By Uddalak Gupta
Travelling is like going for a stroll through the pages of a book. There are short chapters on the sidewalk, snatches of dialogue by the bus station, a clearing of thought as you head out of a darkened tunnel, stories that reveal themselves on taking a sudden turn. Not all are happy ones; some can be searingly sad. But even as we grope through the misty pathways of our lives, while not everything makes sense, there is a sense of journey, of absorbing and embracing something and becoming just a little changed, before we move on…
My wife Ruhani and I were walking down the steep decline of the famous Lapa Steps at Rio de Janeiro. On either side stood conjoined row houses, some dull and grey, others bright blue, purple and green, shrugging shoulders together in the soft late-afternoon light. Earlier that day, we’d caught a bus to Arcos da Lapa, where an impressive arched aqueduct built in the mid-18th century joins the city, and set off on foot. Rio, after all, offered not just the monumental in vista but the intimate at eye level, too.
The Lapa Steps, I’d say, had a sense of both.
Straddling the elegant neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa and cutting across the Joaquim Silva and Pinto Martins streets, this sweeping stairway had risers that were set in a rainbow of tiles, ceramics and mirrors. Like a gilded, frozen waterfall, the steps flowed past the scene and fell in a glittering profusion of colours that had been drawn from the Brazilian flag. It was a beautiful sight.
In the moist breeze, I could smell the pungent weed being passed around by some young men sitting on the lower steps. At a distance, towards the bottom, the lazy twang of guitar chords rose in the air and added to the feeling of unrushed bohemia. The day stole on, light-footed and without haste.
Noticing a small house on the right with a signboard that said ‘Art Museum’, we decided to investigate. Inside, we met Simon Fisher, the owner, a friendly Britisher in his late fifties who had retired recently as a photographer and become a curator of art, a subject that had always interested him. He’d set aside a part of the ground floor for exhibitions, while the floor above housed his own art installation.
As we looked at the black-and-white prints of a Hungarian photographer (whose subject of study, incongruously enough for the Atlantic setting of Rio, was the scarcity of potable water on the planet), we got to talking. Fisher was free with his words, happy that he’d got some visitors on a quiet day.
And that was how my wife and I first came to hear about his one-time neighbor, Jorge Selaron. The guidebooks, if we had looked them up, would have told us that Selaron was the creator of the Lapa Steps, known also as the ‘Escadaria Selaron’. A self-taught Chilean artist, he’d knocked around the world as a painter and sculptor till he arrived in Rio in 1983, taken an instant liking to the dramatic contours of the beach city and stayed on. Seven years later, what began as a minor renovation project of some dilapidated steps in front of his house, started turning into Selaron’s lifework. As Fisher put it in an even, undramatic voice that only served to emphasise his words, “He didn’t see the steps. He saw a vision.”
Jorge Selaron spent the next twenty years or so building his magnificent tribute to the vast beauty of his adopted country Brazil, tile by single tile. The steps became his singular obsession, his grand campaign, his great madness. Constantly out of money at first, he painted furiously and sold hundreds of paintings – enigmatically enough, of the same heavily pregnant African woman whose identity no one knew – to fund his dream.
He was always at the steps, a jovial, bare-chested man with a carelessly bushy moustache, dressed in the typical carioca outfit of board shorts, flip flops, and wide-brimmed hat that was native to Rio.
He would usually be spotted painting the tiles speedily by day, and treating drunken revellers to fascinating anecdotes at night. When I googled Selaron later, I was struck by a prophetic quote of his: “This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death.” Call it prescience, a flair for the dramatic or just plain coincidence; at any rate, that was how it turned out to be. On January 10, 2013, Jorge Selaron was found dead at the bottom of the steps he had dedicated his life to, near his modest home that opened on to the stairway. His body was severely burnt and beside him lay a can of paint thinner, the liquid used to fuel the flames that had consumed the artist. His staircase, full of vivid stories and mementos of those who’d passed by, had yet another one on its smooth slabs.
The previous November, he had lodged reports of having received death threats from a former painter friend and collaborator, Sergio Rabelo, with the police. Named as an heir in Selaron’s will earlier, Rabelo had allegedly wanted increasing financial control over the sale of his friend’s paintings. The ensuing friction cut deep, and wounds were quick to open. Over time, bitterness had come to cast a long shadow between the two men that slanted across the steps.
Though the exact circumstances of Selaron’s death is still unknown, the authorities attributed it to a self-inflicted act of depression following the fallout with his friend. It was true that he had taken it quite badly, as those who knew him well had testified. Fisher’s dark hints, however, left us in no uncertainty as to where his suspicions lay. The Rabelo family continues to live on the same lane of the Lapa Steps to this day. Simon Fisher has now decided to relocate to Santa Teresa, the Art Museum being his only remaining trace in the winding streets he once so loved.
The Unliving Room
It was a strange story, and the words seemed to hang in the air after its telling. Through the glazed windows, we could see the city shuffle and move to its unhurried rhythms. Evening was closing in, and sounds of laughter were interspersed with the muffled chatter of passersby below the eaves of the lined houses. Life went on at the street as it always had, stopping for no one and waiting for none.
We climbed the narrow stairs of the old house that creaked with the weight of memory, and reached the first floor. For the last two years, Fisher said, he had embarked on an art project of his own. Like Selaron’s, it too had begun quite by chance. He’d started picking up abandoned pictures of families at random, more as a whim than out of considered thought. They were mostly images that had been left behind in empty houses or sold as junk in local markets. Almost all were studies in black and white, quaint portraits of the past when the people pictured in them had lived in happier times.
There were gracious ladies in lacy evening dresses, proud men striking a stance, children shyly holding hands in the garden, couples posing somewhat stiffly on their wedding day, a group at a party seated in an open-top vintage car… moments of the everyday or a special occasion that had been preserved for posterity in dusty family albums. They had just kept piling up in a spare room of his, photographs that no one had any use for any longer, as time marched over their faded edges.
One day, while cleaning his house, Fisher needed to make some space. Without thinking, he casually put the pictures up on a wall… and stopped. Looking at all of them together, those forgotten characters and their unremembered lives joined suddenly by fate, something stirred in him. That was when he decided to give them back some of their lost dignity, by getting passing visitors on the street to see them again, when they had been so full of life.
Fisher restored hundreds of pictures, one by one, with the painstaking craft of someone who was as patient as he was skillful. He hunted for simple, wooden frames that would best suit each subject, holding them in that moment within geometric order even as they held up their faces in abandon.
He hammered in nails and hung the pictures up on the walls, bunching them close like family. Most of these people were long dead and gone, their part in the affairs of the world perhaps come to an untimely end. And so, it was with more than a trace of irony that Fisher had named his art exhibit, ‘The Unliving Room’. It was an amusing enough twist to have them all in a room of their own where they could once again meet visitors by the day, even if silence was their only conversation.
Being a photojournalist and having recently finished a series of portraits for a magazine story herself, my wife examined the exhibits with considerable interest, bending down to her knee for a closer look. She may have wondered about the unknown photographers, the unseen ones, possibly members of those genteel families, who had pressed down the shutter on those carefree times with a final, emphatic flourish.
Standing in that shaded room where stray streaks of light filtered in through the slats like silver bands, I looked at the faces on the walls. They were full of hope and desire, the lust of the living, little knowing that their time was ticking away and a day would come when their fortunes would forsake them.
I felt a curious bond, a strange kinship, a communion of the unsaid; it could be that my own fragile future had flashed before my eyes for a moment, before it was gone. A few weeks later, in another hemisphere and timeline, these mute people would live on again in the quiet chatter of my keyboard.
Still absorbed in what we’d just witnessed, we silently followed Fisher’s part-time assistant down the stairs to the floor below. I do not recollect his name, but I do remember that he was a courteous young fellow who treated the exhibits as if they were people he knew. He lived up the hill in Santa Teresa, just a few blocks away. An electrical engineer by profession, his passion for art would bring him over to the gallery whenever he had the time.
On our way out, we stopped beside a tall, imposing print that Fisher had put up in his dining room. It had six visuals stacked in a column, each image being an artist’s depiction of the majestic white aqueduct that stretched across a part of Rio, but in different periods of time. What, over a century ago, had been lush green countryside dotted with church steeples, bridle paths and the Romanesque arches of the aqueduct, was now a crush of looming skyscrapers, public buildings and city squares threaded by the white line.
The tramcar that used to trundle all the way down the leafy, cobblestone slopes of Santa Teresa, the engineer said, would run over a section of the fifty-foot high aqueduct at Arcos da Lapa, before it crossed over and entered the city centre. His face softened when he spoke of the tram. It was a link between two delicately balanced worlds, past and present, quaint and efficient, one that he would slip in and out of by simply hopping on to the footboard.
We had earlier stayed in the calmly aristocratic locale of Santa Teresa, exploring at a gentle pace the rustic restaurants, dignified mansions, solemn museums and the cheerful souvenir shops that were tucked away in the street corners. The tracks had kept us company right through as we had walked, parallel lines of faded metal running past the graffiti-streaked walls and pretty tram stations. It felt as if the streetcar still held the soul of the place – we never ever saw it but somehow, its presence always seemed to be there.
I come from a city where tramcars still run on some streets at a leisurely clip. The trams in Kolkata are simple and serviceable; the seats are made of hard wood and the driver’s tight cabin is rudimentarily protected by a latticed mesh of steel. I’ve taken rides in them when I was young, cutting across sometimes from school on the way home, swaying lightly to the click of the wheels as they covered the ground between childhood to my adolescence. And I could understand the slight wistfulness that had come over Fisher’s assistant at the mention of the Santa Teresa tram. Something that had lain buried for long, had surfaced for a moment.
In his broken English, he explained why we had only seen its paintings on the walls, but never the tramcar itself. In June 2011, a French tourist had leant out of one to take a picture of himself at the Arcos, and lost his balance. He fell through a gap in the safety fence down to the street below, dying instantly. Worse was to follow. Two months later, at a downhill stretch of the track, a brake shoe failed and the tram came off the rails, skidding down a street for about fifty yards before crashing into a cement wall. This time, the toll went up to five.
For a historic tramline that had been granted heritage status, its death knell rang all too swiftly. Its services were suspended shortly after the accidents, and the empty coaches today lie in wait at an overgrown railyard on the hill. The people of Santa Teresa, though, are still hopeful of seeing the brightly painted fleet of tramcars rattle along the streets again someday, just as it had done since 1877.
Our thoughts in a whirl, we said our byes to Simon Fisher and his genial assistant before heading out to the darkening city. In the space of just an hour, we had encountered the hard edge of loss thrice. And yet, with the inevitable abandonment of the forces that course through our veins, it was as if something still beat on in a dim passage, straining against the light, waiting even now to be released…
Samba for One
The next evening found us returning once more to the shaded heights of Santa Teresa on foot. Ruhani had an appointment with Marcello Chagas, dance instructor. My wife has always been light on her feet, quite the natural dancer. I am more of a stomper myself; the truth is, I cannot dance at all. That said, here we were in an earthy country that resounded with the pulsing rhythms of the Samba at sundown, when people would gather in pubs or meet at the street and let their bronzed, sinewy bodies talk. I had heard the rolling drums, and the infectious chant of voices raised to the skies in unison.
It was hard not to be affected by it all.
We found the address by the last remains of day, as the sun arched into the glistening ocean minutes before the introductory Samba session was to begin. Up the main street, past the tram station intersection, some steps rose and led us to an elevated area where a large, colonial-style bungalow stood in the lengthening shadows. A lighted hall on the right, where the classes were conducted, lay empty, except for a wall-length mirror at one end and a laptop connected to speakers on a table.
Marcello turned out to be a tall, rangy man dressed in black with a pleasant face, supple build and easy manner. Where his English sometimes faltered, his animated gestures and quick smile readily stepped in. Having waited for this all day, my wife was keen to get started. She kicked off her shoes and stood barefoot, awaiting instructions. I chose to sit in the open under the comforting canopy of a tall tree, looking down to the neon flow of life on the street below. Ruhani and Marcello, with their backs turned to me, began moving in tandem to my left. The encounter of the day before was still fresh in my mind, drifting around carelessly like the cigarette smoke trailing from my fingers.
Samba is all about how you transfer your weight through your hips to glide forward and backwards in sinuous motion. It is a flow of taut energy and liquid grace, from wiggling bottom to thrusting breast, a rippling wave that rises and breaks with relentless, thumping rhythms. While not easy to perform, done right, this sensual, hypnotic dance celebrates the vigour of being alive and unbound, the way we’re meant to be.
By the hour’s third quarter, Ruhani had begun to get the hang of it, moving alongside Marcello across the room and back with the ease of pure instinct. I watched their darting reflections in that large mirror, a connection in their eyes, an answering response in their limbs, interrupted by a sudden break when she’d take a misstep. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, so it went, a whirl here and a sashay there, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, a succession of free-flowing moves underpinned by the formality of structure.
As we entered the last march of the hour, strangely enough, even through the rippling burst of Latino music from the speakers, I began to hear something else too… faint at first and then, slowly growing stronger. It sounded rather like a metallic rattle, iron wheels clicking on track and gathering force.
I turned my head to the hall in surprise. There she was, my beautiful wife, spinning and twirling with great energy, moving to a call of her own. And with every spontaneous step she took, she began to change right before my bewildered eyes… till all I saw was a tramcar bursting through the gates of a disused yard, gloriously free of the past and on its way once again.
Seated inside were the residents of the Unliving Room, men, women and children looking excitedly out of the windows as the city went rushing by. Hanging out from the front of the carriage with one hand for support was Selaron himself, a paintbrush clutched between his teeth and waving his hat madly with his free hand. She danced once more, the Tramcar of Santa Teresa, on the streets that had been her own. It was only when Marcello signaled the end of the class did reality finally return, and my wife become herself again.
I was reminded of Simon’s words. He didn’t see the steps. He saw a vision. I had seen mine for a few fleeting moments – there, in that dance hall, when evening melted to night and the lights winked like fireflies in the cobblestone lanes overlooking the shimmering expanse of the Atlantic.
The morning after, it was cloudy and overcast. Sitting up in my hotel bed next to my sleeping wife, the happenings of the previous evening all seemed quite unreal. I must have been a bit lightheaded with wine and the sticky air, that was all… I looked out of the window. Atop the jutting Corcovado hill in the distance stood the solitary figure of Christ the Redeemer encircled in wisps of white, arms spread wide in an eternally lonely vigil. His stone eyes had seen it all – the pain, the cross, the terrible weight that comes when you walk all alone towards something that only you can see. As the cotton clouds gradually floated away and a flock of Frigate birds wheeled in noisily on a thermal, the misty path up the wooded hill began to clear. It was going to be a good day after all.
Uddalak Gupta was born in a small town of what is now Jharkhand. He grew up in Kolkata and trained as an architect but ended up writing advertisements. Living at present in a Delhi suburb, he is looking for a place in the hills and hopes to leave the big city someday.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.