A Way of Receiving


A badly addled addict ambles undecidedly to some dim destination, stumbling on fragments of awareness. He even asks for a photo to be made. I make a portrait of him. He has an interesting face. Should I do more to help? Let go, I tell myself. Let it be. He will get to where he needs to be. There are hundreds more like him. A while later, an unsettling thought occurs to me. For whatever reason, If I happen to be the very last person to make a portrait of him, how would I ever get to know? And then what would I do? What could I possibly do? These things can very well happen in Mumbai. I walk on.

A few other souls make their way back home, also walking slowly, silhouetted against the steepled, red, mercury vapour lamplight. Shuttered shop windows are now shut. Mannequins, some bald and sightless, others headless, imprisoned in more ways than one. Restaurants are winding down with the last of its raucous customers ponying up for their high spirits. Unseen alley cats seem to be all wound-up, scrabbling, screaming, mauling, sounding surreal, like babies bawling.

Walking late at night, head bowed and burrowed in a reverie, oblivious to everything else, I made my way towards the railway station. The footpath was quite empty now, as were the roads, which is a rarity in Bombay at 11:40pm, unless it’s a Saturday and you happen to be in a part of the city where there are more offices than residences. I often have my camera handy on nights like these, and have sometimes received a continuous stream of very satisfying photographs and experiences. At other times, like on this particular night, it is good to be alone, inward within oneself. A moment away from the madding crowd. A chance to think, especially after an encounter like that.

Why do I remember this particular instance so very clearly? I might not have remembered any of it at all, were it not for that request for a picture. Then, like a quiet, polite, apologetic stranger, lilts of an old film song carried by a slight wind intruded upon my brooding. It took me a moment to recognise the unmistakably serene voice of Mohammed Rafi. Not so much of a stranger anymore… A familiar song. Poetry in the soft lyrics. I followed the sound to the entrance of a colonial era building. In the passageway, an old night watchman seated on a chair, nodding off. Next to him, an old, battery powered transistor radio, the kind that I thought I would never see again. I had to stop for a bit, and listen.

If you think about it, old radios have a very unique sound. Sharp, throaty, monophonic, and with an unmistakable transmission crackle. This is not just any sound, but the sound of India, from the 50s to the 90s. This sound was everywhere, from local, hole-in-the-wall hairdressing salons and tea stalls to middle class homes. I’m fortunate to have heard, and loved, this sound. Especially fascinating to me was the famous All India Radio signature tune, on short and medium wave frequencies. Through my early years in school, it would play at the crack of dawn in my home. Based on the raga Shivaranjini, it was composed in 1936 by Walter Kaufmann, a Czech Jewish refugee to India, a musical genius fleeing from Nazi persecution. I had no idea about the watchman’s story, but I had to get a picture of his feet, sandals, cane and radio.

Mumbai has its own strange and shrouded night stories to tell, just like some of the other big cities around the world. The flitting and fleeting, the shadowed and hallowed, the quiet and unquiet. But Mumbai is different. The best stories from Mumbai’s nights cannot plainly be told, because something always gets lost in the telling. If you are in Mumbai, and if you are ready for it, you can experience these stories for yourself. You cannot simply see them. You need to receive them, almost as though a blessing. You need to become a creature of Mumbai’s night, if you truly wish to see. And this is why night photography, particularly in Mumbai, can be so brilliantly exciting. If Mumbai is life-in-your-face in the day, at night the nocturnal and inanimate inseparably come alive in an operatic, Wagnerian dance.

In the consuming and producing of photos, we often hear the words ‘taking’ and ‘making’ pictures. I’ve always been somewhat averse to ‘capturing’. Even as sharing images become as common as any language, ‘taking’ pictures is a matter of practical use, and ‘making’ is more a photographer’s domain. But infinitely more fulfilling is to ‘receive’ images like gifts from friends. It is not just about being open to the idea of it, but a comfortable immersion, of being ready to accept and recognise happy coincidences that come with exploration, work and thought. Of serendipity. And this works, regardless of genre.

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Better Photography.