Have words ever failed you; as if the only thing that could articulate the images and feelings inside you, was silence? How fortunate the artist then, who in that first moment of being confronted with beauty can capture it with her brush, her pencil, her words – and these days, her camera? On a recent trip to Hangzhou in China, I asked a photographer friend of mine, at the end of a long day of sightseeing in which he had taken hundreds of pictures and the writer in me had barely said ten coherent words about the sights we had seen, how he took pictures. “I capture what I see” was his short reply. “Okay” I thought, and then he elaborated that photography was not about checking the boxes and getting everything in the frame, but about continuity and focus. I realized that this is very similar to the writing process; I am telling a story, leaving out details that don’t fit and focusing on a character, an event or a sight. Yet, why don’t the words come so easily? Why does it seem like, the sights, the happenings of life, the people in them and the emotions must percolate through my pores into the depths of my bones before a single word may come out? Why does it feel like silence must always come before the words? And that yet, the words that come out, may not be true? Or as honest as the artists’ picture?
Looking at my friends pictures reminded me of a common creative writing activity, “Take an old picture and describe what you see”. To get the juices flowing I decided to do this with one of his pictures.
“Purano shei diner kotha
Bhulbe kii re hai
O shei chokher dekha, praaner kotha
Sheikii bhola jaaye
Aaye aar ektibar aayre shokha
Praner majhe aaye mora
Shukher dukher kotha kobo
Praan jodabe tai”
Translated in English,
“The memories of the good old days
Can you ever forget it?
It was seen by our eyes, was voice of our life
Can it ever be forgotten?
Come back once more, my friend
Come and be a part of my life
We will talk of smiles and tears
And will feel very good about it”
She stands at one of the windows of the thousand year old six harmonies pagoda
, looking out at the scenes – the fall colors of upstate New York, the bridges across the Hudson, the gently falling rain that would soon become snow, the cold running through her hands, walking in the snow and sneaking into a coffee shop to warm up for a while. This must be there and then. And yet, when she turns around and walks to the center of the pagoda where the stairs are, the inscriptions on the wall, the images in relief on the wood panels, the art work on the ceiling with its vibrant colors and the Chinese characters all remind her of Hangzhou. This must be here and now.
She walks from floor to floor, taking in the sights from several different perspectives, unable to shake off the feeling that she was in Buffalo, NY driving up to the Falls, with the windshield fogging over from the cold and any time now they would see the Niagara in the distance from amid the yellows, oranges and the reds, its waters both breathtaking and intimidating. Or perhaps, she was walking to work on a cold December Columbus morning, the campus streets damp and empty because of the holidays and telling herself that tomorrow she would not go into work and instead veg out in front of the TV. And yet her footsteps falling on wood hundreds of years old, remind her that she is not in the new world, but the really ancient. That she is not in the past, but in the present.
Is this a good thing or bad? She struggles to understand what it means to her. Perhaps she is over thinking it. Perhaps as one of her friends reminds her repeatedly, she shouldn’t over-analyse it, and just experience the moment. But this moment is not here; it is simultaneously everywhere, in other places and with other people.
She pauses for a while soaking in the colors. Fall colors have always been one of things she has missed seeing in the past decade. How could the gentle fading of the leaves be so graceful, bringing so much color and joy to the world around it? It is one thing she can’t get enough of. From the top floor she can see miles around, the vast expanse of the Qiantang river tamed by the multiple bridges across it.
As she heads down the stairs, carefully holding the railing of the steep stairs, a fear from now grips her – falling and injuring herself as she has done multiple times in the recent past. She walks slowly, aware that others with her have gone further down. At an intermediate floor, a voice calls out, “Come in for a picture.” She runs in to pose with her group. For now, she is here. And perhaps this much clarity is enough.
Some more pictures from the trip. Photo credits Rwitajit Majumdar.