Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Nostalghia of Photograph

The knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable. (Irwing Howe)

Nostalghia is a 1983 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

From Wikipedia:
The film depicts a Russian writer .... During his stay he is struck with nostalgia for his homeland, longing for an inner home, a sense of belonging, and a clash between his personal vision of the world, and the real conditions. ... profound form of nostalgia ..., comparing it to a disease, "an illness that drains away the strength of the soul, the capacity to work, the pleasure of living", but also, "a profound compassion that binds us not so much with our own privation, our longing, our separation, but rather with the suffering of others, a passionate empathy.
Photograph is a 2019 film by  Ritesh Batra, who previously directed the acclaimed film The Lunchbox.  The film follows a man from rural Uttar Pradesh making his living in Bombay clicking photographs of tourists, and a middle class woman student who he happens to meet.

Both of them are lost and alone in their lives, nostalgic for an earlier, simple way of living. The man lives with his friends, and the woman has a caring family, but their feelings and desires linger in silence.  The man is trying to find his footing in a world that has brutalized him in many ways, and the woman is silently waiting for whatever life might have in store for her.

The nostalgia is not just about an earlier way of living, in which joys were simple and the relationships more about love and the bonds of family.  It is also about the nostalgia of an adult for his childhood.  The innocence of being a child is hard to maintain as one tries to navigate a world in which pragmatism and planning take the place of spontaneity and freedom from care.

The film celebrates silences, showing instead of verbalizing.  Old songs, traditional street food, old taxis, old people, extinct drinks, out of fashion adornments and cosmetics, old cinema halls, ...

There is a certain lack of ambition and aspiration in children, as is probably there among people who have their homes in the hills or in a remote village.  They are content with the little pleasures of an occasional celebration, of an infrequent treat, and of a simple gift.

Of course, the film paints the poor people as carefree, innocent and caring and the rich and urbane as somewhat manipulative and stressed.  It is true to some extent.  The poor do not have much to lose, and they can thereby be more "in the moment" and heart-driven than the rich.

But poverty, the brutality of which is hinted at in the film when it describes the man's early years, is not entirely a romantic phenomenon.  There is immense suffering in it.  The daily grind and the daily humiliations of being at the lower end of society drain a man of his innocence as surely as the competition and upward mobility of the rich.

In a key scene, the woman innocently says to another man that she wishes to live in a village.  Earlier in the scene, the man has casually bragged that he can be happy "anywhere", but is taken aback when he hears her.

The woman idealizes the village life as being idyllic, not having actually lived it.

I used to think, when observing slums and the urban poor in the big cities in India: Why do these poor people come to the city and live in such inhuman conditions?  Do they not miss their village?  Yes, they might have a television now, but is their cramped and rotten living really better than what they had in their earlier life? 

It is a complex question.  But if we trust that these unfortunate people make their decisions not in foolishness but with regret and resolve, the answer must be that despite the open fields, the skies and the clouds, the simpler life, their earlier time in the village must be, in the final analysis, a romanticized nightmare of insecurity, scarcity and indignity.

They have a different kind of indignity in the city, but the city offers them at least a hope of making a life in which their children will have a place in the world, and not merely be blown around by the winds of the caste system, of oppressive landlords, of a capricious monsoon, of a criminal neglect and usurpation of their lands (if they have any) by those who can.


The wish of a human being that he will again be fragrant and innocent, once he traverses the hard and brutal terrain of a world that values only value, is a tragic one.  For that innocence will find itself deeply buried in the end, unless it is carefully renewed and nourished every day.

To keep one's inner child alive is not a mild undertaking, it is the very dream and the eventual hope of man: That one will again be free to be as one was.

Monday, May 06, 2019

An Essay by Teja Singh

Principal Teja Singh (born Tej Ram) was a Punjabi scholar who lived during the first half of the twentieth century.  He wrote many scholarly works on Punjabi language and Sikh scriptures, but is also famous for his simple, charming and heartfelt essays.

His most famous essay, one often found in school textbooks in Punjab, was titled "ਘਰ ਦਾ ਪਿਆਰ".  The title is difficult to translate.  It roughly means the love and affections one experiences at home and from one's family.  "Domestic Love" is too prosaic and uninspired a translation.

One finds this essay in his compilation "ਗੁਸਲਖਾਨਾ ਤੇ ਹੋਰ ਲੇਖ" (The Bathhouse and Other Essays).  It was likely published in the 1940s.  Fortunately, the book has been digitized and archived by Panjab Digital Library.

I vaguely remember reading this essay during my school years but had forgotten about it.  A dear friend had created an audio version of the Punjabi essay.  I read the essay in Punjabi and listened to her audio.

But I could not find any English translation of this book, or of any of the essays.

It seemed worthwhile to me to translate at least this essay from the book.  The friend who had created the audio version reviewed my translation and offered valuable and helpful feedback, which I happily incorporated.

You can read the essay here.  A PDF version is here.

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of digitizing (by simply typing) a similarly themed short book by a Russian writer.

That book was "The Family and Society" by Leonid Zhukhovistky.  I found it a breezy, and quite a fascinating and at times touching read.  You can read the book here.