This is how I receive the photograph: Held up by an eraser against blue painted wood. Light hits it brightest on one corner and the wood shines, parallel ridges interrupted by dents and dark stains of coffee and oil. The eraser casts a shadow with its tip: Sharp, like the pin over Braque’s Man with a Guitar. From the analytic to the synthetic says Greenberg, the surface is always an illusion, however flattened the plain.
Her pose is graceful, the curve of a hand softly meets her chin. A faint wrinkle traces down from nose to mouth, where lightly lined lips smile a gentle kind of smile. I wonder about the flap of lace. About the white dress she is wearing, tight at the wrist. About her slim watch, so elegant with a thin gap between its leather straps and the spry bend of a C shaped clasp. I wonder what they mean, the piece of lace, the watch. That she is a woman who values her time, and that she is proud, yes, she wears that on her sleeve. Perhaps she is a seamstress and this is the dress she wore to her wedding, her best one, worn once again for a trip to be photographed. White dress for a white wedding, held in a white church in Bandra with high ceilings and all the Thomas’ and Almeidas came on that sunny day and everyone spoke about the dress—she is so talented, our Mildred.
Mildred Almeida—her family were East Indians from Vasai, fisher-folk. Catholics that prayed to the goddess Mumba (of the new name Mumbai). Prayers for heavier rain, for thicker waters. They spoke in a dialect of Marathi, Konkani, and Portuguese, and their food was hybrid too. Pork Curry and spit-roasted fish and they drank red wine from small clay glasses—tiny, more elegant.
Lines form under Mildred’s eyes from the talcum powder she has dusted on to look fairer, folding up against her skin. There’s something in the style of her dress, the lace, the slim watch, and eyebrows picked to a thin trace. Hair oiled and patted down to tame its thickness and frizz. The first Indian photographers reproduced colonial aesthetics, and these were images to which generations aspired. This image, however, sits differently to the cartes-de-visite of the time—where single figures stand in rooms littered with plush rugs, vases; wearing jewellery and fine clothing.
Ninety years later, I am sure I could find the studio where this image was taken. Poke around in their basement to find, in a pile of negatives wrapped in thin plastic, an archive of photos for every family across the Bandra hills. The photo studio has remained unchanged as a place to perform identity and family. Girls stack their arms with wristwatches and ride motorcycles, while men strike Bollywood poses, hair slicked back with gel. But this one is different, this photo of our Mildred—she is not playful, but she is performing. I wonder if it is an albumen print, sealed onto paper with whisked egg white and salt.
Mildred married Rock in this dress with the lace collar. Mildred’s mother called Rock that black bastard, they did not get along. A patch across her hairline shines, caught by the flash. I wonder about her body, the one you cannot see; hovers as she does without one. The body with which I share blood, and I think about its texture, its weight—its history. The way that things grow thick with time—sacrifice and compromise made by generations so that someone in the future can live differently. Not just differently, but better. I think about where the photo is now, on that blue painted board, held up by an eraser. Next to a canvas, one that my aunt prepares for a portrait. She’s doing a series: Portraits of the women in our family. She wants to redraw their lines with her hand, to trace out their figures with the thickness of her brush. To collapse the space between her and them, between her and our shared history. For Mildred, water is the base, and she paints out a background. But first, she darkens her skin.
“If history could be folded, where would you put the crease?”
Like rolling dough, or something lighter, a cloud caught between strong winds—who do you have to be to have the privilege of folding history? We all do it, we remake and revise; we reorganise our photo albums. History is a tall conceit; it is as much a personal narrative as it is one of community. If we were to look at every family in South Asia—there, we would have it, a complex telling of a postcolonial history.
Now what’s beautiful about history is how easily you can imagine, in one swell, its entirety. There rises the house first built by a wealthy Parsi merchant upon a hill that was an old Portuguese fort, and in the first World War, they say, it held Italian prisoners of war. I see it now, the house, built on obsidian rock. I imagine the views from its rooms, and the sharp tick-tack of the boots that cross its large, molten landscape. Early one monsoon morning—streets wiped clean by the night’s rain—I walk to Bandra Fort, its foliage thick and bursting. A dog sleeps curled into a tight fist upon a ledge of the fort—Castella de Aguada, first built by the Portuguese in 1640. The dog’s pink nose tucks into its belly. The sea tore through the scene ahead of me and I willed for it to dissolve, to recapture a view, a view of course that I had never seen before. History, however hard you try to place it, is just narrative, and perhaps only as good as the narrative device of its teller.
It was an ordinary day. The clouds were bleached white by the sun. The smog held up like a curtain over the city. Light scattered on nearby roofs. And I thought, mornings look apocalyptic in this city. I sat my desk, a view of Bombay in front of me: A bay, a skyline. I live on a street that curves towards a hill, at the end of which lies a sprawling blue-roofed slum, from which all of the apartments around the block source their domestic staff. Most people would call this a “dead-end”. It is anything but dead, if you ask me. At the foot of the hill is a thick iron gate, opening to a series of lazily laid out steps that lead to a Gothic church rebuilt after the Bombay Plague of the 1890s. This Church—the Mount Mary Church—is home to a small wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary, first brought over by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. She is probably the oldest resident here, in Bandra, she is over 500 years old. And she grants wishes, apparently. A dense network of community makes sure that she continues to survive, and in the early twentieth century she was quietly stowed away in a local fisherman’s home during a Maratha invasion. When she first arrived, those 500 years ago, after finding her home on the hill – she travelled to the neighbouring islands (Bombay was then, still, seven disparate islands), where she visited each of their seven goddesses and invited them over to celebrate her birthday, and her arrival, with her. And although she is the Mother Mary, she is also one of them, now the eighth goddesses of this perfect, natural bay, flung to the Arabian Sea.
I have just returned from a walk up to the Church. I have begun to do this daily, not only to visit sweet Mary in the middle of a typically camp display of plastic flowers and plastic wreaths, repainted frescoes that have darkened the skin of Jesus and his disciples, but to visit a small plaque, one that brings me closer to her, to Mildred, who since I moved back to Bandra I can’t get out of my head. After the plague, rich families in the neighbourhood donated funds for the renovation and rebuilding of the church—from an old Portuguese style to a British neo-Gothic—and each pillar has a small plaque with their names inscribed. On the left side of the entrance, in a small cursive print it says: Almeida.
I am trying to set a scene. Trying to find a different way to describe her face, but all I have is: Shining as pale and light and white as the moon. A hollow lacuna swooping down its centre, her tiny nose. Dark hair lining her face and moving quickly in the light – slippery, just like the moon. I have been trying to animate her, a scene perhaps, a pictorial clue. I think about how much images can help us in the absence of real lives, and I struggle to picture her without pictures. The scene: The wind crashes in through the gap in the window; it is the monsoon. Mildred stands in the middle of a room, bathed in deep velvety hues of green and lilac. The clouds are grey and fat, and there is no room for the sun to crawl in.
This text was first published in Doggerland: On Sociality & Idiocy, March 2019.
Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer and curator based in Mumbai. She is contributing editor at The White Review.