Amidst the clinking and the laughter, there is a veil. Slippery and impenetrable, soft. I glide my palm across it, and it turns wet with uncertainty. Droplets appear on its foggy surface and I have the impression that it may yet yield. We talk. The veil flinches, flickering in the candlelight. We part. If I could take these veils back with me, I would display them in the empty vitrines of my mind—their classification and placement determined by fleshiness and opaqueness, altogether a museum of trophies of rejection. At the entrance, the visitor would find the most transparent of the entire collection, made visible through the deception of a motor blowing a gentle breeze. Rather than demonstrate the fragility of the veil, this trick would affirm its tenacity, its ability to withstand the probing of an entire conversation.
As for the rest, I do not know what the stillness of a vitrine could do to a veil that otherwise exists between two people. Perhaps, in such a sterile environment, the veils would harden, crack, or shrink. Perhaps, the glass would fog over with the moisture of their disintegration. Mostly, I fear that the veils will appear cold and certain, so unlike what they are on the outside—ambiguous and promisingly pliable. I have often thought of the veil as a vibrating film of interest that shimmers at the start of every conversation, slowly detaching and becoming material. What triggers its rapid and peculiar development? In the desert, a camel is protected by two sets of eyelashes, but this double insulation is not enough. The animal has a third mechanism of maintaining distance in movement, a membrane, which rests in a corner of the eye, and under distress, moves horizontally across its surface. Without the activation of this reflex, the camel’s survival remains in doubt. Vulnerable and exposed, the surfaces of its eyes grazed by sand and wind cause the camel to collapse in its own natural habitat. Where would the camel go without this translucent film that glides so gently, somewhat opaque yet still permitting vision? Or, how would its structure have evolved in order to remain in the desert? Under inhospitable conditions, every body must make a choice. It must parade all available reflexes and then decide whether to stay or to leave. Take a boat across the sea. Climb a mountain, if it must be. Still, in its new environment, the refugee has no ready armour, it must fashion one from desire and despair. Become impenetrable. To be assimilated, however, is to try be absorbed within a larger body. For one thing to be absorbed into another, they must both be alike. ad- ‘to’ + similis ‘like, resembling, of the same kind’. Due to the genetic difference between the organ and the recipient, the recipient’s immune system identifies the organ as foreign and attempts to destroy it. The mystery regarding the possibility of likeness remains—can it be conjured out of will or must it be summoned through the ruthless process of suppression?
In De Curtorum Chirurgia per Insitionem (On the Surgery of Mutilation by Grafting) published in 1597, Bolognian surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi wrote, “The singular character of the individual entirely dissuades us from attempting this work on another person. For such is the force and power of individuality, that if any one should believe that he could accelerate and increase the beauty of union, nay more, achieve even the least part of the operation, we consider him plainly superstitious and badly grounded in physical sciences.” What Tagliacozzi could do instead was to cut a flap of skin from the arm, leaving one end attached while bringing the other upto the nose in an attempt at reconstruction before complete severance.
Four centuries later, the discovery of a certain kind of fungus in soil collected in Hardangervidda allowed doctors to shut down the entire body’s responses as it received something external and detached, urgent and necessary. This knowledge placed the task of reception on the recipient, striving for a gentle attachment.
A few years before the discovery of the fungus became decisive, Martinican writer Edouard Glissant declared that we must demand the right to opacity, the right not to be understood, the right to be veiled. The premise of this claim is that research and refrain require different kinds of labour. To make a body transparent is to try to reduce it to its essences and thereafter hold it accountable to the findings, to insist on universal and everlasting applicability. Yet, to make a body transparent is to enlist and categorise, to expand the limits of common perception, and to often plumb the depth’s of one’s own imagination for resources. Those who believe they are in possession of the accurate and final understanding of any object or phenomena look at the past with curiosity. They do so not to learn about the objects or phenomena per se but in admiration of the power of the imagination to conjure a wondrous catalogue of theories and procedures. For once, we lived in a world in which spinning the afflicted rearranged the contents of the brain into a state resembling sanity. We can only guess the magnitude of the earthquake that awaits our museum of veils. Sudden and short, but sure to shatter the glass, leaving ruins.
Zeenat Nagree is an independent writer, critic, and curator based in Bombay.