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.


Pankaj said...

i was totally immersed. you have a strong sense of tragedy.

Bland Spice said...

Thanks Pankaj.

Writing about tragedy without being mawkish is a very tenuous task.

To paraphrase van Gogh from previous post, the thin line between sentimental melancholy and serious sorrow. :)

ramya sriram said...

who's the imagery genius now?

HaroldM22 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ana said...

Hi Pankaj Taneja wouldn't shut up about how good you were and I was linked to the post. Not only do you have an impeccable style, your writing is both soulful and truthful... Looking forward to many great posts from you

Bland Spice said...

Thank you, Ana:)

Will try to.