Suchitra Vijayan

In the random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. These are my confessions, if in them I say nothing, it's because I have nothing to say.  

The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

The Beginning

What does it mean to remember and what does it mean to forget? Like all things, memories accumulate; the older ones fade, others float away, and there are those that clutter. But a photograph always brings people, moments and circumstances back with an urgent clarity. The photograph excites, because it allows for the possibility to relive and re-invent lived pockets of time. After all, it requires just my mind -- my elusive tease. 

Why create these photographs, why Afghanistan? Sometimes I think this expedition to photograph Afghanistan is an absurd fantasy born of my need to reclaim something. To take a fixated notion you are paralyzed with to it’s nearest logical conclusion. I went to Kabul by conscious choice, to augur, to augment, armed with souvenirs of the past. To live in a fractured fragment of time all of my own, an exercise in solipsism. I went to find out for myself, if so much chaos can be, so desolate in person. 

Defining the Ground I Stand On

I have come to like the stillness of the evening, sitting in my protective cocoon. A quiet stillness made heavy by the streets that seethe with human life. My first month was spent discovering the city, mapping her ontology with my senses. I was infatuated, an unexplainable attraction to the new and unknowable, like discovering the crevices of a new desire. A contained existence, where every emotion is exaggerated, conflated and redeemed with a certain cathartic vengeance. 

Kabul is not Cairo, Kigali, Gaza or Leogane; Kabul is Kabul. To know Kabul is to walk her length and breadth, feel her grime and solace. To grab hold of an internal compass and chart a course to her core and fringes.   

Is the landscape just a state of emotion?

In a place like Kabul, simple acts invariably become laden with a certain complexity of choice. The surface peace tempts everyone into believing in the city’s serenity. A trick of the mind, where everything is as it is and as it must be. Then something happens, a blast, an attack and act of aggression, and the minute fibre of belief crumbles.

After every attack, there is a flurry of text and email exchanges. ‘Are you fine?’, ‘Are you safe?’, ‘Is everything ok?’, ‘Did I know any of them?’ Apprehension eventually gives way to a negotiated inner peace. All that is left to do then is to marvel at the city’s elasticity--the greatest contortionist of all time. It is this negotiated space that makes every act of existence a subversive one. To walk the streets of Kabul unescorted and unprotected is also an act of subversion. Every single image produced on those walks is thus endowed with a certain irreducible historicity of oneself--of myself. Every act is an act of revolution. The landscape becomes a state of emotion. 

Settlements on the Hill

The dust descends and the setting sun sheds just enough golden light on the receding moments of the city. I stand on top of Kohe Asmai in Central Kabul as the city bakes in the glow of warm yellow light and lays itself open before me. Kabul as sad streets, happy streets, despondent streets and other indescribable streets, all stretching eastward towards nothingness… Kabul often reminds me of a watery grave where something sinks, other things float. Everything is marked, scarred, touched, sometimes just a vestige of something left behind. Bullet casings, bullet-ridden buses and scrap metal have all found a place in this vast museum of living space. One of the guards asks if I am Pakistani, demands to see my passport, I shrug and hand it over. He flicks the booklet with accustomed ceremony.

Then my rather nervous cab driver hints that it is getting late; it might not be safe. I jump into the cab and we drive through the settlements on the hill. I urge him to stop, and his nervous twitch is back again. He reiterates that it is nearing dusk and stopping might be a problem. We eventually negotiate a compromise. He would slow down and I would take pictures from inside the cab. He sounds like the veritable zookeeper or circus ringmaster, and I, the unsuspecting spectator who can never really get an insight into their world. 

What I get are a series of images constrained by the outline of a cab window. The forced point of vantage is worsened by the accompanying struggle with an ancient camera that refuses to fire multiple frames a second. But then, a photographer has very little choice in the finality if her image; the final relationship between objects and their images is always a result of luck, mediated by my receptivity to them. 

A Decent Happiness

It rains a little. I don't know yet that this would be the first and last drizzle of my time in Kabul. I step out into the receding rain, and remember lines from Creeley's Rain: ‘of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference. Be wet with a decent happiness’. I find myself with decent happiness, composing my incomplete stories in monochrome. 

Despite the early noon showers, the central Kabul skyline remains vivid and active with kites. As I get closer to the Mausoleum of Nadir Shah, I see hordes of boys and men flying kites, jumping to the spontaneity of Buzkashi with sandbags.

How many photographers have photographed this scene over the years? How much of our understanding of this city comes from these exported images? Who creates these settings--and in whose reality? A quick internet search reveals multiple stories of the revival of kite-flying in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. They all state in tones of forced sombreness that the Taliban had banned kite-flying and narrate this revival as a metaphor for the resurgence and renewal of something, anything and everything. These reports follow a preset pattern; some liberally borrow from on another, as if various writers came together to write and rewrite the same story over and over again.

The more I see the unravelling spectacle, the more I am convinced of the fiction inherent in everything, of the false importance exhibited by all realties. It is certain that the surpassing of the past towards the future always demands sacrifice, but to retrace every constructed relation to a predicated point in time--in this case the fall of the Taliban--does little to capture the present. The present before me is a function of symmetry and asymmetry that will dictate the finality of my image. To dictate that finality, it matters that I look. Most people don't look, they identify, and very few seek meaning.

The Liberation of Memory

When I leave, my nostalgia for Kabul will make my present a tedium. It will soon become an embodiment of some absence, or a presence of a forced distance. Memory of the scents and streets of Kabul will fill my mind and prevent me from thinking, from acting, and from simply being. As if sleep has betrayed me. Till then, I will throw words at my journal, as if they are markers of my memory, till I return. Despite my resistance, my memory will archive some moments, others will become parchments of scattered imagination. I will hoard images and faces from choreographed encounters. Soon, I will strip my images of captions, divorce them from the specificity of historical time, liberate them from the mundane purpose of explanation or interpretation. These images are vernacular at best. They are not meant to stand witness to a historic time, nor meant to record the complex and the prosaic. They are an extraction of an idea, relic of a conversation that has become poignantly relevant through constant re-imagination.

Suchitra Vijayan is a writer, photographer and a political analyst. A barrister and a human rights advocate, she previously worked for the UN war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She co-founded and was the Legal Director of Resettlement Legal Aid Project, Cairo. Vijayan spent the last two years researching and documenting stories along the contentious Durand Line. She was embedded with the ISAF forces - 172 infantry brigade, in Paktika Province, Afghanistan conducting research on key kinetic terrains in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. She graduated from Yale this summer and is currently working on her project titled “Borderlands” along India’s borders. The project is conceived as a travelogue chronicling stories along India’s borderlands, covering six of India’s border with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Burma. A part visual anthropology and part an attempt at understanding the Indian state, its pathologies and the fringes it governs.