Self-Portrait

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

ScreenHunter_2328 Oct. 24 12.06Interviews and dates begin thus, “Tell me something about yourself”. In that moment, I balk. After all, what among a dozen different things might this question demand? Must I confess? Shall I tell all? Shall I say everything there is to say? Do I even know? Come to think of it, is who I am right now tantamount to who I will or want to be? Breathing deep, I brush away the doubts. I condense. I offer caveats. I make self and knowledge palatable to my interviewer. Eyes shining, legs crossed, smile wide, back straight, I produce all of the everything that must mean so little.

There is so much I'd like to say. But I fear incomprehension, and derision, and the walls between people that render them interested mainly in self. And yes, I know. This essay. But surely, things about self are also things about the world? In David Szalay's recent work, “All That Man Is”, one of his protagonists is dismayed that the world he knows ends with him; there is only one person capable of knowing this world, and he is afraid of mortality and how it will destroy this world. I wonder that he didn't ask the other question; if this world even exists. So in hopes that it does, and in trying to grapple with its ultimate destruction, let me tell you some things about myself.

Most times, I am not even sure I exist. I am wholly and entirely the Descartian subject, however. I walk around with a body from which I feel an arm's length distance. We live together, my body and I, in a tenderly choreographed dialectic. I marvel at it sometimes, so full in its materiality and definitive weight. I wear it like raiment; other times, it wears me. And some very rare times, like when I manage to hold a tree pose, we are one.

Time passes by, and I try hard to hold it down. One of the great joys of my life is to look at old photographs, one by one, and fill in all the lives in between. Somehow, the present moment does not seem to have the same capacity for meaning. My past lives petrified in photographs seem to have been so whole, so lively, so full of pleasures that one could have not imagined in the moment when they were lived. Or maybe they were. Maybe the photographs tell the truth. Here I am smiling, here's the sun, so present, and here, there, and everywhere is the world in all its details. So full of promise that I no longer recognize my present in the wake of such a past. Like Susan Sontag suggests, in my photographs, I collect the world, and I am acquisitive of my own past selves.

My anger as a woman is matched often by my anger at being a woman. But I experience gender only when I am named, recognized, interpellated. Or when my body leaks. I am not sure if I have gender, or if gender has me. I do know, as Stuart Hall argues, that I'm sutured into the category of a woman. And that suturing is strong at places, and weak at others. I consider my gender and its experiences as exceptional, and yet shudder when rendered as a fetish. In the same breath, I am, however, fascinated by the unmarked other, masculinity. That which I know very little of, and yet that which I also consider exceptional and fetishize. Perhaps, like a good structuralist, I should know that meaning lies in the relationship betwixt, that strange force-field of back and forth, and standing steady, and lurking known and unknown.

The form of the day fascinates me. I imagine its aspects as if I can see, touch, smell, and feel them. Mornings are pearl grey, mid mornings yellow, afternoons bright ochre, and evenings purple. Nights are bejewelled. There are smells of jasmine, citrus, and lavender. And each part of the day plays a different beat.

I consider all spaces mine and no space mine. I inhabit space and make it my place. When I abandon it, no trace remains. My imprint is large, but treads light. I am writing this in a hotel room constructed of wood, bamboo, and thatch. The bathroom has no roof. My parapharnelia have found place across shelves, floors, and door knobs. It seems that I have been here forever. This is mine, in Gaston Bachelard's words, “a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” When I am gone later today, somebody will sweep and wash every inch, never knowing that this was mine. Another world will have disappeared.

The sea and I are not friends. Perhaps, I should not assume feelings on its behalf. Indifference would rightfully be its right. So, let's say, I am not friends with the sea. However, I can stare at it endlessly as it reminds me with its outward gaze that there it extends far and further than my eye can see. That it dances without me. That its gaze and preoccupations lie elsewhere. We play sometimes. I make contact, stepping slowly into the water, timid and bow-legged, to the point where I can still feel the sandy shore under my feet. This far and no further.

I think of words as solid entities. Between me and the world is always the word. But as many will tell you, the word is the world. It does not mediate; it conjures into being. This body, this pen, these thoughts, this flailing. Sometimes, I can step two inches away from a conversation and watch all of the words floating in the ether as they disconnect from all meaning and structure and intent. I can see and hear them in all their sonorous heaviness, and in that moment, they do not mediate, there is no world, and I cease to exist.

I could tell you so much more about myself, but I fear I will write myself away.

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