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Indexing a Life

‘The bags of paper are bodies, sitting on ledges, tucking their legs into themselves, folding smaller, hugging themselves for comfort.’

By Swati Khurana
Fiction, uncategorized | After Midnight, Dayanita Singh, Little Dorrit, Nony Singh, Queens Museum
September 10, 2015

On Sunday, August 30, we invited five writers to the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Park to respond to works in the Museum’s exhibition of Indian modernist and contemporary art, After Midnight, which closes this Sunday, September 13.

The following piece by Swati Khurana was written in response to Dayanita Singh’s “File Room.”




Indexing a Life


Every artist has a creation story. Dayanita Singh’s mother, Nony, lived in a mausoleum of files inherited from her husband upon his death, files filled with figures about wheat yields and other agricultural indexes, files that were the air to ignite the flames of lawsuits—until she stopped. If I could, I would ask the artist, do you have photographs of your mother’s files? Are any of them here on the walls?

*

The smell of rice-paste and crumbling paper dust hypnotized Dayanita.

It’s not just paper.

It’s never just paper.

It’s the secret and lives within the papers.

*

Nony Singh’s life was consumed by documents and love. She had photographs of her husband’s many blonde girlfriends before marriage, pressed between files. Imagine that. Imagine a love that capacious.

*

File Room is an elegy, but elegies aren’t easy. There are not quantifiable steps to this loss, there are overlapping Venn diagrams which appear like flashes, you wonder how it was that you felt that way once, you wonder how it was you don’t feel that way any more, but then you will feel that way again, and it’s worse, worse, worse, because you thought it was over, and nothing is ever open, because circles never end.

*

I regret to inform you that I cannot think of paper and pen and bureaucracy in India without thinking of Dickens. This is a sign of weakness of my imagination. From Little Dorrit, “Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office. Unfortunates with wrongs, or with projects for the general welfare… who in slow lapse of time and agony had passed safely through other public departments; who, according to rule, had been bullied in this, over-reached by that, and evaded by the other; got referred at last to the Circumlocution Office, and never reappeared in the light of day. Boards sat upon them, secretaries minuted upon them, commissioners gabbled about them, clerks registered, entered, checked, and ticked them off, and they melted away.”

*

Memory has no shape. Dayanita makes shape with her books, brings order though placement, juxtaposition. Her work is not the gelatin print, but the context of the project, it’s the interplay of images, like the space between beats of Zakir Hussain, her first subject, her mentor. Zakir told her about chilla of the riyaz—the 40 days you are in a room with your instrument, and you play all the time, the door is opened twice a day for meals. When she does her riyaz, she doesn’t bring her camera, but boxes of hundreds of her photographic prints. The images are the accouterment, she is a curator, an archivist, a librarian. The index is the instrument. We are here at her concert.

Listen.

Listen.

Invisible capaciousness. We can read her beloved influences—Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, WG Sebald, Michael Ondaatje—for the captions that don’t exist.

*

Another failure of imagination: when I see stacks of files, burdened by their weight, I think of love, and when I think of love, I think of the end of love.

*

Imagine watching a marriage disintegrate before your eyes, suppose it was yours, suppose that in one of your attempts to address a wound that was so gaping it had already been covered with fresh skin with even more wounds, suppose you attempted to save that marriage by putting ten years of love letters under your mattress, while you insomniacly stayed up drawing pictures, writing texts, binding a book, and mailing it to a hotel room that was warmed by another body, in a bed you never belonged to.

*

But then, in a flash, you are reminded of how far away that has become, how much your remembering that feeling feels like an out-of-body experience—it is you, but not you, but you can bare witness to you.  You can flip a page in your notebook, look at a different image, because the act of living is the act of curating a book. Perhaps the answer lies in the shelf with the ledgers labeled 628, 629, 630, 631, 632, 633, 634, 635, 636, 637. Or in Box 360, Secret F, 1908-Sept. Or in Box 361, Secret F, 1908-Oct-Dec.

*

A museum is the manifestation of an obsession. I would like to visit Dayanita’s dream museum, one that is only open on full-moon nights, one that has an archivist-in-residence, one that published its annual newsletter in the form of a concertina—minimuseum folded within itself.

I ask you, what is the dream museum of your obsession? Whom would you allow to visit?

*

The files are brave. In humid climates, they face worms, roaches, rats, bats. When the pages are so tight, there’s no space, the paper needs air to breathe, the writing condenses and blurs, the papers infect each other and disintegrate, and this is skin, this is breath, this is love, this is bearing witness to death.

*

The archivists are even braver. They suffer from asthma, brought about by dust, disintegrating ink, vermin droppings, insects, but we already know that archive fever has always been fueled by the death drive.

*

The bags of paper are bodies, sitting on ledges, tucking their legs into themselves, folding smaller, hugging themselves for comfort.

The stacks of papers are bodies, chronically aching, fatigued, leaning against each other, for comfort, for stability, yearning for the end of loneliness.

*

These are the files. These are the vessels. These are the systems of organization. These are the custodians. It may seem a disorder, but the keeper knows the order because the keeper has developed the index. I read that these files will now be digitized, and somehow I cannot suspend my disbelief that these file rooms will become empty, these archivists will disappear, and what will replace them? Computer servers? When I visited India as an incorrigible child, I did not appreciate these jobs and these workers. I was confused why my engraved sandalwood pen at Cottage Emporium took a minimum of three chits to fill and pass along before I could purchase it. I told an uncle about America, where the cash registers were electronic, and only one receipt was needed, where there was a single line, sometimes separated by quantity of items, and then he said, yes, that’s very American and efficient, but what about these people, their jobs, their livelihoods, their families. And so when I encounter the wall text, I wonder, what happens to these bundle-keepers, these librarians, these archivists, when the body of the archive is digitized? And perhaps my feeling that India is still wedded to the systems of paper reveals yet another failure of my imagination, that India has not changed since I was a child and left.

*

The files did not kill Nony Singh. Like her daughter, Nony made a book of the photographs, of her husband’s papers, called The Archivist, which could have been titled The Wife. Perhaps one answer to the never-ending circle is the lateral step into a different circle, or another shape, and that side step is art and the instrument is the deep desire to index, because within the index, lies the meaning, and within the meaning, lies devotion, the way we can die more slowly.



Read other pieces in our series from the Queens Museum’s After Midnight exhibition:

Hari Kunzru, “The Degenerates”
in response to F.N. Souza’s “Degenerates”
Swati Khurana, “Indexing a Life”
in response to Dayanita Singh’s “File Room”
Muna Gurung, “While We Slept”
in response to Tushar Joag’s “Are You Awake?”
Chaya Babu, “Good Girls Don’t Say Such Things”
in response to Subodh Gupta’s “What does the room encompass that is not in the city?”
Amitava Kumar, “At the Queens Museum”
in response to Subodh Gupta’s “What does the room encompass that is not in the city?”




Swati Khurana reading at the Queens Museum on August 30. Photo by Preston Merchant.
Swati Khurana reading at the Queens Museum on August 30. Photo by Preston Merchant.