I’m sitting with my cup of tea, in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s snowing outside. Snow that’s turning to slush at first contact, but it’s still snow. White and swirly and cold. However, snow in April is not the oddest part of this trip.
A few years ago, I’d timed a trip to New York with The New Yorker Festival. A friend who lives in Manhattan (no less) heard the events I was attending at the festival and told me, “Next time you hear of stuff like this, let me know? I’d love to go.” I remember looking at him like he was a bit of an idiot. How could you live in New York and need someone in India to tell you about what’s happening at The New Yorker Festival?
Having spent about two weeks in New York in a domesticated fashion and not as my usual touristy self, now I see why he’d said what he had. I’ve managed one trip to one museum and one hour at a photography fair in the time that I’ve been here. Whereas usually my New York days are filled with walking and culture-vulture-ing, these past weeks have been all about commuting, groceries and domestic chores. I haven’t even read a book. Finding time to wander around Central Park every now and then has felt like a victory of sorts.
For the first week or so, it was actually sort of amusing to live this life. I felt like I was watching myself, like in an out of body experience. This is also how life can be — filled with invisible, bland business that leaves you without a free moment and teaches you little more than patience and the awesome cooking potential of a low flame. But after 10 days, the restlessness kicked in. Where are my words? No, groceries are not as important as cultural spelunking. Yes, writing is work even when what you’re writing isn’t something that’s going to be published right here right now. Yes, it demands time. And no, I don’t have any to spare. I feel like someone who cuts themselves. For every day that I don’t write, there is a thin slash; a set of tally marks that are keeping count of the things I haven’t done.
A novelist I had once interviewed told me that their greatest fear was that one day, their “fiction tap” would go dry, that they’d turn the faucet and there would be nothing. They told me that I had it easier with non-fiction. “Things are always happening, after all.” But it isn’t really enough for things to happen. Your work needs to take note of what is really happening in the midst of all the noise and clutter and chaos. For me, writing has been like exercising a muscle: the more you work the writing muscle, the easier it becomes to write. (I may have come up with this definition to feel marginally better about having no actual, physical exercise in my life, but never mind that.) When I say easier, what I mean is that you take less time with the paraphernalia that’s essential to writing. The words take less time to get strung into sentences; the structure of a piece comes together quicker; the point of writing something reveals itself with less coquetry.
At the recent AIPAD Photography Show, I saw this series of photographs by Stanley Forman. It’s titled “Death Fall” and they’re probably very famous, but it’s the first time I saw them. The five photographs were lined up one next to the other. You could perhaps have ignored the first few, but the last one is impossible to walk past unseeingly.
At the time that Forman took the shots, he didn’t really know what the photograph would be. “I didn’t even look at the next frame, I didn’t know exactly what I’d got. I knew I had shot them coming down, I didn’t realise how dramatic it was until I had developed the film,” he told the BBC. But his eye and his camera were focused perfectly to capture that fraction of a moment when the mother and son were literally suspended between life and death; the terrible, balletic movement of their fall. You could call it luck, but that’s not really the reason. It is, at best, a small part of making that amazing photograph. The reason Forman got those shots was that he was practiced. He could click without having to think too much about focus and frame because those things registered almost instinctively as a result of him having clicked and clicked and clicked countless times.
The snow has gone past ready-to-melt fluffiness. I can hear it fall now — sharp, occasional ticks against the window and the metal strips of the fire escape. I have a notebook with scribbles of a chapter of Sirius Black’s Mumbai adventures and a camera with photographs that need downloading. I should write, I could download the images. Instead, I’m listening to snow fall and the filtered fragments from the television show that my neighbour is watching. She’s watching The Office, the American version. I’m reasonably sure I heard Steve Carell. What I’m thinking about though is Irene, my neighbour, who has worked for a bank for the past 35 years and who can hear me walking in my apartment. That’s how I’ve met her. She knocked on the door and said, “Excuse me, but could you please walk softly? I can hear you walk in my apartment.” She also asked if I work at a restaurant. “You come home awful late.” She has not spoken to me in Spanish, which is what a lot of people in Spanish Harlem have done. (I just say “Gracias” to everything.) Irene wakes up every morning at 6 because she needs to reach work by 8am. I’m wondering if she’s fallen asleep with the television on or if she’s awake at 1.28am. She just turned off the television, which means she was awake. I wonder whether I kept her up. Perhaps she could hear me tapping on the keyboard (a thin wall separates her bed and my desk). When I go to sleep, I will step carefully, on my tiptoes, just to make sure my tread on the wooden floor doesn’t wake her.