THE BALLADS OF NAN AND SUNIL
In the earlier years of school, I would come home in a pool car. We, along with some mothers would resemble a pack of sardines in that claustrophobic, rusty Jeep, which would honk its way through the massive crowd at the end of school hours. The school I apparently belonged to had the reputation of being one of those schools in the world with the maximum number of pupils. And the roads in her premises after school used to be a nightmare as the sea of pupils and their guardians made their way towards home. So, in my childhood days, I had spent quite many hours in the confinement of that pool-car, sandwiched between friends and mothers, smelling of chalk and dreaming of my grandmother reading to me one of those adventures of the quintessential Bengali detective Feluda created by the filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
I would find the journeys back home to be extremely boring. The mothers would compare our notes and our grades, gossip about other guardians, bitch about their mother-in-laws and talk about film stars. They would talk endlessly about why none of us are coping very well in school and how not switching to the cable television can actually be good for us. They would talk about how, who got beaten by which teacher and when who caught her husband secretly watching a sleazy film on the cable television and how many hours her son spends watching Captain Planet and Speed Racer. I remember hearing about Rituparno Ghosh for the first time during one of those journeys. The mothers were gossiping about the talented young filmmaker and his effeminacy, about how he addresses even seniors with tui instead of the more respectful apni.
On 30th May 2013, Rituparno Ghosh passed away prematurely at the age of forty-nine. And on that very afternoon, a parcel wrapped in a cardboard box reached my home; Nan Goldin’sThe Ballad of Sexual Dependency resting in peace inside its cardboard womb. I spent the entire night going through the masterpiece; Nan’s odyssey. And couldn’t help but contrast it with a favorite book of mine, Sunil Gupta’s Wish You Were Here. In Goldin’s masterpiece, the photographer talks about her sister’s suicide and leaving home three years later in fear of a similar fate as being one of the turning points in her life; while Gupta describes leaving India for Canada as the life-changing event. Goldin writes:
I realized in many ways, I was like my sister. I saw history repeating itself. Her psychiatrist predicted that I would end up like her. I lived in fear that I would die at eighteen. I knew it was necessary for me to leave home, so at fourteen I ran away. Leaving enabled me to transform, to recreate myself without losing myself.
Sunil Gupta’s Wish You Were Here chronicles his life and times over the decades, with intimate snapshots from the years that have fleeted. In the book dedicated to his friend Paolo, who died of complications related to AIDS in 2006, Gupta writes in the Afterword:
For better or worse, the trajectory of my life was alterned irreversibly at the age of fifteen when I was put on a plane for Canada by one parent in Delhi to be met by the other one in Montreal with a stop-over with my sister in Bombay. A typical middle-class childhood in Delhi was full of certainties and the security of the location both in our suburb Nizamuddin and the ancestral land in UP. Issues of who one was or sexuality, marriage and so on were not raised, they were all given as inevitable fortunes of caste and class and being urban Indian. So, never having been anywhere other than the usual hill stations for summer holidays and annual visit to the land, I was suddenly travelling across continents.
One of the earlier photographs we come across in The Ballads of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin is a portrait of her aging parents, taken at a French restaurant in 1985; the veil of equanimity fails to hide the tide of sorrow, held back with much force by both her parents. In Sunil Gupta’s book, one of the earlier photographs is a portrait from Montreal of his mother Penny in tears; Gupta writes below ‘Penny, who cried when words failed her, just couldn’t figure out why I had chosen to become “homosexy” as she used to put it.’ Both the photographs move me; both of them are similar in the sense that they both deal with that moment when parents must come to term with the choices their children made.
Wish You Were Here and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency are both books about memory. In the former, Penny, Shalini, Fakroon, Rudi, Saleem, Aruna, Raabiya play cameos over the years in Sunil’s life; in the latter, Susan, CZ, Butch, Cookie, Skinhead, Max and Dieter play their roles in Nan’s. As we turn the pages of Gupta’s book, we fleet from one moment of joy to another: whether at the beach in Mahabalipuram with Steve or in Jaipur, picnicking with Neerja Lath or in Delhi with Saleem; in Goldin’s monograph, we see her friends twisting at her birthday party in New York City or playing a game of Monopoly or picnicking on the esplanade in Boston. Two of my favorite photographs include a 1978 photograph of Kim and Mark sharing an intimate moment in the red car as well as the photograph of Mary and David hugging each other on the couch; the silent moment of intimacy and passion, trust and vulnerability touches me, just like Sunil’s humorous photograph of toddlers Kunal and Ramya Lindsay, underneath which, he writes: Fortunately, if you’re gay and childless like me, then your best friends have the children for you.
The landscape of the two books of memories is dominated by relationships and heartbreak. While Nan Goldin herself stresses on the fact that her photograph of the heart-shaped bruise could actually be the symbol of her volume of love and loss, Sunil Gupta’s is a lucid journey of wonderful memories of time well-spent with his friends and family as well as partners Rudi or Steve or Edward. Yes, there is heartbreak; both Edward and Paolo desert him. But the optimism and inherent sweetness in Sunil Gupta’s work cannot be avoided. The central photograph of Goldin’s book is of pain: the photograph of Nan after being battered by her boyfriend is one of her most recognized photographs in the visual world. Nan Goldin writes:
The photograph of me battered is the central image of the Ballad; the ultimate outcome of the subtext of the book, how extremely difficult it is to be in a couple, the underlying violence between men and women.
There is pain in Gupta’s book too. As we leaf through Wish You Were Here, we see him being diagnosed HIV+, going through hard times and recovering again. As we travel through his life, we lose Mrs. H on the way; we pass by Penny being wheel-chaired at Anjali’s wedding in 2007: her last outing. Yet, Sunil Gupta’s Wish You Were Here ends with optimism: photographs of celebrations at Delhi’s first ever LGBT Pride, held in 2008. His is a book of hope. A book about the universality of life’s joys and sorrows, fear and freedom.
Italo Calvino’s The Adventure of a Photographer is probably one of the best writings on photography produced in our times. In the short story, Calvino talks about family photography being an act of recording a fantastic or idealized version of an event or moment:
The photograph album remains the only place where all these fleeting perfections are saved and juxtaposed, each aspiring to an incomparable absoluteness of its own.
While both Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Sunil Gupta’s Wish You Were Here can be treated as family albums, looking at them from the perspective of Calvino can make us look at the two works differently. In the Afterword of her ballad, Nan Goldin indeed talks about present times, where no one any longer believes that a photograph is real and the belief that photographs can be true have become almost obsolete. She even admits that the larger reason for having done this book has been eliminated in the present day. Yet, both the books stand testimony to the fearlessness and honesty with which both Nan and Sunil have lived their lives. Both will be cherished for a long, long time for the wealth of personal memory and social history they have provided us with.