“Did Maya have all her food this morning?” she asked.
“Mostly. She didn’t like the carrots. She spit them on the floor.”
“She always does that with carrots.”
“She doesn’t like them.”
“No. She doesn’t like them at all.”
“But you could try mixing them with apple-sauce,” she added. “She loves that”
“Apple-sauce,” he repeated, slowly. He may have been writing it down. He had a bad memory and she always made him write out lists. Once she even made him a list of all the things she wanted him to do in bed. But he looked at her with disgust and said that’s not what he was—a toy that turned on and off at her bidding.
She liked silence nowadays. It was the music she strained to listen to, in this bustling world, the music most rare. Here, the bodegas were simple, the sidewalks untouched by organic clothing stores, day care centers, fair-trade coffee and tapas bars. The disrepair was romantic, commensurate with the direction her life was headed. She liked that she could cross a river and start all over.
Sometimes, she feared there were no new beginnings for people like her—people with no real longing and this was just the second part of the same journey. Different mistakes, the same failure. What a shame people would say. She had so much promise.
Over time, her parents grew more poised and reticent. They were worried these days that like many of their friends’ children, she would come back home, demand coffee be brought to her bedside at noon. With all bold ambitions, the greater is the risk of failure. She would tell them this, What did you suppose? It was you who set me on the path of great expectations.
She practically heard the sky exhale. The headiness of victory. No. The relief.
Only when you do good things can you look back and say– everything happens for a reason. Else, it’s all a waste.
After seventeen years away, I’ve done something most Indians of my generation don’t do–return back home. When people ask me where I’m from, I always stumble. I say, I was born in Calcutta but I grew up in New York. When you are young, your awareness of the larger city is limited. I have to admit, I know New York much more intimately than I feel I know Calcutta.
Calcutta is like an aging beauty–deccayed and crumbling. But she has a soul. In a way that many other cities don’t.
I can’t say my work is documenting the city. I write fiction and by nature am not always interested in what is out there or representing what I see. There is always a narrative running in my mind which doesn’t necessarily correspond to to what is real and I use the camera to express it. In that sense, I feel I’m always writing fiction with the camera.
One Saturday morning, I happened upon a group of ladies doing their washing. I asked if I could photograph them. They agreed. A few days later, I returned, to give them prints. They were thrilled and invited me into their homes to take more photographs- photographs of their children, visiting siblings, cousins, friends; photographs of them cooking and playing and getting ready for New Years Eve. I took back more prints. They requested more shoots. And so it went on. I visit them almost every week. I call them my Saturday Morning Laundry Ladies.
Soon, the adjoining houses began to ask for photographs, then the local tea shop owner and the butcher and the lady who lived in a shack next to the tea shop I frequently visited.
I don’t photograph people of a slum to document poverty. I wasn’t photographing them with a project in mind. There was no ulterior motive for me. I was photographing these people because I was interested in them. The slum dwellers just took me in at a time when I was very unwell and just trying to survive one day at a time. Taking photographs helped that battle. So I kept returning. I’d make them prints because taking their pictures made me happy and I wanted to try and give back some of that happiness.
That’s how over the years I became their Photowalli Didi. (the sister with the photos). Our relationship is unequal, we come from different worlds but we both give and take something from each other. This is an exploration not only of our strange and intimate relationship but a project about strength of communities, an investigation into and perhaps most importantly a project about belonging, about breaking barriers and that of challenging stereotypes and myths. It is a celebration as well as an elegy.