go and earn a million dollars and feed your family." Before Surinder and Kamal even arrive in India , village volunteers herald their arrival with rickshaw-mounted loudspeakers, inviting the sightless poor for a free medical consultation. The eye camps, located within a short bus ride of state hospitals where the surgeries are performed, attract 700 to 800 people. The Indian government pays the wages of the doctors and nurses. Surinder and Kamal cover everything else: Needles, sutures, thread, anesthetics, antibiotics, medical instruments, artificial lenses, blankets, food, tents and buses to deliver patients to the rudimentary operating theatres. The eye camps last three days. On Day 1, the fearful patients and their families arrive and line up for hours awaiting a consultation. A doctor shines a flashlight into their eyes. Patients needing immediate cataract surgery get a large letter "C" scribbled on their foreheads. Those who can get through another year are told to come back next time. The pen-marked poor spend the night on the floor under makeshift tents. On Day 2, the operations are performed on tables three abreast. The eye is numbed with a local anesthetic and the eyelid is pulled back and held with a single stitch of thread before the doctor moves in with two, small, spoon-like tools. "It takes five minutes," says Kamal. "The doctor does a small cut and from the side -- slowly, slowly -- he will pop the cataract lens out. Then he puts the plastic lens in and puts only one stitch on it. Then the nurse comes, puts three more stitches in. Another guy comes, he puts on the bandages. It's like a factory. We do 100, 120 people a day." Day 3 is set aside for recovery. At the end of the day, after a lecture on post-operative care and a fresh dressing, the patients return to their faraway lives of hardship.Says Kamal: "They don't own anything. They can't afford anything. They can't even afford bus fare. How are they going to go to a doctor? "The eyeglasses? Two dollars Canadian. They can't afford it." In 2004, Jinder Sandhu, a registered nurse at Vancouver 's St. Paul 's Hospital, joined the brothers on their annual pilgrimage. Born in the Punjab but raised in Vancouver, Jinder says she was simply unprepared for the relentless crush of human suffering at the Natar Sewa Manch camps.But what struck her as most disturbing, she says, was the number of villagers who fled in the hours and moments before their surgery.She says fear of the unknown was a factor, but suspects poverty was the true cause."You're asking them to give up their living for a week," she explains. "A lot of people will say, 'No, I can't afford to.' . . . They just leave, even though they'll go blind. They think only of today -- can I feed my family today?'" But there were also those for whom the most basic medicine is a miracle."Gratitude and joy like you wouldn't believe -- it's very emotional," says Jinder. "It's a good-hearted person who started it all." Neither Surinder nor Kamal enjoys the attention. "The people touch your feet," explains Kamal. "They say, 'You're so good, you're like a god to us.' We don't want that. We don't like that. We say, 'We are only here to help you get your life back together because if your eyes are gone, your life is gone.'" Each trip, they take on a "special case" and pay for it out of their own pockets. Next February, it will be surgery for a 22-year-old woman disfigured by a facial tumour."Friends, family, it all helps. We can't do it alone," says Surinder, a "hobby chef" who also cooks for charities and weddings in exchange for eye-camp donations. Kamal says they have been approached by non-profit organizations but refuse to see their hard-got money piffled away on administrative costs."When you do it with your own money, you feel so good," he says. "You did something in your life. You feel so happy."And you bring hope to the forsaken.