02/32, Kamal Mansion, 2nd floor, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, 400 005 Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Sathyanand Mohan’s series of twenty-six playful photographs, Abecedaire, 2012, evoked this story of childhood crossword puzzles and intangible life lessons. The artist’s photographs are about the simultaneous beauty and danger that the world of words evokes: each image delves into a colorful universe of constructed and natural landscapes with a childlike block letter, A to Z, in the foreground. The letters come to signify the paradoxes of meaning, and the symbols of a psyche that are disorderly, which attempt to conjure a reality that is illogical and an existence that is unknowable.
Mohan views language as:
"mankind's revenge upon the intractable fact of its own mortality. Faced with the one certitude that life has to offer, Death, as well as the pure contingency of an obscure, obdurate universe -- or, in a literary register, the capriciousness of fate -- to which we are consigned while we are alive, it is language that holds out the possibility of Meaning, of making sense of that which follows no human measure or law."
Sathyanand Mohan, Q (ABECEDAIRE), 2010 - 2012, Inkjet Print on archival ilford fibre silk paper, 16 x 24 in.; Courtesy of the artist & The Guild Art Gallery
The reason this story comes to mind is that the photographs to me were joyful, (See: Y) and evoked nostalgic memories of a secret childhood full of stories, stories that had been silenced (“without which language itself would not be possible”) by my grandfather’s death (as the artist claims is a metaphor in many of his works), a childhood that rejected the institution of school and the order of language, and gave way to the disorder, to instinct and play, of the room in the back (See: Q).
The artist’s own prompt in his statement invites the viewer to imagine a story of her own: “… the viewer can then use his or her imagination to interpret the works as they see fit.”
It is characteristic, when describing an aspect of one's past, to use the word "would". I would cry and cry. Would implies an action of yesterday, repeated frequently. I would hold on to his leg and pull at his grey woolen trousers. Over and over. And not let go. The "would" also morphs and ages with memory, as does wood with time. I suppose I can't distinguish between the actual passing of events and my own imagination, but it no longer matters. The woulds of my years with my grandfather are etched in comforting repetition, broken only by a single event, that only the two of us were privy to. Our time together was stolen time, as was his own time on earth. And as our woulds grew and transfigured, so did others' disbelief in our story magnify. Our woulds were challenged by sniggers and smirks, but finally lain to rest, just as he was, by the willful grunt in the back of my ear: ah, bollocks to them all. Belief, history, memory, truth, all these things ceased to matter. Just pay attention to the number of alphabets at hand.
Little Himali at the Railway Museum; Courtesy of the author.
My parents were traveling. We would drop my grandmother off at the American School, where she taught, and then we would go to my kindergarten class. My grandfather would escort me right to the doorstep; little did he know that it would work against him: I would cry and cry. I would hold on to his leg and pull at his grey woolen trouser. And not let go. Unperturbed, he'd make an excuse to my class teacher, who, entranced by his impeccable style and handsome smile, would let me leave. He would open the door to his blue Maruti, and drive me to the Mother Dairy for ice cream. My tears would dry before the ice cream would melt. We would drive to the railway museum, and take all the rides. We would take a break with a Limca, then drive to the zoo, where he would tell me stories about all the different animals. We wouldn't return home for lunch for fear of someone finding us out, so we would eat a snack at Nirula's. By the late afternoon, we would pick up my grandma. She would ask me about school, and I conjured great stories about learning numbers and alphabets and mathematical equations and scientific facts. My grandfather and I would share a smirk.
When we would arrive home, my grandfather would walk me through the garden as he watered the plants. This is the biggest Neem tree in the world, he said. If you could survive on one thing alone, it would be a Neem tree. In the evening, Charlie Chaplin on TV and whiskey in hand, he would solve the crossword, and long multiplication problems in minutes, as I would watch. He taught me to pay heed to the number of alphabets, to words, to the right combination of hints and the pre-calculation of answers. It was like night school, except fun. I would marvel at his genius, and have since thought of geniuses not as untidy, nutty professors, but silver-haired gentlemen in suede shoes and tweed elbow patches who love to eat ice cream and ride toy trains.
One afternoon, I was playing outside, and the water tank had been left slightly ajar. I slipped over it, and fell into the tank, grasping onto its concrete sides. My slipper fell into the water—for no prince to find it later—just as my grandfather came to my rescue, pulling me out, calming my nerves, then applying rose water and glycerin on my mouth, which was scraped from the sides of the tank.
Little Himali with her nana, in the garden; Courtesy of the author.
We continued our days of woulds, the afternoon at the water tank reaffirming my belief that even when I was alone and in danger, he would rescue me. I didn't go to class, but I learned the necessary facts of things. He did things with me that were good for my morale. And perhaps he told no one about my falling into the tank, because he knew that he and I had our own stories, bundles of words, like colorful toy trains that did not have beginnings and ends. Perhaps he knew that one day, I would tell our tale, fiction or otherwise: a narrative voice soaked in rose and glycerin, and memories of woulds that would exist in black and white, alphabetical, repetition.
And so are our secret days revealed, and yet, somehow, like to the man who does crosswords, the answers are precious to him only and steeped in the clues that led him to it, the story is dear to me alone. I hear sniggers and smirks, nana. Ah, bollocks to them all, he'd say.
— Himali Singh Soin
(Image on top: Sathyanand Mohan, Y (ABECEDAIRE), 2010 - 2012, Inkjet Print on archival ilford fibre silk paper, 16 x 24 in.; Courtesy of the artist & The Guild Art Gallery)