The Nefirobe neighbourhood sits on a small hill at the northern end of the Lekaro district, just to the west of the much larger hill of Labetachi. The neighbourhood was a fashionable address in the reigns of Bulodi II and of the empress Aritokéh, but it was badly hit during the great plague known as the Blue Death, and never fully recovered. Its wealthy residents resettled to the east, in the Topla district, and their large and elegant former houses were subdivided into workers’ tenements. Despite the fact that it is located next to the extremely affluent neighbourhood on the western side of Labetachi Hill, Nefirobe is now a poor and more-or-less forgotten corner of the city.
In this print, we are presented with a view of one of Nefirobe’s characteristically steep and narrow side streets, which descend towards the Nachilatizabu (“Tizabu Canal”) between high stone buildings. It is near nightfall, and a lamplighter is going about his duties. We see his aged-looking hand holding a horizontally placed ladder, which is presumably resting on his shoulder. In one of the artist’s recurring compositional strategies, these elements are placed in the extreme foreground, in such a way as to place the viewer in the role of a participant in the scene—in this case, that of the old lamplighter. Looking down towards the bottom of the street between two rungs of the ladder, we see that there is a young woman leaning against the stone balustrade bordering the canal. She would appear to be waiting for someone—perhaps, since she is looking towards the water, someone arriving by boat. Her body language seems to suggest a mixture of nervousness and impatience. In spite of the distance and the failing light, it is clear to us she is uncommonly beautiful.
In Sensuka, some very basic primary education is offered free of charge by monasteries and temple organizations. For those families who can afford the moderate fees, however, there is also the option of sending their children to a kadilu (from a word meaning “greenhouse”). At these schools, boys and girls aged six to eleven learn arithmetic, artistic and athletic skills, and the reading and writing of poetry. The largest kadilu is located in the Topla district, and it is this school that is depicted in the print.
Not only time but space too appears dilated when one is a child, and by a far greater factor than can be accounted for simply by one’s smaller size. In this view of the schoolyard surrounding the Kadilutopla, the artist alludes to this childhood perception of the world by wildly distorting the scale of the depicted elements and of the distances between them. The main school building in the background is so far away that its ground floor is partially hidden under the horizon, while the drystone fence around the perimeter of the schoolyard soars towards the sky like a mountain ridge. For the child in the foreground of the image, from whose vantage point we are observing the scene, this far corner of the schoolyard constitutes a curious little world unto its own: The beaten earth surface contains a variety of interestingly shaped pebbles offering themselves up for solitary play, and there are several species of ants to watch deftly weaving their way through the uneven terrain as they scuttle about their inscrutable errands. The patches of moss in the moist and cavernous recesses visible at the base of the stone wall are redolent with mystery, and the mind boggles at all the countless unknown realms that must lie hidden in between the cracks of this seemingly endless escarpment. As for the trees whose lowest branches overhang the wall, they are so tall that it would not even occur to one to try to look and see how far up they go.
The schoolyard is subdivided into sections for different age groups. We are in the area reserved for the youngest children, in the vicinity of a separate, smaller school building (not visible in this view) where they receive instruction. Before us, variously-sized clusters of small children can be seen forming, dispersing, and reforming, in ever-shifting, embryonic manifestations of fellowship and rivalry, collaboration and combat, idolization and ostracism, love and hate. Out in the distance, beckoning tantalizingly, stretch the glamorous lands of the slightly older children, those aged eight to nine. And far beyond that, completely out of sight, on the other side of the main school building, is the region reserved for the oldest students, those who have ceased even really to be children anymore. It is a place one always thinks of with a sense of wonder, but also with a certain suspicion, one cannot quite say why. One knows one will go there oneself some day, but for now, that knowledge is something purely abstract. It is a time so distant one can barely imagine it.
The Totamontra festival takes place over the course of a week at the end of summer. The series of ceremonial and festive events that comprise it were originally intended to propitiate a good harvest season, but they have long ago come to be associated with the hope for good fortune in all spheres of life. In Sensuka, one of the most beloved features of the Totamontra is the Jajapi night market. The market is held every evening for the duration of the festival along the boardwalk of Jajapi Beach, at the city’s eastern limits. All along the walkway, vendors set up tents offering everything from cheap jewelry to foot readings, and above all, a vast assortment of snack foods, of which the oloturo (sea cucumber on a stick stuffed with ground pork and deep-fried) and kaudalki (shark fin candy) are the most popular. From the awning of each tent hangs a glass lantern known as a lolitopi, which are blown into a variety of amusing shapes, usually that of an animal. The play of colours and the refracted light through the irregularly shaped glass of the lolitopi lend the night market a strange, magical atmosphere, an effect that is heightened by the contrast between the narrow, illuminated strip of the boardwalk and the dark beach and pitch-black water beyond.
We are at the eastern end of the boardwalk, near to where a small carnival is set up for the duration of the Totamontra. The little boy in the foreground is returning from this funfair, and he carries a stuffed octopus toy that he has won at one of the carnival games. This toy also has a symbolic value here, as the octopus is the traditional emblem of Tofa, the Luck Goddess, who indeed is normally depicted as a figure half-woman and half-octopus. The entrance archway of the temple of Tofa is visible just to the boy’s right. This temple (not to be confused with the much larger Tofa temple in Peleosti, see n. 44) is by far the oldest building in Jajapi, long predating the extensive settlement of the neighbourhood (which has taken place only over the past fifty years or so, with the expansion of Sensuka to the eastward). The first Tofa temple is said to have been built by shipwrecked sailors—or pirates, according to some accounts—who washed up alive on Jajapi Beach, and wanted to give thanks to the Goddess for their good fortune. Before lng, the temple had become a popular pilgrimage destination. It is this longstanding association between Jajapi and the luck deity that eventually led to the district becoming a focal point of the Totamontra celebrations.
At the very centre of the image, an elderly man with a voluminous Chogyan amulet around his neck is speaking to his grandson, or possibly his great-grandson. He is gesturing towards the seaside residences on the right-hand side of the print and is likely recounting to the boy how, when he first moved to Jajapi, there were no houses along the edge of the beach, and the Tofa temple stood in splendid isolation between the sand and the windswept trees. Then, a little later, as the old man may go on to explain, a wooden boxing arena was set up near this spot, directly on the beach. The fights held there there drew a lot of spectators for a time, but now the structure is long gone. There was also an amateur athletics club that had its headquarters not far from here, just by where the fairgrounds now are. The members used to organize extravagant parties by the water, until the clubhouse was destroyed in a fire.
So many crowds, just like this one, gathering and then dissolving, like the waves upon the shore. What does it all add up to? The boy surely does not worry about such things, but the boy’s young father, who is also present, seems to be listening to the old man’s reminiscences with a certain degree of discomfort. Perhaps he is wondering what it is like to be that age, how one stands it, knowing that all one’s life is behind one, that almost everything we look upon stands in relation to one—if at all— only as a memory. It is no longer possible to imagine a future in which one’s disparate scraps of experience come together at last, coalescing into some grand meaning, some revelation of ultimate purpose.
To think this way, however, as the old man would no doubt remind him, would be to ignore the core concept of Chogya. One must never forget that one’s consciousness is only temporarily residing in this embodied life experience. In one’s next existence, one could theoretically find oneself living out any one of the other lives around one now, or a life from the past, or the future. Since the number of these reincarnations is infinite, each imaginable outcome is far from unlikely, and may indeed be a mathematical certainty. Eventually, the old man knows that, he may very well find himself living the life of a champion boxer in that vanished arena, or of the teenage girl in the left foreground of the image who is heading to the carnival where a boy she fancies is working at one of the game stalls, or of the wealthy foreign tourist complaining about the water pressure in a high-rise hotel that will stand here a couple of centuries hence, or of a pirate washing up upon a deserted beach, infinitely grateful for the wet sand between his clutching fingers.
The above image by yours truly of J. Alfred Prufrock walking along Marine Drive in Mumbai is featured on the cover of a new book by the Indian author L K Sharma.
“The Love Song of K. Anand Kak” is the wonderfully poetic and impassioned account of a modern-day Indian Prufrock’s struggles to confess his feelings to the object of his affection against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic.
The book is now available for purchase as an e-book on Amazon.com as well as on Amazon.in. Get your copy today!
Below is a brief summary of the book by the author:
“J. Alfred Prufrock is teleported to Bombay a century later. Old habits die hard. He is shy of women and craves for love. New Eliot makes him sing a Love Song to one who is anxious about the descent of India. So, doubt-stricken Prufrock makes no headway. A pandemic appears like deus ex machina and transforms Prufrock’s love life but only for a night. A new age, not imagined by T. S. Eliot, dawns. A Real Unreal City rises in the Pingdom of Love. AL (Artificial Lover) uses a smartphone with speech recognition system updated by LBL (Love Development Lab). Kissing through Zoom is not Prufrock’s idea of love. Mermaids stop singing to Prufrock who remembers he has to drown.”
The Sesquicentennial Park on the island of Rateliska was created to commemorate the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the transfer of the imperial capital to Sensuka. In many ways, it represents the then newly-crowned Emperor Ojori III’s desire to outdo Cherufi Park, which had been laid out fifty years earlier by the empress Aritokèh to commemorate the centennial of the same event (See n. 14). However, whereas Cherufi had been intended as a representation and a celebration of all of the many diverse regions of the empire, Ojori wished for his new park to emphasize the empire’s role within a global context. The main portion of the park was therefore laid out as the “World Gardens,” in which each section would be themed around a different country. The area representing the empire, naturally enough, would be placed at the very centre.
Somewhat complicating the realization of this project was the fact that the empire had by this time been almost completely shut off from the outside world for over a hundred years. The committee of architects, artists, and gardeners assembled to design the park thus had nothing but very vague and incomplete notions about each of the featured countries. The result is that the World Gardens bear only the most tenuous relationship with any external geographic or cultural reality. The Italy Garden, for instance, is conceived around the premise that Italian cities are built on water, upon which the floating buildings move about like boats, forming ever-shifting urban configurations to best meet citizens’ needs throughout the day. This area of the park therefore consists of an artificial pond, in which various miniature buildings, including an impressive leaning amphitheatre, bob about amid the ducks and koi fish. The United States section is inspired by tales of a vast city made up entirely of castles, towering up against each other. A topiary representation of a portion of this city is fronted by a scaled-down replica of the many-horned green goddess setting a torch to the world.
The foreground of the print depicts one of the most enchanting sections of the park, the Russia Garden. These are built on a terraced hillock that is meant to recall the layout of Matrioscow, Russia’s capital city (According to reports, the first layer of habitations behind the outer fortifications of this city is followed by a second line of walls enclosing a second, slightly smaller layer of habitations, followed by another line of walls, and so on, all the way to the domed temple behind the innermost fortress, which owing to this position, as though at the core of an onion, is known as the Onion Dome). Running along the edge of each of the five rising terraces of the Russia Garden is a circular channel of water. The channels are populated with swans—a nod to the special place held by these birds in the hearts of the Russian people, who believe them to be the reincarnations of departed women.
(Side note: This particular vignette is largely inspired by the 1967 Montreal Expo as well as by the countless souvenir postcards of the event. When Montreal was still full of antique shops, I remember one would often come across whole boxes of these strangely flattened, orangey visions of an imaginary future.)
Another brilliant “vidiette” by Jim Avis, based on my comics adaptation of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, “One Art.” The video features audio and footage from a very spirited reading of the poem by Sophia Wilcott.
For centuries, it has been a tradition throughout the empire to mark the eve of Midsummer (considered to be the first new moon after the summer solstice) with a nighttime display of takarnalu. These are paper lanterns mounted around a source of heat, which causes them to fill with hot air and rise high into the sky. Originally, these takarnalu were small paper lanterns containing a lit candle, but as time went on, they became ever larger and more elaborate. They now tend to be around the size of hot air balloons, which indeed they essentially are, only that they are always unmanned and constructed out of a heavy but translucent paper material. In Sensuka, takarnalu are now fashioned in a limitless variety of fantastical shapes, and a big attraction of the summer displays is seeing what ingenious and amusing new designs the organizers have prepared for the occasion.
The takarnalu are tethered with very long ropes to barges in the middle of Sensuka Harbour, in such a way as to be visible from almost any location in the central neighbourhoods of the city. Given the pronounced slope of the terrain and the architectural style of the buildings, this print would appear to show a view of the lantern display from Labeosti Hill. The balcony in the foreground is furnished with a temporary structure known as a sakamo, a kind of small, airy linen tent which Sensukans will set up on their balcony or rooftop so as to have a cooler and better ventilated place to sleep on very hot summer nights. The empty cups, wine jar, and discarded sandals indicate that two people were watching the lantern display from the balcony. They have not waited until the end of the show, however, to retire into the tent.
I’m honoured to have my painting “View of an Imaginary City: The Terenfi Canal” included in the Hope International Online Art Exhibition 2021 (organized by Karkhana Art Space), alongside so many amazing works of art by artists from all over the world. You can view my painting along with a selection of the works of other featured artists in this YouTube video:
A watercolour illustrating the most iconic passage in the seemingly endless and endlessly beautiful collection and analysis of memories that is Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel, “À la Recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”).
“Et tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. Ce goût c’était celui du petit morceau de madeleine que le dimanche matin à Combray […] ma tante Léonie m’offrait après l’avoir trempé dans son infusion de thé ou de tilleul. La vue de la petite madeleine ne m’avait rien rappelé avant que je n’y eusse goûté […]. Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir. Continue reading →
In honour of Valentine’s Day, here is my comics adaptation of the final portion of a very romantic poem by Raymond Carver, “Waiting,” The poem seems particularly appropriate on this Valentine’s Day, when we all find ourselves waiting, in one way or the other, for the return of so many of the things that give meaning to our existence–including the quest for those things.
This comic was done as a commission for someone in Italy, and the text featured on the actual physical pages is a translation of the poem into Italian (the language of love, mais oui!). I’m including that version below. The excellent translation is by Riccardo Duranti and Francesco Duranti. Continue reading →