‘Every City has its secrets... but Calcutta, whose vocation is excess, has so many that it is more secret than any other. Elsewhere, by workings of paradox, secrets live in the telling: they whisper life into humdrum street corners and dreary alleyways; into rubbish-strewn rears of windowless tenements and the blackened floors of oil bathed workshops. But here in our city where all law, natural and human, is held in capricious suspension, that which is hidden has no need of words to give it life; like any creature that lives in a perverse element, it mutates to discover sustenance precisely where it appears to be most starkly withheld—in this case, in silence.’ -The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh
Fifty Seven by Eight is a secret whispered to us from this city of secrets. The secret life of a small girl from a big family that lives in a big house in a big city. Secrets, as is their wont, are best conveyed by their revelation, their “show”, rather than their “tell”. Thus are we made witness to them through a volley of images. Every bit a personal narrative, Samira Gupta’s novel is a scrapbook, a collage, a repository of memories of childhood and growing up in a form that seems to mimic the way the past falls upon with the slightest nudge. Through the black and white images that play with light and dark, we are made privy to the light and dark moments of growing up with in the world that 57/8 becomes; moments that rest in the several shades of grey that make up black and white. An open gate leads us into the house; we are introduced to Dadaji, her grandfather and the patriarch who is evidently feared by everyone in the house, no less by the little girl herself. We meet her mother who tells her to ‘ask yourself the same question 11 times and you will get the answer’. We eventually meet her entire family and trace their idiosyncrasies through the narrator’s lens. The poignant photographs speak loudest when accompanied by sentences or fragments of text. The images, in tandem with the words, remind us of how language is not simply comprised of words, its range of signifiers vary.
Supposedly silent, these images tell the story of the little girl growing up, but also evoke the reader/viewers’ associations of their own lives, creating a parallel narrative of one’s own years of growing up. Pages from her notebooks, old movie tickets, diary entries from angst-ridden teenage nights, the thrill of screaming something at a neighbour and hiding, along with little warm and fuzzy moments shared with her mother are moments we’ve all lived through, somehow. That cool floor in the summer, the clinking of keys that accompanied her grandmother, the sibling rivalries and revelries and little paper hearts, the chunk and tear of that first pair of rolling skates: these photographs do not simply live in the mind, they are, instead, felt corporeally as your hand turns the glossy pages over.
And as one often finds with life, the book too comes to end where it begins; except, not quite. As Samira puts it, ‘Remnants of the past linger in the present. When nothing has changed yet nothing is the same.’
The novel started as a project at the Shrishti School of Art Design and Technology where Samira was a student and was shot in Calcutta and Bangalore in 2007. An autobiographic tale that that was handwritten in the first draft was later rendered into fiction and typed. She captures a series of seemingly disparate images and strings them into an anecdote with her words. Samira stays away from studio lights and prefers her photographs as documents of objects as they are seen. Fifty Seven by Eight too, depicts this style.
When it’s really quiet,
What is also distinctive about the voice in the book is that it is a voice that has always remained silent in that city. It is not the voice of a decadent and decaying aristocratic household that is crumbling beneath the weight of its own history. It evokes a house, a family, feuds, hopes, dreams and aspirations without the burden that the city lays on most of those who speak from within its periphery or have been touched by its core. It is a book where binaries are evoked and then merge. Light and Dark. White and black. Innocence and Experience. Space and Constraints. Freedom and Confinement. Fact and Fiction. Speech and Silence.
‘Mistaken are those who imagine that silence is without life; that it is inanimate, without either spirit or voice. It is not: indeed the Word is to this silence what the shadow is to the foreshadowed, what the veil is to the eyes, what the mind is to truth, what language is to life.’ -The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh
Samira currently lives and works in New Delhi.
She spends her time between her 2 companies and 8 cats.
She also occassionally writes about people.
Prakriti Mukerjee works in a bookstore.
This poem, by Tracy Smith, is a poem that I have found myself returning to. Not only does it play with scale--miniaturizing the giant and magnifying the tiny--but it pulls taut with it a fundamental tension that braces our existence. The tension between the cosmic and the earthly. When we spin around ourselves in a field, and the stars seem to be spinning too, why do our arms begin to pull away from our sides? Our local frame is inextricably linked to the rest of the universe.Read More