ARCHIVING ERASURES: EXAMINING MEMORY

Reflecting Erasures poster

Some Photographs from the event –

 

The paintings here –

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A brief outline of the talk –

First, a poem about memory –

TAMARIND SEEDS

Burnt sienna, raw umber, mahogany

twelve shiny tamarind seeds

stowed away in an old tin box on the loft

 

between the stack of copper vessels

and a rusty locked iron trunk

whose key can never be found

 

Mother played with them when she was little

and taught me when I was six

 

to sit cross legged on the floor

fling them on the ground

toss one up and pick the others

before it fell down

 

invent words and tunes,

conjure worlds and magic wands

that set things right

 

spells, monsters and evil witches

trounced by good people who live happily ever after

 

lazy summer afternoons, a soft muslin nine yard saree

and the sweet smell of a grandmothers lap

a little girl in a mango stained petticoat

 

grazed shins from the rough bark outside her window

of the neem and the gulmohor

holding hands to spread a filigreed pandal overhead

 

a fragrant carpet of crimson petals and chrome seeds at her feet

her treasure of tamarind seeds before her

with the gleam of cats eye, jasper, topaz and quartz

 

her dowry and her trousseau

you can throw a seed at the sky

and will it the power to hide the sun

 

girls become women and tin boxes

with tamarind seeds and sweet scented childhoods

get put on the loft where the sun cannot reach

 

not forgotten but ignored

like some words we are too embarrassed to speak

because they’ve grown labels

 

Let us take the box down today

spread them all before us again

toss them in the air

see how they fall

 

do love and loyalty stay close

do trust and honesty blink

from being in the dark all these years

or can they still look the sun in the eye

do truth and reason keep a distance

or do they hold hands, take wing and fly

like butterflies and birds

set free from the nets

 

if we manage to get them all afloat perhaps

we’ll also rescue gossamer wings.

 

Today I’d like to speak about memory, history, self identity, displacement and the consequences of erasures. All of this especially in the context of the erasures effected during the course of a rapidly metamorphosing metropolis (particularly our own city, Mumbai) that seems to be hurtling towards being ‘Shanghaied’. I’d like to speak about my response to these transformations where I attempt, through my work on canvas and with words to retrieve, record and archive the things that have symbolizes the spirit of this city and that held significance not only to me but to very many denizens of these streets who also share this love for our city, our ‘watan’.

 

  1. I) Memory forms the history of an object or being. The history of a person is his self identity. Identity defines character and character shapes action which results in the act of creation/production and events which then leads to the evolution of the being – object, person, the individual or a city.

 

Thus a person is defined by his actions, by his story – history.

 

I believe that the city too is an organic being – it develops, grows, has a character that is defined and shaped by its history. Both, its broad economic and social history as well as the particular histories of the people, individuals, communities and neighbourhoods that have organically grown around commercial and professional activity.

 

Mumbai has been shaped by the industry, trade and businesses that grew here along with the neighbourhoods that served these activities and the populace that served these trades, industry and business. People from diverse regions from within as well as outside the nation’s borders converged to be nurtured by the city as well as to nurture it themselves – a symbiotic relationship that also resulted in the intermingling of different cultures, social backgrounds and classes. This gave the city its consmopolitanism – a dynamic culture that was alive, symbiotic, enriching and inclusive.

 

2) The past two decades have seen Mumbai moving far too rapidly towards a rather drastic transformation. In that process, it is obliterating – erasing – many aspects of the city that symbolized and shaped the very character of the city.

 

Palimpsest is what is leftover from successive erasures. It is an indelible record, an archive, of the ghosts of erasures. Scars perhaps, that remain even when the animal is moulting.

 

Mumbai, then, is moulting, shedding its skin and metamorphosing.

 

Mills give way to malls, expansive chawls with teakwood rafters and wide wooden staircases worn down by several generations of footfall make way for cold towers of glass and chrome, the welcoming Irani cafe at every street corner is eased out by lounges, restobars and pubs, simple childhood games fade before gaming and gadgets, communities scatter before the massive JCB earthmovers …and the megapolis carries out many erasures.

 

In the face of this rapid transformation we obliterate many aspects that have symbolized the ethos of the city. The erasures therefore are not only of structures but also of its history and character. Many of the things that stood as the essence of the spirit of the city seem to lose relevance. The erasures then, are obliterations from public discourse, public memory and from relevance. Erasures of context, of significance, of values, milieu, of a way of life, of aspirations and co existence.

 

 

3) Thus, it is not a nostalgic remembrance of ‘the good old days’, or a recitation of ‘in our time…’ nor even a Luddite position of opposing all change but rather a statement that attempts to underline the ramifications of obliterating something that was crucial in building this city over several generations. Something that had given the city its dynamism and its character as being open, open minded, safe and modern. So even as we replace that musty old chawl with a spanking new gated community, drive out vendors from the streets and replace them with malls selling vegetables in plastic wrap, replace the Irani café and udupi restaurant with swanky coffee shops and burger outlets – we are yet left with the question of whether this implies progress, ‘development’, an advancement and betterment of Mumbai as a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis or is all of this leading the city towards becoming more parochial and exclusivistic, towards breaking of the community spirit and leading its people into becoming self directed, isolated and alienated – all of which implies a breaking of the city’s cosmopolitan character and, perhaps, a retrograde movement towards becoming more and more provincial and narrow minded.

 

4) What does a writer or painter do who is witness to this sad history of her city? She can retrieve, record, archive and point to these erasures. Try to outline the palimpsest (in the form of memory) left behind – to capture its bylanes, mills, Irani cafes, behemoths, chawls, chimneys, alleys, staircases, corridors and doorways not only because they are part of personal as well as collective memory, but also because they have defined and shaped the complexion of Mumbai – the warp and weft of the social fabric of this city and the character and spirit of its people.

 

Presenting then, a collage in Paint and Poetry – Some love letters to Bombay/Mumbai

 

ELOPEMENT

A cruel sun beat down and roasted to a crisp within an hour

spices and red chilies laid out to dry on the pavement

then, like the child wanting to create fire with a lens and straw

it shone back reflecting from a million walls of glass

 

and multiplied enough to start a fire in the belly of the rubble

of wood, brick and Mangalore tiles all bulldozed in an organic heap

waiting to rise again like a new glass and chrome phoenix temple

demanding obeisance – tall, smooth, silent, intimidating and sleek.

 

Smooth the realtor’s tongue, intimidating the muscle power

behind his safari suit, silent the automated window pane of his jaguar

tall his promise of alternate shelter, sleek the polarized Ray Bans that cover

his swiftly calculating eyes – glass and chrome hot enough to start a fire

 

no place to hide or rest or nest and that was when the swift footed squirrel

eloped far away elsewhere with the soft feathered sparrow never to return.

 

RECLAMATION

There it is, that sound

the constant hypnotic stacatto

iron wheels on iron rails

the track waits for none

 

and the impatient crowd on the platform holds its breath

for a momentary pause in that rhythm

so they may enter and be one with it.

 

There it is, the tick tock

like blood in your veins the pulse of the clock

a beat that rules your feet

tethered to the treadmill at an unceasing urgent pace

running faster even to remain at the same place

 

and the smothered impatient thoughts hold their breath

for a momentary blink to get a toehold into your mind

that might compel you to think.

 

There it is, the roar

that restive thrashing at the shore

the restless wave on the rocks protesting reclamation

the ominous hum of earthmovers,

silent evictions and demolitions and giant cement mixers

snaking about everywhere like vipers

 

and the impatient wave holds its breath

for even a momentary pause, a chink

in the machine’s armour so it may reclaim

the territory that was rightly hers.

 

WHEN THE MOON IS FULL

When the moon is full and bloated with the sins of men

and with the lies that they speak, then she puts on a jaundiced halo

and reflects a light so blinding that the people may not see

and cringe and die in shame at the horrors that their wantonness has begot.

When the moon is full and bloated.

 

Then she picks up her weary satchel to set off on her lonesome beat

Through the alleys and the subways of the city that is on heat.

 

Searching for that one act of kindness from hands that do not seek

For courage and compassion in this city that is on heat.

 

Seeking a mind that still finds meaning in syllables

forming tenuous words that people are too embarrassed to speak

she searches on her lonely beat.

 

And when she finds them she exults at this redemption like

an excited schoolboy unearthing a stash of marbles who marvels at his find,

she exults at this redemption.

 

Then bathes them in her gentle light

He cleans his treasure with tender care

 

She covers them with her mantle

He wraps it in brown paper

 

She returns to the skies

He hurries home with his prize

 

She guards them through the night

He conceals it out of sight

 

She stands vigil with the stars and the fireflies

When the moon is full.

 

BEARING WITNESS

From the dark wooden staircase worn down under five generations of footfall

From Teen Batti, Saat rasta, Kaala Chowki, Lalbaug and Shivdi

to the ST bus depots at Bombay Central, Parel and Dadar running

extra services during April, September and October

eager happy families, kids, aji and atya with brass boxes

full of laddoos and rexine bags with zippers that do not work

carrying little gifts of childrens’ clothes and plastic toys that will

put stars in the eyes of nieces and nephews.

 

ST buses loaded with bodies aching for rest, for quiet

and for tight embraces of brothers that stayed back

or went back defeated by the city of bright lights.

 

Kin they must necessarily invite

to every function in the family – happy or tragic

if they don’t feed them on the thirteenth day of the funeral

who else is there when they themselves pass?

 

Of all the attachments the city breeds is there one as strong

and compelling as the call of the red soil he left behind

barren, meager, dry and unproductive, yes

yet his very own.

 

FINDING A VOICE

And I want it this way

Cafe Mondegar with you on a Saturday night

when it is crammed full of peoples voices

 

clatter of cutlery and Mondy’s Crew

shouting out orders over our heads

the air warm and spilling over with

 

beer smell and the merry old man smiling

from a frame on the wall beside

a Budweiser in blue and red neon lights.

 

on the busy walls, another of the crew frozen forever

in a goofy smile with foam overflowing

the six beer mugs he manages in one hand and

 

behind him the buggy horse with a quizzical smile for

the lobster that jumps up from a plate and bites the nose

of an astonished patron, napkin tucked into collar

 

knife and fork raised in anticipation,

if Hoshang is on the premises

he’ll tell you its history all over again.

 

Our bentwood chairs right next to the juke box

hard rock on a loop, loud, very loud

languages crisscrossing above in disciplined warps and wefts

 

till they become a dialect all its own

and it descends like an insistent fabric

resisting purification or decipherment

 

the air as crowded as the seven column menu

sandwiched between the glass and the checkered gingham

loud, very loud so we can’t hear each other speak

 

and we fall as silent as the stir fried

pepper garlic prawns on a Mario-print plate

silent as the condensation on the cool dark bottle

 

silent as the pool at its feet

Then I will hear only what your eyes speak

listen to your hands as they rest on the table

 

read the history your burnished skin reveals and

the whisper of the wave in your hair as she softens

the blows life has thrown at you.

 

I want it this way, no words between us

just that which settles down on us from above

 

we’ll slip in between the binaries to reach

a fuzzy logic beyond denotations

 

not what you said but the implication of the gap

that lies behind it wanting to be read

the semantics of the spaces between your words.

 

for the times to grow silent are upon us now and we must

hold our tongues, adjust the kerning, leave room for our silences

to express that which we dare not speak out loud anymore

 

so then we will plot a conspiracy

and make muteness a weapon for our mutiny.

 

A PRELUDE TO PASSION

The mynah calling

Late for work

The leaf a trembling

Just can’t shirk.

 

Dewdrops unnoticed

Grab a bite on the go

Clouds a gathering

Will miss the 8.20 slow.

 

Wait, don’t go

Where the heck are my socks?

It’s a beautiful day, take a CL today

Door shuts and the key turns in the lock.

 

The house still calls

Behind the locked door

Two empty glasses on the table

Still asking for more.

 

A deep dark sigh

Echoes to its own call

Louder at every turn

Beyond the solitary hall.

 

It whirls on its toes

And fills every room

Drums out the emptiness

And pirouettes round the gloom.

 

Till nothing else is left

But the swirling of its sound

Like a dervish in his dance

Oblivious and unbound.

 

Then it falls exhausted

With yet a hope in its sight

Busy as the day might have been, there’s still

The promise of the night.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements