Of Signposts, Snapshots and Sontag : Reclaiming a Diasporic Life
By Pooja Garg Singh
This way or the highway. We always choose the highway.
Indiana, Summer of 2013
That is our reason for criss-crossing the US of A north to south, east to Midwest in the past few years. And so every summer when things start taking root, sometimes as late as the fall when time begins to stand still in mid-trance and when I start thinking that maybe we can hold off till next summer, we fold our chairs and our legs into an automobile and leave. Or perhaps we take off.
Colorado, Summer of 2013
Leaving would mean departure, a leaving behind of something – memories, friends, even a few sorry saplings. Taking off would imply taking wings, a flight of some sort, an elevation in one way or another. As it is, I find myself confused — we do not leave, nor do we take off. We have not been there long enough to have sown seeds for next spring, and the place we are headed to promises to be another town we would only know through its superstores before its time to move again. Perhaps the word that I am looking for really is move; move with its nonchalant attitude towards past or future, a nothing lost-nothing gained outlook and the conjuring up of images of sun setting on the far horizon.
Missouri, Summer of 2013
Yes, it would be that. As also the ubiquitous road trips stretching over many days, punctuated by coffee and gas refills, late night arrivals at hotels (where sleeping in strange beds is difficult and so we carry our own quilts), hurried breakfasts and then back on the wheel. What we see around us are endless, undulating farmlands. State after state. Farms with their silos, their self-contained ecosystems, their picture-book promise of remote friendliness stretch on both sides of the road; the sun-scorched yellowed tar stretched in the middle is company.
Florida, Fall of 2012
Looking out from the car window has become a metaphor for the way I have led my life these past few years—a sense of distance from everything real, a whirring past of precious moments with no Post-it notes for recall, or even recognition. A clutch of photographs in whatever meager capacity they exist, have become the only signposts that tell me of how many miles we have traveled and how many towns that we will never remember the names of we have crossed, how many days more and how many nights less.
Pennsylvania, Summer of 2013
It was on one such road trip that I read Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’. The book became for me an experiential lens with which to look at my life instead of what it is – a book on photography. I became the camera as life became a fast developing film where all one is left holding are a series of quick shots. Somewhere was a pinhole and I was peeping through. Sontag could have been talking about me when she writes, ‘Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had […]’
Mississippi, Summer of 2013
Ironically, I read the book on my phone, juggling between reading it and taking pictures from my phone camera. Yes, when on road, I take pictures compulsively; following close on heels is the realization that quite in the manner described in Stevenson’s poem, whatever is in front of me will never be seen again, that because of car speed I need to take multiple shots to get one clear one, and that that one clear shot will be my only identification mark when I look back on these days, on how I spent them. As words were with Hafiz, photographs with me become the house we live in. My thought is echoed by Sontag as she writes, “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it.”
Indiana, Summer of 2013
And yet, when I look back at those photographs, it is what has not been captured that comes back sharper. The humdrum details left out spread out like a translucent veil. Like the fact that behind the camera I was bedraggled, or had coffee stains on my jeans, or that our dog who insists on using me as his resident car seat throughout the journey was not making enough poop. The mundane existence churning inside stands refuted by outside experiences which promise to touch one’s bare skin and brush by. And as I dwell on that, Sontag hits back with, “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.”
Iowa, Summer of 2013
Distance is a two-layered noun for me. It is no longer about the space between point A and point B, but also the separation between me and life’s real battlefield where I am a fence-sitting soldier. As I become aware of that distance, like a lot of hot air sitting between this here and that there, I try to accomplish the somewhat onerous task of pushing a perspective in place, to understand where life is leading us, where life becomes a metaphor for the road stretching ahead and where every exit makes me wonder what if I was to wander off this route and into leafy lanes which lead inwards into the sunbaked cottages, where people are bored of living the same life every day, where they are looking to escape. It is a contrast which begs me to explore it. It is as if Sontag were reading my mind when she writes, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge (sic).”
Nebraska, Summer of 2013
When one is on the road, time swells, it envelops you. Perhaps that is nature’s way of protecting you from getting motion sickness. The sunsets are longer on the road, fusing quietude and contemplation and it was one such evening as we drove on, that I scribbled what I call, ‘Postcard to Another Country’.
Ohio, Summer of 2013
Postcard To Another Country
You are to me
a foreign snow country
spread out in its rivers and lakes,
And I a boat –
Scaling your length and breadth
plumbing the depths, the meaning
of your land and your water
New Jersey, Summer of 2013
I am all your miles
and your signposts, your
fast disappearing lights
And you are spread in my future –
Always on the next crossing
Or is it the one after that?
Note: All the pictures in this essay have been taken from a moving car.
Pooja Garg Singh is a US based writer and poet. Her essays, articles and poems have been published in magazines such as The Missing Slate, The Feminist Wire, The Aerogram, The North East Review and The Brown Critique. Pooja is also part of Mandali, a motley group of story writers in India who write content for radio, television, and other media formats. She is an ex-business journalist, having worked with publications such as India Today Group and IDG etc. Pooja runs a content company, WordTree (www.wordtree.in).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.