for Gauri Gill’s book of photographs, The Americans
Photograph by Gauri Gill.
All over those bland, continuous
states, in ghettos amalgamated beyond
Sikh, Muslim, Hindu to one easy race-
name, South Asian, one umbrella brand,
Indian-American, in basement sublets, dorms,
mortgaged cookie cut homes
where god lights blare like truck horns,
coatless or bundled, hardhat headscarf
askew in cold sun, a mother and daughter s
laughter ready at the register, or that
man, rushed, clenched shut at Dunkin’ Donuts,
at Apna Bazar Cash and Carry, on Roosevelt,
a food-fragrant driver of a yellow taxi,
those sisters, shy and not shy, rival
sports trophies and photos arrayed,
the dead one’s husband, emperor-sized
bed against uncurtained white wife light,
empty house and he alone with remote,
& the priests of the convention cathedrals,
limp wrists extended over wine cocktails,
suits and flesh glossy in the gloaming,
wild glint of fossil fuel, DC's far domes
winking yellow, oh all over those blonde,
bland states, saying to Gauri’s camera,
It’s me, barefoot in the ballroom of the dream,
poised, posed, alone, almost American.
The Book of Bruce
I set out as soon as we made landfall. I took only water, my sketchbook, a box of paints. I wanted to be on my own. I wasn’t looking for adventure—I’ll tell you that much straight off the bat.
I climbed up through the brush with my pack swinging against my side and very soon I came across a village. Put it this way, one minute I’m stumbling up a hillside and the next I’m stumbling into a huddle of huts in a clearing, cookfires going for dinner, smoke rising into the trees. And I’m looking at a bunch of startled faces looking at me.
They took me to the headman, whose name of course was Bruce. He wasn’t very happy to see me. He was busy conducting the evening prayer, chanting to a pair of bus tickets and an old copy of Time. (I found out later that everybody in the village prayed twice a day, at twelve hour intervals. Each family had its own gods – this was a strict rule – that could not be interchanged or cross-worshipped. Bruce and his family worshipped paper.)
Bruce got up off his knees, and welcomed me to the village. He asked me to be seated. Then, going up to each family shrine, he pointed out his favorites, in order.
1. Currency notes, mostly Euros, Rials and Rupees. No Dollars.
2. Expired prescriptions for unavailable medication, written in a sloping hand: Opium Tincture ……… 3. Absinthe Balm for Neuralgia. Etc. They were nailed to the wall above the bed.
3. A page from Larousse’s French-English dictionary.
4. Toffee wrappers.
5. A calendar of Asian birds, with color plates of the Brahmani kite, the Bustard and the Bee-eater. There was a faded printout stapled to February.
Statistically Improbable Phrases: peninsular juxtaposition, evergreen biotope, black mesial stripe, tank margins, cognitive trespass, black wing quills, gentle interrogation, mixed heronries, remarkably obliterative.
6. Several pages from a biology textbook (with illustrations of the reproductive cycle of freshwater fish).
9. A napkin from Wendy’s with a line drawing in blue ballpoint of a woman whose legs were so long her head seemed to be growing out of her hips. She was riding a missile powered by a submarine propeller. There was a phone number, 9872437766, and an initial, S.
Bruce was happy to show me his family’s gods, and though he didn’t insist that I join in their prayer – a low chanting punctuated by percussive yelps – I could tell that he was hoping I would. I didn’t of course. Taking sides in local disputes, debates, or religious bonhomie is strictly forbidden to the crew of the Ark.
Instead, I showed Bruce a snapshot of my wife and son. Big mistake, he wanted it. I gave it to him. What else could I do? He installed it right away, on a shelf above the front door, with a candle. I’m sure it’s still there, a picture of my wife and son eating chocolate ice cream from a blue bowl.
I was hoping he wouldn’t notice my sketchbook, but he did. I ended up giving that to him as well.
Bruce had a special prayer service to welcome the additions to his family pantheon.
Afterwards I took a tour of the village. Bruce’s immediate neighbors worshipped an empty bottle of Lancome perfume and a muddy shoe, the mud lovingly incorporated into their shrine. A family worshipped copper utensils and plastic bags; another worshipped a mouse which it fed and bathed and called Fred. An extended family of bald men and dreadlocked women worshipped prosthetics and rubber tubing.
A family whose hut was at the outskirts of the village – they were unpopular – worshipped nothing at all, in an empty room. They said their god was invisible.
I would have liked to see more, but it was getting dark and I was expected back on the Ark. Since I’d given Bruce worship gifts the other families said they too wanted a keepsake of some sort. But what could I give them? I left the paints – a tin box with evenly spaced circles of color. Bruce divided the pigments among the villagers, each family got a color, and there were some left over.
Color was their newest god and the most mysterious.
They were fighting fish, no question about it, so brilliantly colored and so numerous in the freshwater pool that I stood dreaming there for a long time. I roused myself when it got dark – I had to return to the Ark. But I took the fish with me, two small ones in a clear plastic bag, and I put them in a tank in the banquet room.
We had a great number of fish when the Ark set out, including rare specimens of Toulouse Tyrannasaura (dwarf dinosaur fish that mated for life), Masonica Chameleo (secretive pack fish that disguised themselves as other fish), Al Jeebira (Saudi Arabian counting fish), and my favorites, Cannibalista Sologo (cannibal fish that lived alone and ate themselves from the inside out). Our years of travel had depleted them – we were forced to eat the big fish when the Ark encountered torrid zones – and none were left but a pair of spiny Inquisitor fish and a dozen tiny Communion fish, which resembled goldfish but refused food unless they could eat en masse. It was a fraught coincidence that the Inquisitors and the Communions found themselves together: the Inquisitors were hated by all fish for their aggression and fanaticism, and the Communions were pitied for their timidity and their fearful nature.
I ask myself how it was that I first took a sip of the water in the tank. I’d noticed the change in the fish of course, it was impossible not to. Days after the arrival of the mysterious new fish, the Inquisitors gave up their relentless spying; and the Communions began to go for long solitary swims, to lose interest in eating together, and to fight among themselves for the most negligible reasons. It was as if they had forgotten their essential natures.
As I say, I don’t know what made me try the water, but I did, I took a sip and the effect was immediate – a draining away of residue, and a sense of ease. For an hour, I forgot everything: my youth, the name of the town in which I’d lived when the earth was dry, the terrible trouble that had put me on the Ark, sailing without hope of real landfall. And when the effect of the water passed I was refreshed, energized, as if I’d slept a long dreamless sleep.
One morning we found a piece of floating land – there were many in that hemisphere – and we stopped. I set up a tank with the pair of fish and a hand painted sign.
MIRACLE AMNESIA FISH – YOU’LL FORGET EVERYTHING.
I exchanged cups of amnesia water for fresh vegetables, fruit, clothing, oil, whatever was available. Soon I had more provisions than I needed, but the people kept coming. Pillars of society, charlatans, householders, fools, they’d come back for another drink as soon as the effects of the first had worn off. Some would fall asleep near the tank, leaving only when they had nothing more to trade or when I asked them to go. If I didn’t keep an eye on them, they would steal draughts of the water. They lost interest in maintaining the engines of their lives.
The women blamed me for turning the men into amnesia addicts, but soon they joined in, living from one drink to the next. When I became bored by the tedium – the cycle of blame and shame – I weighed anchor and set sail. I’d stop somewhere new and set up the tank. However long the voyage, I’d watch the amnesia fish – whom I named Love and Fame – and it helped me pass the time.
My Life with the President
He was stacking branches for firewood in neat asymmetrical rows. He wore a battered cowboy hat. I went up to him and blurted it out. He said, Okay, but we sleep in separate beds.
The place wasn’t much. A house and a barn in a brush clearing: no way to find it but to look for smoke at dawn. There was no water anywhere. But I’d hear it in my head, something enormous, a big body of water, and I’d look around. No water.
He was a good man, a good provider. You couldn’t rely on him to keep his word, or to be around in a crisis. But he was kind to me.
On the first night, I woke up drowning. I was choking on air. He took me by the hand and led me to his altar. He prostrated himself, said I should do the same. He was praying to a picture of that hot actor who played Conan the Barbarian.
He prayed to pinups, Arnold, Sly, Justin, Enrique, and guys I’d never heard of, Charles Atlas, Johnny Weismuller? I supposed it was normal enough. People worship stones wood the sun a river. I told him I worshipped shoes myself. How far will a color poster of a muscular guy take you on a hot day on a long road?
He had no books or newspapers. He wasn’t allowed to bring any with him. Besides, he’d only ever read the Bible, the St. James Version, and 24 issues of the National Geographic.
Under his pillow was a road map of Baghdad, well-thumbed.
He liked to talk, mostly about automobiles, weather patterns, horses, clothing trends, television programming, hospitals, the salaries of public servants, the methodology of torture. But his conversation always ended up in the same place. He said, The reason the people of this region mix sugar in their food is to compensate for the taste of the water. You must have noticed it, kind of dry and metallic. This is desert country. Very few trees. Absence of water: absence of paper.
He blamed the Imams for everything.
I woke one day and found him praying in a language I’d never heard. He was sitting at his desk, staring at a poster of Vin Diesel, his hands together. He was so loud I joined in. I said the first thing that came to my head. The American retailer H. Gordon Selfridge coined the phrases, Shopping days until Christmas and The customer is always right. He didn’t react so I kept going. Your call is extremely important to us. Please leave a message with your name and number.
He prayed for three days. He forgot to eat and sleep. I kept checking that he hadn’t forgotten to breathe.
I don’t know how else to put it: he got old. He got old all of a sudden. He spent more time at home. He said he wanted to be surrounded by his ‘collaborators and students.’ But to tell the truth we were bums, vagabonds, young men out to see the world.
One by one the others left, until there was no one else, just me. When he knew he was going, he let me kiss him. I knew he was going because he let me kiss him. He hated to be kissed on the mouth.
1. This organism’s structure centers exclusively on eating and excretion. We conclude that it requires too many resources for a single organism to manage such contradictory imperatives.
2. The breathing mechanism is subject to frequent breakdowns. Too much depends on the regular flow of air to the lungs. Also, the rudimentary blood network and the single heart require immediate redesign.
3. The organism needs to make simultaneous adjustments with regard to visual stimuli, tenderness, narrative cohesion and sexual information. This kind of constant maintenance is unjustifiable with regard to cost effectiveness.
4. Elevational ability is absent and the desire for it is all-consuming. The organism wants to fly but is unable to stay aloft for any significant length of time. As a result, it is the location of tremendous psychic conflict.
5. The greatest drawback of course is its pathological craving for certainty; there is no doubt among us that this condition is related to its overall emotional neediness.
6. We must mention, too, its vulnerability to weather, its susceptibility to time, and its nightly rest requirements.
7. Overall, our consensus is that the organism is exceedingly disappointing, not to mention banal.
NB: We wonder if these flaws are prefabricated elements of the overall design, due not to incompetence, as has been alleged, but as a study in planned obsolescence. If so, we are prepared to consider the possibility of allowing it to continue for some more time in its present disorderly format. Nevertheless, we would like to discuss the matter and see if there are alternatives that would better suit all parties.
JEET THAYIL is a poet, novelist, and musician. His four poetry collections include These Errors Are Correct and English, and he is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. His libretto for the Babur in London tours internationally in 2012, and he is one half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil. His debut novel Narcopolis was published in six languages. He lives in New Delhi.
GAURI GILL has recently emerged as one of India’s most significant young photographers. Born in Chandigarh, she studied at the Delhi College of Art (BFA 1992) Parsons School of Design, New York (BFA 1994) and Stanford University (MFA 2002). Gill’s practice is complex because it contains several, seemingly discreet lines of pursuit. These include her more than a decade long study of marginalized communities in Rajasthan, and their often dificult encounter with modernity, Notes from the Desert. She has also explored issues around migrancy and memory in series such as The Americans, Rememory, What Remains. Working in both black and white and colour, Gill’s work addresses the twinned Indian identity markers of class and community as determinants of mobility and social behaviour. In her work there is empathy, surprise, subversive humor, and a human concern over issues of survival. She lives and works in New Delhi, and received the Grange Prize for contemporary photography in 2011.