My earliest memory is of a four-year-old self cycling around the garden of an old Army house in the small Central India town of Babina. The word BABINA is an acronym for the ‘British Army Base in INdiA’ (or so they say). The gardeners are watering the lawn and as consequence, the adjacent footpath is wet. I charge into a puddle of water - having watched my brother and his friends do the same - and exit through a small splash and with drenched wheels, slowly realising that my tyres now leave a moist imprint in their wake. I twirl to the right and then to the left, leaving erratic zig-zag patterns of slow fading moisture on the footpath, reloading on fresh wetness with every new puddle I encounter, only to make more soaking designs. This is the beginning of my story arc.
The story jumps ahead two years. An upgraded self stands outside the small back gate of the Army School, Secunderabad. School has ended early today - just as I had informed my father it would the previous day - but unfortunately, he is nowhere to be seen. I wait one hour and then another and watch as one by one, each of my friends and classmates is picked up and promptly escorted home. In the end, there is only me and my growing anxiety. Around that time, we were learning street etiquette in school – how to cross the road, what red lights mean and such like. I remember the teacher telling us to always look left, then right and then left again and once you’re absolutely certain that there is no approaching traffic, you may cross the street. The fearful six-year-old inhabitant of my body decides to test this knowledge. It appeared as if Fate had specifically planned an adventure, just for me. I slowly begin walking home - stopping at every busy street - first looking left, then right and then left again until I am absolutely sure it is safe to move. A whole composition of shops lined the sides of the street and I walked past them like a sergeant surveying his troops. They were all very colourful, each calling out to the pedestrian with unique hand-painted signage – Kumar Hairdressers, Leo’s Diner, Sri Ganesh Pure Ghee Sweets. Occasionally, strange men would look at me with some curiosity - a tiny something in school uniform with a pseudo suitcase backpack strapped against his shoulders. Other times, a blurry mass of people and traffic would rush past like I wasn’t even there. I followed this left-right-left march for a good three and half kilometres, eventually arriving home to a father that was equal parts in awe as he was guilty.
In my second year of college, I met Agni and Bharat and Protyasha and Aneesh and from them I heard for the first time the word bourgeoisie. I had no idea what it meant then, they used a lot of words I did not understand. The small New Delhi apartment we inhabited together would play the backdrop to a whole gamut of learning – the literacy of a linguistic sense as well as of that which cannot be put to words. Needless to say, there were a lot of pharmaceuticals involved. Around this time, Protyasha and I tripped on DXM for the first time – the base ingredient of most cough syrup. We were in an autorickshaw, driving towards Vasant Kunj. There was a light drizzle on the streets and everything glistened in its wetness. I distinctly remember looking at a lamppost and having a quick succession of thoughts that went somewhat like lamppost light radiation the Sun the Moon satellites television black white Ma home and some more such, all in what seemed like seconds. Bharat used to call this pattern of thought “the Mind Palace” - being immersed in and wholly conscious of everything you Know, even if it is for a few moments at a time. In many ways, it was the unravelling of the grand narrative of every day. Sometime later, I would turn to Protyasha in a fit of intoxicated tears and remark, “I am so small and insignificant and I suppose, insignificance is beautiful.”
The following year, Fate would lead Agni and me through a grassy lane in Nuwara Elia in Sri Lanka, towards the foothills of a small trekking route we planned to conquer. A friendly mountain advisory on the side of the street read – When Drinking Water, Remember The Source. We would climb all the way to the top of the mountain and decide that enough was enough, we have sinned long and hard, and time demands a change. And thinking such, we would each take a passport-sized picture of ourselves, drop it into an abandoned bottle of arrack and subsequently bury the bottle and “our old selves” with it. A pseudo-funeral complete with long, heartfelt eulogies for our pasts would follow. All sins would be washed away. Some days hence, we would find ourselves – now baptised - on a small isle off the northern coast of Lanka, known simply as Delft Island, and discover that not a drop of fresh water was to be found anywhere on the landmass. Only two options existed – natural salt water or bottled mineral. When drinking water, remember the source, we thought to ourselves and wept salt water of our own.
In some sense, my understanding of literacy has been closely tied with that of consciousness. The more literate I became in my ability to read the patterns within myself and the world around me so did I become a more conscious being, a more literate being. And even as I became aware of this understanding, Fate would orient me towards a new milestone - Neal Kartik, the sage to my mountain. I would meet him sometime after Lanka in the dusty lanes of Nizamuddin, snacking on kebab and conversation and good company, absolutely unaware of the profound effect he would go on to have on my life. Neal was a photographer and at that time, had been travelling for seven odd years in pursuit of his images. He lived, spoke and took pictures unlike anyone I had ever known, and it is because of him that I would begin consciously chasing images of my own. Some weeks after this initial encounter, we would accompany Neal on a month-long sojourn through rural Tamil Nadu – I, our friend Ghana and his cameras. And while his camera captured startling images of glowing Tamil children against invisible shapes of line and shadow, I would make humble attempts to frame a decent sunset. Nonetheless, this was the beginning to a whole new kind of literacy – that of the photograph.
Parallel to this learning, however, was a steady realisation that my initial experiments with psychoactive substances (or maybe just age) were making me increasingly forgetful. I decided to put my new skill to the test and began taking one photograph every day, hoping to lay a retraceable trail of bread crumb memories. My first defence against dying grey cells, in the narrative of daily life. At first, I shot the images all at random, anything that fascinated me in the moment. But as time passed I inadvertently began staging memories, inviting friends over for parties in a subconscious attempt to induce a certain photographable “vibe”, sometimes even creating patterns where there wasn’t one. Cans of beer-drenched in yellow fairy afterglow; hysterical faces lost behind clouds of grey cigarette smoke; dark outlines of people dancing in the reflection of a window - all of which led up to the Grand Social Media Showcase, complete with quantifiable heart-shaped insta-validation. I shot everything on my phone, still too vary to commit to an actual camera. Other times, it would seem as if the world came pre-staged as if the divine hand of Fate ordained the perfect configuration of a moment and demanded that I document it. I always obliged. Those moments came pre-validated, Fate had a plan.
In 2017, I would finally arrive at the dusty footsteps of Ashoka University. Of everything that happened here, one particular landmark defiantly stands out: our encounters with labour historian (and former Naxalite) Dilip Simeon. Under his tutelage, I would finally learn the meaning of the word 'bourgeoisie'. One day in class he said, “It is what you think of the past that decides how you think in the future”. The following evening, I would find myself scrolling through his elaborate blog, and among sections titled ‘nihilism’, ‘anarchy’ and ‘the Bolshevik Revolution’ discover a small corner of his writings titled ‘Lt Col E J Simeon’. While all other portions contained heavy intellectual explorations of large concepts, this section contained poetry – words and letters and writings addressed to and in the memory of his late father. In a world of Ladies and Gentlemen, Simeon was the Gentlest Man of them all, and possibly one of the wisest. Further proof of this arrived one afternoon when my friend Vikas came storming into my room to ask if I had read a recent piece on Simeon’s blog. But even before I could summon up an answer, Vikas would scroll through the blog until he had found what he was looking for and begin reading out in his quintessentially slow, deliberate way - “Satyagraha, an answer to modern nihilism.” In his paper, Simeon would present the inherent meaninglessness of life and argue that this intrinsic lack of a grander purpose invariably creates space for human intervention. In short, as conscious beings, we possess the express ability to define our own meanings, to choose our own story arcs. So then I wondered, did Fate really have a plan or was it me choosing my own making all this time?
All my life, my subconscious has played out the happenings of every day like a story projected on the insides of my skull. The story of what I am and what I am becoming, is narrated by some strange incomprehensible force. But was it really so incomprehensible? Was I to journey across this vast spatial and temporal landscape only to discover that all answers lie at home? Within this new pattern of thought, I began consciously writing and creating stories of my own. Yet another defence against dying grey cells. The first story was titled, It’s Always Sunny in Sonipat. It was twelve-image documentation of our first month at the Fellowship and would become the first cohesive effort on my part to compile a thematic photo story. It was a strange, surreal experience. In a life spent tracing existing patterns, defining my own seemed like an odd, God-like ability. I was hooked. The second story, titled Take Me Back to Heaven, was an abstraction of the Simeon paper on Nihilism. It follows a priest that is convinced he is going to Heaven, who goes on to die and become an existential ghost - trapped and alone in the physical world. Fate had no plans for him.
Some weeks later, I arrive at Dharamshala with no clear purpose beyond getting away from the bubble of Ashoka. I was to meet some friends there – Aastha, who was working with the Dharamshala International Film Festival and Neal and Bhagya, who were simply passing by. On day two in Dharamshala, Neal would take me deep into the mountainside, seat me against the backdrop of the sun and endless space and layer after layer of the mountain and hand me a red notebook. I would open the book to discover the torn, yellowing title page of Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers loosely pasted on the first page. Three years ago, when I had first met Neal in Nizamuddin he would tell me in passing about a photo project he had been working on about people that have chosen to walk astray and lead “independent” lives. He would never mention it again after, not until that fateful day on the mountain. As I flipped through the black and white photos in the book - of foliage and sky and patterns and people - Neal began arranging square frames of colour photographs in the bushes and trees around us. My own personal exhibition. I continue flipping through the book and encounter two images, placed one below the other – the one on the bottom is of someone lying in the grass and staring upwards at the sky, shot obliquely so that the subject’s face is hidden by his own shoes; the second, placed above the first, was an image of the clouds - shot at eye level - slowly receding into the background. Closer inspection of the images invites a series of nostalgic prompts from some version of my history - that someone lying on the grass is none other than me! And at that moment, everything I thought I knew about the world and my consciousness, every shard of literacy that I ever claimed to make up my window, all seemed meaningless. Neal’s Red Notebook spoke a language I had never heard before. I knew nothing, I know nothing, I am wholly illiterate, I am a beautiful loser.