Museum of Images

DEBMALYA BANDYOPADHYAY
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Illustration by David Sturgess

A GAZELLE lifts its head and looks up at me. It stares into my eyes for a while, measures the span of my vision, and before I can ask what it has seen, it runs away. Is this a dream? Is the gazelle a part of me? Will it ever return to tell me what it saw?

WHEN lockdown struck, one of the things I incorporated into my schedule was a nightly stroll. Along with my parents, I made sure to briskly walk for at least half an hour on our terrace post dinner. It was our only source of exercise in those flattened days bathed in blankness. One such night as I walked the small stretch of our terrace for the umpteenth time, I looked out at the desolate street below and paused. 

On the dark balcony of our neighbours, the street lamp made a small pool of yellow light. In the loneliness of that spotlight, a woman sat combing the long stretches of her hair. There wasn't a soul around - only the halo of light and her, combing her hair like there was no past, no future, only herself alone with the moon. I stood motionless for a long time. Then I pulled my heart away. 

When I think of it, my mind is a scrapbook of these images, these moments that return to me time and again and ask me who I am. These visions have given me a world to seek for the poetry of being. When I write about anything, these images invariably seep in, which makes writing almost like dictation. I see an image. I daydream. I write it down. I ask myself what this image means to me. 

I build in me a museum where I am the lone visitor.

"WHAT do you see, half-pence?"

"I see a gazelle looking into my eyes."

"How long does it stare for?"

"It leaps over something and runs away."

I TEND to remember bits and pieces from most of my dreams. There are stories and characters my subconscious only hints at, but never reveals to me. One afternoon I dreamed up the plot of what could be an entire novella. On another, I had a glimpse of a woman in red, standing alone on a tiny island that floated away into the sea. 

Who was that? I asked myself later that day and had no answer. Was it my subconscious playing seek, and ye shall find? Was it someone I had once known, whose identity had only left its shadow behind? I recalled a short story by Humayun Ahmed where the protagonist falls in love with a girl who he meets in a frightening dream recurring every night. He refuses to stop this dream-loop because he doesn't want to stop seeing the girl. In reality, I realized I would actually never meet the characters in my dream again. I would never get a chance to ask them what they saw in my mind. This ephemerality is perhaps what makes these images even more special to me.  

It is this epiphany - that our mind has space enough for another world behind our eyelids - that has always driven me to dream.

Perhaps I connect to and remember these snapshots better if they visit me when my mind is uncluttered, devoid of its usual tangles. During lockdown I had very little to occupy myself with, the days washed over me like shoreline waves. Even post dreaming, I enjoyed the quiet luxury of staying in bed for a few more minutes. Maybe it was this pause, this time of reflection, that allowed dream-images to emboss themselves into the soft palette of my subconscious.

"WHAT does the gazelle leap over?"

"Perhaps over language, stacks of grammar and idioms"

“And what does this gazelle mean to you?”

“It is the poem I’m trying to write.”

OFTEN, I find the visions of others building a permanent home in my headspace. For the last couple of years, I have been obsessing over paintings from the 19th-20th century. I look for a narrative when I come across a painting. Who are these characters? Where were they a moment before? Where are they off to, on the highway of time? I ask myself what each brush stroke or blemish signifies. Every painting becomes an entire story, a tale we tell ourselves as the audience. Later, a vague feeling of absence settles in. What if we could meet ourselves as we exist in someone else’s mind? How would I appear in someone else's vision? Would there be anyone to remember me at all, to celebrate my existence through art? 

It becomes obvious to me that vision is a kind of memory. On my desk is a tattered black and white photograph of my grandfather from the 1960s. Sometimes I stare at it until the proud, handsome man in the photograph becomes someone I know. I envision his life through the stories I have heard. He becomes a tangible entity, albeit fragmented, grainy, fuzzy behind the vagaries of time. It's almost as if I can raise my hand and touch him, touch his days, touch his heart folded with flowers. Do you know who I am, Grandpa? Do you know who you are?

Vision is a time machine. It holds our hand and runs into the night like a nomad child. “Come run with me,” it beckons, “I'll show you all the things to love in the world.” 

COME, gazelle from my poem, let us leap across the river of language that separates us. Let us swim with the woman in red who floated away to a dream-island, let us untangle the stories someone combed into the locks of their hair. We will weave our days with these images, we will knit our nights with these moments. But most of all, we will remember the corridors of our own little museums. We will remember what passed the oval of our eyes, we will remember the secrets we dreamed away into the night. 

We will remember the life we envisioned and fell in love with.

Debmalya loves exploring the world with any tool he finds, be it his degree in mathematics or his affair with poetry. His hobbies and interests are as scattered and varied as his dreams.