‘A writer checks his pulse by writing on a difficult day. If he succeeds, he feels he is alive’
- Unknown Author 21st Century AD
Yellow blood of an opportunist flows into the white porcelain soul of a woman who accepts the stain with a strange kind of anxiety that could cause her shell-like soul break into thousands of shards leaving a blue glimmer along the edges of each piece; yet she receives it, gets stained by it and then washes it with her tears, repentance and love. Poisonous fumes emerge from the blood that flows along the narrows streets lit up by the windows where lonely human beings wait patiently to catch up with a passer-by; they greet each other at times, share affected pleasantries and bid farewell. Some linger on, ensnared by the thoughts of desire, revelries and some salty, syrupy excitements shared through black and white letters projected and interpreted by the receivers’ feverish imaginations. Confessions start in these streets called ‘Longing’.
I am a stranger in this street. Looking out through the window of a moving car driven by a restless young man, I ask myself what I have been searching for all these years. Answers come in the form of changing cityscapes; they were not like this till last year. There were a few rows of pale buildings with scabbing paint all over like a wrinkled old man abandoned by the relatives who still live on his pension fund. Today they look different. The facades are changed with tinted blue glass panes reflecting everything around it, distorting reality into some unrecognizable colours and shapes. I could see my car turning itself into a python, then a swan that turns slowly into a toad, till it regains its car-ness at the end of those buildings.
Security men, clad in their boredom, ill-fitting authority and perennial insecurity about life look out at anything moving around them with passive eyes; eyes that keep calculating the monthly income and tally it with the family expenditure elsewhere in the villages that lie far away in North Indian belly, at the table of furrowed forehead, look at me as if they just found a strange animal caught in trap by its own mesmerizing eyes. Was I searching for these men who are hopeless just like me? No, I tell myself. I am on my way meet someone who is waiting for me with some money and some good words. Perhaps, for a writer, it comes in the reverse order; good words of appreciation and money.
At the traffic intersection where once accidents frequented like ghosts in a cemetery, order seems to have taken position thanks to the stringent measures of the traffic police who often fine a poor bike rider and let the fat men in expensive car who either look like powerful politician or property dealers. Powerful people look alike; they either look like politicians or property dealers. May be both realms of action deal with buying, selling and making profits. A doctor who looks like a politician must be dealing with properties too; that is the way this city works. And none feels bad about it. Small cars are dented and big cars are smooth surfaced. Why, you may ask. Because the small cars keep safe distance from the big cars and never dare to touch them even accidently. Streets replicate social hierarchy, fear and anxiety.
A knock at the glass wakes me up from day dreaming (or should I call social analysis in a creamy solution of indecisiveness?) A young mother in tatters and dust cups her palms and peers into my car. Across her chest which was once full blossomed breasts, in a sling there lies a baby that defies all definitions of infancy. The mother’s hand moves simultaneously across her mouth and the lips of the child, gesturing the universally identifiable signs of hunger and deprivation, while her eyes probe my hands, the reluctance of my body and mind, and she believes that her silent pleading could chip away a piece of piety from my hardened heart of apathy. She taps at the glass again. My driver shows a gesture, which could be universally translated into the act of shooing someone away; a gesture that could make anybody’s identity into a sort of abominable garbage.
The woman walks off. Was I searching for her? A woman who could tell me truths of the world? Could a suffering woman tell me the truths then women from all over the world must be telling truths only. Don’t get me wrong, dear friend, I tell an invisible presence that I conjure up as per my needs. I am not saying that all women tell truth and truth alone. Women tell truth tinged with the colours of their lives. Men who suffer tell truth but there is one colour to that truth; it is called arrogance. Men, like women, enjoy telling stories. They tell stories differently but they are heard in the same tone; the usual male’s story of conquests and victories. Women tell stories and they are heard in different tones; the usual stories of surrendering and defeats. Recently, in a party, a research scholar, a white woman with full of smile and warmth asked me to recount a story. I wanted to tell her a story; the story of a man who wanted to tell the story but left the world without telling it. But exactly like the man in the story that I would have told her in that party, I left it without saying a word. I owe her a story.
I meet the man who has been waiting for me with good words and some money. He speaks to me in broken sentences. When two men meet perhaps for the third time in their lives, they speak in broken sentences. If they are meeting for the tenth time, they speak in silence. I respond to him in broken sentences. We sit in the middle of a few paintings painted alike by different artists hung as if they had been ordered to be hung until death, surrounded by the gloom of the words that we have just shared. We sip tea; dip tea. Tasteless tea touches my tongue and my brain recognizes the tastelessness of tea and it remembers several of such meetings done in the middle of works of art. I smile at him and he smiles at me. We both are born on the same year. Conjoined by the year of birth, we sit; an art critic and an artist connected by a few words written by the critic on the paintings done by the artist. They will be remembering each other forever; the artist, for the words and the critic, for the money that he has just received from the artist.
The editor walks in. I greet him. Or we behave politely. My woman had once told me; move out when you start behaving with me politely. Politeness in a relationship is the result of hypocrisy and fraud. Better move away than being polite. If that is the case, are we fakes, I ask myself and look into the eyes of the editor. He hands me over a book of poems written by an artist who has combined poetry with paintings. I flip through the poems; they sound dark and nostalgic. I don’t want to connect nostalgia with darkness; but isn’t it true that nostalgia is like a womb which is filled with perennial darkness of destiny and mysteries? If so, nostalgia cannot be old, therefore golden. It should be dark. The poet in the painter wants to go back to his mother’s womb or the painter in the poet wants to take a re-birth. I see him curling under the pressure of immensity and imminence of existence. I feel myself like a seed lost in the enormous womb of my woman.
Along with the book, editor gives me a thin envelope that contains a cheque for some article that I had written for his magazine a few months back. I open the envelope mechanically and peer into the cover, ascertain the amount dispassionately and feel that each drop counts in the ocean of survival. I feel a vast field of freedom spread before me as I see iron chains breaking at the touch of my woman’s finger. She is instrumental in setting me free. In her silent prayers that curls up like smoke from an invisible fire in which curses and camphor burn alike, my existence breaths a new fragrance of existence. The screaming and shouting of the present fade into a past where most of the people live as ghosts, hurts and memories.
The huge building is one of the most sought after and identifiable buildings in the city. Culture moves like an interactive bell work that everyone likes to shake with some vigour and runs away with fear once it starts shaking. The bells beckon me. I walk in slow motion, exactly the same way I did on the same steps when I shot an interview with an artist in the same hall a month back. My woman came in dreams and told me, ‘Never put words into their mouths. They will take advantage of what you ask and they will elaborate upon that.’ A revelation that art critics rarely get to experience in their apparently ordinary looking lives. I remember the art critic whom I met a few minutes back at the cafe. He looks old, tired and burdened by the memories of all those works of art that he has been seeing all his life; a good fifty years. An art critic who sees and analyses the art of his time for fifty years at a stretch would finally end up in living like a vagabond who collects brochures and catalogues, and innumerable cuttings of his newspaper articles. He would lie down on pavements like an unclaimed corpse that breaths while the new age artists zoom past him in their flashy cars. He would collapse under the mild winter sun in the afternoon into the dew laden leaves of grass in the fine arts academy park with molten intelligence round and gloomy as the setting orange sun.
I decide then and there not to become an art critic forever. I should move on. Art criticism should be one of the avenues of my writing career. An art critic should limit himself writing about art after a period of time. Then he should turn himself into a historian. And he should turn into a historian only when he has got stories of people spoken through their words filtered by the analytical intelligence of the historian. Artists do not represent people. Hence art does not represent people. Art criticism is a limited option whereas art history is that of the people who have absorbed the essence and ripple effects of art. They could have a Picasso print at home without knowing anything about Picasso or his art. Art becomes the voice of people when people forget both the artist and his life, and enjoys only his work of art. It is historian’s job to excavate the life of the artist and his time through the stories of people and the stories of the artist and the stories of his own self. I am a historian of people and their art. I am a chronicler of difficult times.
I see people living in difficult times; in the streets and garbage dumps in Delhi. ‘Save the Children’, an advertising standee announces and I turn curious when I see the name of a great photographer, Raghu Rai printed there. He has a show on the next day at my friend’s place. I never knew that there was a show going on like this in this building. I go inside the gallery. There is a row of disturbing pictures taken by him of people and children living in direst conditions in the city of Delhi; under the bridges, at the garbage dumps, at construction sites and so on. The pictures disturb me. And I recognize that these pictures are taken by the veteran photography artist as a part of his collaboration with a non-governmental organization that works for the welfare of children and women in the ghettoes. I see the face of a woman recurring in these pictures. I see the eyes of a child following me from a tightly framed picture on the wall. It looked like the eyes of a monkey.
I wait for my car. The angry young man brings the car from the basement. I look at it emerging from the mouth of the basement like a beetle that has been released from a matchbox. I get into it. The invisible spirit of my woman gets in from the other side. She looks at me and smiles. ‘Had enough?’ she asks. I nod. She touches me with her soft invisible palm at my rib cage from behind. I fall into an ink bottle and turn into a dream.