We Forget How Good The Beatles Were

Waterloo Station, London

Waterloo Station, London. Time: 22 hrs GMT.

Thousands of people pouring in and out of London. Escalators, like conveyor belts, transporting people in all directions. Men, women, transgenders, children, all looking only ahead. Some carry coffee/tea mugs in one hand and Metro in the other. The modelling continues throughout the journey. There is absolutely no eye contact but every person is aware of their surrounding and the presence of others as they glide, wriggle, dodge, walk past without knocking into anyone. The whole scene looks like an alien experiment designed to study human behaviour after being injected with a soul-sucking drug. We seem to be all alone together. I am dispassionately humming Abba and switching to The Kinks’ eponymous number.

A piano busker comes into my view. He is playing and singing The Long and Winding Road that echoes in the tunnel. And as if the alien drug injected in me wore off just then….I feel a stabbing pain in my heart. My soul wakes up and moistens my eyes. Tears roll down my cheeks like broken string of pearls. McCartney wrote every single word for me, it seems. I walk past the pianist, mouthing the song as it peters out…

Many times I’ve been alone, and many times I’ve cried.

Anyway, you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried.

You left me standing here…..

La la la, lalla laaaa…ta ta taaaah…hmmmmm..hmmm

– Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

Spiritual Encounter

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England

Car journeys usually start at the break of dawn. London to Wiltshire was one such. Food, music, conversations, family – a potent mix of jollity. Few hours went by in a jiffy.

Stonehenge, a disappointment at first sight, but mesmerising on closer experience.

There is nothing instantly obvious to admire. Couple of very large stones erected in an English countryside. But you stand still for a while. Stare straight at the stones. You suddenly begin to feel them transcending their physical outfit to provide a spiritual encounter.

For thousands of years, Stonehenge has remained an enigma.

According to folklore, Merlin, wizard of the Arthurian legend, created the site with the help of giants who transported the stones from Ireland. There are some fascinating modern-day interpretations of the structure, from it being a site built by aliens, probably as their landing site, to it being a place of Druid worship. Some see the stones laid in the shape of female genitalia – as a giant symbol of fertility.

“Stonehenge” — whatever the reality, however it came into existence, wherever it came from, whoever built it – the less we can substantiate its origin, the more we will be drawn to its mysteriousness.

If stared at long enough, the spirits start to communicate. They possesses you.

– Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

Destination Bombay

Pilani will always be my home. I have lived much less in Pilani than in any other town out of all the towns I have lived in. But I was born only in Pilani. That explains the special attachment. Same for my dad. He is a Pilaniwala at heart despite fleeing from the place in his early teens, following in his father, my grandfather’s footsteps.

Destination Bombay.

No photo description available.

The seaside city of dreams – a cornucopia of night life, bright lights, beaches, film studios, artists, film stars, clubs, restaurants, cafes, dance bars, five-star hotels, high rise, chawls and slums. A metropolis with deep pockets and abject poverty in equal measure.

My dad ‘took’ the train from Chirawa. There was no train ticket for a penniless boy. So, he leapt on the buffers between two bogies and rode sitting on it for part of the long journey. At Sawai Madhopur, where the train stopped briefly, he got off to stretch himself. A lassi seller asked him to mind his stall while he fetched some ice from a nearby shop. My dad, in that time, stirred himself a lassi glass and gulped it down before the man returned. Extreme times, extreme measures. Back on the Frontier Mail, this time hanging outside the door, persevering the exhaustion, drowsiness, hunger, soot and chill, gripping firmly on the handle bars, he forced his eyes open for he knew that to succumb was to die.

My grandfather had already made Bombay his home since the 1920s. He worked in the city but the salary could not be stretched as far as shifting the whole family there. So, he would come to Pilani during Diwali or Holi, bringing with him urban gifts and tales. My dad was crazy about Bombay and wanted to be there by hook or by crook. That’s exactly what he did. Hooked to the train, ticketless.

South Bombay, by then, was a home to several wealthy Rajasthanis from and around Pilani. Clever businessmen they were. They were mostly the baniyas, the traditionally enterprising and occupational community. Birlas being the richest in India and to remain so for the rest of the 20th century. My grandfather, being a brahmin, didn’t know the ‘b’ of business but had a penchant for reading, singing, telling jokes, folktales, fat-bottomed girls, and faking astrology. He found employment at the Birlas – the brotherhood and all, but was ‘the panditji’ on demand.

Alighting from the train at Bombay Central, my dad walked 3 or 4 km to CP Tank which was actually a water tank but the area it was in had come to be known as that too. There, he somehow found his way to Bahman Bari (home of the brahmins) where my grandfather lodged with other brahmins from Pilani and nearby towns. My dad was only allowed to remain there for a day or two before he was sent back home, this time with a ticket.

But, he attempted again. And again. Against my grandma’s wish. She is believed to have told him, ” You keep running away from Pilani, but a day will come when you will pine for it.” Which, decades later, as dad narrated the story to us, was the case.

My grandfather gave up in the end and my dad stuck around in Bombay to try his luck in films. He had the right looks but very little patience. My grandpa got him admitted to Filmistan (Studios). I somehow never thought that my dad was cut out for acting. But he did do a film or two. At the age of 16 or 17, he featured in Angan, (released 1959), with the very famous Rehman, Street Singer (1966) with Chandrashekhar, and a few more. He could not persevere for better roles, so he much later (when *I* was in my teens) got into film production. He co-produced with my mum a film titled Ek Naya Itihas (released 1984) that featured some fine actors like Hema Malini, Vinod Mehra, Reza Murad, Ranjeet, and Om Shiv Puri, and one attempted film with Rajesh Khanna, Neetu Singh (now Kapoor) and Anil Dhawan that never reached far due to lack of funds. My dad never entered films, in essence, but never left films either, frequenting Churchgate’s Gaylord and other venues where the filmi lot hung out together for the free flowing booze and the pretty pretty girls.

A photograph from my father’s film, Ek Naya Itihaas found on Vishnu Vardhan’s website http://www.vishnuvardhan.com/heroin.htm
Promotional poster – Ek Naya Itihaas

Promotional poster – Ek Naya Itihaas

Opposite the Bahman Bari was also my mum’s residence. My nanaji had bought that place soon after the partition when they arrived there from Karachi. The balconies of my mum’s home and dad’s flat faced each other. It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand how they must have met. My mother was a comely, gentle, homely and industrious girl. My dad knew instantly she was the one for him.

My grandma died very young leaving the burden of one younger son and three very young daughters on mostly my dad as my grandfather was going to retire to come back home few months too late.

My dad called his brother to the city, and a year later married my mum.

The ‘hook or by crook’ attitude was now directed at making a success of the monetary kind. My mum became a mum to my aunts, his sisters, and spent some time in Pilani, a big move for a girl brought-up in Bombay of the time. That’s when I was born. We spent time shuttling between Bombay and Pilani as my dad was still trying to find his feet and could not afford a bigger apartment in Bombay until later, for the whole family, aunts and grandpa included. But they would visit from time to time. Apparently, my aunt once announced that Bombay was much hyped, and that people sitting on the toilet can be heard from the living room. The confined spaces were not to everyone’s taste, I guess.

My sister, Sheetal (fondly called Bubbles) was born in Bombay. Somewhere in between came Ahmedabad and my dad’s alliance with Sanjay Gandhi who made him join the Youth Congress. He entered politics but devoted his time in supporting certain agendas than diving into it full-time. Same as with films, he remained on the fringe of politics, but never left it either. I believed he was not shrewd enough for politics despite having friends in the field. My brother, the youngest of us three, was born in Ahmedabad. Three of us, three different cities, three different seasons – summer, monsoon and winter.

Before long, dad was re-catapulted to Bombay. He started business ventures, but he too didn’t know the ‘b’ of business since he didn’t know the ‘a’ of account-keeping. But we had a beautiful flat in Bombay by now. A flamboyantly social guy, my dad, enjoyed having people over for dinners and drinks once he was financially comfortable.

Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor and nature
View from Bandstand flat, Bombay

He never forgot his real home though, Pilani. He found, and sometimes created, reasons to assemble all his siblings and their families at the family home. Pujas, havans, shraads, grandfather’s wish, and then my marriage, whatever it took to call them over. He craved to return home from time to time. He forever contracted builders at Pilani home to keep the home ‘open’ as that meant returning often to check on them.

It must be where one is born that one remains strongly attached to. Pilani calls me in the same way, or maybe a little less, as it does my dad, and yet I lived there much less than in any other town out of all the towns I have lived in. Also because it is my father’s home. I miss Bombay too. Some of the best years of my life were spent there. It is my mother’s first home. She grew up there. A city where my parents met. It is where their dreams came true.

A city of dreams, still, for many aspirants who must be at this very moment clinging onto the buffers of the trains en route to Bombay, nka Mumbai.

By Sapna Dhandh Sharma

Like Rick Blaine, I never make plans that far ahead.

The year was 2011, a year or two into my street photography work. I photographed much of this part of London. This was the area I started with. This was the area I continued with for a couple of years. This was the area I returned to after unsuccessfully dabbling into the kind of street photography that never appealed to me. A consummate lover of all things classic and historical, I photographed in a manner that would retain the feel, which meant waiting at length for streets to be somewhat void of crowds.

That day was the very first time I stumbled upon this shop. Bogart did it. So did the red. Without him selling the store, there was no way I would be half as interested in stopping to photograph. For a long time after that, I called it the Humphrey Bogart store, for I thought it only sold Bogart memorabilia. I fired some half-hearted shots, with the intention of returning for some more when I would return specifically for it. In the meantime, I neglected the earlier (above) shots. My ‘I can do better’ mantra forever buzzing in my psyche. Don’t save copies, delete the files, take more tomorrow. Knowing full well the area was undergoing changes, I ignored walking past the place, even when only a few hundred yards away on many occasions, busy taking photographs of other streets, as I believed that there will be a next time, plus I might still have some low-res files somewhere in a corner of my folders. I went past it only once after that, took some shots of standing Bogart at the entrance of the shop, but was too lazy for the shot that I was after – from the street opposite.

Some other time! And I went away.

In 2018, when I was packing my gear to return, finally, to Brewer St., I was asked by someone, “Tomorrow, will you….?”

In reply, I swung my head in isolation, from side to side, like a hip-hop dancer, and spoke the famous words, “I never make plans that far ahead.”

Come tomorrow, I looked for my hero everywhere. Couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing. I never experienced the kind of pain I did that day at a scene that was lost forever. Brightly lit clothes shop in place of the cool, dark, old, soiled, worn, seedy, hip, noir-ish, sexy, burlesque-y red shop that sported the cutout of Bogart, the stylish seasoned smoker.

What do I do now? My files gone forever, taking my arrogance along. I could NOT do better, every time. In my dumped folders, I scavenge for the photograph from before. Now, my only hope, the low-res file, was corrupted too. When I clicked on it, it would for a split second reveal what we see above, but then go blank. So, I take tens of screenshots. One screenshot worked, and I got this scene, still corrupted, but it held a mysterious charm due to those two bands running across the image, forming a deeper-red panoramic window, creating an illusion of a private eye seated in the café opposite, making a note of the scene. Like I were the private eye with my secret camera. I love the drama that the “window” creates. Oh, so The Third Man!

I am keeping this image. This is a big part of my photography work. It has everything that I love in my work for this documentary – mystery, drama, sleaze, thrill and Rick Blaine.

Like him, for better or for worse, I still don’t make plans that far ahead. And like him, I too once smoked sutta very professionally, as a good friend, a keen observer and writer, flatteringly, wrote about me in his book. More on that another time.


An Afternoon in Amer

The Gullies
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Apart from the great many tourists flocking to the grand fortress of Amer, where the maximum activity is noticed, the town of Amer remains unchanged since at least my childhood days. I cannot imagine it being any different a century ago, or even two or three centuries ago for that matter. The 17th century muralled walls of the many temples, the Panna Meena Kund, the bazaars, and the shops tucked into the small pockets of the fort’s base, remain untouched and neglected. As a result, many sandstone structures have fallen into a state of grave disrepair. But, the raw beauty prevails.

Murals and Swastikas on the outside of a temple wall.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

I hail from Rajasthan, and the areas around Aravalli Mountains (the oldest range of fold mountains in India) have been frequented by me since I was a child. I grew up knowing the region, its people, language and the customs. The women’s attires were always ‘very’ colourful, with one neon-orange found aplenty, the men wore the same multi-coloured turbans as they did now, and the kids played with marble balls on sandy tracks even then.

The sultry afternoons were, and still are, lazy, and many folks kept cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. Langurs guard the gullies, and keep a count of the kids returning from school with their huge backpacks.

Langurs watch the kids returning from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

A few women carried hay on their heads for the cattle, while some hung-out to sing desert lyrics, or gossip. The men played card games and smoked bidis and chewed tobacco or paan.

Men play card games, women hang-out to gossip, and kids return from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Once in a while an object comes into sight that makes the time we are in apparent. My camera being the biggest reminder, of course.

It takes them a while to acclimatise to my presence . These people do not like their privacy being invaded. It is very difficult to photograph women facing the camera with their veil completely lifted. I speak their language, and yet…

Woman in a red sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Woman in a neon-orange sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
An old mansion falling apart.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Many grand old mansions that belonged to the aristocrats are now in a crumbling and uninhabitable state. The families and their grandeur have long gone and, despite a shortage of good living space for people, these mansions are allowed to wither away.

But the Khejri tree indiscriminately thrives in every quarter.

Khejri Tree – State tree of Rajasthan.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I take my time. I am in no rush. I carry my heavy camera in the sweltering afternoon, walking miles, striking conversations with those I walk past, ensuring they realise I am one of them, that I just wear different clothes.

I long to return.

There but for the grace of Dr. David Lefroy

St. Mary’s Hospital, Praed St, Paddington, London W2 1NY

Roughly 9 years ago, I was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in an ambulance that jumped the traffic lights with its rotating blue beacon and deafening siren. I lay there thinking, ‘This is so embarrassing. I am still conscious. I can walk this distance. Probably even run, if I tried.” I was only out to get my reports from the local clinic when I was ushered to the ambulance, on a wheelchair. I looked ridiculous, being transported this way when the elderly waited. “You are not a fraud, Mrs Sharma (this was in response to my request for a comprehensive heart screening, which they thought was a rather odd request from someone my age at the time, and also looking perfectly healthy). You have a serious heart condition called Ventricular Tachycardia, and the episodes are frighteningly frequent. If you were to collapse on the streets or your home, we won’t be able to revive you. You have to remain with us and get treated straightaway.” explained the consultant at the West Mid cardiology department.

“Who would make my children’s lunch? Who will do their laundry? They don’t even know I’ve been admitted.” No one cared about my ‘bigger’ worries.

Oh, well!

Few hours later, plus an exciting ambulance ride, I found myself in the operation theatre. In front of me stood one of the finest cardiologists in the whole of the United Kingdom, Dr David Lefroy, who carried out the treatment. It was my lucky day.

Right from the outset, Dr. Lefroy came across as a gentle, caring, efficient, and a thoroughly professional gentleman. My gut said I was in good hands. Years later, I know I was.

I was brought to him at an advanced stage of V-tach. I had suffered blackouts doing most mundane of things, like standing in the garden, walking down the streets, cooking in the kitchen, etc.. Landed in the hospital after every blackout. The usual blood tests and X-rays later, I would be sent back home. No one even remotely questioned the functioning of my heart, until a time came when I had to thump my heart to keep it from giving up on me. I could feel it was struggling to keep up. The stress of my husband’s brain haemorrhage exacerbated my symptoms. The thumping got harder, and I feared I’ll have an accident while driving. This was the time when I pushed my local clinic for a heart monitor. The rest we know…

Dr. Lefroy briefed me on what to expect. He performed the ablation. One treatment only, and I was back on my feet the following morning. He exceeded all my expectations. I never had to return for another treatment.

(I learnt about his impressive credentials only after I returned home).

Image result for dr lefroy st mary's heart treatment
Dr. David Lefroy, Photo credit: Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust (Google search)

Nine odd years later, my heart still ticks, sometimes beats heavily, even palpitates, and not exempt from hurting (emotionally). But, this is owed to my lifestyle, my erratic sleeping pattern, the habit of over-working myself, both physically and mentally, and excessive thinking, etc.. I now laugh about having a sexy-sounding condition (V-tach) that I suffered from for years until it was diagnosed.

I am alive, and VT is not sexy in reality. It got me close to death on numerous occasions in ten years preceding its discovery. The consultant was right about the ‘revival’ bit. Good thing he was indifferent to my worries about the domestic chores.

Coming back to St. Mary’s….I never got to see the hospital building. Paramedics drove through the special entrance at the back of the building. 7 yrs later, on my way to a photography commission, I stumbled upon it. I exclaimed at its astonishing beauty, took several shots with my camera, spared a thought for all the patients that were in there, and of course, thanked, with all my heart, Dr. Lefroy. There but for the grace of ……

P.S. From time to time, I also thank my heart for being a good boy, being responsive, and behaving ‘himself’. I scratch his back too, mostly by skipping some of the alcoholic beverages that don’t suit his muscle. I’ll need to do a bit more than that. A regular sleeping pattern would make him happy, I know. Little more physical (recreational) exercise. I am getting there.

Long Odds

Old Compton St. Soho, London.

When the end result of any endevour is gratifying, our attempt remains to replicate the result, only slightly better. Is it achievable though? Yes, and no. I have known photographers, including myself, trying to recreate an image by using an earlier image they have produced as a reference, because they believed the image was good, but could have been better. This kind of attachment with personal work and the want of reproducing the same can at times lead to disheartenment, but can also, miraculously, be rewarding. Despair comes from not being able to produce a ditto copy, and the pleasure, albeit deferred, is derived from producing something totally fresh, and equally as satisfying. The idea is to keep trying, with or without a motive, as long as it keeps you happily involved and does not feel like an ‘effort’.

This image here was my attempt to recreate my favourite image (Late Noughties). Impossible, it proved to be. The immovable building or the same posters of the long-running musical lent nothing to deter the long odds. So, was the result unsatisfactory? Far from it. The result was not a duplicate, but it was an excitingly fresh image. Did it make me happy? Absolutely, even if not immediately. It takes time for us to detach from a sweet ‘past’ to accept the ‘present’. It took a long time. What I now see is a fairly good image. The ‘protagonist’ (to the extreme left) of the image’s unfolding drama does brilliant justice to the static scene. The supporting ‘cast’ behind him adds that little extra to the scene. A few backs-turned-to-the-camera were the must haves for the mystery part. Is a photograph, after all, not all about story telling, visually?