Sumana Roy appreciates the delights of a book which realises the quickly-mutating nature of Mumbai. Through its poetry and its melancholy snaps, it conveys a rare quietitude about the city.
Sumana Roy 21st Sep 2013
A photograph of Juhu beach from the book | Photo: Christopher Taylor
he crow on the cover of Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions, flying over the Arabian Sea, the Bombay skyline in the background, is a harbinger of the joys of perspectivism that the book is to offer about the metropolis. Yes, the 'bird's eye view', one that so seamlessly melds the private and the public, is what the poet and writer 'Priya Sarukkai Chabria and the photographer Christopher Taylor bring to us, what Ranjit Hoskote describes as the 'captivating exploration of the public and the secret lives of one of the world's largest metropolitan hubs'. (A word about the crow and Bombay before I move on to other animals with eyes in the city: there must be something about the bird flying over the sea that makes it emblematic of Bombay. In the video of Amit Chaudhuri's rendition of Norwegian Wood for instance, a crow flies through the diagonal length of the screen, inaugurating the song and later closing it too. Pigeons fill the middle but it takes a crow to do the begin-end credits. This is a trope worth discovering.)
Chabria, brilliant wordsmith and affectionate narrator, holds our hands while walking us through the history of the city, nudging us to look into a dark street corner, pointing us to the political soft soil behind wall graffiti, pulling us up through an abandoned staircase, directing our chins towards the sky where paper kites fly amidst a shy festival of wind and breeze, cleans a roadside bench for us to sit and eat or drink or just watch. In other words, she is interpreter and interlocutor, true, but also both doctor and nurse, taking care of diagnosis and convalescence. That is what makes this book such a rare reading and viewing pleasure. The word that best describes my reading experience of Immersions is 'aaram': I haven't read anything pleasanter in a long time.
I mentioned perspectivism at the beginning, and I must turn to it again to talk about the miraculous subjective-objective bind that the photographs and text create. I was more aware of 'looking' than 'reading', and therein the delight of the eye. It is impossible to catalogue those pleasures, subject as they are to the merry-go-round of interpretations, but what definitely needs mentioning is the multifarious character of looking, Berger's ways of seeing. That seems to be the definition of a metropolis – one that can accommodate a million eyes, a hundred thousand irises, studios of the mind, dark rooms of being.
Chabria and Taylor make their manifesto of the optic clear at the very outset – why else the subtitle 'Immersions'? The word holds in it a state of half-visibility, 'Bombay/Mumbai's central metaphor... Ganesh Chaturthi, at the conclusion of which idols of Ganesha, the guardian of inaugurations, are ritually immersed in the sea', as Hoskote writes is the preface to the book. Chabria goes to the visual architectonics straight away: 'We realised that what one saw at noon must be seen again in starlight; that which was seen in summer reveals another aspect in the monsoon; sights and smells cherished vanish and are replaced by other sensations and a different understanding'.
What Chabria also takes care to point out time and again is the shifting character of this optic, of the relation between seeing and a personality of doubt that marks the metropolis, its public life and its keeping of secrets: '... it was also in a personal sense the keeper of solitude and secrets while the shifting sea outside my window suggested intimations of insubstantiality – that I am only passing through'. This sense of one's insubstantiality is after all a function of seeing – what is death if not a dis-appearance from a city's traffic of changing footprints? C.P. Cavafy's lines 'You'll find no new places, you won't find other shores/The city will follow you' come to mind – in Bombay 'Christopher (Taylor) and I (Chabria) seek the sempiternal amidst the ephemeral'.
It is impossible to catalogue those pleasures, subject as they are to the merry-go-round of interpretations, but what definitely needs mentioning is the multifarious character of looking, Berger’s ways of seeing. That seems to be the definition of a metropolis – one that can accommodate a million eyes, a hundred thousand irises, studios of the mind, dark rooms of being.
ne aesthetic that marks the book and the city is the 'blur': the inconstancy of stillness, the dance of motion marks the metropolis always on the move as it does Taylor's camera-fying. The recurrence of the walking feet trapped in a blur, beginning from the first photograph, with men's feet and women's hands, as if held in a timeless binary, all this against the artificial stillness of the billboard with eyes. In Bombay, everyone must see – and so even the billboards too must watch pedestrians in front of it, as if they were props in the drama, Act III, Scene ii. And so the many photos of young boys looking out of auto rickshaws, older men confronting the camera, taxi drivers and their trail of migrancy, of so many of the city's inhabitants moving with their eyes closed, and the multitude at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, their faces a blur, their eyes a veil over their lives.
Another is the cloud, their collective, white and black in turns, ferocious and feminine in Taylor's captures, their stories beginning from the second photo and continuing beyond the covers of the book. They are also Bombay – Chabria, with the poet's empathy for the non-being, makes that clear. Bombay is not only land; it is the sky above it, the sea that holds it together, part terrarium and part aquarium, their inhabitants, the clouds and the fish on the shores and in the markets. The clouds remind us, again through the visual frame, how Bombay is an aerial city: Taylor fills the book with photos of roofs and rooftops, terraces, flat like a plateau, held out like a palm, the city's horoscope.
One can never know Bombay completely because something is always kept hidden, like a partner's virtue or vice that has the potential to change one's relationship with the city. Taylor's photos show us the city covered in tarpaulin sheets, a lighthouse, the skyscrapers in scaffolding, the 'unlit' Bombay.
Because, in the end, this city is a metropolis of light. Celluloid. Silver Screen. Projector. The city as cinema.
Immersions is a book about Bombay's interiority. In The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy writes, 'the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. ... In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic'. That is the charm of Immersions. You already know the story of Bombay. But you must read this book because you want to know again, because every time you blink, the old becomes new again. Because between the hard city and soft city, between 'Mumbai is a happy vision of the future' and the 'dark room', between the tenancy of light and darkness as a paying guest lies the shadow of Bombay.