The Book of Photographs III / Priya Sarukkai Chabria

13 a

This colour photograph in long shot, of Amma’s sisters-in law, should have shown up earlier; its fadedness more a wash of watered orange that the red seep of old prints, as if ancient memories of kinship and quarrel have risen through film sheath to surface.

               The foreground grass is spiky, as if each blade bristles with overheard stories of snubs, small gifts exchanged, secrets leaked, recipes traded and childcare advice knotted as tightly as the grasses’ roots, to present a carpet of domestic cordiality.  The women, slim of arm and body, are young mothers on a picnic in a park as the hedge seen on Ma’s left suggests. 

I’m reading this photograph right to left –as if it were in a foreign script– because Ma is at the extreme left of this semicircle where places indicate power. Next stands her elder sister-in-law, Rajathi; at the center, Sudha,  the daughter of the house, then cousin sister-in-law, Rama, and at the other end petite Indira, her face darkened by leaf shadows of a tree out of the frame as if it foretells her terrible accident.  The women are from a time when smiling for the camera wasn’t the norm, they are of a type: comparable in height, silk saries clasped around bodies, hair in neat buns, beaded clutches in hand. Amma is the partial ‘foreigner’ here for she came from a different sub-sect of Brahmins who settled in Madras a mere generation earlier. In that casteist environment, these things mattered. Appa stood by her, and Amma began to rebel in small ways. Look — her amber sari’s maroon border with its staggered print of posies reaches knee height while the others are in discreet gold-bordered Kanjeevarams of viridian, mustard, indigo and kumkumam , that is, brick-red. The Tamil names of these shades rolls in my mouth like a sweet from childhood, familiar to hands, eye and tongue.

Weavers drew their palette in part from their palate: paasi payir shiny green gram; yellow of elumichai and eera manjal, lemon dazzle and wet turmeric, freshly uprooted; browns of paaku and kaapi kotai, woody betel nut and glistening coffee beans; the washed plum and glossy chili of naaval pazham and miliakai pazaham; and two pinks, mithai, shocking candyand vengaaya thol,  dusky rose of onion skin which pearls under light, like reams of flung silk.

From gardens that spread in the dreamy, unkempt way of bed-fresh hair the weavers plucked the colours of  malli moggu, white jasmine buds, tamarai poo of the twin-toned lotus, vadamalli, magenta Bachelor’s button, chandanam, sandal-paste’s creamy biscuit and peachy kanakambaram, its soft flowers plaited into garlands for goddesses and girls’ braids. They drew colours from the animal that populate their vision: kili pacchai a shrieking parrot green, yaanai greyish blue of languorous elephants, maanthulir, shot-shade of foliating leaves, now tender green, now soft red, bronzing in wind-washed sunlight, and maiylkarithe,  sapphire-emerald shimmer of a strutting peacock’s neck, each step stilling time.

They looked at the sky and reeled in its shades to stretch over looms: kaar-megham of coiling monsoon clouds; mingled ramar hue of pre-noon blue torched with green; dumra-varanam of lazily dispersing incense smolder. Nothing was foreign; each colour was experienced by their body before it was translated by the clacking syllaberies of hand looms into yards of glimmering silk.

My first Kanjeeravam, presented when I turned sixteen, was a shot-silk; its warp maam pazham, ripe mango,  weft kumkumapoo,  soaked saffron;  border  of ennai arrukku, colour of rosewood polished with oil, patterned with othai veli, a single running creeper of gold zari. I held it up to the mirror like a pulled sunset sky; I think the mirror was blinded by beauty.

            To return to this small photograph: I saw my aunt Rama decades later, in hospital a few hours after Appa had died. Nurses quickly disconnected the tubes and machines attached to him, everyone left that grey room; I was to keep vigil over his shattered body and his brilliant mind that, till the end, was like flaming crystal.  I rested my head on his shoulder and felt a deep peace descend on me, and in me.  At some point the door opened, a stooped grey-haired women in a formal nine- yard Kanjeevaram of eeyachombu, tin grey, entered. ‘You are Priya?’ she asked as I rose. ‘I am your aunt Rama. Do you remember me?’ I remembered this photograph. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘We have come to pay our respects to Vasu.’ She stood on the other side of the bed, looking at his dead face.  After a while, she nodded to me and left. Why didn’t you honour him when he was alive I wanted to scream as the door closed, it would have mattered much to him.  My thought was then a passing rip of pain; later it stayed, a hook tearing my throat.

While waiting for clearance papers from the hospital to take Appa’s body for cremation I learnt from his second wife’s relatives that he had circumvented the globe seventeen times. He was more dear and foreign to me than I knew.

(6cmx6cm negatives, AFGA colour stock)

13 b

This photograph could be the twin of the last one as the angle and grouping are identical. However, it features the children of the sisters-in-law. One summer we cousins were sent to my widowed paternal grandfather’s house in the hill station of Ootacamand, when he was director of All India Radio, to live in a bungalow with polished wooden floors and walls and long tables that held round brass bowls of buttercup yellow roses which thrust up their surrendering, caressing interiority and stillness. As Rilke wrote in Roses,

‘Some one puts you in a simple vase –,

see how everything is changed:

it is, perhaps the same phrase,

but sung by an angel.’*

Sunshine curtained rows of large beveled glass windows, connecting the indoors with the terraced garden. Look closely and you’ll see climbing roses edging the window frames; these were fragrant.

               On the lawn, arranged in height order, with the tallest at the center, we cousins –who don’t bear family resemblance –form a drooping arc.  On one side are Rajathi’s three sons Barath, Gautam in chocolate corduroy pants and Ashok the toddler, who are now scattered across the States and India; on the other side stands Dilip already wearing glasses, Pradeep and Sundip, Sudha Attai’s sons. I’m in front, in scarlet pants and grass green cardigan, one little hand clutched below my throat, atop a bulge that swells centrally from small chest to stomach like a long fat worm. This bulge hides the carrot meant to be bait for the rabbit trap the boys made by bending brambles and twigs into a bristly cocoon in the nearby woods.

On the day – possibly the last of the holiday –when this photograph was taken, I remember walking to the trap through the cool morning as if in silent slow-motion, light turning leaves translucent, and ash blond dust rising in puffs with each step we took. Did we trap a rabbit?  No one knows. If yes, did it die of starvation in its cage of thorns?  In the hollow of that neglected trap did the dead rabbit’s fur and flesh collapse into ever darkening shades and stench till only unglued skeleton remained? Could its bones then perhaps be regarded as our ‘trace fossil’, our mark of passage through one summer?

I find trace fossils endlessly evocative for they are rock records of impressions of a life passing by -like those of a wandering dinosaur’s footprints imprinted in rock — and not of the living being’s actual life. In this clenching of space by a vanished body the ephemeral is caught, and made concrete, possibly as never before. Is this because empty aching volume can sometimes be easier to hold in the heart than presence?

Absence, we know, serves as a sign of life, like this recollection of photographs through the film of memory, minus the reality of a print. But look! I’ve forgotten to point to you Kasha, the white Tibetan terrier sniffing Dilip’s shoes. Strands of hair fell over his round brown eyes which meant not once did Kasha experience the world as an unbroken picture; sections would have always be missing. Did he suffer headaches, I often wondered. Or did Kasha offset this drawback in some fashion, like the surprising ways humans find to compensate for loss and keep going?

                (6cmx6cm negatives, AFGA colour 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

*Roses the Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Drawings Clair Johnson,  Translations and Essay David Need .

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