He took to arriving at the revolving restaurant at 7.30 every evening, slipping into his seat and trying to ignore the waiters. At that hour there were only the waiters, men who had organized themselves into an iron hierarchy—the pugilist at the desk who always asked him superfluously—“Table for one, sir?”; the guy with the sparse moustache, satin waistcoat sloping over his paunch, who took his unchanging order (a peg of Royal Stag, chicken masala fry, another peg of Royal Stag); the wistful youth who delivered it and cleared the table afterwards.
They made him self-conscious but still, they had something to do, these men, while Science had nothing to do. He had come to Bombay without his camera, without his cellphone, without the laptop full of photographs. Science had cut loose. Bombay was not an entirely random choice, though. Bombay had always been there in the way that, when we are 20, cities loom on our horizons and we imagine comfortably distant futures in which we might live in one of them. But this was the first time he was here and everything he experienced became part of the experience of Bombay, every human gesture seemed to be a larger one made by the city—the deftness with which a bespectacled man pushed past him in the subway, the wily fruit-seller who also sold him plums when he’d only wanted apples, the practised way a taxi-driver stuck out his arm to turn down the meter, the seriousness with which an elegant lady beggar sitting cross-legged on the street picked her nose.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
He slept till noon, walked about all afternoon, then took a taxi from wherever he was to Revolutions, in whose windows the blue-grey haze of the bay was slowly replaced by the dark oval of the stadium, which was replaced by a view of traffic and high-rises, the clock tower, the stock exchange, the general post office. Science had started to wait for the lurching floor to return to a less than complete view of the bay and bring into his line of vision the lit window in the top floor of an apartment block. He could see into the house—lounge chairs and bookshelves, people moving about, a television screen. A woman sometimes opened the door to a terrace and stood there with a stillness that suggested she imagined herself invisible to both those inside and those outside.
* * *
When Science was in senior school, he had started taking photographs of small things; he had no use for vistas. He often tried to capture ambiguity—dried coconuts husks on the roadside that could be small crushed animals, faces that could be painted plastic masks, plastic that could be water, water that could be shadow. He saw things that could be photographs and photographed them. He worked on his own for five or six years, rarely showing anyone his pictures.
Then he met Venkat. He had never met a photographer before.
“It’s impossible, making a living on this kind of thing,” Venkat said. He wore a multi-pocket photographer’s jacket and had nicotine-stained fingernails.
Science hadn’t even talked about making a living and was immediately confused.
“Nobody will get it in Mysore. You want people to appreciate your stuff, you need to move out of here.”
Science hoped Venkat might see in his pictures something that was mysterious even to him. Some photographs had it and others didn’t but Science couldn’t put a name to this thing.
“I like your work but don’t get into news photography. It’s killing. You think I like photographing communal riots and political rallies? No. No. I want to travel to the North-East and photograph the tribals. They’re going to disappear soon—all those dances, all those costumes.”
Science decided never to show anyone his photographs again.
But the very next week Venkat drew up beside him on his bike as Science was standing motionless in the middle of a pavement, observing an open-air funeral being conducted on the other side of the road. “Darshini is going to be in town… her Bangalore exhibition’s coming here. Can you imagine?”
When Science hesitated, Venkat said, “I’m going to be there, shooting the opening. If you want I can introduce you, but don’t expect me to do anything more. If she doesn’t like your stuff, don’t blame me.”
So Science went to the opening of Darshini’s exhibition and shook hands with her—Darshini, who only went by that one name, and whose photographs of anonymous men, women and children going about their humdrum urban lives had, with their trademark melancholy and unexpected beauty, almost become clichés. Darshini herself—her greying pixie-shaped head, her frank stare and thin, hard mouth—had allowed herself to be photographed profusely. To Science she looked like a somewhat faded version of her more familiar glossy magazine self.
“Science?” asked Darshini and Science felt the familiar need to explain.
“My grandfather…,” he cleared his throat and began.
But a crowd heaved around Darshini and she did not have time for explanations. Science retreated into a corner. Venkat noticed him and winked but couldn’t talk. He was photographing the photographer.
Finally, the small room emptied and only the smell of sweat remained.
Darshini, still being fervently lectured to by the owner of the gallery, suddenly spied Science in his corner and cried, “Oh Scientific!” in the voice of someone who has found something precious they lost a long time ago.
“Tell me, tell me, tell me!” she said, coming up to him, rewarding his patience, her eyes glinting with amusement.
So Science described how as a child he was always tinkering, reinventing, discovering, trying to turn objects into other objects—torches into alarm clocks for the deaf, rubber boots into flower vases for the thrifty. His grandfather (a rich farmer who treated engineers, doctors and other men of science with a potent mixture of deference and mockery) had rechristened his grandson Science, and this nickname gradually erased his proper name. Science became Science.
But the story did not seem to satisfy Darshini. She continued looking at him, waiting, it seemed, for Science to reveal more of himself, provide a fuller explanation of what it meant to live by such a name. The gallerist hovered at her elbow. Science asked if she would like to see his photographs. Two grimy plastic chairs were produced. She grew silent and serious as soon as Science clicked open the first of his files, and then she stayed that way. When Science had finished showing her everything he thought worthy of her, she stood up abruptly and declared she would collapse without a cigarette.
The gallerist was temporarily abandoned and Science and Darshini proceeded to sit on a parapet outside, rest their eyes on a cool patch of grass, and smoke.
“So where did you get such confidence from? How long have you been photographing? Have you had an exhibition of your work?”
And again she seemed not to find his answers satisfying; everything he said only made her more curious and she looked at him as if he were being evasive, unprepared to acknowledge his gift.
But when she said, “I’ve never been so impressed” , she appeared not to care for Science’s mumbled words of gratitude. She was praising his work in a way that almost seemed to have nothing to do with him.
“Arvind…” she said, when the gallerist could not hold out any longer and joined them. “…have you seen this boy’s work? Have you considered holding an exhibition for him? His work needs to be seen.”
Arvind had a bushy beard and tugged at it, grunting. Eventually, he gave Science his visiting card.
Then Arvind and Darshini entered a cosy shared universe, discussing recent exhibitions they had seen, grasping gallerists at home, clueless curators aboard, unenlightened publishers, insensitive handlers, illiterate reviewers. Science sat to one side—a child dismissed by an adult world. He went home dazed. Out of a new sense of self-consciousness he could not bring himself to look at his photographs for a long time.
* * *
For the first couple of days, Science had walked around downtown Bombay letting the scale of the city, the crush of people, the expanse of water, numb him. He was an ant—his thoughts and memories could not impose shape or order on this city. And that was how it should be, that was the only way his grief might come to seem like nothing—simply because he was himself nothing. He hung about watching afternoon games of cricket in the maidan, sat in small cafes with their menus laid out under glass-topped tables and drank London Pilsner, stared vacantly at pictures in galleries. On the third day he pushed further north to Kalbadevi, stopping abruptly before the giant blue bulk of an old hotel with beautiful wooden balconies; lingering before but not entering an old photo studio, some of its huge black and white portraits hand-painted into coloured ones. There were giant archways with names and dates carved into them which took the hectic commerce of the street into deeper, mysterious recesses. Further north, in the flea market where men sat selling small piles of broken ceramic egg cups, silver ash-trays, old records, biscuit tins, rusting cutlery, wind-up gramophones, Science had found a half-broken pair of binoculars and taken it back with him to Revolutions. And that was how the movements he could see in the lit window became concrete—the images on a TV screen, the man inside reading a book, the woman coming to stand at the door.
After starting out by resisting the hold of Bombay on him, Science now waited for the light to fade so he could take the elevator up to the restaurant and observe the house through his binoculars. They always spent this sky-darkening time in the same way—this family of two. He was still—watching TV or reading with the TV going on in the background. She was moving—between what could be the kitchen, though it couldn’t be seen, and the living room, sometimes pausing before the TV, sometimes talking to the man, sometimes putting things away. But when she came to the door and stood looking out at the sea, Science felt an inexplicable sense of comfort. Very soon he was doing this as if he had done it all his life—eating chicken, drinking whisky and spying on strangers.
* * *
A few delirious weeks after Darshini’s visit, Science had taken up his camera again. He’d looked over all his photographs and could not believe their shallowness. He wanted to delete all his files and make a fresh start, he wanted to find a new source. But however often he went over everything Darshini had told him, he could not anticipate what she might say about anything new he did.
He stood at his window and watched the lane through his lens—the ice-cream man pedalled past in his red bicycle-van; two men climbed a jacaranda tree to tinker with a green circuit box hidden high in its branches; a sweeper in indigo overalls and sari dragged a giant dried palm frond down the lane; a man climbed into his blue Indica and sat still in the driver’s seat, apparently meditating; a balloon-seller made squeaking noises with one of his fat yellow balloons as he went by. Colour, shape and movement. But everything suddenly had a will of its own and refused to be captured by his camera. His thoughts kept returning to Darshini—whose skin was like long-preserved newsprint and whose eyes had lit up while speaking to him.
Finally he went to Arvind for Darshini’s address.
“Where’s the hurry? You want to be a good photographer, learn patience,” said the gallerist as soon as he saw him.
Science was silent, letting Arvind believe he had come to talk about the exhibition.
“Darshini is like that only. She encourages young people but that doesn’t mean great things will happen overnight. Look at her life. She struggled and struggled. Finally she can be still, does not need to move at all, and yet people will come to her like ants to jaggery.”
After 10 minutes of this, he gave Science the address and phone number and asked him to make sure, when he wrote to Darshini, to mention that he, Arvind, was considering doing the exhibition.
Darshini’s reply to Science’s email asking if he could move to Bombay and apprentice with her was brief. She congratulated him again on his good work, gave him the name of another photographer and said “You must talk to him, he has infinitely greater patience with young people.” Science wrote back saying he must work with her and no one else. She didn’t reply. He waited for a week, then called her. Her maid answered. Didi was in London. He wrote to her again. No reply. He called again. A man answered. She seemed to be at home but did not come to the phone. She didn’t want to talk to him: For some reason she no longer cared.
* * *
Telling only his grandfather where he was going (but not why), because only his grandfather would give him the money for it, Science flew to Bombay to look for Darshini. As an adolescent he had gone on weekend holidays with his friends— uncomfortable nights on buses, days spent drinking beer on beaches. Before that there’d been the carefully-planned childhood journeys to visit relatives, trips that were exciting in their sameness. But Science had never come alone to an unknown city before.
And Darshini wasn’t there. Science took a taxi from the airport to the address Arvind had given him, but no one answered the door. He returned the same evening. The man who had walked into the building with him continued watching him as he rang the bell, then thumped the door.
“Nobody there,” said the man. “Owners live in Dubai… are trying to find a tenant through a broker. But at the moment nobody there.”
Science wandered away and after momentarily losing his way in the by lanes around the apartment, found himself facing the sea across a vast, traffic-filled river of a road. That was the evening when, after walking up and down the promenade, he saw the sign for Revolutions and took the elevator up, trying not to think of what to do next.
Now he’d been in Bombay for a week and was certain that the woman he could see through his imperfect binoculars was Darshini, even though she seemed to have darker hair. The building was the very one he had gone to the first day, the words “Krishna Apartments” written high on its façade. He concluded that Arvind had mistaken the door number. It was 703 perhaps, instead of 103. Yet having found Darshini, Science was not sure how to proceed. So he just continued waiting and watching, trying to catch a proper glimpse of her when she stood for a few moments on the threshold or moved incessantly through the house.
The following evening, the lights did not come on in the apartment. Science left the restaurant early; when he returned the next evening, the room still lay in darkness. He watched the slowly revolving city change from the blur of dusk to shapes pinpointed by light. Within his larger imprisonment, he had enjoyed these last few days of freedom—watching the apartment and knowing she was there. Now that small freedom was gone too, and he was soon going to run out of money. He made a deal with himself—if the lights come on tomorrow, I’ll go and try to talk to her, no matter what. If they don’t… he could not find a way to complete the thought.
The next evening the apartment was lit. The man was in his chair but Darshini had disappeared. Science waited for half an hour, lifting his binoculars every now and then to check, but she wasn’t there. He quickly paid his bill, ran out and kept running till he was at an ancient elevator with a collapsible gate. On the top floor, acting on his hunch, he rang the bell at 703. There was a loud crash and the sound of a man shouting. Science waited, then pressed the bell again and the door opened instantly.
“She’s fallen,” the man shouted breathlessly. He was much younger than he had seemed through the binoculars. “Why do you people come and disturb us, why?”
He ran back in and Science followed. On the floor of a high ceilinged room filled with cameras, tripods, cartons and books-shelves lay Darshini; a stepladder had collapsed next to her. Science looked into the living room that had been his secret for a week—a private jewel glowing against the Bombay night.
The man was still shouting instead of helping Darshini.
“She must have jumped when she heard the bell, and then crashed. We’ve told the college so many times that Miss Rosie doesn’t live here any more. She moved after she retired. It’s been more than a month. But still you students keep coming, keep coming. And now look… look what you’ve done.”
Darshini was on her side, her cheek on the floor. “Call an ambulance,” she said weakly. The man tried to lift her but she screamed as soon as he touched her leg.
“Get a pillow, get a pillow,” said the man. Science ran into the bedroom and pulled out one of the pillows lying side by side under the bedcover, his eyes passing over the room—the faces of relatives in their metal frames, worn out slippers, a glass half filled with water. Her things, her life.
The man lifted Darshini’s ankle with the greatest tenderness and placed the pillow beneath it.
Darshini noticed Science and said, “Go away. Miss Rosie isn’t here. Stop bothering us…please. Akshay, I told you to put a sign on the door, I don’t understand why you take so long to do the simplest…” She was crying openly now. Akshay was calling an ambulance on his mobile phone.
Science put his hand to his face and felt his stubble. He backed away till he was outside Darshini’s line of vision.
“Sorry… I didn’t realize… can I help somehow?”
Akshay went into the living room to shout into his phone about the ambulance.
I did this, thought Science. I hurt her.
“You’re still here?” asked Akshay when he came back. Science saw the anger on his face and then the indifference. “They’ll be here in 10 minutes,” he said, kneeling on the floor and stroking Darshini’s forehead. “I’m going down to stop them at the corner. If they turn into the galli it’ll take them another 10 minutes to back out.”
“No, no I’ll do it. I’ll wait till they come and send them up. You please stay here with her,” said Science. Darshini couldn’t see him. Darshini hadn’t recognized him from those two magical hours they had spent together.
He didn’t wait for Akshay’s answer but ran out of the apartment and started to breathe easy only when he had reached the corner of the galli and could from a distance feel the coolness of the sea air on his face. When the ambulance came, he stopped it before it could turn in, and directed the attendants with the stretcher to the seventh floor. Then he went back the way he had come, walking past the sign for a restaurant called Revolutions.