Birth of a Pea Plant

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The earthernware platter was ideal. It was big and shallow. If he placed it on a table, with the tripod wound down to the correct height, he could angle the camera so that he got the perspective right. The view would be that of a flat surface. As he took the dish down from the loft, brushing cobwebs away from his face, Trupti’s voice climbed the stairs like a thin white cane, tapping round and back and forth, “ Now what are you doing? You’ll pull everything down and then go away…I’ll have to tidy up…”He held the platter in both hands, gauging the size and weight of it. He’d need to bore a small hole in its side, low into the curve of the vessel, for water to drain out. Would the platter crack and break in two if he hammered a nail into it? It would. Best to keep scratching at the surface with a screwdriver till it came out on the other side.

A bottom layer of pebbles, then a mixture of sand, black mud and cow-dung blended in equal proportions, smoothed over, pressed down, not too tightly. He sprinkled water over the surface, removing shards of white shell. He had to find a place for the platter- it needed light and air. None of the windows in the house had a sill inside or a ledge outside. He walked about the house looking for the best place. Seen like this, his house suddenly seemed alien to him, and he a visitor, glancing about him curiously. Were those chairs rosewood or mahogany? Soot marks on walls, at hand level. A narrow, three storied house, set right on the street, with three doors opening out in front at ground level, only one window in the front, more at the sides and back. Behind the house, the coconut groves stretched as far as the Ganpati temple but he didn’t think they’d have this view much longer. Girgaum was changing fast. Bhendi Bazaar and Byculla were spreading into it. The platter would have to be kept on the terrace, in the shade of the water –tank. He could get it down into the house whenever he wanted.

He’d waited twenty four hours for any weeds to spring up- this was the growing season, the grass seeds were invisible. A little watering and they’d spring up, the roots underneath already longer than the shoots above the ground. But, no grass seemed to be springing up- of course he’d sieved and cleaned the soil before packing it into the platter. He had the green pea ready between finger and thumb. He pressed down into the mud, going down almost an inch, a neat cylindrical hole. He dropped the soaked seed in and covered it up, carried the platter onto the table. The sun streamed into the room, the light was superb. He picked up the five pound movie camera he’d bought in London. Draper had been so helpful…He squatted down low, keeping the table at eye level. He wound the tripod down till he got it at the same level and fixed the camera on it. Sixteen frames a second- he had to keep count as he cranked. Through the lens, across the rim of the platter, the view looked like the surface of the earth- a barren landscape. He shot one set of sixteen, shut the lens and walked upstairs to the terrace. This was going to be his routine for the next forty-five days.

Today, after eight full days, a spear of green was lancing through the mud. Would it show on film? Would he get the angle right? The light was not good today- clouds in the sky- he was beginning to feel that the view through this lens was the only real one- otherwise why did some beautiful women look so ugly in photographs, their faces shadowed, grim. Like Trupti- anyone would call her a beautiful woman- but on camera, her features appeared heavy, wooden. Now Mallika, she was by now means classically attractive. Yet in photographs, there was a softness to her mouth, an uncharacteristically gentle expression, an illusion of beauty. He picked up the camera and decided there was no way he could capture the emerging seedling from the table-level angle he’d been shooting all these days. He moved the chair close to the table and stood up on it, getting a bird’s eye view of the Earth, as he was now beginning to call the platter, and all it contained…

excerpted from Surekha Nair's fictional work on Phalke, As with Shadows