The Messiah Must Reside In Such Quietude

Sarkhej Roza, Makarba, Gujarat.

It was an early start. Ahmedabad has changed to an unrecognisable extent. I drove from there through S.G. Highway to Makarba one July morning in 2018 as per the directions given by Bubbles in a cutely sincere manner – two lefts,  then right,  then straight for 2 kms,  then three rights, and so on. It must have been the combination of her accuracy and my ability to grasp that I reached the masjid with sheer ease. The light from the golden torch was making its way to the earth before bribing its way into the roza’s courtyard.

Bhavna Ramrakhiani – Convenor of Ahmedabad Community Foundation

Bhavna stood there to greet me. Oh, what a beautiful face she had. Those eyes!! She instantly came across as a warm person willing to share her knowledge of the place. She spoke a welcome mix of educated English and raw Hindi. We entered the monument, removed our shoes, covered our heads.

Morning scene
Man reading the morning papers

A typical morning scene. Touchingly serene. A few men, unperturbed by my presence, read the morning papers. I felt at home. I kept taking photographs as Bhavna’s soft voice kept singing in my ears. We Indians are spoilt. Our history dates so far back that we casually declare a six centuries old structure as recent. We even neglect it. 

Morning arrivals
Sarkhej Roza

This was Sarkhej Roza, once the home of sufi saint, Ganj Baksh. To one side stood a stone pavilion in a sad state of disrepair and to the other, a courtyard with a masjid and quietly guarded tombs. Several mausoleums, an old well, hundreds of wide steps leading down to a dried tank and the infinite expanse. One part of the mosque, with its tall pillars reminded me of the Acropolis of Athens. It was too much for me to take in on a short morning tour. 

Stone pavilion in state of disrepair
Pillars of the mosque
Path to the mosque

Once in a while a person will walk the white-painted path, that led to the masjid, to speak in private to the supreme being. This path was also taken by the Sun to kiss the cheek of the messiah who must most definitely reside in such quietude.

Prayers
Connecting with the messiah
Girl playing
Well-wheel spoke shaped like a bird
Spoke on the wheel of the well resembling a bird

A small girl jumped and skipped on the steps oblivious to all. A spoke of the well-wheel pulley made to resemble an exotic visitor to the Sabarmati River. A cormorant or a spoonbill perhaps. The little bookshop opened early. A few men sat selling to no customers at all. Bhavna enjoyed a nice chat with them. A silvery bearded man in immaculate white clothes and matching taqiyah takes over the shop. “Maybe he’ll sell only one book today,” I thought. I buy one. But he will remain all day no matter what. Dedication. Service. We all can learn.

Men in the book shop, Sarkhej Roza, Gujarat.
The Old Man with silvery beard and immaculate clothes. Sarkhej Roza, Gujarat.

The cleaner, with her younger grandson in her arms, complained about her useless son-in-law. From Bhavna’s story to this – it felt like I had changed the radio station. 

The cleaner with her younger grandson and running commentary

Her elder grandson played near the main gate. His angelic face captivated me so much that I took several photos of him. He kept changing poses. A young man sat on the chair. 
Maybe, that was the accused.

The elder grandson
Angelic face
The accused. Maybe. Maybe not.

My gaze locked on a woman sitting outside the room that housed the tombs. She was not present there. She appeared to be talking to someone. But there was no one. She then laughed, and continued to laugh. Her ankles were swollen. She was a regular I was told. She walked out as aimlessly as she had walked in.

She spoke to the spirits
Woman selling balloons

Outside the mosque, another lady sold balloons. “She’s my friend,” announced Bhavna. Where did these people buy such delightful smiles from when they could not even afford a decent meal? How can they afford such precious attributes?

On my drive back to Ahmedabad, and before I hit the highway, I saw the lady who spoke to the spirits. She was on her way to… nowhere.

Cocktail in New York. Pheras in Paris.

My family and myself were in a car driving through the lesser known streets of Jaipur. There were shops alongside residential areas — greengrocers, motorcycle repairers, barbers, stationers, street vendors, metalsmiths and stonemasons. Building smaller replicas of famous statues and other landmarks seemed to be the side business of the metalsmiths and stonemasons combined, as I saw quite a few statues scattered, part finished, part unsculpted.

Libertas, that attracted millions of visitors daily in the West, had almost zero admirers on that street. She stood on a shoddy unpaved muddy sidewalk in 48°C (118.4°F).

We were instantly amused, but also bemused. What was that statue doing there? There was clearly a demand for these. In the habit of always carrying my camera, I got off the car to take a couple of photographs. The men on the site found my actions as hilarious as I found theirs.

I asked where the statue was going. “It’s for a wedding.” It saddened me to learn that these men on meagre wages were building these enormous figures for an evening party. “What pleasure exactly could be derived from these cheap replicas that cost many times more than those workers’ combined monthly wages?” I wondered. “Were they trying to fake the location through these?” “Were the business families uploading the party videos on YouTube, captioned, ‘Cocktail in New York’?”

What next? A demolition party? Where do these statues go? Submerged into the waters like Kali and Ganesha? But this is the desert state – so, no sea. Recycled? Maybe! There might just be a second-hand market for these for smaller budget weddings. Who knows!

I never found out.

Later that evening, just when my camera packed up (probably due to the heat), I saw an Eiffel Tower in the middle of a garden in an affluent residential area. The bungalow was getting ready for a wedding (one can tell of the nature of the event from the extent of the embellishments). That was definitely a wedding.

I bet there is a YouTube video of the pheras in Paris.

In my next trip, I would like to know of the fate of these non-permanent structures.

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?

Late Noughties

Old Compton St. Soho, London (Colour)

Photography, or the love of it, came early in my life. Very early, in fact. Street photography, as a genre, was unheard of in those days (at least in my part of the world), even though I shot streets, and people on it, majority of the time. My interest in photographing streets, specifically, developed in the late noughties, after having been treated for a life-threatening heart condition following my husband, Vic’s brain haemorrhage and later a brain surgery. The two frightening back-to-back experiences at first shook me, but later strengthened my will. With the new lease of life, I felt the need to connect more with people. This was done my way, the photographer’s way, the-determinedly-stepping-on-the-streets-with-the-camera way. The shot (above) was one of my earliest photographs as a street documentary photographer. I started with Soho in London. Since, officially, this was my ‘first’ street shoot, I didn’t take the images too seriously. My thought was to hone my skills further. After nearly a decade (thousands of images later), and this might purely be subjective, this image from my earliest street shoot is the best of all my street images. Forever torn between ‘colour’ and ‘black-and-white’, I paste both here and let the viewers have their pick. Comments are welcome.

Old Compton St., Soho, London (Black-and-white)