Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Touching a New World of Objects: To My Children 3
My daughter, you didn’t have that chance to spoil my cassettes. But I don’t think you are deprived of spoiling something related to music. When you were one and half year old, music had gone from cassettes to CDs to pen drives to iPods to mobile phones. You might not have even seen something called audio cassettes and floppy discs. We grew up with technology and technology overtook us like a sprinter in the track. We tried to run our best but could not catch up with it. When you read this, I don’t know when it could be, the technology must be totally different from today. Anyway, you were spoiling all my CDs. And I allowed you to spoil CDs without any prick of conscience because any music that I wanted to listen was available in the YouTube.
However, both of you were united in one thing; spoiling books. Initially when you started picking up books from the shelves, we as proud parents thought that you too were going to follow our profession; you were going to become writers, if not art critics. But that was just an illusion. After pretending that you were reading with a lot of curiosity or flipping through the pages to wonder at the illegible shapes of the letters, by forcing our amusement to transform into despair, you started tearing the pages off from the books. Then it was our duty to stand guard to our books, painstakingly collected over a period of two decades. Had the books got life of their own, they would have run to some shelters to save themselves from the ultimate form of innocent vandalism. So for a few years, till you became mature enough to understand the value of books, the lower decks of our shelves remained empty or filled with broken Chinese toys. I always imagined the books looking at you from the upper decks of the shelves with wide opened eyes.
What I am trying to tell you is the way you both used to touch things around you. Children know their world through touch. Scientifically speaking, a child for the first time in his/her life negotiates the world by touching the mother. Through mother’s touch the child understand a relationship that cares, feeds and protects. This sense of touch, affinity towards tactility remains in an individual’s constitution throughout his/her life in various forms. But during the growing up years, children feel like touching anything and everything. They see the objects around them, smell them, taste them but above all they touch them. Children generally don’t eat their sweets so soon. They keep it in their hands, touch it, feel it, smell it, see it, again touch it until either it falls down or snatched by an ogling sibling or friend. Children want to touch everything and in the process they spoil a lot of things. And through trial and error of touching, they comprehend the world to their satisfaction.
Children negotiate the objective world or the object world through touching them. Touch, for them is the route to familiarity. Through touching and caressing, I feel, they understand each object’s property and also validate its difference from the touch of their mother. Touching is a sort of negotiating the mother figure in the object world. Also, touching helps the children to distance themselves from a world where mother, only mother is a looming presence. By touching objects around them, they push mother from their vicinity and in the newly formed space they accommodate a new object, which could be a temporary surrogate for the mother’s touch/presence. I noticed how you both clutched your toys or books, whenever I bought them for you, at night and pushed your mother away from you for the time being. And in the world of sleep, where the objects melt and disappear, you came back for your mother’s touch. I am sure that children all over the world find their surrogate mothers in the objects during the day time and at night they go back to their mothers. Slowly, as they grow up, the object world fills them up with images and the memories of touches, and the mother is pushed to the fringes. Mother is often recognized as a memory, a narrative around touches and tears. Mother is the only notion, which is tactile, I believe.
Recently, when I was watching a video work titled, ‘Conscience Keeper’ by Gigi Scaria, I was taken back to the memories of innumerable touches I had during my childhood. I was trying to negotiate the objective and object world around me in a village where I was brought to live the rest of my life, though I moved out from there after eighteen years. In Gigi’s video work I saw one circle of light moving across and around a dark screen. The work told me about the ways in which the hegemonic agencies watch over our lives through surveillance cameras and other monitoring devices. Simple but strong in its medium and message, Gigi’s work evoked certain memories in me about the touch. How could I think about a tactile feeling while looking at a moving circle of light, which is not at all tactile? Suddenly, my childhood appeared before me as if in a vision. I could see things very clearly.
My grandmother’s house was comparatively big and it had a thatched roof. From the minute holes in the coconut leaves used for making the thatch, sunlight came inside the rooms. In the morning, they came from the east side and they laid golden eggs on the walls. During the vacant hours (as you know a child has got all the time in the world and vacancy is his perpetual state of being) I followed these golden eggs made out of sunlight. I knew, by experience that it came through the roof and those were not golden eggs. Still, every day, when the sunlight came in through the holes, I tried to pick up the eggs from the walls and put them into my pocket. I spoke to them and followed them. They moved, as the sun moved. Yes, we used to think that sun moved from east to west and the earth remained stable. It took a few more years for me to understand that it happened the other way round.
I picked up the eggs or pretended that I was picking up eggs and storing them in my pocket. And now I understand why I did that. I was trying to touch the light, even if it was a futile exercise for many, I very sincerely believed that one day I would be able to pick them up. Hence, I followed the eggs and to mock me, they changed their shapes continuously. By noon they took the shape of perfect circle. During those two hours, when the elders ate their food with appetite and children like us were force fed, these luminous eggs looked at me and they had a very special brightness during those two hours. And by evening, when the four o’ clock flowers bloomed in the thickets around the land, those eggs once again turned yellow and then to red. Then they faded, leaving my efforts to catch them and hold them in vain.
I used to move between the bodies of the elders who were taking a nap in the afternoon. Sometimes, I saw one egg perfectly residing in the open mouth of my sleeping grandmother. Once I pushed my fingers into her mouth to pick the egg out and she woke up with a terrible howling only to find out me standing before her with my fingers stretched at her face. At times, I saw eggs residing lasciviously around the neck of cousin, who was studying in high school at that time. The thin golden chain around her neck was glistened like a snake at the touch of these luminous eggs. I always felt an intense urge to touch her neck and the golden chain. Every time I thought of doing it, the image of a snake came to me. It too was golden in color and was lying in a bucket of water.
That was quite a sight. My mother was going out to pick up something from the backyard. Suddenly she started calling out various names in the family. Everyone rushed to the spot only to see my mother panting in fear. Her face was pale and she was pointing her finger at bucket of water. We looked into it and found something like a golden threat moving inside the water. It was a small snake and it reminded me of a yellow thread that my grandmother used to extract from the stem of the plantain trees in order to make flower garlands for adorning the idols in the small temple. I thought that it was one of those threads and I felt this irresistible itch to touch it. I moved forward and someone pulled me back and my mother was still screaming.
Some grown up men from the neighborhood came to the scene with sticks and other weapons and within no time they killed the snake. One of the men picked it up with a stick and I could see the ribbed pale white colored belly of the reptile hanging helplessly and lifelessly from a piece of stick. Its upper side was golden in color and had some faint dark spots on it. They took the small dead snake to the main road and they went to the junction in a procession. People who never had much to do with their lives joined the procession and the commotion was over by the time my father came back from his social activities that included playing a few rounds of cards in a private recreation club formed by him and his friends.
Though I used to resist the urge to touch my sleeping cousin’s tender neck because I was reminded of a snake and its sad demise, I did not stop my touching spree. I used to touch everything and as I told you earlier, I even used to climb over people to touch things which were kept above the sills, door frames and shelves. Audio cassettes were a rarity and one of the grown up cousins had a mono cassette player. I used to look at the turning spools from a distance when the machine played out music. I could sit and watch the turning of the spools endlessly and each time I watched it I killed my itch to touch them. I had to control that urge because whenever I was around my cousin was all alert and he did not want me to touch anything belonged to him. Perhaps, it was in his room, I smelled some new smells that I had never smelled before. But I could not recognize that smell and I could not find any object that brought that smell out.
One of my expeditions to see and touch new objects in and around the house had put me into a very embarrassing situation. One day, I remember it was a Sunday because my mother was at home so were the cousins who were studying in schools or colleges. My father had settled in his chair with his Sunday newspapers and tea. I was on the floor touching and caressing things and supported by my belly I was literally crawling from one room to another. In this process I found abandoned bobbins, buttons, spools of thread etc. These are all objects related to sewing. We had a sewing machine at home and most of the members in the family knew how to stitch their ‘stuff’. Like a true communist and revolutionary, my father also knew how to stitch up things.
Father used to stitch some under pants and petty coats. Sundays, for him meant stitching, preparing some home medicines, washing his dhotis and so on. The first half of the day went in all these. One day he decided to stitch a pair of trousers for me. Even today I don’t know why he decided to do that as he knew very well that his expertise in stitching did not go beyond stitching some underpants, which genuinely did not demand any kind of sewing expertise. He got some cotton cloth. I still remember the color; pale green, almost becoming yellow at places. Today, looking back, I am sure that the cloth came from some old box which had been lying neglected for decades till my father’s curiosity reached it.
The pair of trousers was ready in a couple of hours. And I was already in school; in first or second standard. It must be second standard because unlike the children of today, I knew what shame was at that time. I was reluctant to wear that atrocious piece of clothe but my father, as I told you, was the sole dictator of terms. He asked me to wear it and I could see my own contours through the pale old cloth now in the shape of pants. And do you know, we were not made to wear underwear at that time. Underwear was a piece of cloth that used to appear in your life when your mother realized that the unconscious erections the boys had was too visible to be wished aside. So I went to the school wearing a pant with nothing but air underneath it.
The tragedy hit by the afternoon. The whole first half I was alert on my situation. After all I was a child and I lost control when I found my friends jumping in and out of the classroom through the windows. I controlled myself for a while and after sometime I forgot about the special dress that I was wearing on the day. Following my mates I too ran and jumped out of the window. I heard a creaking sound and I thought it was the window panel moving. But the sound was coming from my rear and it was bit weird and unfamiliar. It sounded like a cloth being ripped apart. And I touched around my back and lo…there my bums were now experiencing the direct touch of the school air. Before many could see the sorry state of my cloth as well as my bottom, I sneaked back to the class and sat there like a stone. Slowly, the whole class came to know about the ‘wardrobe malfunctioning’.
Children are many times cruel than the worst kind of sadists. The moment they came to know about my state, they started moving around my back. They started singing and poking me. The teachers had a difficult time to extract me from the hands of my own friends turned foes. They booed me and I hanged my head in shamed and walked back to home by holding the handbag as a cover. I walked and the bag hit me the uncovered cheeks of my bums. It was like an ongoing punishment, which I seriously thought, should have given to my father for putting me into such a state. The children followed me as if they were taking part in a carnival and I was the best and funniest float they had ever seen. That was the end of my father’s experiments with stitching pants. He remained an occasional maker of underpants and petticoats.
I recovered many items from the floor, from under the coats and I was touching everything and deriving pleasure that was immense. Finally I reached the kitchen on my belly. The women there were unaware of a silly creature coming by. They looked at me as if I did not exist in their world. They were gossiping, talking, joking and laughing. The kitchen charade was so engrossing for them that they did not even prevent me from getting under a platform where the stoves are kept. My mother threw many things under this platform. I used to wonder at the treasures that my mother had thrown in there. It was the right time to explore all those secrets. I moved further.
A college going cousin was standing at the platform and preparing something on the stove. She was wearing a semi-long skirt that reached up to her ankles. I moved between her legs and proceeded to the hidden treasures under the platform. Suddenly I felt like choking myself and I found myself caught between the legs of my cousin. I changed my position. From my belly I shifted to my back. None was giving any damn to my moves. They were laughing and talking. From there, I had this earthworm perspective. I looked up. Two white columns were going up. I could see golden hairs coming out of her shanks. The white pillars went far and high and I wanted to see the end where these pillars met. I could not see anything. There was total darkness. I looked hard to see something.
With a scream she jumped aside and called out to my mother. She was all read. I had just touched her thighs by lifting my arm up. Her jumping was caused by my touch. My mother came and pulled me out from the cavity below the platform. I thought she would hand over me to my father for inflicting higher forms of punishment. It did not happen. She settled it in the kitchen itself by giving me a hard pinch and a tight slap. They all knew what I was up to and I hanged my head in shame and walked out to the light outside. Things were changing in my life. I was touching more and more new objects and I started understanding a world that was quite unfamiliar to me before. I was walking towards light and sin.