Those very words. I could still feel the grip of his fingers where he had held my child’s arm, his hand, large, engulfing it, fingers touching at the tips. A line of grey already infected his beard, though a young man, yet even then retired, a national name. His beard tied back into a second, scruffy chin, a pink turban, his eyes on me, Watch the ball, not me, and again his voice, Watch the ball! But I always looked back into his eyes. Why was he here, why wasn’t he out there, where the newspapermen attacked each other for his photograph, where the radio sang his praises, where all India looked to the holy dirt his feet walked on? It’s only a game, he shouted. They said he had walked with Gandhiji to the sea. They said that he never, not even as a baby, wore anything but homespun. They said that on every corner he passed, an assassin waited – why? – but that divine forces protected him. I launched the cricket ball into the air, and it fell thudding in the hot dirt only a few feet away, a red, undistinguished ball, and he looked at me as though I, personally, had lost Pakistan.”
— from the story “The Order of Things” in Good Indian Girls. Pre-order your copy here.
For the last month, I’ve been staying at the Edward Albee Foundation, or the Barn, in Montauk, NY. It’s a retreat for writers and artists that is open only from late-May to early October. This time of year, when Rex Lau and Diane Mayo, two artists who live next door and take care of the place, get it ready for the incoming residents, the place is empty. The weather’s still cold, and the first week I was here it barely rose above freezing. I’d leave a glass of water on the kitchen table only to find a thin layer of ice forming an hour later. Cooking was physically painful, because it required using my fingers, and it hurt to touch anything due to the cold. My bedroom was heated, so I could work and sleep in comfort.
I was first here in 2007, at the end of the summer, and remember it as one of the more magical places I’ve stayed. There were five of us, three writers and two artists, and we got along remarkably well. From my desk window, I look out onto a forest, a stream, and often deer bending their necks forward to eat idly in the afternoon sun. Every single night I stayed here I had a series of incredible and vivid dreams, some of which still stay with me. This time my dream life has been subdued, and also I’m here alone.
What sets the Barn apart from other residencies, and in my view makes it stronger, is that it is largely artist-directed. There’s no welcoming committee, there are no set times for lunch or dinner, no stipulations for what you do with yourself beyond doing your own work the way you want to do it. When you arrive, especially if you’re the first to arrive for your scheduled month, you’ll find the door unlocked (it actually never locks), the rooms bare except for furniture, and the building entirely yours. You figure it out for yourself, pick a room, find sheets and blankets in the laundry room, set up your space, and get to work. For me, this offered a great feeling of autonomy and trust, and also ownership, and allowed me to enter the space of my own work much more easily.
With this set of photos, I’ve tried to capture the off-season feel of the place. It’s not inhabited yet, not made ready for the artists and writers who will work here. Winter’s still visible in the rearview mirror, and spring hasn’t fully shown itself. There’s a haunted quality, and a silence which pervades every room. It almost looks abandoned, and at times it feels that way, as if I’ve wandered here by accident and taken shelter under its high wooden eaves.
As a kid, one of my favorite television shows was called The Beachcombers. I don’t remember much about it, certainly not if it had any plot or who the characters were, but what I do remember is that it left me with an overwhelming desire to one day live by the ocean and spend my mornings walking the beach, hunting for what washed up on the shore. The beach is one of those Iiminal landscapes, a region of gorgeous exchange between land and water and sky. When you stand at the edge of a vast plateau, you don’t imagine all that lies beneath. It’s hard not to do that when you stand at the edge of the ocean, and know that a whole other world exists just out of sight and out of reach.
Montauk is kind of a dream beach town, and though increasingly it’s becoming infected with the wealth and aura of the Hamptons, it retains the feel of an old fishing village, especially during the off-season. I don’t have a car and walk the mile or so into town for groceries and to reach the beach. The section of road I live on was built originally as a Grand Prix track, so it has some wild twists and blind corners. I don’t believe it was ever used for Grand Prix races, which is a pity, as I’d loved to have seen F1 cars roaring along these roads. During the walk into town, there’s a final corner I turn, on Essex St, and there, at the bottom of the hill, I see my first glimpse of the ocean sandwiched between houses. It gets me every time. One of my recurring dreams as a child was walking down a street and seeing the ocean at the end of it. It was a potent dream for a child living in some of the rougher parts of London. But here I am, at least for a month or two.
I took these photos during a single walk, about two miles north along the beach from the main town, and back again. I’m showing them here in the order they were taken. I have a few rules when photographing. One: compose in the camera and never crop an image. Two: no more than three attempts at composing a shot (with almost all of these, I took a single image). Three: minimal manipulation (contrast, sharpness), the kind basic darkroom equipment would allow. The first of these rules I believed in when I used to shoot with film, and the others pay homage to that old skill. It would be useful for those brought up with digital cameras to adopt constraints. They train the eye and focus the mind when looking at the landscape, and can lead to surprising discoveries.
“When I first met Ranbir Sidhu, he was a resident at the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk and while there, he displayed tremendous talent and dedication. His work takes risks, is often daring and imaginative, and I appreciate the intelligence he brings to his craft. I look forward to reading his new collection of stories, GOOD INDIAN GIRLS.”
—Edward Albee, author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I spent yesterday listening to the news of the Boston Marathon bombings on the radio, because I have no TV where I’m currently staying. If I had TV, I would have been glued to it, watching obsessively. But this time, I kept turning the radio off, and walking upstairs to try and work. The work didn’t happen, and I knew it wasn’t going to. I found it hard to go back to the radio. Each time I heard someone talk about all the limbs lost, I froze inside, feeling ill. I’ve stood next to a car bomb when it exploded and know something of the terror it causes. Everything disappears, your body shifts into auto-pilot, and you start running. A feeling of pure, blind panic fills you from head to foot. I also lived through 9/11 in New York City and vividly recall walking around for a week feeling numb inside, no longer sure what day it was.
The deep sadness I felt at the news of the bombing, and the slowly mounting death toll, was infected by another kind of sadness. I kept thinking about the bombs that still regularly go off in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, and in the provinces of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those bombs kill as many as sixty people in a single blast and injure hundreds more, and they happen because of the instability caused by our invasions. I was never a supporter of the war in Iraq, though I did support the war in Afghanistan and believed we had a purpose in that fight. It makes me feel ill today thinking that every week in both those countries there are bombs exploding far more powerful than the two bombs that devastated the Boson Marathon. Car bombs, IEDs, mortars, mines, our own bombs.
The last thing I want to do is diminish the terror and pain and loss and grief felt by those in Boston, and by their family and friends in other parts of the country or the world. I’m grieved and shocked by it, and want the perpetrators brought to justice, be they home-grown right wing nutcases or Al Qaida-sympathsizing goons. But as I sit here thinking of the loss and grief, I cannot help but think of my own complicity in the ongoing loss and grief of families in Iraq and Afghanistan, however worthy or unworthy the cause might have been. In some parts of the world, it’s Boston every day, and though I don’t like to admit it, as an American, I helped to make that happen.
So my thoughts are with the people of Boston. They deserve our good wishes and prayers. But they are also with grieving families in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other battlefields in this past decade of wars. Let us try and build a decade where no one has to grow up with the sound of bomb blasts ringing in their ears.