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Photographs Not Taken and Photographs Stolen

There was an image that I did not take when I was in India this winter, but the image is burned in my memory.

I did not take it on purpose. It was the kind of photo that I would have felt unkind in taking, a moment that would have been nothing more than exploitative gawking. But the moment and its full context unfolding in front of me was just too overwhelming in an East-meets-West/cognitive dissonance kind of way.

R. and I were in the northeast mountains of India, in an area that you had to have a special permit to travel in, called Sikkim. We were visiting one of the famous Buddhist monasteries there, and this was the only monastery that we visited where there were armed guards with machine guns outside the gate (and for those not versed in things political in India, those guards were not there to protect the monks). The whole place had a very different feeling–repressed, strict, somewhat unfriendly–than any other religious site we had visited. We had walked around most of the grounds, and were about to wind up our visit and get back into a rented car for a multi-hour bumpy ride on roads-that-are-not-roads. We were headed back to the main gate outside the monastery when I saw the woman with the bamboo basket.

First, a contextual note: on roads winding up mountains we saw for miles and miles the same scene playing itself out. A slight woman or man–but most usually a woman–carrying a basket on her back with a strap that wrapped itself from the basket around the top of her head, with the basket’s contents almost certainly weighing as much if not more than the person. In more populated areas we would see the same slight frames carrying impossible loads of other people’s luggage, barefoot, up steep hills, all with the same strap around the back reaching to the tops of the bearer’s forehead. On the roadsides, the contents were almost always rocks the size of a human head, or dirt. People carrying dirt and rocks were doing so to actually make the roads as we were driving up them. Endlessly, for hours, we would see small collections of humans sitting atop piles of rubble, with small hammers in hand. They were making smaller rocks out of bigger rocks– literally making gravel to fill the road that they were seated on the side of. So. There were these women and men, and these baskets for carrying heavy things, using one’s head as a fulcrum.

Back to the monastery: there are three people. Two monks, clad in scarlet robes. Shaved heads, dusty, sandaled feet in the winter air. There is a young woman standing between them. She is maybe in her early twenties, maybe younger. In the mountain areas there is a tangible mixing of ethnicities, and it is not a given that everyone is “Indian.” Her wide face has the reddish complexion of Tibet, or Mongolia, maybe. In any case, she is there. With one of those bamboo baskets on her back and a strap wrapped around her forehead. Her basket is half-full. The two monks are filling it the rest of the way up, with the same contents as what was in it to begin with: rocks the size of her head. She is wearing flip-flops, a skirt, a t-shirt and a cardigan. Her cardigan was embroidered with the phrase, in cursive–I could not make this up–”Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” Her gaze was vacant, and enduring.

I didn’t take that photo, but here is one that I felt less bad taking, out the window of a moving car. It has one of those baskets in it that I described:

The stolen photograph was stolen two weeks ago. Not in the cheeky sense of a photo taken with the subject unawares–although it was that, actually. I mean in the literal sense. The photo that cannot be taken again was on a memory card inside a camera that was stolen from my house two weeks ago in a break-in. It was a photograph of my mother.

It was April, and I had gone to take care of her for the month while she was recovering from her second major abdominal surgery following an ovarian cancer diagnosis. That month was fraught with so many things and so many emotions, and most of what I felt during that time was just that of willful pulling through in a prolonged moment of crisis. It had been rough going. She was moody, afraid of eating and so not eating. Every day was a struggle between us, and I worried that she might die while I was there. Or shortly after I left. She slept all the time, though not well. She was exhausted, existential and shrunken. Truly a shadow of her former self.

The photo on the memory card was one I snuck of her while she was asleep. She was buried in her bed, cocoon-like under an avalanche of comforters and pillows. A narcotic-induced deep and restless sleep. Her shaved head with bits of black stubble growing back in, a strong oblong outline of her skull while she lay on her back. The covers had her obscured totally up to her neck, and she was clutching them to her. There was a small light turned on at her bedside. What was most memorable about that photo was that she was half-smiling, half grimacing, in a very pronounced way while she slept. Her expression and her mouth jutted out in a focused, deliberate manner. It was intensely private and intensely something that was just for me to remember of that time. And I had not unloaded it from the memory card before it, and the camera, were unloaded from my home.

I don’t have any other photos of that time with her, though I do have another stolen image (again: semantics) to act as a placeholder. This image I stole–again literally–when I fled the homestead at eighteen, full of righteous anger and purpose, but still feeling homesick even as I was leaving. So I swiped some meaningful photos. It’s my mother, at eighteen. The photos were taken by a lovestruck serviceman, who dabbled in photography as a hobby. He wrote captions in red felt-tip on the backs of all the photos. The first time I ever saw these photos, as a teenager myself, I was struck by the fact that I make this exact same exasperated face.