A Photograph of the Dead
April 2017
illustration

Ouroboros (Infinity Serpent)

The man has a youthful face. The camera looks straight at him and captures in its frame his square jaw and the firm set of his mouth, which curves into the faintest of smiles. His long, broad nose holds a pair of thick black-rimmed spectacles that almost hide his brown almond-shaped eyes. A halo of frizzy hair softens his gaze, nonchalant and quietly confident, belying the true measure of his presence.

I have been fascinated by death and rituals of death for most of my life; none more so than that of my father. He died at the age of forty (or thereabout) from a heart attack in his sleep. I was six years old and had known him for just a few months of my life because until then I'd been raised by my maternal grandparents in India.

The funeral was a blur. I was too young to remember the details of such a dramatic event. What I knew of the person he was in life consisted of a random collection of memories adopted from my siblings: a day trip to the zoo, a drive in the car, a visit to the school where he was a science technician, and so on. I began to attach these recollections as actual memories to the only physical representation of him there was in the house, a black and white photograph that stood on a shelf in the lounge. It was an image of his face and the top of his shoulders, so I had no sense of how tall he was, nor the build of his body or weight, nor how he might have looked in a suit.

My mum, a devout practitioner of her Hindu religion, transformed this mundane photograph into a shrine, which she sat in front of every day. She marked his forehead with a tilak (red spot) made from rose petals and kumkum powder, then lit a deevo (oil candle) and recited verses from her religious books. A few times a year she renewed the dried garland of flowers that hung over the frame and surrounded his face, a ritual observed by Hindus in respect of their dead ancestors.

Throughout my childhood, this daily rite culminated in an annual remembrance, when it was our duty to fast and take offerings to the temple. My mother prayed for the absolution of his soul and performed the same rituals to the gods as she did for granting her material wishes, such as owning her own house, or passing her driving test, or having well-behaved daughters who didn't continually test her nerves. Venerating her husband (as she still does after thirty-nine years) was an extension of her religion, and to my young eyes the photograph of my father became that of a God, the ideal embodiment of the perfect man-father.

My family and relatives would often point out how I looked like a spitting image of my father. Which I did. However, being a female replica of Daddy in miniature not only felt weird and creepy, but was also an unspoken burden to fabricate a father-daughter relationship from the whispers of a myth and an image. I tried my best, although a relationship born of a two-dimensional photograph is necessarily incomplete.

Over time, as other aged and sick family members died, their photos were added to the shrine with a customary garland. The photograph of my father remained the most prominent, and while photos of the living were rarely displayed (my parents’ wedding and baby photos of me and my sisters were all kept in albums hidden away in my mum's bedroom), the souls of the dead were a constant presence. I knew so little about my father's ‘lived’ existence that his shrine, the eternal window to his spirit, became the entire focus of my relationship with him. After all, a relationship with a dead man was better than no relationship at all!

I fashioned myself not just on looking like him, but being like him, which proved particularly confusing when I was faced with contradictory information. For example, my mum would often reminisce about how he used to tease her and make her laugh when they cooked dinner together. Then in the next breath, she would angrily berate his useless, impractical nature. Usually, the negative version stuck. “You're just like him, no common sense!” she said.

My father would simply gaze at me in silence, with a kind of Mona Lisa smile on his face. In my mind, I filled the gaps of his personality with the qualities of my ideal father; patient, kind, and full of praise and encouragement. However, to be like him meant living up to his ideal, and I was a mere human, not a god. Thus, the schism grew and widened into a gaping emptiness, which I later attempted to fill through romantic relationships with much older men. Unfortunately, they were human too.

As I grew into teenage-hood, I began to talk to my father's photograph. I had spied on my mum doing this for years, sometimes listening to her lamenting the hardships he'd left her to deal with, weeping on her own. So I followed suit. I cried and bemoaned the tribulations of puberty and teenage angst: the stress of exams, the unrequited love of a boy I was too scared to talk to, the excess fat on my body, the jealousy I felt in comparing myself to my sisters. I talked to him late at night when everyone else was in bed and I spoke to him about everything I didn't dare to share with my best friend. The entire weight of my problems was pushed onto his image, and he, as generous in his sympathy as I expected, remained faithful to my ideal. In death, he was more alive than he had ever been in life.

My 40-year-old father never aged and his ghostly presence throughout my life was simply the norm, taken for granted within my family's cultural and religious context. It was many years later when I realised the real and short-lived relationship I'd had with him, was in fact frozen within me at the age of six, when I had called him ‘Daddy’ for the first time. My siblings and I have never graduated to calling him ‘Dad.’

Today, as a 46-year-old adult, I recognise that I have a complicated engagement with photographs. I do not display photographs of myself, family, friends, or even special occasions in my home. For me, a photograph and death are intimately connected, because an image of a living being is a moment from the past that has been frozen at a specific moment in time. It is a symbol of their mortality.

Yet we have come to rely so heavily on photographs and images. We say that an image ‘speaks a thousand words,’ and it is seemingly an easy and instantaneous pleasure to ‘like’ dozens of images on social media every day. I feel wary about why we spend so much of our time looking at selfies, baby photos, cute kids pictures, holiday snaps, etc., instead of being present and experiencing the living essence of people that surround us and change continuously. What do we imagine will happen with all these millions and millions of photographs when the subjects within them eventually die? Will we guard them zealously, as we do the albums of our ancestors? Or will we enshrine them with religious paraphernalia, as my mum does the photograph of my father? Perhaps it is because we delude ourselves into imagining that saving these memories forever may somehow allow us to live forever.