Photo Essay: Do You Have an Exit Strategy?
There are cities within streets within rented apartments (and their cupboards) within dying relationships; cities that multiply or fade away when you touch something new, some person, their laugh; cities made of glass doors that shatter before you look at them; cities that climb through your memory (but you never saw them, you imagine they look like this); cities of women, butchers, belongings, identities, threads that explode when we find new ones, so there isn’t a city anymore, just a history of it, so we build new cities and identities using imagined pasts, before we’re forced to leave and rebuild them all over again from scratch and distance.
It is difficult to stay or keep track of where we are, difficult not to think of spaces we are no longer in. So cities dance in and out of existence while we’re busy nurturing the idea of another city, and cities scramble back.
… headlights swimming in all directions forming street constellations if you keep track of their zigzagging insistence; a clump of plastic chairs (blue, red, yellow) all empty, their accidental pattern blocking incoming traffic; a lone woman crossing an empty intersection everything except her black abaya dipped in sunset gold; the tip of a minaret serenading passersby as a traffic light burns red; a row of flower stalls drenched in the tungsten yellow of cheap fairy lights; the waning sunset behind smoothened square buildings when you’re tumbling down Shahra-e-Faisal; profiles of men on a sidewalk lit by the eager flames of a fire they’re crouched over; moving towards Numaish, an unreal quiet of the sky (where did the sunset go?) watching over tired cars honking tiredly.
–and are told to internalize the three second rule: do not stare at a stranger for more than 3 seconds. Assume hostility. It is human to invade space, it’s a human impulse to look, to want to be looked at, no wonder these cabins are a claustrophobic mess of eyes trying to find some empty spot to fixate upon: everything is taken with a space crammed with such insincere avoidance.
I stare at hands instead. It is a safe, unsuspecting way out. I observe their traces, their weight, and their directions. How they skim, dance or move away, from friend, lover, stranger, to friend, love, strange…; the way they, or parts of them, linger on, reluctantly situating themselves around other skins. The body often betrays. Some hands, I have seen, find their center with such ease that my own jerk with self-awareness: there is no one to touch, no one in this city, unless I close my eyes and spin.
IV. What I think about when I think of a Kathmandu market
empty it of its people and refill it with men women and children with bigger eyes darker faces and make them speak urdu and sindhi and a mixture of pushtopunjabi-brokenenglish, and imagine they come from all sorts of kilometres away to work, and change work, and find better work, and tell yourself they buy bunkabab and oily masala fries from the road-stalls instead of dust bitten momos and Gorkha beers; and if you replace the phrases on all sign boards with ones that are mostly english and sometimes urdu and if you remove three fourths of the women from the streets and cover up the rest a bit more— cover their skin a bit more— their voices and exclamations a bit more— and throw burqas on a few of the remaining ones and at least dupattas on most of the rest, and if you grow all the minivans into buses covered with designs of the same colours but devoid of hindu goddesses, and if you design canopies for the rickshaws and flatten them from the sides into a triangle, and if you strip the streets of half its bikes and transfigure the remaining half into cars that are not marutis… and if you switch all the bars you see with telecom offices and switch the temples-singing-bhajan from faraway into minarets and switch the man trying to sell you weed (at the best price) into man staring at you up-down-down-up and switch the beer bottle stuck in mud with the plastic bottle thrown out of car and switch the ancient 100 year old structure suddenly greeting you with outposts for guards and security walas and if you can do all this and let the smell be and let the sky be and let the mad monsoon be and if you can forget who you are what you know where you come from and where you’ve been, you will think you are walking a street in Lahore.
Pick a friend, walk behind them with stealthy attention. Notice what they gaze at for two seconds longer than you, notice how the place is touched and remembered by memories other than yours, notice how the person before you has become a sculpture, voluntarily chipping away so you can see every clay crumb of their process, notice the split second changes that make them nothing like anyone else you know, notice how Ella lingers in air spaces ruffled by hanging scarves, how Mark’s footsteps grow quiet when they near a cat or buildings with blocks of shadows, how Grange switches directions when we walk one way too long, notice, notice, notice. Notice all of this until your departure forces you to think about what you make up, what you tell yourself you noticed.