What I learnt about Writing from Jaisingh Nageswaran’s Photographs

In December last year, I spoke to photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran about his Mullai Periyar River photo-series. It was a humbling conversation. I was joined by Kiruba Devi who brought her watery giggles. He said some things that weren’t in the published piece but I want to remember them so I am putting them here.

  1. He said that the first time he held a camera, he felt strong. Like he’d finally learnt the language and will to live.
  2. When he visited Ambedkar’s house in Bombay with some friends, he said they ‘breathed deliberately to inhale the same air as Ambedkar’
  3. He becomes a child everytime he goes to the river.
  4. After spending years taking photographs around the country, he returned home to Vadipatti in 2020 and decided never to leave. The space in his Mumbai apartment was uninspiring and he grew bored of its neat Asian Paints-coloured walls. He longed to go back to the white-washed walls of his childhood home.
  5. First in the lockdown-series of photographs is a partially open door, a sliver of light escaping as if from a projector in a cinema hall (Caption: ‘Life in the times of Corona / Day 1/21’.) Then there’s a blue plastic bag with medium-sized tomatoes hanging on a wall next to bunched up black wires. Even in the everydayness of the images he chooses to photograph, his eye picks up details that are extraordinary because they neither come with the polish of manufactured- lockdown images that were all too regular on social media in the first few months of 2020 nor are they charged with the heaviness of mainstream aesthetics.
  6. In his hands, the camera is not a tool. It’s a scribe. We sense that his camera is not only recording the pictures but is actively plunging into people’s stories and writing them. The comments on his Instagram feed are full of appreciation. And it’s not hard to miss that he doesn’t reply to the people who leave praise for his work. ‘I am still learning to get better at English. When I do, I will reply to them’. Well-wishers alert him when his Instagram stories carry misspelt English words and he immediately deletes them. Writing in Tamizh is equally challenging because of dyslexia but what’s also true is that he has often been told that his pictures are so evocative, they need neither captions nor grammar.
  7. What I see in his photographs are the presentiment of a plunge and the plunge itself. And it’s how I have come to learn a lot about writing — by simply staring at Jaisingh Nageswaran’s pictures.

I see in my mind sepia photographs of women in coffee shops

I see in my mind, sepia photographs of women in coffee shops.

One is sitting by the window, hand in hair, palm on cheek, looking out the window.

One is sitting with a book, not reading.

One is sitting with her coffee, waiting. Waiting waiting waiting.

And then I see Eiffel tower in black and white and next to it, a coffee shop.

I see a woman rocking back and forth on a plastic chair. Somebody has offended her and she is wondering if she should respond.

She will pause, take a deep breath, roll her eyes and let go.

I see a man with crew cut sitting with a magazine, not looking up.

Often I have thought that our cook, Shobamma looks like a teletubby in a sari. She has a green sari, a white and a cream one. When she cackles with laughter, her body shakes. Often I have wanted to sit with her and talk to her about life.

She says definitely, some day.

I nod.

Will I ever be the woman in these sepia photographs?

I wonder.

I see my mother sitting with her big family in a black and white photograph. It looks painted and a scary time in history to have lived. She is wearing a white blouse and a printed brown skirt. Her face is round, like I have always found mine to be.

I see three women sitting and laughing at a bar. They have all let their hair open. They each have a beer mug in hand and they seem like a portrait. They seem unbothered by where they are or who is watching them.

I see women in sepia photographs taken in some far away country whose name I cannot pronounce because it is too difficult.

I see a woman in all these photographs. She is as real as I am and probably more because she is unafraid of being alone.

 

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Here is the writing by Ila Ananya that inspired this poem.

To the woman I don’t know

I wish I knew her as well as I know her in photos. We look very close in all our pictures together, the kind of closeness that is brought together by a hundred unspoken arguments, two pauses and a dot of red silence – the red round on her forehead. These silences are in the thinnest gaps between us that the photos don’t see. It is the tiny strip of white light between our closely hugging bodies that quietly fades away into the distance behind us when I see how her hands lie unforgotten and clasped around me.

We hug a lot. On birthdays and anniversaries and for photos taken on top of hills, clouds all white and happy, a room with fading walls and big windows. We look happy in each of these. But I don’t know if we ever talked. I don’t remember the last time we talked just to talk, no lame necessary exchange of dialogues concerning bills or time or food. We have had arguments, sure, a measured distance that multiplies with every nod she didn’t give me when he was around, every misunderstanding I wanted her to have handled better and every value of tradition that I wanted her to dismiss.

Even so, I cannot think of anybody else who could have done a better job. After years of trying to mold me into the shape that he wanted of me, after all the sleeveless kurtas she returned to the tailor to get them sown into sleeves that don’t expose armpits, the way he wanted, after all the battles I  thought I fought, there is now, between us only a wall that separates our rooms, our lives and our growing distance from each other. On either sides of the wall there are all the things I don’t remember to tell her. Like how sometimes, when I think of her outside the crowd of family and expectations, I see her as a person. Like how she looks lovely in red, blue and yellow. Like how it took me really long to find out what my favourite picture of us is.

The walls in this room are white. There is a plastic cover next to the cot, perched the way I am on her lap. She is holding me tight, like she does in all our photos, clinging to me, knowing that this is the only moment that will unashamedly allow this closeness, this intimacy of unsecret smiles. Her face is young and more oval than it is now. Her big red bindi is not angry as it always is, in my memory. She looks happy and I can tell it’s a happy that is not just for the camera that he is holding. She is smiling broadly, showing most of her teeth.

Twenty four and a half years later there is an occasional silence in the car when we sit next to each other. There’s noise outside and, inside, there are long breaths deeply taken in and thrown out, hiding all signs of accidental sighs.

I wish we were closer, the way she and my sister are, I wish there were more than grunts in our conversations, I wish I knew her better. Now and then when she is not here, I don’t look for her voice the way I think I should when I miss her. I don’t know her smell. I don’t know her at all and I cannot blame her. She’s always been here, and there, on the cot that she sits on everyday. I see her as I make my way up the staircase and into the guilt free space that is my room. I am not too fond of this journey because it makes me guilty to not want to go there, to her room and sit and talk to her, the way my sister does so effortlessly. It’s almost as if my sister were not her child, they are that close.

I wish I could wholeheartedly blame him for all the things that my mother and I can’t have. The shaky, more angry folds in my memory bring me back another woman who isn’t anything like the pretty lady in the yellow nightie from the photo. She is not smiling, she is angry that I went to my cousin’s home a few blocks away. She is angrier because I went with boys, my cousins, brothers, but ‘boys’ in her head. She is angry because I couldn’t be more grown up when I was 14.

I can forgive this. I know that, but I want it to happen sooner. I don’t want to feel her smell on my body after she’s left us. I want to find out what her smell is, now, here when she’s with me.

Amma and I

Amma and I