“Is it true that you can steal portraits from nature as well?”
She did not immediately acknowledge the question, but continued to stare intently at the raindrops breaking off the window sill. I had the unsettling feeling that she could see something that I was clearly missing. I followed her gaze, resting my eyes on the very edge of the window. The rain was breaking into a hundred different miniscule rubies and sapphires where it touched the concrete, shining in the light borrowed from the low flame of the hurricane lamp. Indeed, there seemed to be a fatalistic beauty in it all, with just a sheen of hope to delude the unsuspecting daydreamer.
The rain had been pouring down throughout the day in bouts and spells, drying up long enough for me to make plans of heading back to the office, but coming down again, just as I left the building, thundering its bullying laughter in my face. Thrice I had come back in, forced to spend some more time with the subject of my interview.
Somehow, every year, the clouds played the same games. In fact, they had been playing this game for centuries. I remember my grandmother speaking of how these cheap trickeries of the monsoon evoked more curses from her mother than the village eunuch ever did while asking for alms. If I were to be asked, today, as to why I think we are subjected to the hackneyed hide-and-seek of mischief-heavy clouds every year, I would probably reply with nothing more than a restatement of the immense sense of security we enjoy in the assurity of experiencing events in complete conformance with our expectations. But, I admit, I do not find this answer satisfying enough. Nonetheless, I neither have the patience nor the inclination to explore the question further. That curiosity has long been erased from my constitution. Had my elite education at the convent school not taught me to abandon persistence after being given a roundabout answer the first time?
The banality of the monsoon mischief was making my mind wander, I realised. I had already made up my mind to not ask that question of her twice. After all, this was the least consequential of the questions that I was supposed to ask her. Readers these days were no longer interested in the philosophical foundations of one’s call to action. They wanted controversy and drama in their reading material to populate their otherwise mundane, quotidian lives. So I asked a different question.
“I thought you did not like gemstones anymore.”
That caught her attention. She snapped out of her intent gaze and looked at me with her forehead frowning into a question mark.
“Gemstones? I thought you promised me you won’t ask after those unfortunate things. You know how I have been rehabilitated of my cravings for those. Reminding me of them would only make me want them again.”
“No, no. I meant those,” I said, pointing to the sill. “See how the long, fragile, filaments of rain are hitting against that edge and fragmenting into multicoloured crystals?”
“Oh. You do not seem to have a very open mind, Reporter ji. The stones are setting themselves against the holes in the filter of your imagination. That is the problem with filters, you see. Filters can be choked shut, like the one they have in this room.”
“Come on, aren’t you doing the same when you don’t accept my version of the scene? Anyway, what did you see when you stared into those breaking drops?”
“I never rejected your imagery, baba. I was simply saying that it was not letting you dive deeper than the surface. Of course, had I seen this only for an instant, my mind would also have captured nothing more than gemstones breaking off the concrete’s edge. But that is the thing, right? I did not see it for an instant; I saw it for a whole moment. Do you see how that can change everything?”
“I thought ‘instant’ and ‘moment’ were synonymous – both infinitesimal units of time.”
“This is not your physics class. – there is no delta time funda here, or maybe there is, but I don’t understand it in those terms. You watched The Fault in our Stars? Some infinities are larger than other infinities? Same thing here also. Some infinitesimals are smaller than some other infinitesimals.”
“OK, now I have lost you completely. I might as well ask the guard outside what he thinks of the rain. Surely, he would be…”
“Arey, arey. Wait, no. Why the hurry, hunh? Not like this rain is going to stop anytime soon. Wait, we will discuss this concept thoroughly till you understand it.”
I closed my notebook and set it aside. None of what was going to follow was going to be of any use whatsoever in the article that I was planning to write. She had a point, though. The rain was not going to stop any time soon. I might as well just entertain her fantastical hypotheses. It could serve as material for my weekend blog.
“Haan ji, go on, then. What is your theory of the infinitesimals?”
“No, theory-sheory. Just plain faith. Eh, don’t make that face now. I know you private-school educated people don’t like to take anything on simple belief, but spare me the condescension and listen.”
“OK, ji, OK.”
“Haan, so I was saying this. The difference is in the perspective, in the way we see things. We both look at things as if they were pictures. But what the word ‘picture’ means to you is different from what it means to me. Let me tell you how. When you look around – seeing, observing – you notice some things and you tune out other things, don’t you? Now, why do you do that? Because you are like that big camera you have brought with you. You see things in photographs, or pictures as you call them. You have to point, focus and shoot, and in the process you bring certain things into sharp relief against the blur of everything around them. This is what happens when you see things in instants. Understood?”
I was getting what she was saying, but I could not predict what her perspective was. I still did not see how the word ‘picture’ could mean anything else at all.
“Arey, baba, understood? Or not?”
I nodded, just so she could go on. It reminded me of those travelling puppeteers who visited my town when I was young. They would not move forward with the story, unless every single person in the audience proclaimed in a sing-song that they got it.
“Haan, so, for me,” she pointed to her eyes, “‘pictures’ mean what they mean to the roadside taxiwaalah or rickshawaala. What do you mean when you tell them to take you ‘to the pictures’? Yes, yes, tell me.”
“Movies. The cinema. Pictures”
“That’s right – pictures.”
She came and sat down right in front of me, her face inches away from mine, the cinnamon in her breath firing up my nostrils.
“For me,” she said, again pointing to her eyes, “the surrounding happens in movies. And by that I don’t mean that photographs move so fast that I can’t tell them apart – no, sir. I mean, that each moment is like a picture, but the things in it are alive. They are doing things together, in complete harmony, with none more prominent than the other. And they are all doing it together in a moment.”
Here, she held my hands in hers, emphasising the ‘together’. The warmth of her hands distracted me for an instant (or a moment, I don’t know). Politely drawing back my hand, in an attempt to get back to the topic, I asked her, “You mean like those GIFs that people share on Facebook?”
“No, no. It’s more like those photographs you see in the Harry Potter movies. The photos are not instants, they are moments. The people in those pictures are all bound by the consciousness of that moment. They cannot know what happens in the future, they may even be dead, but they are alive in that moment. I want to capture moments, Reporter. Moments! Look at us now. Look how we share this moment. You see? Of course now you see. But an instant ago, you didn’t. That’s why I write pictures from nature – so you can also come alive in that moment.”
She had not let go of my hands. Instead, she had brought her face so close to mine that I could see nothing more than the reflected brilliance of her unnaturally large eyes. They seemed to be the seat of her intelligence. Did those eyes help her see more? Did those rabbitholes hold wonderlands beyond them – wonderlands that I was denied of when I was born, or when I was sent to private schools? I wanted to step into those eyes and find out. The more I looked into them, the wider they got, and the wider they got, the more inviting they became.
“Hatt!,” she said out with mischief lacing that word. “I know my mind is beautiful, but not so much that you can jump on to me like that.”
She stood up and went over to the window. She was laughing out loud, but I was not sure what I felt then. It was definitely not the illuminating release of comprehension. Somewhere inside me, my trained sceptic self was telling me that either I was missing something important, or she was making absolutely no sense. It was still grey to me. I was still unable to see the fundamental difference in both these points-of-view and I was still unable to see how her moments were more than just the sum of multiple instants. What was I missing out on when I stored memories in the quanta of instants and not moments? What was this elusive essence of the moment that evaded me, while I was engrossed in the act of processing the individual instants?
“Look at this,” she beckoned, without turning towards me. “You see crystals falling off, don’t you? I will show you what I see. Look carefully, now.”
I walked slowly to the window as she started capturing the moment.
“You see things in a timeline: you see the crystalline filaments falling, you hear them shattering into fragments on impact and then you see these fragments as gemstones in the light of the lamp. You see things as events that follow one another, as instants passing by, in quick succession, no doubt. Step back for a while and remove from your mind the illusion of continuity. See this as one unity, one whole. Do you see?
“Those that appeared as long filaments, don’t you now see them come together as the striped trousers of a tall dancer? That which sounded as crystals breaking, does it not sound now as steel tapping on concrete? And those gemstones of yours – are they not sparks that are born out of the heat of passion with which the dancer moves today? Just look at him tap away on my window. See him do it tirelessly, as if this is his last performance in this world. Now, my dear Reporter, now, do you see the whole picture, as one dance of nature performed in harmony with time itself? Now, do you see nature coming alive in this moment?”