The Book of Photographs IV / Priya Sarukkai Chabria

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

14

This is Zak, my pedigree cocker spaniel, as a puppy curled asleep in my father’s palms on his voyage from Australia to India.  The photograph in B&W is true to him: he was black and white. Thinking of him returns me to being a thirteen-year-old, while language slides into inchoate syllables of endearment.

               Zak was a present given by my father and was my sole companion when the world was at odds with one, as I guess every teen feels. He was my home in a home shattering; my sniffing, soft-coated, wet-nosed, eternally welcoming friend who never asked me to take sides between mother and father. I invariably chose mother because I knew her side to the failing story in cruel detail though I resented condemning my father without hearing him out, but Amma had proof: Appa was prepared to abandon us and marry someone –Monica, Monica–who flew from England to Australia to be with him.

I often thought about Monica who forsook her life in London in the hope of marrying Appa and he backed out, Ma told me, tears of indignation sneaking down trembling cheeks, on the excuse that his wife would never grant him a divorce, imagine his big fat lie about us! Ma resorted to the oldest, guilt-inducing line in the book: Vasu, wait a year or two till The Girls grow up, then you can leave us. In retrospect, Appa was telling this betrayed woman the truth. Monica must have seethed with helpless loathing but I am glad we, as a ‘family’, had a few more years together.

Zak lived through that year but died soon afterwards, of tic fever and distemper, caught at a friend’s house where we left him for safekeeping while we travelled south.  One hot afternoon Appa took me to the veterinary hospital to see him for the last time. Zak was the only one in the vast bright isolation ward, his tiny figure asleep on the cement floor without a blanket under him or to cover him, his legs stiffly stretched. I patted his head, stroked his chest and back, tickled his throat while mouthing his name. He couldn’t hear us. I snipped hair off his coat, both black and white, as a keepsake. ‘Zak must be put to sleep,’ Appa said, patting my head. ‘He’s suffering. Butsi, beti, you must let him go.’

This is why I support euthanasia. To be put to sleep. Forget. Escape pain.

           The sightless grief of death first clawed me with Zak’s passing.  I stored his hair and photographs, including this one, in a secret locker in my mother’s wooden cupboard in Madras. I’m almost sure it hasn’t been discovered, and is still there.

(6cmx6cm negative, Kodak stock)

32

I don’t know where or when this photography, aged to a shade of tallow, was taken.  It’s unusual, considering no humans are included in the frame, yet this unknown, rather empty view was considered significant enough to utilize several frames of film on, for it is unlikely a single photograph was taken though only this one survives. Either Thatha or Appa would have photographed it after choosing  the angles; sometimes tilting his head upwards to offer us the spread visage of sky as in landscape paintings of the 18th century; sometimes walking ahead or stepping back to include more of shrubbery and shoreline, for it is easy to shift the contours of earth, sky and sea with a camera.

A quiet stretch of glimmering sea is solidified by the camera lens and memory to look like a sheet of coarse yellowish rock embedded with stars that will spurt tiny jets of liquid light should we walk on it. We don’t see the shoreline, though on the left a dark cluster of crouching trees, possibly mangroves, edges in, that from this distance resembles a knotty cluster of boulders. Minerality. This photograph presents an overwhelming sense of fossilization, heightened by the lack of people and the freeze of once-moving waters.

If Appa took this image while standing on a boat, the water body is the sea, though I wonder what lies buried beneath its surface besides his memories. Did he visit here with Monica, who loved him for years across oceans and heartbreak?  If it were Thatha looking out from a visitors’ viewing point, this could very well be a large lake, fringed by trees, taken on a picnic, or, more likely, a thirtha, a place of pilgrimage and spiritual crossing, from where to ford the waters of the life and the secret places of the mind in our search for sanctity. Through the dazed slippage of days, our body is our only boat. If this place is, indeed, a thirtha did they travel here for atonement of something done or something that should have been done, but wasn’t? This photograph is an anonymous and unmoored island in my collection.

 (7cmx6cm negative, ORWO 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 http://poetry.sangamhouse.org/

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