September 20, 2014

Object Stories: Mona, Pooja, and Aarti's Notebooks

In the last year, I became particularly preoccupied with the idea of photographing objects; the more I pursued object photography, I started thinking about the stories behind the objects and the notion that objects themselves can be stories.
What would happen if I brought together objects, people, and stories then? In my new photographic endeavor, Object Stories, I wished to engage in dialogue with people and ask about the significance of objects (or not) in their lives; and if they did matter, discover the stories behind the ones most precious to them. This project presents the people whom these objects belong to and the stories underlying the objects; it is also a work in progress, constantly evolving, resulting in a differently conceptualized and presented Object Story each time.
For my first installment, last month, I spoke to a group of young teenage girls I met at Sambhali, an incredible Jodhpur-based non-profit organization actively working towards empowering underprivileged Rajasthani women and girls through education, vocational training [such as sewing], self defense and more to ensure that they become confident, socially aware and financially independent individuals. I discovered the organization three years ago during a visit to Jodhpur, which happens to be my home-town and have kept in touch with them since.
I spent a few hours with Mona, Pooja, and Aarti along with their friends, Sanju and Rekha, listening to them talk about their lives: their lives as child-brides, and the seclusion and insulation of their lives prior to Sambhali, how Sambhali has definitively and positively changed them, infusing them with so much self-awareness and confidence, and their aspirations and fears. Talkative, bubbly, inquisitive, protective, and philosophical, they in turn took me to their favorite Ganesh temple, their homes, their families, and lives.
When I asked them about the objects that mattered to them the most, they interpreted the idea as the ones that would best represent them - and they each produced three notebooks-journals which were presented to them by a Sambhali volunteer. It contained their sewing and embroidery swatches, their photographs, and bits of information about themselves. Far from having a voice or agency of their own once upon a time, they had literally written and were continuing to write their lives into being. 

                                             Trio of Stories

                                                Mona, 15, Jodhpur

"Before we came to Sambhali, we just stayed at home…at the most, we went out to gather branches for the chula [wood-fired stove[. We never even went to school. I unknowingly got married when I was ten years old along with my older sister. Till date, I have never seen my groom’s face. We had no idea what our lives were all about. Coming to Sambhali has changed everything: we are now filled with so many hopes and dreams for the future."


                                                Knitted Dreams
                                    Pooja, 16, Jodhpur

"Even after marriage, we want to keep on coming to Sambhali. We come here every day between 9-2pm apart from Saturdays and Sundays. On those days, we feel something big is missing from our lives."

                                              Aarti, 16, Jodhpur

"We had never even picked up a pen in our lives…and now we are learning English, Hindi and Maths. We have also participated in an English drama, done a video-photo workshop, and are learning boxing and lathi [baton] as part of self-defense. Earlier, we used to be hesitant about speaking to anyone…we now know how to approach people and address them. “

                                            Looking into the Future

"We want to be further educated. We want to sew and make things for other. We want to be something and stand on our feet."

I appreciated the opportunity of getting a glimpse into these girls' lives and thoughts through the medium of their notebooks. I do wonder what else they will fill these notebooks with; all I nevertheless wish is that they keep on filling the pages of their lives...and may there be hope and promise even in the blank pages.

What did you think of this first of the Object Stories? I would love to hear your thoughts!


With many thanks to the founder of Sambhali, Mr Govind Singh Rathore, the team, and of course, the spirited girls themselves for all their help in facilitating this feature!

September 16, 2014

What Do I Call Home?

Goodbye, America: Pittsburgh

I arrived in Pittsburgh one icy, sunny morning on 12th December, 2012. As we drove through the city, noting that it was peppered with churches, encircled by hills, and river-striped, I reflected upon the dramatically hectic previous week which had witnessed me getting married, obtaining the US visa, and finally, flying down to the States to begin my new life. This is my new home, I remember thinking to myself, I am married. Given this significant intersection of two major turning points in my life, it's perhaps unsurprising that my memories of my first month in States are an inky blur of acute jet and cultural lag and exhaustion.

Azure Waters: Mackinac Island, Michigan
Cut to eighteen months later and I am now preparing to move to India, a country which I have always viewed through the lens of an itinerant traveller and an emigrant. As I currently travel across the States before finally bidding adieu to this yet another one of my adopted homes, transitioning through its cities, forests, lakes, and deserts, I muse about my experiences living here. Before living in United States, I had had called four countries my home: Australia, India, Oman, and United Kingdom. Having been born in Melbourne, Australia, I moved from there at the age of two and lived in Jodhpur, India until I was five years old. My parents then decided to take up academic jobs in Muscat, Oman and I completed my schooling there before pursuing my undergraduate and graduate studies in United Kingdom. A few more years in Oman working as a journalist and I eventually made my way to United States. 

If someone had asked me a month ago about what I would call home, I would have immediately said: Oman. The notion of belonging to a singular home, or rather, multiple homes had always intrigued me over the years; yet, it is here in America that I have became particularly preoccupied with dismantling and analysing the structure of my complicated thoughts about home and belonging. In the last year and half, I started to think more consciously about my roots and the relationship that I shared with them. I began calling India the land of my passport, even disputing the extent of my Indianness. During the height of the polar vortex which struck Pittsburgh amongst several other Eastern American cities, I could not help but yearn for Oman's intense heat and its sunlight. Whenever I glimpsed Pittsburgh's Allegheny river glinting in the sunlight, I would immediately become homesick for Oman's oceans and beaches. However, I was also simultaneously aware that no matter how much I yearned for Oman, its landscape in particular, I was not and never will be Omani. So then what was I...? 

Path to Serenity: A Trail in a Pittsburgh park

And so, for the past few weeks, as I travel across the country, I have become concerned with a new project: navigating the map of what lies ahead for me, figuratively and literally. As my husband and I hopscotch from one city to terrain to another, indulging in what appears like an interminable relay race of unpacking and packing suitcases, I recollect what my husband said to me the other day. “I miss home,” he told me as we found ourselves in yet another hotel room. “You mean you miss Bangalore?” I asked, thinking he was referring to the city that he grew up in and which we were returning to. “It's just a few days away from you now.” He shook his head. “No, I mean, I miss a home,” he said. And perhaps, that was the crux of the situation. As he talked about a home, I found myself instinctively conjuring up the outlines of our freshly vacated Pittsburgh apartment: the house which I had arrived in so many months ago and made it home, piece by piece, memory by memory. I thought of the balcony from which I glimpsed daily theatrical performances that the landscape and sky produced for me or walking through quiet, shady, tree-lined bylanes surrounding the building or grabbing dosas at the Sunday buffet at a nearby Indian restaurant. For the first time, I found myself homesick for Pittsburgh – and realising that for the time-being, it had become my home. 

Perhaps, the answer to the question as to what country is home lies nested between these lines. For me, my home lives in the present-tense – and so whichever country I happen to currently inhabit becomes my home. However, in Italian, there also happens to be a tense which describes an action that happened long ago in the past and yet, which is still occurring. Perhaps, it is that tense which perfectly describes my relationship with homes: I have been creating homes in whichever country that I have resided over the years and so, even now, whenever I visit them, each of them conjures up a veritable house of emotions, memories, and associations. There are many houses inside my home and I gladly inhabit them all.


This piece originally appeared in the August issue of The Curated Magazine and written during a time when I was just beginning to process my transition from States to India...

September 9, 2014

Of Being Nomads and Nests

This post was originally called: Of Being Nomads and Calling A Suitcase a Home...and it occurred to me that the title could very well have been the title of a poem except that it has been years since I last wrote a poem. However, given that I am currently navigating so many transitions both within my interior and exterior worlds, it wouldn't be so odd after all that I start embracing poetry once again after so long. Poetry is how I first began to see the world through words - and I am coming full circle, as if coming back to a sanctuary.  I have so many thoughts, words, memories, and visuals jostling around in my head, all like caged birds...and poetry seems to me the best way to package and present them.

But this post is not just about poetry: it is also about being nomads, becoming acquainted with the idea of nesting homes from suitcases and bare rooms and the way the air smells at dusk in different cities and countries. As we traversed across America last month and now in India, awaiting to find our new nest, I thought of the hotel rooms, friends' houses, and camp-sites that we briefly called home. And this is what I am learning about home, having mused about the subject a great deal in the past years: no matter how briefly or long you live in a place, it becomes home, whether it's for the night, months, years or decades.

As I write, memories from our travels flash through my mind, one visual layering upon another: eating tongue-roof-burning hot pizza at Patsy's on a warm, electric June afternoon in New York, watching 4th July fireworks momentarily bloom in a garden of a night sky somewhere in Virginia, peering down into the sky inside a pool gouged out of red mountains, the surreal cacti cities and broken hills of Joshua Tree National Park, and the massive azure Great Lakes in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which I constantly mistook for the sea, so great was my yearning to see it (although the one time I did see the sea on a New Jersey coast, it was during a hurricane and what an ugly, white, wind-whipped beast it was!) 


And then, in middle of this treadmill of travel, there was also this to savor: exploring a garden in a desert city in India. The garden was a self-contained green universe, as gardens are: jaundiced leaves littered the grass, over-ripe bittergourds turned orange, as if in protest at not being plucked to be cooked and consumed (and when their bellies were sliced open, they revealed sticky red seeds within, nature's toys), and tiny deep pink flower petals dreamily danced away from their parent trees, their scent fiercely staining the air- and then one morning, I found a small, immaculately constructed and perfectly preserved nest sitting beneath a tree. Had it fallen or been abandoned? There were no eggs and the owners were nowhere to be seen, save a feather lying nearby. A home in a garden; the garden a my photographic quest to document the quotidian of my life, those little moments that plump our lives, it was a memory and a metaphor and a message. Or perhaps, neither of those things. Each possibility is as valid as the others.

It will happen soon enough, the nest - and so, meanwhile, I continue to wander, sights and sounds and smells aligning themselves against one another, like brilliantly hued saris in a sari shop - and when it will be time to sit down and write and ponder, I can simply reach into those memories and unfurl those moments and weave them into words.