Touch and tell
A few people have a bed for the night. For a night the wind is kept from them. The snow meant for them falls on the roadway but it won’t change the world. It won’t improve relations among men. It will not shorten the age of exploitation.
– Bertolt Brecht, “A Bed for the Night”.
I recently went to Vrindavan with two women, a high-art photographer from New Zealand and a Mexican art critic. Their purpose was to photograph the widows of Vrindavan and I their guide, interpreter, girlfriday. The salon photographer (whose employee I was) was interested in the iconic image and wanted to fit in the widows as part of a larger project on Madonna/motherhood. Her photographing technique consisted of taking not very good pictures, in flat light, with very little depth of field, somewhat bleached, and then to manipulate the images into something exotic and pretty. The idea, she said, is to maintain the ‘grittiness’ of the subject’s situation – even as she would attempt to mitigate the exploitative conditions in which the photograph was to be taken – and finally, if I understood her correctly, to not fetishise the subject.
I did not understand how obscuring the details through digital manipulation and bleaching could do that. In any case, I admired her for her clarity and the well-thought-out programme to execute her plan. She was very clear about how she was going to photograph the widows: in an intimate space, in pure white, with the light shading off their faces. The mood and feeling of the moment would decide the posture they would take up. She had done her research and knew her ground intimately, with a target of 20 women. I was to enlist 25 as they scurried from the various bhajan ashrams to different households to finish their chores. The idea was to offer them 300 rupees each in exchange for their time and body – the money an over-valuation of their otherwise diminished worth in the eyes of society, to let them know that they do count. In general, the widows get about three rupees in the morning and three in the evening for singing kirtan in the city’s ashrams and temples. So this was like a bonus.
The art critic intended to photograph at least 100 widows as part of a project in which her husband was currently engaged. He is top of the international art charts. Collecting third-world human crap is his current project (he is buying truckloads of Indian shit to take back) and the photographs and the film are a way to support the main sculptures. His methodology involves shooting people from behind, like executing a tribe or a police identikit. According to him, it is naive to pretend that they are not “colonisers”, coming down to the third-world with their bulging pockets to shoot the destitutes. The best way of going about, then, is to shoot the backside, making explicit the ruthlessness and ad hoc-ism of the entire process.
I managed to get 38 women enlisted. There was no attempt to pre-select the widows, according to look or status. They were chosen on a first come, first serve basis and I meticulously took down their names, age, the duration of their stay in Vrindavan, and other details that would surely be lost in translation. When I asked them about their sons, one woman reacted acerbically, “Well don’t we all live in the same society, and we know what sons do to their mothers, so don’t ask” – and that shut me up, thwarting any attempt at bonding. It was business and I was a pimp in action.
The salon photographer wanted a house-front against which to press her subjects. We finally chose a house whose nameplate turned out to be a deterrent, since an upper-caste, ‘respectable’ household, we reasoned, may not want widows to infiltrate its sacred space. But since the light washing its front steps at eleven o’clock was so perfect, I thought I should test the stereotype of how an upper-caste male mind works. In addition, I also had to negotiate the amount they expected for renting out their veranda for a couple of hours. It seemed absurd to test people for hospitality and self-respect, but middle-class economism can rationalise almost anything. And under the benediction of global capital, one almost feels a compulsion that the money ought to reach all those people with which it had come in contact. Nevertheless, when I asked how much, I was glad to hear the doctor — the son of the family to whom we had been directed — announce haughtily that they were not materialists like that, and that any amount that we liked could be offered at the altar of the household deity.
Our rickshaw man, co-beneficiary in the project, drove the nails into the wall; the boys of the house got the ladder and helped him with it. The women aided with the white bedsheets that were to be used as curtains. They then graciously made their exit from the room, as the photographer wanted her space and the illusion of intimacy with her white Madonnas. What she did not want was the vaishnav marks on their foreheads to be visible. The women were to go in one by one, drape the pure white saris that we had purchased, and then sit down on a little stool kept behind the curtain. It was like a sanctum sanctorum, and they were indeed goddesses. The photographer was to spend at least five minutes or more so that it would not seem impersonal. But before they went in, they would be photographed by the art critic, and I was asked to explain that this was for office work. It wasn’t as if we lied. After all, who could tell the difference between work and art, art and work? So outside the sanctum, they were lined up — facing a drain, no frills, just their soiled, everyday clothes, bags slung over their shoulders, faded shawls, some stooping, some with crutches, others erect despite the 70-odd years.
Even as the stage was being set up, the women started streaming in. I asked them to sit quietly, already the thikadar in charge. When I started licking them off in my notebook, I realised that half of the women present were new, saying yes ma’am to the names I had already put down in my book. The ones who were confirmed suggested that I verify the place and age details and smoke out the impostors. We had upped the number of women to be photographed to 61, so I jotted down some more names; already, however, my muscles were tensing with the spectre of those who would be turned away. I had to personally escort the women, since a few gatecrashers were brought to my notice by my colleagues, the rickshaw men who had appointed themselves event managers and crowd regulators. The queue had turned serpentine and was threatening to block the road. Of course, every passer-by stopped to ask if they couldn’t enlist their name too. Like in Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, the herd mentality just had to happen, one would have been curious if it did not: mendicants, married women, people with disabilities, busybodies, children — the storm of the miserables was only gathering.
On the other side of the road, in the widow market, I had been transformed into doctor, lifesaver, second assistant to the district magistrate, into a yamraj-like gatekeeper figure, one who could let them pass inside the walls of paradise. I had just come to know that, technically, paradise is a garden with a fence. Some of the women were showing me their tongues, others their broken limbs, others their leprous, dissolving skin. Most were trying to tell me that there did not live a widow sadder than them. The whole ditty of more-sorrowful-than-thou was beginning to catch fire like in a really dry forest. I tried to engage them, saying, “Look, there has been no attempt at discrimination. We haven’t tried to impose any criteria, either of destitution, of poverty, of ill health or age.” But the low-level fighting continued. Accusations were hurled — you have a roof, you get two square meals — and I was told to watch out as married women with sindur on their heads were slipping in.
All this while, I was surrounded by a circle of about 50 women, and the ten closest to me were poking me in my chest, hands, hair — never menacingly, just as an appeal. When the cacophony of pleadings and plaintiveness became unbearable, I began to lose it, saying, “I am sorry but I can’t accommodate you. It is best for you to go home.” I could not help it — the tone, the language, the ghost of the ruling class was lurking round the corner and it had me. Strangely, it brought them comfort and buttressed the wailings, because at least they were used to that language. A number of them, for instance, had asked me if this was the pension plan finally coming through, and despite denials, we had been imbued with the divinity of government reps. Some of them tried to dissuade the others from climbing onto me, saying, “Give the poor girl some space, do not harass her, back off you two”. One even confided Bangalira bodo chotolok (“The Bengalis are such lowlifes”). When onlookers tried to rescue me, I resented it, because I needed the women as much as they needed me. The men came, officiously suggesting that I should write the names down and ask them to come in the evening, as if they did not understand Hindi. When I responded by shouting that I was not about to give them dhoka and let them down, the women rallied behind me, at last an honest person.
The wave of pleadings increased ten-fold. Even the woman who had been rationalising the entire process like a policymaker, saying things like, “Why don’t you understand, they have a ‘budget’ after all, they can’t please everyone”, and then arguing with me about how she could not buy the logic of “overvaluation” – “Why should they give us money?” She refused to understand it and she convinced me. But even she joined in with the raucous crowd, pleading, ma aamar naam to ekbaar likhe ne ma (“mother, write down my name just once”). I phased out then, dreaming about things beyond this pale, and there I was surrounded by 60 ragged women living on below-subsistence wages – not feeling threatened, but dreaming as they pleaded with me to register them. Half of them who were still trooping in had not realised what this was all about; they did not even know about the money, they just wanted their names written down. I was afraid that if I actually wrote down their names, there would be shattered glass, shards of broken hearts. I was party to this thing. We had generated this wailing, these hands beseeching, the supplication and the agony of rejection, and this thing was going to get irrevocably transformed and hung in the galleries of the First World in the Biennales. So I stuck to my dreaming.
From across the road I saw the women emerge out of the sanctum, their faces glowing, each clutching one of the 61 envelopes into which we had inserted 200 rupees each, down from the original 300. The money had been in currency notes of thousands and five hundreds. We had ridden to the derelict petrol pump on the Mathura highway to get it broken down. The friendly women with me had refused to trust the men at the petrol pump, handing them the notes only after having carefully counted what they offered. The stone had glinted then. Why had I bought into the photographer’s justification that economic compensation was a better gesture?
Fortunately for the women who had the privilege of being photographed, it had paid off, and not simply in terms of money. The photographer was all aglow, too. She told us there had been a lot of hugging, stroking, touching, crying and sharing, of feeling counted. Outside, the identikit photographer and I felt completely frazzled. Oh, yeah, we both wanted to say, but did not because we knew that she meant well.
There were only five women who had gotten past the hawk eyes of the self-appointed managers. They were hauled up before me for judgement. I felt an almost irresistible urge to sign them in – you had to “give flowers to the rebels who failed”, goes the old poem commemorated by the Italian-American anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti: the saboteurs had to be rewarded. Why had there not been a riot, as the rickshaw guys had predicted? Why had they not used a threatening note even once? Why had their rage not boiled up? Why had they been so deferential? Why hadn’t even a single one of them spat at me, or roughly pushed me down? For three hours they had stood in the sun, hoping to be included.
When the set was dismantled, the camera lens covered and the procession about to leave, the women cornered me. Just write my name down write my name down, my name, write it, lekh na ma, ma lekh na, lekh na … like a siren. I felt if I did not write the names, I would die. I was saying, “If it gives you peace then I will”, so I kept madly jotting their names down, going through with the entire ritual of name, place, animal, thing, like the game we used to play in our childhood, a compensation secondary to the economic. The little sons of the doctor were dragging me physically inside as more widows kept streaming in, pulling at my hand, shouting their names into my face as if their lives depended on it. I realised I could not write all the names down, just like the white colonisers could not pay all of them. But at least they had resolved to return with 30,000 dollars, to be able to satisfy everyone. Could I, brown patchwork skin, make a similar resolution to come back and write down all of their names? The census puts the figure at 5000. That was doable. But there would always be those who were left behind, those always trooping in when it was pack-up time, and the rejected, the maimed, the impostors – they could not be compensated, despite all the good intentions in the world.
Back in Delhi, when I was being paid my dues, I was told I had been given an extra tip, and the
money was not in an envelope since I was not a widow. Only later I realised that the tip was my surplus from the five widows I had not taken down, unsure of whom not to select.