Joseph Beuys, Actress, 1961. Photos courtesy of the artist
Notes from a Locked-down Bombay
Gita gandi, the ‘mad girl’ in the neighbourhood, wore ankle-length dresses. She had two — one blue-grey, the other, large stars and stripes, like the American flag. We live in Ghatkopar, a predominantly middle-class Gujarati neighborhood in Bombay; but through most of my childhood we lived across from a Catholic cemetery. My bed
overlooked the black and white metal crosses and overgrown grass.
Gita lived there.
Biraaj Dodiya, Dying is Never Being with Friends Again, Green-wood cemetery, Brooklyn, NY 2019
In the day, she wandered the streets, sometimes chatting with neighbours, she would collect plastic water cups from nearby wedding halls. In the evenings, she would disappear.
I was seven, my cousins six and nine. Neighbours warned us — be kind, but keep a distance, talk to her, but don’t share too much information. If someone noticed her turning the corner, they would scream, “the mad girl!”
We would line up to watch. A spectacle.
Gita looked like Joseph Beuys’ 1961 drawing, Actress.
An isolated figure with wild hair. She walked.
Cheerful, she moved alone; her appearances and disappearances had identical speed. She created in children equal amounts of fear and delightful curiosity. As if moments of compassion, cruelty and total shock were all possible, between the hours of nine and five. Until one day, the mad girl disappeared into Fatima Cemetery and we saw it on the news.
Studio, Ghatkopar, Mumbai 2020
August 2019. An astrologer does his job. A child prodigy.
Predicts a virus.
July 2019. I pack up my apartment in New York to return to India, after eight years in the United States. From my seventh floor window, the view is of an empty court. It comes with no sporting attachments — no hoops, no nets, no goal posts.
New York, 2019
Pan-athletic and non-competitive. Everyone is a winner, everyone is a loser and everyone is a loner here.
On Sundays, I watch a middle-aged man practice tai chi through treetops. At a safe distance, a father-daughter skate.
I realise now, it was a rehearsal.
June 2020. On the seventh floor of the building next door, a red towel (with the Ferrari logo) dries on the handlebars of an elliptical cycle.
Naples, Italy, 2019
I stare at roofs and half-constructed buildings from my bedroom window. We are still in Ghatkopar, this time on a higher floor, and not across from a burial site.
Neighbours, relatives and well-wishers send instructions and regards via WhatsApp messages. Wash your hands, sing happy birthday twice, benefits of warm turmeric milk at bedtime etc.
Concrete glistening wet from recent showers. Tarpaulin blue. We are at the beginning of June now; we’ve been home since March. At the cusp of the last mangoes and the first days of the monsoon.
In another India, far from elliptical cycles and treadmills, thousands walk home. Fallen faces, glistening sweat and on some cheeks, drawings from makeshift facemasks.
Biraaj Dodiya, Sirens, 2020
One way of not forgetting, is remembering somebody’s walk. Often in dreams, Gita appears. She walks down our old street. A street that has changed now, the cemetery more manicured, it has a Google review. The mad girl walks.
Where would she be now if she were alive? Walking? Walking home? Would a new generation of mothers and fathers and neighbours warn their kids to be kind but keep a distance?
Six feet distance from the mad girl!
Biraaj Dodiya, Rising Smoke, 2020
Biraaj Dodiya, Rising Smoke (detail), 2020
A question I have asked myself is, will I ever be able to make a painting that looks like the smell of a burnt tyre?
Sirens and hot air, the stench of tragedy and rage.
Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, 1966
Tyres burn; as I write, my friends in America are protesting. Days ago, we were locked in our homes, over time zones, on video calls. The world on pause, over a respiratory peril.
“A cosmic anger. A creative anger”, I hear poet Aimé Césaire say on YouTube; I think of the women of Shaheen Bagh.
Their silent service on pause; their cosmic, creative anger on pause.
Mothers, grandmothers, friends, sisters, daughters are now home. Nurses in hospital rooms. Silent service.
To have paused, and to be alive. A gift!
Perhaps a cosmic conspiracy, until we are gentler beings. Until then, we are still isolated; six feet apart. And the mad girl laughs.
This piece is a part of our special issue on Art in the time of Pandemic, curated by critic, author and one of our contributing editors, Ina Puri
*Comments will be moderated