The Book of Photographs I / Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Each act of recollection is simultaneously one of leave-taking.


‘Because I had the misfortune to begin a book with the word ‘I’, Proust writes to Andre Lang*, ‘people jumped to the conclusion that, instead of seeking to uncover laws in general, I was undertaking ‘self-analysis’, in its most personal and detestable sense.’  I trust those who gaze at The Book of Photographs with me will not share a similar view, but sieve their own significances from this net of remembrances, their sparkles of sand and mica, as time washes over us, first pushing us towards life, then drawing us back into its great unknown.

         See that smudge in the depths of that large, navy blue perambulator? That’s me, bundled in a lacy shawl, which is a few muddy-grey shades lighter than my face. This out-of-focus photograph is retained in the album because of the significance of the carriage, viewed from the top angle, which extends from one edge of the frame to the other. With its hanging hood, it resembles a dark fruit with a ridged rind, artistically carved to expose its seed, which is me.  My mother said the pram, which my father bought it in London where his ship had docked, cost him a whole month’s salary; no one in the neighborhood had anything similar. It was unwieldy; she had to steer it, part battering ram, part sign of her admittance into the league of mothers, part tangible glory of her husband’s love for her, down the stairs of their tiny first floor flat in Calcutta. Then push it along the uneven pavement for my cosseted perambulation each evening when my father was on the high seas.

Last Tuesday when I called Pappu Chitti –my mother’s friend from her college days – she unexpectedly mentioned Ma struggling with the perambulator.  At that time, Pappu Chitti lived near Calcutta’s posh Park Street in a vast white bungalow with groomed laws punctuated by white cane chairs and white painted wrought-iron tables. I don’t know in which suburb Ma lived while awaiting Appa’s return. She was lonely, she said, and spent her days playing with me and writing letters to Appa.  I have one letter written decades later by him to her. Its tone of despair and frankness shocks.

Most often, our parents remain framed in our minds within their portraits as parents. Suddenly, an unearthed letter from their past blows into our lives. With a strange, reluctant eagerness we read it, to discover them as men and women with once lusting bodies. This drifts us into a period akin to suspended duration, like lying awake at night, listening to the rain.

(6cmx6cm negative, AFGA stock)

* translated by Terence Kilmartin


How small I was!  My grandmother’s fingers look like plump drumsticks across my chest, propping me into a wobbly sitting posture.  At this point of development babies seem more mollusk than human, curious squirms of tissue, cartilage and squishy fat, as if they still bear traces of the primeval swamp.

This is my first close up.  I’m gurgling, a finger stuck into toothless gums, eyes filled with wonder which is the perpetual expression on babies’ faces except when they cry, sleep or yawn in a remarkably controlled manner, their nubby mouths shaping into perfect little Os.  Come to think of it, when left to themselves, wonder illuminates the visage of babies of all mammalian species, be they predator or prey.  Rounded eyes transfixed, mouth invariably open, be it cheetah cub, owlet or newborn chimpanzee, they stare in astonishment of what is seen – perhaps wind-stirred grass, a scurrying black beetle, pebbles, rain or the light as it changes. ‘Sight of heavenly beings or events, attainment of desires, entry into a superior space and illusionary or magical acts,’ could birth this emotional state, says the Natya Shastra, the Sanskrit treatise on the arts. Entrancement at the world, this shared, superior space we inhabit may be our deepest connection across species: Look at this!  Possibly like us animals too largely grow out of wonder as they become functional, responsible parents. We leave this holy tirth, the place of waters and fording, and wade into the quotidian without noticing, with just a dampness between the toes.

 If the photograph were to colour, shade upon delicate shade would emerge, tender as an infant’s skin:  Patti’s fingers a pale almond, the peeled almond of my skin against which the crème and strawberry sundress falls as the child falls towards the next stage of life. 

(6cmx6cm negative, AFGA stock)

Priya Sarukkai Chabria is an award winning translator of medieval Tamil mystic poetry; long and short speculative fiction on writing, sex, history and our past lives as animals; a book of non-fiction and poetry. Her poetry collection, Calling Over Water is recently released. Her work is published in Adelphiana, Another English: Anglophone Poetry From Around the World, Drunken Boat, Asymptope, The Literary Review, The Best of Asian Speculative Fiction,The Literary Review among others. She edits Poetry at Sangam

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