Oh eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears;
Oh life, no life, but lively form of death…
Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
- Darkling I listen
“Is blindness the only hope for photography?” I messaged my friend — a little too grandiosely perhaps. I wrote the message after coming out of a show that haunted me so much after the first visit that I went back to see it again after a week. It had the same effect on me the second time: it slowed me down, and made the gap between looking and thinking disappear. It was a simple show, in a sprawling old gallery, of photographs made by people who were either born blind, or had become blind or partially sighted in the course of time. Borges had described his own gradual loss of sight as “a slow nightfall.” What I got from the show was a palpable sense of the slowness of this loss. It also gave me what felt like miraculous access to this nightfall, full of a seeing and sensing and knowing that could never be completely translated into a visual language, but out of which could be born a photography beyond photography, freed from the deadening limitations of sight.
My language, I realize, is already tipping over into the objectionable. I am beginning to talk about blindness as a privilege. Perhaps it is only a blind person who has the right to call blindness a gift, as Borges did in his autobiographical lecture on the subject. Yet, as I began to see the show, I found myself thinking less and less about the visual impairment of the photographers. In a sense, a handicap becomes a gift when it is able to free someone who does not have it from the guilt of not having it. It is then that the tables are turned quietly, and the unimpaired are left both stirred and disconcerted by what can only be described as a peculiar, almost perverse, form of ‘impairment-envy’.
It struck me at once that this exhibition was almost free of visual clichés. None of the stock-in-trade of “Indian photography” — Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moments, Antoine D’Agata’s sexy shakes, Raghu Rai’s picturesque compositions — was to be seen in these photographs. We often respond to a photograph because it subliminally reminds us of another, more famous, photograph, painting or film-still. And, if we are not careful, this derivativeness, unthinking and automatic, determines the way we compose photographs, fantasies and memories. But the inner and outer lives of the blind are spared the inescapable clutter of readymade visual experience — or could it be that there are clichéd sounds, textures and smells that take their place? Somehow, it is difficult to think of clichés in spheres other than the verbal and the visual — which, in itself, is worth thinking about if we are worrying about the ubiquity of clichés.
The uncluttered quality of these photographs by the blind suggests a mode of vision that seems to have shed the burden of information and illustration. “This is my sight, detail-less,” says a wall-text by one of the partially sighted photographers in the show. So, as an experiment in a similar spirit, I decided to write this piece without providing any information about the gallery, photographers’ names, locations and even images from the show — not to mystify or tease by withholding facts, but to focus the reader’s attention on ideas and processes, instead of distracting him with names, places, dates and other specifications. I wondered, too, if ‘documentary’ photography could be freed, in certain cases, from the imperatives of context and information and taken towards a different order of vision, knowledge and value. And does this falling away of detail — not the details of texture or grain, but of information — make photography move closer to art?
I could see that the absence of clutter had opened up strange expanses within the photographs. Borges says that when Milton describes the world as “this dark world and wide” in the sonnet on blindness, he, Borges, can tell that the poem is written by a blind man because in a blind person’s experience of space, “everything near becomes far.” This is an internal distance, in which space and the apprehension of space become one: “At nightfall, the things closest to us seem to move away from our eyes. So the visible world has moved away from my eyes, perhaps forever.” For an artist, this “is not a total misfortune. It may be an instrument.”
The photography of the blind and the partially sighted thus seems imbued with a natural minimalism (as opposed to an aesthetically and philosophically self-conscious one), which strips an image, or series of images, down to the essentials of the experience being conveyed. So, the subject of the photograph — what it is a photograph of — is not so much the thing being photographed, as the photographer’s relation to the thing, his experience of it, together with the intensity with which that relation or experience is produced, felt and communicated. So, a photograph showing a boy riding his bicycle on a narrow ledge between the sea and a road, is not, as the title suggests, the photograph of “A Cycle”. Taken by a person who was born blind, it is, instead, a photograph of the attempt to capture the cyclist’s movement through space as the movement of different layers of sound in relation to one another and to the photographer’s position. The sounds of the boy riding away, of the sea behind him, and of the city in the distance are heard by the photographer as distinct but shifting acoustical layers, which are then translated by the camera into optical relations between foreground, midground and background.
So, when we look at this photograph, the visual language of photography — the grammar and composition of the visible — has to be translated back into an apprehension of the invisible. That invisible subject of the photograph is not a mysterious or abstract entity, but a lived space that has its own structure and architecture, which becomes the ‘composition’ of the picture in the eyes of the viewer. The ability to capture and convey the invisible is what the most ambitious of sighted photographers aspire to, but only a few achieve. In the case of the blind, however, it is the ability with which they naturally start out as photographers, released by their impairment from the tyranny of the visible.
This is perhaps why there is a sort of ‘blindness-envy’ running through the history of the visual arts and poetry of the West: myths and fantasies of the loss of sight — of fortunate impairment — freeing human vision from the prison-house of an empiricism that sees, to use Blake’s distinction, with, and not through, the eyes. In Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” for instance, the “wings of Poesy” are “viewless,” soaring above the “dull brain” that “perplexes and retards.” For the poet, this viewlessness is the night’s most tender gift to the imagination. Hence, the poem’s most sensuous stanzas read like a richly perverse enactment of blindness — a make-believe blindness that is both a deprivation of sight and a luxurious heightening of the other senses, leading to an enrichment of feeling and of thought: “But here there is no light…/ I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,/ Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,/ But, in embalméd darkness, guess each sweet/ Wherewith the seasonable month endows…/ Darkling I listen…”
Keats’s lines about listening in the dark came back to me as I took down the words of a photographer, born blind, who had turned his camera to what remains in the air after a flock of pigeons have flown off. His words could also have been about the photograph of two young members of an audio library for the blind, listening closely to their radios in the failing afternoon light: “I used my heart and mind to capture the silence within the noise.” As a description of what photography might aspire to, this could be the most daunting challenge for a sighted photographer.
- Silent sight
In 1962, the year he was to become director of the department of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski delivered a lecture to an audience composed exclusively of teachers of photography. He was trying to tell them about a rather unusual notion of commitment: the best teachers of photography are those who were committed to an openness that leads their students out of, and ultimately beyond, photography. They give their students what are ostensibly escape routes to other things. And these routes, seeming to lead away from photography, eventually become the paths for returning to it. For Szarkowski, photography becomes one of the arts, like literature, painting and music, only when it stops obsessing over its own history and theory – when its mirrors become windows, as much to the world as into the soul. To break out of its documentary cage, photography must risk a kind of intellectual and existential promiscuity, an all-absorbing hunger that is at once outwardly directed and inwardly trained. This is how photography can hold on to its self-reflexivity without turning it into a narcissism that fails to discover anything beyond itself. “I think this nourishment, this new blood that allows any creative field to become something new and something richer must come from outside of the medium,” Szarkowski elaborates, “an art medium is not like the snake with its tail in its mouth. We cannot expect to find all of the nourishment that we need within the works of the tradition.” This vitality must come from outside postmodernism’s hall of mirrors, from “the business of probing and exploring life, including all those intuitively sensed realities for which we have not yet found formal expression”. This is why photographers must commit themselves to “ideas from life…that do not yet have a form”. The consequences of such a commitment could be nothing less than revolutionary and, for Szarkowski, “Revolutions in art come from concerns that are outside and beyond art.”
For photographers, and equally for writers on photography, what Szarkowski opens up here is the question of reference, in the widest sense of the word. A photograph is the depiction of a relationship with reality in a much more necessary way than a poem or sonata is. So how can photography be sustained by this inescapable connection with reality and yet free itself from the tyranny of this connection, from what Coleridge had called the despotism of the eye? For Jeff Wall, who sees himself as both an artist and a historian of art, this double game is about “making things visible rather than seeing, somehow, what is already visible”. So, to make his own art out of the interplay between these two conditions, Wall looks towards the making of fictions in literature, cinema and the theatre – towards the construction, rather than the documentation, of reality. And this is where the other, more literary, sense of reference becomes important for the kind of photography that Wall – and before him, Szarkowski – are talking about. Photography must create its own access to a whole universe of reference – allusions, echoes, resonances and reflections – drawn from the myriad worlds of the other arts, determined by the peculiar character of the individual photographer’s inner life and circumstances. Together they constitute the photographer’s “inner darkroom”, in which, according to Proust, the ghosts and shadows of his art develop into more substantial and enduring, but no less mysterious, creatures. In this chamber of creation, the reality that photography must refer to is an amalgam of art, life and inwardness in which each element dissolves into and enriches the others. This is why photography is never enough for photographers – it is merely the place where all the ladders start.
To see this from the perspectives of both Wall and Szarkowski, of a photographer and a curator, is to realize how photography’s openness is essential to both the making and the viewing of photographs. So it is disconcerting to find the required reading for an education in photography being reduced to the Barthes-Benjamin-Sontag trinity for those learning to make as well as write about photography. Yet, the most important artists who have used, or use, photography – Robert Frank, William Gedney, Jeff Wall, Daido Moriyama, Roni Horn, Dayanita Singh, Adam Fuss – have derived a more profound sustenance from a wide and eclectic range of literature, music and philosophy than from their peers and predecessors in photography or from contemplating simply the history of this particular medium. It is also ironic that the Benjamin-Barthes-Sontag trio now embodies a sort of canon in photographic theory, for each of them brought to his or her writing on photography an intimacy with the other arts and philosophy, a range of reference that their canonization in the photo world somehow belies.
The interplay between seeing what is already visible and making things visible that Wall talks about takes a specific, and poignant, form in photographers’ portraits of writers, artists and musicians. When Gisèle Freund looks at Virginia Woolf, Cartier-Bresson at Sartre, Matisse and Giacometti, or William Gedney at John Cage playing electronic chess in the dark, each portrait not only documents a unique presence that is already visible, but also struggles to make visible something far more elusive and unfathomable, an absence rather than a presence. The photographer’s struggle to express an intuitive recognition of another artist’s essence is often the silent expression of a longing – photography aspiring to the condition of writing, painting, sculpture or music.
In their portraits of Jorge Luis Borges, made in the Sixties and Seventies, photographers like Diane Arbus and Daniel Mordzinski add one more dimension to the interplay between seeing and making visible by choosing a famously blind writer and reader as their subject. How can the essence of blindness be made visible? These photographers, in their different ways, make us see Borges at the end of a line of blind poets that goes back, through Milton, to Homer, in whose figure history merges with mythology. Photography’s long fascination with the unmoving and the unseeing, together with the question of how to keep the subject unaware of the photographer’s presence, is given another turn of the screw in these portraits of the blind writer. “He gazes still,” Coleridge had written about a blind man in his poem “Limbo”, “his eyeless Face all Eye –/ As ’twere an Organ full of silent Sight.” In a 1977 lecture in Buenos Aires, Borges talks about how he was freed by blindnessfrom the “inconsequential skin of things” into “the world of the blind when they are alone, walking with hands outstretched, searching for props”. The best photographs of Borges fuse Borges’s perception of his own blindness as freedom from the despotism of the eye and the photographer’s perception of blindness as a challenge to photography’s investment in the visible.
The writer who has helped me most in thinking through the challenge of photographing blindness was born three centuries before the invention of photography. If Shakespeare had not blinded his Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, subjecting him to the cruellest of tricks in the dramatist’s own house of illusion, and if Borges himself had not pointed me towards this theatre of the blind with his figure of the blind man walking alone with “his hand outstretched, searching for props”, then I would not have been able to understand the double vision captured in classic photographs of the blind writer. Shakespeare’s blinded Gloucester was led to believe, by his own son in a sort of vocal disguise, that he, Gloucester, was standing at the edge of a cliff from which he had decided to jump to his own death. The son makes his blind father, and the audience, feel the vertigo of standing at such a height through a purely verbal description of the cliff and of the view it commanded of the sea far below. Gloucester jumps at the end of this description and realizes that he has fallen rather ingloriously upon flat ground. In all good productions of the play, it is impossible to be sure whether what we see at this point is a theatrical rendering of an actual piece of tragic action (Gloucester and his son actually standing on a cliff from which the former jumps) or a trick played on the blind old man by his son. The power of Shakespeare’s verse and the unrealistic conventions of his stage collude wickedly at this point to keep us in a state of uncertainty. By making us experience a blind man’s point of view, the interplay of what we actually see with what we are being made to see reaches a level of cunning, from which the practice and theory of photography could well afford to learn.
III. Vanishing tricks
I know such gestures can never suffice.– Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
Life, art and theory: the most natural, yet also the most difficult, threesome. Two events recently dovetailed in my life to afford a fleeting insight into this troubled coexistence. Together with some friends at work, I read, for the first time, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988). It took us a few weeks to sink our teeth into the densities, now legendary, of Spivak’s thinking and writing. Hard but rewarding weeks, during which something else was happening at home, simultaneously.
My friend, Chandana, who had rented a room in our house to live and paint in, was finishing a portrait, in oil, of Shondha, the woman who has been coming in to work for us for the last twenty years. On some evenings after we both finished work, Chandana would tell me, among other mundane things, of her deepening and difficult friendship with Shondha, which she always described in terms of daily, domestic proximity and of love. Yet, I also felt Chandana’s diffidence about presuming to claim this closeness for herself. An unbridgeable distance separated the two women, and Chandana was both pained by, and in awe of this distance. But inevitably, there grew across it what she called a “fullness” of mutual feeling and empathy, which expressed itself through a frenetic series of watercolour studies of Shondha and then, finally, this large painting in oil.
Shondha is a tiny woman in her early forties. The elfin fragility of her person, her silent, cat-like movements about the house, her delicate little giggles and the neatness of her attire express not only a subtle, humane and finely comic intelligence, but also an equally cat-like and unmelodramatic ability to survive physical adversity. Fatherless and with a mother who had lost her mind and wandered off somewhere, Shondha had dropped out of Mother Teresa’s school for abandoned children to marry a travelling juggler and magician, who soon took to drugs. His addiction quickly got worse, and when Shondha was unable to give him children within a few years, he started to live with her sister, who bore him three sons and a daughter. By this time, he was beating up both women and taking away all their money to buy drugs. During one of these fights, he shot at Shondha with a popgun, hitting her left eye. She lost the eye, and the bullet remains lodged inside the socket to this day, giving her frequent migraines. She also wears enormous glasses that heighten the gritty, unsentimental clownishness of her being, but also bring out its core of grimness. They make her look like a little girl who is refusing to take off her grandfather’s spectacles. Pitifully poor, the two sisters now live together in a slum with the children. Their man appears from time to time to ask for money and food; he seems to have been put in his place. But Shondha refuses to leave her sister and the children to come and live with us day and night.
Shondha, then, is a woman “doubly in shadow”, one of the “females of the urban subproletariat” in the Third World who form the “silent, silenced centre” of Spivak’s essay. She is, by that definition, a subaltern. And “the subaltern cannot speak.” This is the terminal answer to the question that the essay’s title asks. The disconcerting brevity of such an answer is wilfully and perversely disproportionate to the long, hard road Spivak makes her readers travel in order to get to it. The unique problem of her essay is that the place of its subject is empty. This emptiness at once confronts, eludes, frustrates and resists, or is, simply and metaphysically, other than, different from and thus indifferent to, the consciousness and the conscience forming the essayist’s “positionality”. Consciousness and conscience come together in the French word, conscience. This is the conscience of the languages, methods, questions and assumptions by which Spivak defines the subject of her essay and then tries to grasp this subject as a form of knowledge that may be “spoken” within the institutions and practices of such knowledge.
At the heart of Spivak’s essay, then, is a place of “disappearance”. But instead of being a “pristine nothingness”, it is inhabited by “something other than silence and non-existence”. As a place, it is inescapably fraught, gridded with “Power, Desire, Interest”, each trying to perform its own vanishing trick. Here an unspeaking Otherness confronts another conscience to produce “a violent shuttling” between “subject-constitution” and “object-formation”, between possessing a “voice-consciousness” and being given one, between being able to speak and being spoken of or for, between being silent and being silenced.
For Spivak, this is, crucially, a problem of “representation”. And this is also the word that bridged the two events for me: reading Spivak’s essay and observing the progress of Chandana’s portrait of Shondha. “Are those who act and struggle mute, as opposed to those who act and speak?” the essay asks emphatically. And not making this distinction would mean running together the two senses of representation: representation as ‘speaking for’ (in politics), and representation as ‘re-presentation’ (in art). The former is a proxy, while the latter is a portrait. These two senses are “related but irreducibly discontinuous” – the buried differences within words, which, when exhumed, open up rents and chasms in the apparently seamless textures of knowledge and power. The peasants in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”. This was an epigraph to Edward Said’s Orientalism, and Spivak uses the same passage to warn against, as Marx does, the conflation of meanings – “sleight of word” – by which it becomes easy to protect ourselves from the fact that to confront “them” is not to represent them, but to learn to re-present ourselves.
Through the jagged rigour of Spivak’s critique, there breaks out, every now and then, a personality (as much as a positionality) that shuttles, like the essay’s ungraspable subject, between existential awkwardness and theoretical flourish. This personality is informed with a flamboyantly irreverent professional confidence in being able to expose the “meaningless pieties” of certain theoretical positions. Yet, this confidence is inseparable from a sense of the precariousness of its own position, the insufficiency of its own gestures, the inherent presumption, and violence, of wanting to grasp and know other consciousnesses, to repeatedly invoke shadows and silences, absences and disappearances, only to work over them a relentless swirl of language.
Gayatri and Chandana were both confronting a radical unbridgeability. All they could ultimately bring to it was the rigour and integrity – as well as the difficult, troubling pleasures – of their intellectual and artistic labour. But there is also a fundamental difference between their two distinct struggles with representation. What the subaltern cannot do is speak, and in Spivak’s essay, quite literally so: “the subject of exploitation cannot know and speak the text of female exploitation”. Yet it is precisely this textuality that the essayist must make her own medium. For Spivak – critic, philosopher, theorist and translator – there can be no deliverance from language, from its institutionalized production of meaning and value. Even when she turns from the rigours of theory to the succour of literature – to translating Mahasveta Devi’s Bengali story, “The Breast-giver”, for instance – the eponymous breast-giver’s bountiful mammaries cannot escape the rule of metaphor. There, too, in the “effect of the real”, the subaltern woman cannot just be. When not History, she is Parable, and always “the vehicle of a greater meaning”.
It is, therefore, in the necessary speechlessness of painting, in its circumvention of language (though not of signification), that Chandana sought a different kind of resolution to the problem of representation. Her struggle was to find a silence that would do justice to another woman’s silence, and then to let these two silences create a presence that would be proxy as well as portrait, that would re-present as well as represent. The silence of her painting is more absolute than reticence – for reticence (“I know, but I choose not to speak”) comes on its own moral high horse. But this is the silence of what the work cannot say, the assertion of an incapacity, a negative capability. “We exist on different planes,” Chandana would say about herself and Shondha. But she kept trying to describe to me the feel of the thickness and softness of pigments as the brush pressed them, layer upon layer, on the taut but yielding canvas. That feel was, for her, the sensual, even sexual, correlative of what she called “the merging of existences” in the making of the portrait – of existences that otherwise remain painfully and awfully apart.
Chandana’s painting of Shondha is a frontal impasto portrait, done mainly in two of the most poisonous pigments used by painters – ultramarine blue and zinc oxide. In it, Shondha looks unflinchingly at the viewer with her good eye, dimly magnified by her huge, high-power glasses placed slightly askew on her face. The bad eye is like a single, shrivelled, virulently yellow petal, shot with crimson, which also stains the corner of her forehead and streaks her hair. The picture hangs in my study now, a gift from the artist when she moved out of our house. Shondha comes in to dust my room, and hardly ever notices the painting. But when I draw her attention to it sometimes, she gives a sharp little giggle and brings out that most dismissive of nonce-words in the Bengali language – Dhoorr!
IV. Waiting rooms
A short, sharp sound had woken me with a start. It was that hour before dawn when the night is at its darkest. At such a time, it is best to drink some water and go back to sleep. To start thinking then is to open the lid of the unthinkable. Better to return to the interrupted dream. But what was that noise — like the snapping of a twig on a cold night? As my vision adjusted to the murk, I realized it was the book-case. Its door had swung open, and one of the glass panes had hit the corner of the writing-table. The report could have become a gunshot in my dream.
As the book-case stood open, I began to make out the spines of the books — silent, erect forms, comforting in their regularity, but strange and nameless in the dark. I could not take my eyes off them and, as I looked, I heard a stir among the crows in the tree outside my window. I had once read in a little book about birds how crows dream and get delirious if the moon comes out too brightly from behind the clouds, and how they settle down again after a while, without quite waking up. They sleep on the high branches like black fruit, beyond the reach of cats, falling off only if they die in their sleep. Sometimes, when it is very quiet, you can hear their droppings hit the ground with a soft, wet sound.
But I wasn’t thinking about the crows. I kept looking at those books in my room. Standing stock-still in the windless dark, they seemed to have willed the book-case door to open — something needed to come in or go out, a secret exchange between darkness and writing while human readers slept. I imagined the words draining out of the books until the books stood empty and blank-faced in the small hours. Then, the dawn breaks and eyes open. The black marks return to their places again, settling in as if nothing had happened.
Reading a book in the waiting room of an eye-hospital is an odd experience. I took my cousin for her glaucoma check-up last week, and after she was called into one of the curtained chambers, I took out my book and settled down to read. Usually, in places like this, I prefer to watch the people, and reading is the last thing on my mind. As I watch, shreds of writing begin to form in my head and a vague anxiety starts building up: should I jot down what I see, or would that spoil the naturalness of what was happening around me, taking away from the pleasure and profit of simply looking? (Is forgetting the secret muse of fiction?) But I had felt like reading something dry and hard the evening before, and an invisible hand on my shoulder led me to Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. I had bought the book when it came out in the mid-Nineties, and kept it for after I had read some more Dostoevsky. But that might never happen, I thought.
Coetzee had lost his young son in an accident a few years before he wrote this novel. It was as if he had asked himself before sitting down to write it, How would Dostoevsky have confronted this loss and turned it into writing? As the younger writer’s leaden and perverse fiction — Dostoevsky’s adopted son had actually outlived his father — started settling into my soul, a bitter grey infusion, if that is at all the right word, began to rise inside me, like the taste of gall evoked at the end of the book. Yet, I could not, and would not, put it down. It was only the thought that I had to get up early the next morning to take my cousin to the eye-hospital that made me close the book, switch off the light and force myself to sleep. So, when I found a chair in a corner of the crowded waiting room, I gave in again to the pull of that dark matter.
The father is visiting the son’s grave with a woman who had been the son’s landlady. They are walking in the cemetery through the “avenue of the dead”. “He has begun to cry,” I read on page eight, “Why now? he thinks, irritated with himself. Yet the tears are welcome in their way, a soft veil of blindness between himself and the world.” It was at this point that I suddenly became aware of where I was doing what I was doing. I looked up from the page. My reading glasses had turned to a blur the sea of human forms on the other side of the book. I took the glasses off, and a young man’s face came into focus a few rows away from me. We found ourselves looking at each other’s eyes, for neither of us happened to be dry-eyed. It was only in an eye hospital that one had the licence to look unabashedly into other people’s eyes. A nurse came to check if his pupils were dilating, gave him one more drop in each eye, and a fresh cotton-pad to dry them with. There was no embarrassment between us. He had assumed that our eyes were wet for the same reason. But when I put on my glasses again, he noticed the book on my lap. That put us immediately in different worlds, and a shadow of something less open passed across his face.
I went back to my book. The father has found the son’s grave: “The mound has the volume and even the shape of a recumbent body. It is, in fact, nothing more or less than the volume of fresh earth displaced by a wooden chest with a tall young man inside it.” I began to find what followed unbearable: “There is something in this that does not bear thinking about.” Looking up from the book, I drew comfort again from the blur of real faces around me. It was oddly liberating to be able to sit among strangers who found nothing unusual in my tears. Gradually, with a finger in the book to mark where I had stopped reading, I began to get absorbed in the theatre of mortal vision around me.
Impaired vision, I realized, unless it is incurable and has to be lived with, suddenly turns able-bodied people into helplessly dependent creatures. If we are used to being able to see, then temporarily losing that ability feels like the ultimate form of vulnerability, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. So, the grotesque human chain in Brueghel’s painting of the blind leading the blind appears to be an extreme, and bathetic, depiction of a real human need to hold on to one another while stumbling through the unknown.
I saw versions of this need everywhere in the room. It created an atmosphere of simple surrender to helplessness and unfamiliarity in that coldly-lit space of waiting and anxiety, where helpers and the helped were brought together in passing tableaux of dependency and impairment. To take out a book in such a room — to become, as Keats had imagined, the “picture of somebody reading”, an image of self-containment and solitary pleasure — felt, all of a sudden, like a perverse thing to do, even if the book I was reading came with its own, profound, heaviness: “This heavy head, these heavy eyes: lead settling into the soul.”
I remembered how, in a less familiar city far from home, I had once gone with a friend to get my own eyes tested for glaucoma. And as he sat reading his book in the waiting room, a series of extraordinary tests opened up for me a world beyond my imagination. I was looking, for the first time, into my own eyes. Each of them turned, as the doctor looked, into a strange and terrifying planet — tiny, but with expanses of fire-rimmed light that sometimes became a sea of blood, the depths of which were impenetrably dark. Is this what an astronaut sees, I wondered, in that last fraction of a second as his ship explodes in space?
We emerged, after my tests, from the hospital gloom, which had made me forget about the atropine. It was like walking into a washed-out photograph. My eyes riddled with the glare of June, I was grateful, as I stumbled through a maze of too much light, that I wasn’t, for a while, alone.
I finished The Master of Petersburg in another waiting room — that of a pathological lab, where I had taken my father for an x-ray. As I looked up from the last page with eyes wiped clean by a great book, they fell on a small white box on a shelf in the next room. The label on the box said, “Old and current semen”.
V. Darkling I eat
A cold night in the city of grids. It was Easter week, but the trees were bare, the streets slippery with stale snow. The moon was dim and high, and our shadows stretched thin in front of us. As we walked, I remembered but could not see under the snow and salt and fallen leaves, the little brass plaques we trod on. They formed a random mosaic on the cobbled pavements, and had names, dates and addresses on them, like index-cards. These were the vanished people, picked up from the houses we were walking past and made to disappear quietly. When the sun shone, the tiny metal squares glinted out of the grey and white of the frosted cobbles. They made me think of Hansel and Gretel’s trail of bread-crumbs in the forest, or gold caps in a rotten smile.
But that night, we were strangely excited. We were walking towards the Invisible Bar, where we had booked a table. It was a place where you could be unseen and unseeing while you dined. The restaurant was kept in total darkness. The waiters were all blind. During the day, as we looked at art and browsed in bookshops — there was plenty of both in that city — we felt a secret flutter of anticipation in our guts. The three of us knew one another well. But we did not talk very much about the evening’s plan. Something perverse was in the air. It stirred in me early memories of near-incontinent arousal while playing Dark Room with cousins. “How dark is it?” asked an FAQ on the restaurant website. “100 per cent black as a crow,” was the answer, “You will not see your hand before your eyes and not the tiniest trace of light.”
The foyer was brightly lit. We shed our coats and phones, ordered a drink, and took the menus from sighted women in black. They were the bright-eyed harbingers of darkness, moving about with the cheerfully asexual briskness of young hospital nurses. Their practised manner kept that limbo-world from suggesting the waiting-room of a brothel — a brothel in a city where there was nothing seedy about visiting brothels. But the menu was all naughtiness and mystery. The dishes were described in a quasi-erotic language that would not tell us what we were going to eat. “The white sweetness awakes from an exotic dream and huddles against the sour layer” was one of the desserts.
I wondered whether our waiter would be a man or woman, as we waited to be introduced to him or her before being ushered into the darkness. (It was difficult for me, I realized, to imagine a blind woman, for the blind people we see on Indian streets are usually men. So most of us see Helen Keller, or Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, when we try to visualize female blindness.) Meanwhile, our eyes kept moving towards the thick black curtains at the other end of the foyer. They parted slightly from time to time and intimate groups of people — couples, families with children — emerged into the light, looking weirdly replete. But their shining faces, or the slow, submarine smoothness of their gait, did not suggest the repletion that comes after eating, but a sort of unearthly relaxedness — as if they had just been woken from the infantilizing sleep that comes after a good massage. Invisibility had loosened the tautness of their civility, as their facial muscles regressed towards baby bliss.
The waiter was a young man with a high-pitched voice and deep eye-sockets. He came straight towards us and, after brisk introductions, made us stand behind one another with our hands on the shoulders of the person in front. He headed the queue, and I was behind him with my hands on his shoulders. That was how he led us in through the curtains. In seconds, we were moving through utter darkness, my fingers trying to pick up from the twitching of his shoulder-muscles which way to turn. He sensed his way to our table like a bat, with little clicks of the tongue, sat us down and explained how the table was laid. The plate was a clock: water was at the ten o’clock position, wine at two and the napkin at six.
The food arrived. Time was slowing down, our voices had lowered, and space had disappeared. We could have been very close to, or very far away from, one another. The room could have been really small or very large. I remembered childhood nightmares in which I found myself trapped in a room that was at once as cramped as a coffin and as vast as Space. But I felt no fear in the room where we were sitting now. The others spoke low too, the hum broken by cutlery noises and little giggles. Music wafted in from somewhere, like the soundtrack of a film seeping in through the walls of an adjacent theatre in a multiplex.
Suddenly, all traces of ‘culture’ had been removed from around us. So, why cling to cutlery? Knife and fork felt like unnecessary prostheses, provided the napkins did not desert us. We touched and felt our way through the food — like Keats in his embalméd darkness guessing each sweet. The foodness of food was slipping away too. What was taking over was a kind of visual oblivion, which raised the other senses to a new alertness. As the eyes began to drowse, a sound-map of the room began to form in our heads. It was a topography that was entirely un-pictured, even as it got more clearly etched upon the consciousness. We began to recognize the voice of our waiter and sense his position in the room. But the grids had dissolved around us.
He came to our table from time to time. I felt his body lean across mine as he filled our glasses, his perfume complicating the matter-of-factness with which his fingertips brushed against my arm. Was the sighted person’s — or my — fascination with blindness, then, nothing more than something selfish, cruel and essentially unequal: a fantasy of escape into an experience of desire, no, desirability, freed from the potential indignity of being seen, a deliverance from the anxieties of appearance?
After what felt like an hour, the food had become irrelevant, and a whole symphony of mutually apprehended silences began to hold us together and set us apart from one another at the same time. Did absolute darkness produce distance or closeness? The other tables had quietened too. Were people starting to leave, or had we become more self-enclosed? Odd bits of conversation began to float about, somewhere between thought and utterance. Suppose, I wondered aloud to my friends, you had to let go of all, except one, of your abilities to see, speak, hear, smell and feel, and suppose it was up to you to decide which of these you could keep, what would you do? Trying to answer this made me think of the essence of each of my dinner companions as dispassionately as possible — one friend’s profound love of music, the other’s compulsive orality. Through all this, time passed at an immeasurable pace.
A subtle shift in our waiter’s tone prepared us for the journey back to light. What, we wondered, would have happened to us if we allowed ourselves to spend longer periods of time in such darkness? A strangely calming indifference began to wash over us, just when we had to get up and form that hands-on-shoulders chain once again. As our waiter led us out, and I caught the first glimmer of light and felt the heavy caress of those fleshy curtain-folds, it occurred to me, after the ladies in black took us back into the circle of their brightness and handed us the bill, that this emergence, full of the primal bliss we had seen on the others’ faces a couple of hours ago, was like a condensed replay of our coming hither — or, equally perhaps, our going hence.
Already, even after trying to fix it in writing, that viewless evening has become but a sleep and a forgetting. Left with little more to hold on to than queer, fleeting thoughts, the bitterness of chocolate, a whiff of perfume, the twitch of an unknown shoulder or slivers of pure darkness, the memory, used to trusting most what presents itself to the eye, thins out into nothing. It is like trying to remember someone else’s dream — or the birds eating up Hansel and Gretel’s bread-crumbs. We had stepped out of the bar and started walking towards the station, when we heard behind us a tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap. It was a waiter from the restaurant returning home. He kept testing the slipperiness of the snow with the little white ball at the end of his special stick, as he swiftly overtook us and vanished into the night.