Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Importance of Reality

Ever since I bought my DSLR camera, I've been trying to justify why I find certain things worthy of seat in my 16GB memory card and why I don't give certain other things a chance. In other words, I have been wondering - often cursing myself for not being able to generate a reasonable answer - what I find beautiful and what I do not. Are only beautiful things worthy of being captured through the lens? Or is everything that one chooses to capture through the lens beautiful?

Such questions, when left unanswered, become bothersome indeed. This one in particular grew so loud over the past few months that I dreaded the moment I'd have to pull the camera out of its black leather bag. Sometimes, intimidated by the question and confused by the implications of the answer that it would elicit, I have chosen not to act, letting the shot go and forgetting the moment forever. The past few days have serendipitously provided answers and somehow eased the pressure on my right index finger just before the click. But before I talk about answers, I must first explain the question itself.

When I first moved to Delhi a few months ago, an eager friend dragged me by the arm into what he believed was one of the finest spots to unleash the potential of a 18mm-55mm lens: Akshardham. Fine weather and a clear sky embraced us that day as I watched hundreds of men and women committing, through a click, the pink sandstone to memory forever. Then I looked at the monument through the Viewfinder and realized that it was all that I had imagined it to be - aesthetically appeasing, symettrical and clean. But it was nothing more.

I remember standing there for a while, then shifting positions uneasily, surreptitiously sneaking into the grassed area and then returning to my original spot, hoping to get the right click. I adjusted every single setting on the device, until it became obvious that there would be no magical camera-moment that day. So I clicked the picture anyway, more to please my friend than anything else. That was when the question - What is beautiful? - intensified.

To complicate things further, when I visited Chandni Chowk on the subsequent weekend, I found it intensely photogenic. Grime, dust and heaps of garbage notwithstanding, this place was far more interesting through the lens than Akshardham or the Lotus Temple could ever be. I found it almost as beautiful as Kurla Station on a busy Monday morning, Ranganathan Street just before Karthikai Deepam or, for that matter, the narrow gullies in Mathura for which no one cared. Perhaps I should speak of how much more I thought of the rickety ferry between Al Ras and Al Ghubaiba in Dubai than I did of Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower. Or why the messiest port on the Ganga is just as memorable as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Perhaps you will come to the same conclusion that I arrived upon a few days ago - that I am deliberately being nonconformist, that I'm rejecting socially accepted standards of beauty just because they're the accepted norms. Perhaps you think that I'm being a dissenter for the sake of being branded as one. I will not blame you for reaching such a conclusion for I was unable to come up with a much better explanation myself until recently. Everytime somebody told me "But Europe is the most beautiful place!", I found myself cringing. I felt the desperate urge to ask them what it was particularly that they found so beautiful and why they found it more beautiful than another exceptional place (the world will never be short of exceptional places).

For a long while I hated myself not for being critical of people who could make superficial, all-encompassing judgements (such as New York > Paris or Delhi > Kolkata) but for not being able to explain why I disagreed with them. Perhaps you might well argue your case if you were required to live in such a place and make a living there, but I think it is quite strange that travellers make such statements. Well yes, if you compare the number of malls or if you use the width of the roads as a numerical parameter to pass such a judgement, you can use all these logical operators ('<', '>', '='). But only a fool would compare Bangladesh's roads to New York's or Dhaka's almighty history with that of The Big Apple's 200 year version.

I think human endeavour is beautiful, perhaps even more beautiful than nature's boons. Cultures evolve out of this endeavour, languages are composed through human effort and architecture develops from collective creativity and sweat. Every second of the minute, every minute of the hour and hour of the day, these efforts are being made. Some are reinforced, a few are cancelled out and some just hang in there. So it is safe to say that styles which have developed over hundreds of years aren't born out of chance. They are organic to the place; in other words, they are real.

Reality is, if not beautiful (I will contest that it always is), very important. Reality is when you don't have to wear a mask or put up boards on either side of a bridge to hide the houses of the poor or when you can be proud of yourself for what you are. Reality is the consequence of a multitude of forces, human and natural, which is so difficult to duplicate that any attempt to do so manifests itself as contrivance. There was something unnatural about Akshardham which, even though splendid in architectural design, left it bereft of the magic that other 'real' monuments conjure. Perhaps, over time, it will become as real as everything else, but that day is not today.

This concept of reality is also what prevents me from accepting blank statements which say that a sparsely populated town in the US or in Scandinavia is any more beautiful in the eyes of a traveller than Baghdad or Lagos. If you find one place intensely more attractive, it is because of the tinted lenses that you wear. Take them off, learn about the place and you will find magic in the place you are visiting. When you realize what is real, it is hard not to find that beautiful.

Perhaps you will disagree with much of what I have said about beauty and reality today, but I am satisfied that I have been able to articulate what  has avoided me for quite some time now. So the next time when I think that the scene at 10 a.m. underneath the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway just outside DLF Cybercity is worthier of being captured by the lens than the haute-couture within DLF's swanky CyberHub, my finger won't tremble with doubt.

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