Monday, May 24, 2010

Chronicle of a slow death

For months, I would know what to write and yet no words would frame around the thought. And then an imagery chanced carelessly and they would spew forth.

The imagery that inspired this piece was this - one of Mary Cassatt's beautiful portrayals of mothers with their tots. I chanced upon it while reading about her late role in the Impressionist movement.

The passage of death through photographs is also inspired by Cassatt's chronicle of the slow death of her sister, Lydia.

The answer, in case any of you wonder, to why he took the photographs is the same as why Monet painted Camille on her deathbed - because he could not do anything else.

When we asked Ba about her life before us, she told us that her mother had died a long time ago and that her father was always drunk and in his rages would beat her and the new mother who was retarded and there were goats to take out to graze and there were the mountains and rocks she would scamper over before evening fell and then the scattered flock had to be herded and brought back. We accepted the unfaltering finality of her monotone, unbroken by a pause for breath, and asked nothing more. The idea of her life before us was not without a tinge of jealousy, suffered only with the consoling reasoning that she had to be somewhere till we were yet to be born. In fact, the brevity which summed her life before us sounded reassuring, very much like the waiting which it ought to have been.

Ba’s story for us began with the unspoken story of mother’s slow death.

Much of this story I came to understand from the cache of albums I discovered once in a storage loft in one of the rooms of Windsor Manor that I reached by climbing over the grill of the window-frame. These were not like the few photographs I had seen of her –sticking her tongue out as a young girl, holding a dazzling smile in place for the photographer in a gathering, laughing as she posed in a group in front of an excavation site, the Bear crushing papa and her in with a giant paw, the wedding album. There was no self-conscious posing in these discovered albums, no smiles and laughs held in place. Instead, they seemed to chronicle unconscious everyday intimacies where she would be combing her short hair in front of an oval mirror, chewing at a pencil as she frowned at a book laid on the easel of her raised legs on a chair, or raising an eye from a book, cheek resting on the palm of a propped elbow with the other hand holding the place in the book, to look straight out of the photograph to me, the smile suggesting not a coquettish flirtation with the lens but a serene assurance – of heels dug firmly in place and the reins of the life they were building firmly in her grip.

I never saw the albums again – they might be lying buried in the rubble somewhere or perhaps they really got lost – but all my imagined memories of her got overwritten by those photographs that day. When I would develop enough sensibilities, I would realise that they were brilliant portraits, even though all I saw papa ever click with the Pentax were artefacts. But at that moment, and for many days after, I was overwhelmed by a grief that seemed larger than myself, and understood, even as a child, why the adults had interred these albums here. And I asked myself again and again, through silent rage and tears, why? – why had papa taken these photographs? Because they were not only the narrative of their life together but also her slow painful passage to death.

I had always imagined her death as something which had happened to us suddenly, something from outside which had come hurling and caught us all unaware. The albums told another story. Even as Preeti entered the albums, even as ma suckled her beneath a blanket, bathed her, put her to sleep over a shoulder, buried her face in her tummy and made her cackle with delight – even as she grew in her arms – it was clear that she had started to slowly wilt like a flower in a vase. Her eyes widened at first, with fatigue, and the surprise springing perhaps from the first brushes with the idea of her fragility and mortality, as each bout of infection left her weaker and weaker.

It is here that Ba entered the photographs. Her first photograph showed her as a little girl standing behind ma’s chair as she held out the bowl in which ma dipped a cloth, probably sponge-bathing the infant Preeti spread on her lap, Ba’s other hand resting lightly on ma’s shoulder. Slowly, she shifted to the foreground as Preeti grew – combing her curls, feeding her from a spoon, washing her legs on a basin, drying her after a bath – while ma watched from a divan on which she rested heavily, a hand on Ba’s shoulder if she happened to be sitting below her on the floor, playing with Preeti. In another photograph, she held out Preeti to kiss ma lying weakly on the bed, Preeti’s tiny arm wrapped around her neck, the blur suggesting a nuzzling of cheeks and many kisses, a long exposure, a night time and a goodnight kiss – papa never used flash.

The surprise slowly waned to tired resignation as she seemed to sink deeper and heavier into the divans and beds she would rarely been seen out of now, the eyes drooping and closing. In one of the last photographs, ma lay in bed, covered in white quilt, her head resting on a big soft white pillow; her hair, which I imagined must have grown because sitting for a cut took too much toll on her fragile health now, seemed to be tied in a loose bun behind. A cup rested on the side-table beside her head and an arm fell protectively over Preeti’s lap, who sat in a chemise beside her, her loose curls spilling over her face as she appeared to peer at something in her hand. Her tired eyes watched Preeti, the mouth slack and without a smile. I imagined Ba must have been nearby, waiting to catch Preeti if she tumbled down, but she’s not in the frame. The palm of ma’s other hand was cupped loosely over the swell of her belly underneath the quilt, discernible if you were looking for it.

It was the only photograph I tore from the album and brought down with me, hiding it in the pages of a colouring book.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Painting serious sorrow

Reading the letters of Van Gogh, came across this -

'As molting time -- when they change their feathers -- is for birds, so adversity or misfortune is the difficult time for us human beings. One can stay in it -- in that time of molting -- one can emerge renewed; but anyhow it must not be done in public and it is not at all amusing, therefore the only thing to do is to hide oneself. . . .

...On the other hand, there is the idle man who is idle in spite of himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action but does nothing, because it is impossible for him to do anything, because he seems to be imprisoned in some cage, because he does not possess what he needs to become productive, because circumstances bring him inevitably to that point. Such a man does not always know what he could do, but instinctively feels, I am good for something, my life has a purpose after all, I know I that could be quite a different man! How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside of me, what can it be? . . . '

[Letter #133 (to Theo), July, 1880]

...So you see that I am in a rage of work, though for the moment it does not produce very brilliant results. But I hope these thorns will bear their white blossoms in due time, and that this apparently sterile struggle is no other than the labor of childbirth. First the pain, then the joy.

[Letter #136 (to Theo), September 24, 1880]

I want you to understand clearly my conception of art. One must work long and hard to grasp the essence. What I want and aim at is confoundedly difficult, and yet I do not think I aim too high.

I want to do drawings which touch some people...

In either figure or landscape I should wish to express, not sentimental melancholy, but serious sorrow...

This is my ambition, which is, in spite of everything, founded less on anger than on love, more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is a calm pure harmony and music inside me. . . .

[Letter #218 (to Theo), July 19-23, 1882]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Willy Loman of Facebook

I resist the first temptation to block a thinly-remembered friend who clutters my wall. Instead, his streaming updates slowly engender a perverse compulsion to keep refreshing the newsfeed. He wakes up in the morning and duly informs me of the coffee he’s had. During the day, he tells me he’s missing so-and-so, that he just had another coffee, questions if we really need a politician in office, forwards a jingoistic appeal, gets nostalgic about the simpler times, declares that he’s proud of his identity, looks forward to the weekend, sings along to a song on an iPod, gleefully awaits a car launch, plans a trip to a pretentious restaurant, reviews a movie offering that the direction could have been tighter – peppering the updates with borrowed quotes and puns. No one comments, even when he marauds through the news-feeds of his 400 friends – “lol”ing at their witty statuses, vigorously nodding and adding “True!” to the introspective ones, “liking” each of their photographs and links, and intercepting their wall-to-wall exchanges with his own comments; but they do not reciprocate – even when he offers his witty two cents on a topical scandal they are commenting on elsewhere.

Through one of his updates, I discover his blog titled “Randomly Arbit Ramblings”. There I discover painfully constructed diagrams classifying Facebook users, more movie reviews, a blow-by-blow account of a trip to the top of some hillock, fierce ranting after another terrorist attack and only one comment and ten profile views in its six-month history; I wonder if the ten includes my own visit.

He turns argumentative – questioning the worth of the contribution of a cricketer when someone hurrahs a milestone; esoteric – “Never was a time.”; woefully desperate – “I feel like crying.”

One day he declares that he’s planning to delete his profile. We wait with bated breath when no comment still comes in and the updates actually stop. Just when I start believing that he has left, he limply hobbles back. The updates stream in again, albeit not the bubbling brook they were once.

“I hate fb”, he confesses. I almost decide to “like” it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Facebook and the protagonist

Around the same time, I join one of the popular social networking websites. Hundreds of faces and names suddenly bloom marking the disremembered motifs which had marked my life since Windsor Manor – corridors, truancies, football, picnics, borrowed bikes, canteens, photocopied notes, binges, lectures, politics, night outs, messes, beer cigarettes and marijuana, fall outs, uniforms – competing narratives snagging chafing and bending against eachother – and yet all bereft of their underpinning now; the intimacies which had defined these shared lives forgotten like shifting dunes.

I peek into the pages of these separated lives, read the comments they pile on each other’s photographs and statuses and flip through the albums marking their passage from ranging bachelorhood to domesticity – a wedding, a spouse, a honeymoon, rearrangements for better for worse, a bundled newborn, visiting greying parents, a toddler finding his feet, reunions, another child – gathering along the way the trappings of new-found prosperity. Their footprints criss-crossing the globe from Goa to Las Vegas to the seven wonders of the world to the thousand places to see before dying; some of them pinning and sharing their conquests in maps. How far we have travelled – and yet never strayed.

The eyes in the photographs suddenly swivel and pin me down behind the peephole. Friendship requests pile, I get tagged in a few photographs, poked, notified, receive invitations from groups around start-ups indie-bands communities books, launches applications links are suggested, howdy where’ve-you-been messages stream in. The vortex sucks me inside; briefly I resist; but the ache to belong is stronger than the anxiety. Within a week, I have added a hundred friends and more eyes swivel and more requests and invitations rush in.

A friend surprises me with an intimate message. He tells me about a failed marriage and how depressed he is and how he remembers the times from college as the best years of his life and how he was thinking of me only the other day – I take a day to frame a reply but instantly decide against posting it when his next message informs me that he would be in Gurgaon the next week and looking forward to catch up. I do not respond in the end and after a reminder message he also falls silent.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

the life of a building

A scaffolding anticipates a building, framing the slats along the path it grows - not to constrain, but to bolster and direct; setting its ascent from one stage to another. The higher the building, the higher it is to be, the stronger.

A building, ignored, undirected, collapses within from the weight of its own ambitions .

(Painitng by Turner)