Travelers talk a lot about seeing things for the first time-the notion of a fresh, unbiased eye, the aperture opening at the right instant and capturing in the frame of one’s mind what the experienced eye simply can’t see. Those who stay in one place speak in much the same way-though in these cases people speak of the familiar giving way to the sudden if not astonishing moment of seeing something anew.
Because I’ve been making photographs on this trip I’ve been thinking about photography. Susan Sontag’s comments about the aggressiveness of the photograph-how the collection of photographs not only changes the sense of what is worth looking at but what we have the right to observe-have been coming back to me as reach for my camera. It has been interesting to consider her argument as I gather images of our lives in India. “Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own,” she writes in On Photography. In an interview Sontag observes that in the People’s Republic of China, “people don’t see ‘photographically.'” Like people in the West, the Chinese photograph one another, as well as monuments and famous places. “But they’re baffled,” Sontag continues, “by the foreigner who will rush to take a picture of an old, battered, peeling farmhouse door.” Indeed here in India I’ve noticed baffled looks when I pull out my camera and photograph a sign, a door, or a ripped up sidewalk.
We’ve been in India long enough now that I am no longer noticing the things I was noticing when we arrived. The air is no longer as dirty, the streets are not as crowded, and the sound of horns is not as loud. Or so it seems. Last week I was walking on Bandarkhar Road with a canvas bag full of apples, oranges and mangoes and I noticed that I was no longer thinking about the crowds or the exhaust or where I avoid placing my foot. (Yes, I was thinking about not thinking about something.) On the other hand, I am becoming more tolerant of the irrepressible stares we attract from many of the locals. (At times it feels as if the people of Pune had never seen anyone with white skin and light hair, weird clothing, and odd manners.)
And then yesterday, as we walked the familiar route home from the pool, I felt a sense of routine. As usual, we stopped to buy bananas at the fruit market. But then an older man standing behind us said with a big smile that we had just bought bananas using no words. Indeed both the vendor and I had smiled at one another. And, guided by our previous meetings, when we had agreed (using my little Hindi and his little English) on two bunches of bananas-one that would be ready the following day. I had my rupees ready, he had as usual handed each of the wet-head kids an extra banana, and I found myself standing mute with a bag of bananas.
Danyavaad, I said, and we started for home. The older man, with his bag of bananas, caught up with us before we reached the entrance to the Deccan Gymkhana. We stood on the sidewalk, with our bags of bananas, and we asked him about living in this neighborhood in the 1950s. He told us about how everyone used to walk everywhere, the coming of bicycles to the city, and his impressions of the now crowded streets of Pune. We talked about his impressions of the US, too, during his frequent trios to visit his three children living in California.
So routine, if you let it, has a way of avoiding you. And, more often than not, in looking more than once-the classic double take-I am seeing something else in what I thought I already knew. Yet my double takes are more extended than the expression might suggest. Just the other day I was running on the ridgeline in the early morning and I stopped to listen to an unfamiliar bird call. And then I noticed, for the first time, that the season was changing-that the dry, cracked ground was teeming with small green shoots of clover-like grass.