The Book of Photographs II / Priya Sarukkai Chabria

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


This strong composition derives its solemnity from the arrangement of the sitters, which is akin to early 20th century studio photographs. Taken by my grandfather it presents lineage: a three-tiered portrait of three generations set against a bland wash of ash-grey wall which, however, cuts any pretention to nobility. Patti sits on a high back chair in a shot-silk sari that could be mangatoole, the green-redof foliating leaves, bordered by the gleam of zari; Ma’s low seat is concealed by her fanned out sari of sunflower yellow, the silk sprinkled with black pearls of  butties; she has me parked on her lap which still shows the slight convexity of recent pregnancy. I’m in a faintly ugly frilly dress. The powerlessness of infants is reflected in the clothes they are dressed in. 

If you look closely at this photograph, you will, like me, be struck by the women’s’ resilient yet reserved expressions, and how closely they resemble each other though they wouldn’t have cared for this observation. Yet notice the same high broad foreheads, tapering eyebrows and large eyes – both have removed their glasses.

Equally, I’m struck by the close meanings of our names that were chosen not out of hubris to resonate off each other, but for their auspiciousness.  Patti, born in Madurai, was named after the great Goddess of its magnificent temple, Meenakshi, ‘ Fish –Eyed Beauty’; she named her daughter Saroja Kamakshi, ‘Lotus Eyes of Love’, another name of the potent Goddess; Ma named me Priyadarsini, ‘Who is looked upon by everyone with eyes of love’ and, equally, she told me, it means the reverse, like a magic mirror which reflects, besides the outside,  the secret life behind its mercury lining, ‘Who looks upon everyone with eyes of love’. Either way, it’s a name impossible to live up.

A smidgeon of history passes through my name’s porous membrane. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, when incarcerated by the British, wrote letters to his daughter Indira Priyadarshini that was collected into the epistolary classic, The Discovery of India. In it, he addressed her as, ‘Priyadarshini, dear to my eyes, dearer still when sight is denied’. Amma’s second husband would quote this to me when he wanted a favor–normally that I disappear. Looking back, it’s droll, still a trifle annoying and tinged with blueness as all of them have passed away.

The unwilled emphasis in Priyadarsini on sight and seeing, its darshanic slant on simultaneously being beheld and beholding quivers like plucked veena strings as I go through this album of family photographs; it morphs into a ritual of discovery in the concavity of absence.

To return to the photograph we have at hand: Patti is 45, Amma 23, I’m almost one. Patti leans back slightly which gives her a guarded look; Ma leaning forward, is looking into the camera. Neither smile. Perhaps they had just had a tiff — which wouldn’t be surprising as these two strong willed women didn’t see eye-to-eye once Amma turned adult. Oblivious to this tension, my face is skewered between a scowl and a smile, as if I’m deliberating whether to be true to my name. 

My father, Vasu Gopalan Sarukkai gave me a pet name that died with him: Butsi, after butta, corn-on-the-cob which my mother delighted in eating when she was pregnant with me. They were very much in love.  In the weeks after his cremation, when trying to assess the losses that his death contained, I realized with a shock that I’ll never again be called by that name. Butsi, the child, had also gone up in flames. 

(9cmx6cm negative, AFGA stock, horizontal print)


Extravagance: the sleeveless baby frock looks grey with a barely visible self-pattern but I was told the fabric was daffodil yellow topped by a ruff-like collar of white lace; it’s a dainty version of the one that encases Ernst Hemingway in his infant photograph taken in Oak Park, Illinois, though my collar looks large as filigreed lotus leaves from which the bud of  face emerges. The frock is all froth, unaffordable expenses and spring; a breeze of trembling joy blows through the image. This photograph is proof my parents adored me; it makes one trust the lie that all babies are adored.

And look at me: toothless and smiling.  One could believe a basic tenet of Hindu philosophy: that the natural state of humankind, of the cosmos itself, is unadorned bliss.

  John Berger wrote, ‘Images were first made to conjure up the appearance of something that was absent.’  Well.

(7cmx6cm negative, AFGA stock, vertical print)

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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