On Cities and Books: A Conversation with Chirodeep Chaudhuri & Jerry Pinto

“The library is an ancient human institution, an extension in brick and mortar of the brain, an expansion across time and space of the human cerebrum.

The library is a vain attempt to capture what we know when what we know is always in flux and our ways of knowing have been challenged repeatedly and variously.

The library is an elitist institution, based on the premise that the only knowledge worth having is the abstract knowledge that will allow for capture. It is not interested in non-abstractable knowledge.

The library is a dream space, a fevered dream space, a Borgesian dream of infinity.
Any library with 40,000 books will defeat the longest human life, even if you read a book a day. This library has more than 40,000 books.

The library is a space for imagination, for daydream, for invention, for research, for investigation. The library is more than the sum of its parts.

If you need to look for what it means to be human, look no further than the nearest library. If you need to look for what it means to be inhuman, look no further than the man who burns a book.

Choose your definition.

Even as you choose, know this. That edifice which looks so imposing, those rows of books which look so welcoming, they are as susceptible to the passage of time as you are. Time ravages books just as much as silverfish, mildew and blades wielded in secret and in silence. The book has many enemies. So have libraries.

But the worst enemy of all is the sound of receding footsteps, as people walk away from libraries. Tell me, when did you last go to the library?”

– Jerry Pinto


Jerry Pinto brought me back to books. My footsteps, too, had receded several years ago, but it was Jerry who urged me to wander back into my dream space, and rediscover my personal library, that ever increasing tower of paper, that initially would stare at me, and make large, forlorn puppy-dog eyes: hey, why aren’t you spending time with me, later, would glare at my continued indifference, photography, life and other excuses having taken over, and then, eventually, those books would only sigh, resigned to my cold shoulder.

I met him for the first time only recently, to indulgently get my books signed (some for me, and some for a fellow Pintoian). But I met him a few years ago, when I met his mother, Em. His book, Em and the Big Hoom, brought me back to books. It was that one spark that did restart the fire.

Chirodeep Chaudhuri was the first photographer I ever met, aside from my professor/mentor/friend, David de Souza. His photos caught my attention because he seemed to share a common love, Bombay.

Pinto & Chaudhuri have, together, coauthored an exhibition that is currently showing at Project 88, in the heart of Colaba in Bombay. ‘In the City, a Library’ is their collaborative documentation of the People’s Free Reading Room & Library, an iconic institution that dates back to 1845.

Photographer and writer Paroma Mukherjee wrote a rather lovely piece on the work in the Mint, that I think is essential reading, before and after you go see the show, which is running till 15 April (the gallery is shut on Sunday and Monday). Paroma’s piece is so beautifully tackled that I decided to avoid writing my own piece after reading hers. Instead, I decided to have a long, long conversation with Jerry (over email) & Chiro (over chai), on photography, books, memories and Bombay, our shared difficult loves.


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  • From the point of view of collaboration, what were the roles that the two of you played in the coming together of these photographs? Having been friends for so long, how do your respective interests feed off each other, especially when it comes to complementing the different ways in which you look at books and the city?

Jerry: Being friends means you begin by sharing some commonalities; not in a direct way: some of it is a political alignment, some of it is a shared sense of humour and therefore, a shared sense of beauty. Thus when I became a trustee of the People’s Free Reading Room & Library, I invited all my friends to visit. Writers, artists, photographers, journalists, poets… I wanted to share the space with them in some way, to show them what we had under our noses. When Chiro came, he said he wanted to shoot; I said: sure. And this project was born.

Chiro: The obvious way of looking at a collaboration between a photographer and a writer, is to expect my photographs and Jerry’s writing. But with us, it is a lot more free flowing. Did this collaboration begin when Jerry invited me to the library fifteen months ago? Or did it begin a few years ago, when we discussed the possibility of photographing something to do with reading? Or maybe, the collaboration actually started seventeen years ago, when Jerry and I first met, when our conversations began.

Actually, most of my work has been an outcome of a collaboration between Jerry and me. We haven’t shared bylines before, but whether it was A Village in Bengal or The Commuters, there were direct and indirect conversations that my photography fed off. If any of those projects were to say ‘By Chirodeep Chaudhuri & Jerry Pinto’, it would not be inaccurate.

  • You have discussed the idea of photographing something to do with reading before? Was this around the time you were photographing The Commuters? I remember, there was a tiny stream within those photos, that had sets of people in the train poring into their newspapers, something that you had once referred to as your ‘interest in tabloid visual culture’.

Chiro: There is always a lot of tangential reading and thinking that one is doing, and it is these peripheral thoughts that keep redefining the way you may look at a certain idea. I had come across a rather lovely essay on the origins of tabloid newspapers, and how it coincided with the courtesies of commuting in the NYC subway, a thought that immediately reminded me of our trains, and how every inch matters. Imagine opening a broadsheet like The Indian Express in the local. This made me start noticing a lot of tabloids around, so yes, some of them did creep into my photos of that time.

Meanwhile, however, Anil Dharker was due to launch the Literature Live festival, and Jerry asked me if I would be interested in photographing a series on people reading, for a book that the festival was planning. I gave this some thought and realised that I was a little uneasy with the idea. Lit fests are happening as a counter to the fact that people aren’t reading, so if I do ten pictures of people with books, in different spots around the city, I think it is a disconnect, these are two opposite things we are talking about. But this was the starting point, of trying to engage with the idea of photographing the issue that there is a drop in reading, a vacuum in this cultural activity.

This was also the time when those Mayawati statues were coming up, and I remember being struck by the fact that here is this person, constructing these huge statues of herself, holding a handbag. I thought that was rather weird. Now, I had been looking at Bombay’s architecture for a long time, and the statues that are a part of this architecture have almost always had the luminary carrying a book. Whether it is Phirozshah Mehta or Dadabhai Naoroji, or even Ambedkar, they are often depicted, with a book. So what does that tell you? That at a certain point in the city’s history, any city’s history, books mattered. Intellect had value. I cannot think of any political leader today whose statue you can think of, with a book. So as all these things tumbled out of the mental archive, you start to connect the dots. That the statues while being relics of time, were also, a sign of the times. I eventually did those photos for Time Out Mumbai. So what started as Jerry’s germ of an idea, of doing a series on people reading, eventually became our shared lament, of people not reading.

  • The way you describe these statues almost suggests that an integral history of Bombay, or of any city, is connected to the dissemination of knowledge, to public libraries, to reading. How does that stand today?

Chiro: No, I wouldn’t connect it with Bombay specifically. That would be a bit of a stretch and a little unfair to other cities. It is just that there was a certain time in history when intellect seemed to matter, as opposed to today, when it has almost become a bad word. To be liberal or to be intellectual are qualities that are almost derided now. At a time when money seems to talk louder, a Mayawati statue with a handbag is only a reflection of our shifting values.

Those were also quieter times. And reading is intrinsically linked to quiet, to contemplation, to slowness. In Bombay, people were always running, but today, they seem to be scurrying a whole lot more. The kind of narrative that seems to exist today is that people’s attention spans are less, so we need to give them snippety stuff. This infotainment nonsense. Obviously that goes against the basic grain of reading. And when newspapers and magazines, disseminators of the written word, themselves seem to not believe in the power of words anymore, what can one say?

  • What I meant by connecting it to the city is the fact that I’d often see books within the urban landscape earlier, and now, it is the ubiquitous screen. If one can say that a city is defined by what it reads, today, it can be defined by whether it reads. Merely a decade ago, my impressions of the person sitting in front of would be based on what he or she is reading, you know the cliche idea of spotting a girl in the train who happens to be reading your favourite book.

Chiro: I generally have this habit of looking at people’s bookshelves, or even their bedside tables, for that matter. I think it gives you a lot of insight into who they are. But while on our lament of people reading less, you know, even the people who read have this constant battle with themselves, on all that they haven’t read. The large horde of unread books that we have, but haven’t picked up. I am reminded of another lovely piece of writing by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on the relationship of the legendary Umberto Eco with his books. Taleb wrote,

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

Now, if Umberto Eco can have an antilibrary, maybe we shouldn’t be so harsh on ourselves (for further reference on Taleb’s piece, read this and this).

Going back to your point of the screens within our trainscapes, the transition has been stark. I sometimes think that if I were to photograph The Commuters today, the project would end up being so different. The pictures I had shot, only a few years ago, were of people sitting in front of me, looking at me, looking away. Today, nobody is even looking up…

  • I know we haven’t started discussing this work yet, these pictures you have made in the People’s Free Reading Room and Library. But it is an interesting arc, right? From pictures of people reading, or not reading, to pictures of that which has been read. I think this digression is crucial in order to understand how your mind works, how these stray thoughts manifest themselves in your eventual approach.

Chiro: But it is always about the strays, isn’t it? The stray thoughts that come together to form conversations, and eventually nurture ideas…

  • Ah, that’s nicely put. And maybe that is why this work ends up being so ruminative. I mean, with the magnificent architecture of an old city institution, it would have been so tempting to use the inherent drama of the place, right? And yet, your work steers away from the obvious tropes that first come to mind. There is nothing happening in these still lives, aside from the visuality of age.

Chiro: My notions of drama have always been very different. Of course, I started in a space  that can best be classified as street photography, coming from early influences like Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and Eugene Smith. But when you are new, your mind is not able to think beyond a certain direct influence. You haven’t started to look at the city as a kind of thing to read.

I keep saying that cities throw up signals. You need to be ready to catch them, absorb them, and interpret them, to be able to join the dots and ask yourself what you make of this, how you sketch the city in your head.

  • And we’d all catch different signals, right? So the city in your head would be different from the city in mine, almost like what Italo Calvino wrote of, in Invisible Cities.

Chiro: Precisely. The coin-operated payphone would get my mind whirring (Chirodeep had worked on a project called The One-Rupee Entrepreneur), but my friends would wonder what on earth I was photographing. In fact, even now, a friend of mine who knew I was making pictures in an old library thought that my photos would be grand and cinematic, with dramatic shafts of light and things like that. Now, that is exactly the kind of imagery I had visualised when I had first visited the library more than twenty years ago. But as you understand the beats of the city, and the beats of what interests you as a photographer, you realise that there are several possible stories within the same story. And as I spent time within the library, having revisited it after all these years, I realised that the stories here were within the pages, and not so much amidst the walls. The drama was in decay, in passage of time.

  • I find it disconcerting that the passage of time almost always seems to refer to decay. Like the two of you, I am not too thrilled about what is happening to our cities, and Bombay, for me, is always a city I have liked to see with my gaze turned backwards. Don’t you think there are parts of the city that are anachronistic, different streets that concurrently live in different times? Jerry, I remember when I had first met you, you had spoken of Bombay as a city that is prone to nostalgia…

Jerry: We like to bemoan the city we have as if it were not the hell of our own making. We like to remember the city we had and say: we have lost that city. This is nostalgia and sometimes it can be fun, but it can also be corrosive because no one who grows nostalgic ever says: “Oh yes, it was a wonderful city, full of bungalows and everyone should keep their bungalows just as they are but my special situation requires me to knock down the family bungalow and put up a cement tower so that I can have some private space.” Nostalgia is always about how other forces, other people, destroyed the dream. I suspect nostalgia has to do with a feeling of loss of innocence. We feel we have lost our innocence—this is probably not true either—and we therefore ascribe it to the loss of the city’s innocence.  That is the addiction to nostalgia that is the city’s particular predilection.

  • That is a scarily sobering thought. Makes me reevaluate my romanticism entirely. But it was that very romanticism that this work seemed to tug at, when I first saw it. Am I accurate in saying that the work takes a more sentimental tone rather than merely the need to chronicle an institution of this nature?

Jerry: How does one chronicle? How does one create art? Is there a difference? I think so. I believe that when one chronicles one brings another faculty into play. This is the dragnet of the mind, which must be deployed to trap relevant data. How does one create art as I feel Chirodeep has here? One brings a viewing to the object. This viewing is deeply personal but it must also leave room for the viewer to bring what she feels to the work. That intersection is the alembic in which art surfaces. That is what I think Chiro sought to do. My own contribution was much humbler.

I prefer the word emotional to the word sentimental; the latter tends to have pejorative connotations.

  • Chiro, I have often thought of you as a chronicler of small things, a note keeper of the nuances that lie within the city. Someone, who quietly observes things that we all see but choose to ignore, be it the clocks, the pay phones, the train scribbles, the statues or for that matter, the statuesque ways in which the commuters in the train sit.

Chiro: The more I think of my work, the more I realise that the fact that I am chronicling Bombay is more of a default setting. Had I grown up in, say, Cochin, I would assume that I would have been looking at Cochin as obsessively. For me, what is of interest is how do I tackle a thought like memory, a concept like enterprise, a vague idea like the passage of time… to find photographic answers to ideas that aren’t inherently visual, that is the greatest challenge for me. Rather than, you know, merely chronicling a particular city. That my work is linked to this city is because I have grown up here, and that I can recognise its rhythms.

You and I know that these are rather simple pictures to shoot, photographically speaking. But the adventure lies in the journey of the idea. Most of my work goes on for long periods of time, so what I seek, and what I revel in, is something that draws me in, something that I have to keep chipping away at.

  • Sure, they are simple, but one thing that struck me about your work this time, is that it is getting quieter. And not in the obvious sense of the quiet that one would associate with a library. There is a certain kind of delicateness here, not just to the dusty books with their pages coming apart, but also to the way you have photographed them.

Chiro: This thing of photographing paper, I have done it very often even otherwise. Documents have been an interest at a subconscious level for a while now. I think the idea is to be open, and yet have an open eye. Having gone through old books in the past, you do tend to imagine what you may find, I remember making notes, of a kind of wishlist, you know, insect-ravaged pages, bookmarked memories, things that people have forgotten. But then of course, there are surprises that always come along. Like the tram ticket, for instance, I had never seen one before.

  • The handwritten notes, the bus tickets, to me, talk about the personal, private, individual memories that are stored, almost kept secret, within this large, public archive. It’s almost like the larger secret of Bombay comprises of all these tiny, personal secrets. Or maybe, I mean, that the larger life of a city comprises of smaller lives, little things. Every single personalised note is almost like a personal secret lying within the public secret, in the public archive, this library.

Jerry: I did not see, I must say, those as part of the potential of this story. I was surprised when Chiro began to foreground these things. For me the book was the fetish object and these were just add-ons, pleasant in their own way, but of no real visual significance. But when I saw the rhythms of the show at Project 88, I began to see what was happening, how the rectangle had to be deconstructed. This was a revelation; but it is why one collaborates at all: for the revelations of another person’s mind.

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Chiro: The story suddenly became about all these stories. I find that weird letter that a guy has written to the police commissioner for a passport outrageously funny. Sometimes, I wonder what are the various strands that we haven’t found, what is still lurking in there. The most bizarre thing we kept finding was this guy who would keep scribbling little notes on homoeopathy. Any fucking book he would borrow, there would be a little thing on it. You know, strange shit like ‘If you are not into homeopathy, you are not taking care of yourself’.

  • Haha, really? That is hilarious…

Chiro: You knew it was the same guy from his handwriting… and his musings were all over, across different kinds of books that themselves had nothing to do with homeopathy. Sometimes it was just a line, sometimes a rhyme, a slogan, and at other times, there were carefully thought out paragraphs. So essentially, what he was doing was passing on a message to the next person who would have borrowed that book, championing the cause of homeopathy. Well written, fursat se, in lovely handwriting.

  • Sounds like a political party doing propaganda.

Chiro: Exactly. Imagine, like all the BJP guys going…

  • Ab ki baar, ab ki baar…

Chiro: Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar. That’s a damn funny idea, man.

  • And for all you know, fifty years later, some Jerry Chaudhuri and Chirodeep Pinto would do a similar project and instead of homeopathy pracharan, they would find…

Chiro: Stamps that proclaim ‘Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar’. Imagine, somebody sitting in some tiny library in small town India…

  • There’s a bit of a problem there. I don’t think bhakts read (or sycophants of any political party, for that matter).

Chiro: While we are joking about this and it almost sounds meta, the catch is that such few people read anyway. Fifty years later, let’s hope there are libraries, in the first place.

  • But that is the problem, right? Coming back to what we were talking about earlier, about screens replacing paper, even things that are commonplace become memorabilia.

Chiro: Oh yes, every time I find a bus ticket in one of my old books at home, I keep it carefully. As a nine year old, I would stand at the bus stop and request every passenger who was alighting to give me his ticket. Every evening would be one fat thappi of tickets.

  • Wow. I remember the card tickets one would get at stations.

Chiro: With some ghatiya picture of a film star. You couldn’t even figure out if it was Amitabh Bachchan or Vinod Khanna.

  • Ah, that must have been before my time. I personally remember the weight cards that had these astrological predictions. It would tell you that you have put on two kilos, and then rub further salt with a forecast for your day: ‘Today, your day would not be good’.

Chiro: Little things that don’t seem to matter, and as time goes by, they become relics of the city, remnants of a certain time.

  • Earlier, when I would go for a movie with someone special, I would save that Eros ticket within a book, maybe to find it several years later, or for someone else to find it. Today, the most special date of my life would be a Bookmyshow screenshot. A love letter then, a WhatsApp conversation now. Your work speaks to me of the fragility of analogue memories, but as I look at your pictures of the past, I shudder to think how fragile the memories of the future would be.

Chiro: The chance of disappearance today is far quicker than it was in our times. I don’t think we were deliberately trying to make any such point, but we were aware that we were kind of going back into a collective history. Like when we found the first tram ticket, it became like forensics, like CSIgiri, to find out how old it was. So we checked the last date that that particular book was borrowed, and it was 1966, and the trams had stopped running in 1965…

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  • … so you basically found one of the last tram tickets, so to say.

Chiro: These were our private thrills. A point may be getting made, but it wasn’t a point we were setting out to make. Like while photographing date sheets, we wondered what books were borrowed closest to 15 August 1947.

  • The real Midnight’s Children… but that is what fascinates me about your project. History is wrapped within every old place. But in a library, history is neatly tabulated and contextualised. I’m sure you’d be able to figure out whether there were any books on politics or dissent that were borrowed during the Emergency, for instance.

Chiro: That is a fascinating idea, it would be interesting to go back and see. These photos, like a lot of my work, were a lot like collecting data What you do with that data can lead to so many possibilities. The overall set of photos is much larger, and we do not know what a reading of that would throw up. For instance, there are books from several private collections of Bombay luminaries. We found one book with J B Petit’s signature, another book with the emboss of Premchand Roychand…

Which brings me back to something that I think about a lot, and it’s related to me looking at statues. It is difficult to imagine what would be the new statues that would come up, by the time I am my father’s age. Who are our luminaries anyway? It’s a little disconcerting to see Nehru, Gandhi, Shivaji and Patel today, and imagine a Laloo Yadav or a Mulayam Singh sharing this space, a few decades later.

  • What are the other institutions, within this city, for instance, that hold similar stories that interest or fascinate the two of you?

Jerry: Every institution represents a story. It is a story that its founders told themselves about the city—we need a free library, we need a hospital—and this is generally the story of an absence that needed to be filled. Then comes the stories that inhabit the place. For me, every signboard in the city offers the potential of a story. I used to see this signboard in Fort, that said ‘Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property in India’ and I would always want to go in and say: who is the enemy? What definition has been used? How do you act as custodian? Is there someone who goes in and dusts and cleans up? That kind of mad question. One’s curiosity is endless; one’s time is limited.

Chiro: I would give an arm and a leg to do something similar with the Asiatic Library. They have a department that restores and maintains their old books. Or the National Library in Calcutta. Imagine what treasures lie in there. My favourite stories in the National Geographic were always related to archaeology. This is as close as it comes for me, to be doing archaeology.

  • Who have been your personal favourite chroniclers of Bombay? Whether it is someone who uses words, photos or cinema…

Jerry: I think there are different people for different media. In cinema, there’s Anurag Kashyap and Manmohan Desai. In poetry, Adil Jussawalla, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar. In fiction, Kiran Nagarkar and Shanta Gokhale. In non-fiction, Naresh Fernandes and Suketu Mehta. In photography, Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Ashima Narain, Prashant Nakwe.

Chiro: I really like M S Gopal‘s work. I am a huge fan of his. There are a few times when I look at his photos and think ki thoda dhyaan deta toh it would be even better. But that said, I love the way he sees. You look at his photo and say, oh damn, I wish I had thought of that. And not just what he is seeing, but also how he is connecting. The connecting of the dots, his political awareness. His day job as an advertising fellow makes him look at the city in a certain way, and what comes out, is brilliant. He is the only photographer whose work I actively look out for. Like the thing he did the other day…

…the map?

Chiro: Yeah! I mean, fuck man. You just die of envy when you see something like that (click here to see the photograph being spoken of). 

  • Slightly off topic, but while on reading in the city. What is your favourite spot in the city, to sit with a book?

Jerry: I don’t have a favourite place to read because I read whenever I possibly can. I read in buses, on trains, in the loo but most of my reading tends to get done at home, in bed.

Chiro: Honestly speaking, it will have to be the train, with the hour-long journey I end up taking every day that I come into town. You see, I stay in Thane.

 

4 thoughts on “On Cities and Books: A Conversation with Chirodeep Chaudhuri & Jerry Pinto

  1. Thanks for this Raj. I enjoyed this conversation. Especially the part about tackling memory. And how so often memories are re-ignited with something as simple as a bus ticket, as mentioned here. That brought be back to my bus journeys growing up in Calcutta. And not to mention, just the thought about having a bookmyshow screenshot as something especial. Something does seem wrong here doesn’t it? Or are we just old fashioned? I’ve often attempted to track the beginning of my involvement with photographic visual language and it’s relation with memory. Chirodeep’s example Nat Geo and archeology is an affirmation of how all of these elements play out in our formation as artists… Maybe even gatekeepers of memory. Is that too much to ask?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting conversation. I particularly enjoyed the bits about the bus and movie tickets being tucked into the pages of a book – it’s like finding an old photograph that takes you into another time zone and memories. Can’t do that with whatsapp and whatever else. But, I recollect once having to use an old Nokia phone and discovered many old messages – some were from a friend who’d recently passed away – it was weird, as if she was still there – those messages haunted me. So, somewhere even as the media changes the human tendency to store/collect remains and chanching upon even the digital tags can do much the same as an old bus ticket. Less tactile perhaps but…..

    I think being able to read in a library today is a luxury. Hushed surroundings, long hours spent with the word….haven’t done it since I was a student….decades ago. I try and give myself book review assignments to actually read a book cover to cover. I too love the feel of paper and a book to cradle as I read. I haven’t taken to the kindle but I do find the on-line reading a great way to connect with so much we’d otherwise miss.

    Thank you for this. Thought provoking!

    Like

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