See The World With New Eyes
A little girl transforms a dispirited college cinematographer.
From 31st December, 2016
‘Mr. Mayank, you are now a cinema legend.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’
The interviewer laughed airily. ‘You are the most illustrious Indian cinematographer today. You have big directors worldwide banging your door. They want your images to bring their stories to life.’
Debra Steersman was a old friend, which was one reason he’d agreed to be interviewed on her radio channel. Both of them had now gained a few extra pounds and sporadic grey flicks of hair. All this was oblivious to the radio listeners of course. Still, he’d never found out whether the talk about hosts wearing pajamas under their desks was true.
‘Debra, I’m going to run out of this studio. You have got to halt the flattery storm.’
‘We’ll cut to the chase then. The big question is — where does your unique way of seeing come from? There is something mythical, soft and ethereal about your work. How do you do it?’
Mayank looked past her face, at the half drawn window behind her which was filtering sunlight in.
‘Well.’ He scratched his bearded chin. ‘This is a story I haven’t told before.’
Debra leaned forward with professional anticipation. She knew when a person was going to answer with something more that polite interest.
‘I met someone who changed the way I saw pictures forever.’
Everything was blurred. The forest had changed into a living monster, breathing down his neck. Five hours ago, Mayank had been a hitchhiker in a merry band of loud, swearing college kids. But the urge to videotape was stuck like a bitter emotion in his throat. He had promised himself he would find something in here. It was the reason he’d walked along in the first place.
He was munching a particularly nasty hostel lunch when a friend came up to him and he had almost refused. Then he remembered that Jason Silva had filmed his first documentary at 15 years old, and Mayank has celebrated a wasteful 20 years of wandering the earth.
They called him passionate, driven. But they had no idea what he went through. Mayank had been staying awake nearly all nights for the last 6 months, learning about cinematography, films and all the cinema greats. They didn’t know how his head throbbed staying awake in class, how he barely scraped through his exams. That his mother had called him one night, crying through the phone, begging him to think about his future.
Whenever someone’s Instagram or Pinterest following jumped his own, a twinge ran through his heart. He had read that building a social following would earn him credibility among directors. And so off he scampered, looking for incredible shots around the campus. Reframing, resizing, coloring and clarifying images until he couldn’t see the pictures with a simple mind anymore. He interpreted the world around him cut in lines, vanishing points and rules of three.
But he couldn’t complain. This was chasing his passion right? Living the dream?
Then Mayank just couldn’t say why he felt dead inside. Shrunk. Like a weight had torn down his chest, ripping his innards, bleeding him empty inside. Fear was solidifying, taking its place. Sometimes, he just wondered if he was even good enough.
‘You have to unlearn all the rules in the end.’ A famous cinematographer’s voice boomed in his head. ‘Because in the end, a camera cannot make up for what is missing in the heart. You truly must have a unique way of seeing the world, of observing it, to ever make your pictures feel emotions.’
New vision. Fresh perspective. Mayank was so drugged up on everything, he didn’t know if he had an eye for the world on his own. That scared him. It scared him badly.
He opened his eyes again. Tall cypress trees loomed over his head and slivers of moonlight crept in through the parted shades, as the wind blew in the leaves. A white crescent glimmered in the sky. At his knees were ferns and branches, clinging to him like leathery black shapes.
Mayank looked around. Nothing was in sight, the night was holding its breath. He felt completely, utterly alone. The straps of the videocamera in his hand were sagging and a flash went off. He could register nothing but now but clambering vines, disturbed insects and mud on his screen. There was no magic for him here.
‘Neelu!’ A cry rang out somewhere in the dark.
He held up his backpack, took a breath.
‘Neelu. Gauri! Come out you silly cows. You’ve grazed for the day. If I don’t take you to the shed now, Ma will come searching for me in the dark.’
Mayank took off running. His pulse was beating wildly. He had been searching for a human voice, for a human face for hours. He got closer and closer to the voice. There was the light of an oil lamp somewhere, bathing the trees yellow. Mayank stopped suddenly.
A village girl, about 12 years old, stood before him. Her long brown dress was patched and muddy. Her face was flushed, cold wisps of air escaping her nose. A tiger claw hung by a chain around her neck. She took a step back hesitantly.
He hadn’t seen another human being for hours. He was lost and scared. Mayank closed the distance between them, wrapped his arms around her, and began sobbing into her hair.
A laugh escaped from somewhere around his chest, and the child drew back, turning to look at him in amazement. ‘Baba told me there were some crazy hikers around here.’ She had a high pitched voice. ‘But you’re a really strange one, aren’t you?’
He clutched onto her with desperation, breathing heavily. She put a small hand on his throbbing forehead.
The girl asked him to wait and then disappeared in the shadows for so long, Mayank feared she’d run away. She appeared at last, braid swinging by her side, a mud pot in her hands full to brim with water. He drank it in one gulp.
She was still looking at him, amused. Mayank sat down on a rock and closed his eyes. After a while, he felt hands pushing something into his mouth. Berries. The skin tore and the juice broke sweet and sticky onto his tongue. He felt wind on his face, she was fanning him with a shady leaf perhaps. His head cleared.
‘What is that?’ Kusum took his camera into her hands.
‘A magician’s box.’ He twirled his fingers in the air. ‘Captures images; moving ones.’
‘I know what a phone is.’ She got up. ‘But I have to find my cows. It’s getting dark. We sell their milk for food, I can’t lose them.’
Mayank looked at Kusum silently. The rubber sandals, the hardness of her fingers, her small white face glowing in the light of the lamp. She was an outsider to his world. She would never know about all the things he did. Her culture and her surroundings would shape her.
Yet this simple girl suddenly looked like a silver deer to him. She seemed to understand some fundamental truth he didn’t. There was something calm and serene about her. Sitting with trees, insects and moonlight around them, she seemed like the most different creature. The ceaseless fear which knotted in his stomach loosened a little and a creative spark burst through him.
‘I have this videocamera with me, because I came to find pictures,’ said Mayank truthfully. ‘But I don’t see anything in the forest.’
Kusum blinked. ‘I see a lot in them. I’ve roamed around these grounds ever since I could walk. You just haven’t explored anything yet.’
‘What do you think I’ve been doing for four hours?’
She shrugged. ‘Walking around with your eyes shut, banging on trees. Getting things stuck in you.’
‘I could hear you banging up in the forest for nearly half an hour.’
‘Oh thanks. You couldn’t bother to save me sooner.’
Kusum giggled. ‘You do realize you just said that to a child?’
Mayank closed his eyes slightly.
‘For God’s sake,’ he said under his breath. He could already feel her smile from a distance. ‘Look Kusum, you want to find your cows?’
‘Yes, before my mother comes charging through the trees, and beats you up for being here with me.’
‘Well, then. Let’s make a deal. You and me will walk around, and find the cows. But you’ll have to show me things about the nature here too, and talk.’
She raised an eyebrow. It was funny how this childish gesture unnerved him.
‘You’ve lived here,’ Mayank requested her weakly. ‘Please Kusum.’
She let out a huff and unclenched her hands from around her knees. ‘Alright then, I will. But you will have to listen to me.’ She was beginning to look excited.
He nodded, slung on his videocamera and backpack, and followed her. He could feel her childish happiness at having found an audience. A proper adult who would listen to her for once.
Kusum was leading him through a tree hollow and the moon was suddenly brighter, the trees less wild. The ground around him curved; there were trails of dewdrops that speckled the distance like mirages. His nerves felt calmer, walking with her.
‘There are books all about what’s inside these trees. What makes the squirrels feed. My cousin brother from town told me. He had this sack full of books.’ Kusum stretched her palms before him.
‘So what do you see when you look here?’
‘Stories. I see stories. There is so much life spread out in cities. I just get scared of it. I cried for the whole evening when I went to the city square with my brother once.’
Mayank understood. Kusum seemed to be the type of girl, who would be more at home atop a lonely hill mountain.
‘I don’t mean humans don’t have stories.’ Kusum said, wiggling her shoulders. ‘It’s just that they’re conscious, and fiddle around too much. Nature is quieter. It lets you observe the story.’
She pointed towards a crack in a tree up high. ‘I’m going to show you a story, one like you’ve never seen on cinema screens.’
In the clear moonlight, a haystack nest came into view. Right under the blazing branches, the star spangled sky. Out of the hollow in the tree, a slithering sound came and a long rope like snake was slithering up the branches, until it reached the nest. With a surprising deftness, a reptilian intelligence, the snake quietly slid onto the branch and slipped away the egg.
Kusum nudged him to look up. The mother bird was awake, and it was as if she was human. The panic blazed in her eyes and he saw her up close, scuttled and scared.
‘A story,’ Kusum said quietly.
Then she was pulling at him again and followed her through the dark, as they went slipping over planes and slopes. Before Mayank knew what was happening, they were at a clearwater pond. And she suddenly pushed him over the edge, plunging his face into the water backwards and his eyes turned towards the heavens.
He felt like he was seeing the world through a beautiful haze. A soft mouth nuzzled his ear. A goldfish twirled to swim right above his eyes. Then a few more followed, wiggling their small bodies. Made of sun and gold, full of life.
‘Kusum, what was that?’ He burst through the water, gasping.
‘You needed to be surprised into it. When I first fell into the river, I saw it too. Doesn’t it feel like,’
‘Nothing you’ve ever seen?’ He shook the water droplets from his head.
‘So like I said, stories. There are these little lives everywhere, in their own world. They celebrate their own humanity.’
He looked at her, astonished. ‘You said, you wanted to capture images. Don’t capture images. Capture stories. Make them feel something in their hearts. Make them see it in a way they have never seen it before.’
As they began walking again, Mayank marveled as a gush of words filled the air around him again. How quickly this child trusted him.
She was telling stories now, like the legends of her conquests. The tree she’d scraped her knee from. How some of her blood was still marked upon it. That her elder brother had gotten chased by wild wasps once, and now they were so resistant, he could hardly feel a sting anymore. She told him about the wildflowers which grew here in spring, the blue marbles she found sometimes in the river.
The world was changing around his eyes.
He saw the trees around him, but the angles melted away. He saw a tall, powerful figure, radiating protectiveness. He saw the immense skies, and the light of stars, which were hot balls of fire millions of its away. He saw how insignificant he was. How many miracles has taken place, to make the universe as it was.
Kusum suddenly snapped at him. ‘I hear bells!’
They both ran, following the soft tinny sound, and burst upon a clearing. The cows stood amongst a camp of tents, crowded by a bunch of tired hitch hikers, who had a dying campfire smoldering behind them.
Mayank nearly dropped to the ground in relief.
‘There he is, the idiot.’ His friends were gathering. Mayank thought he was about to be punched, but got pulled instead into a bone crushing hug. ‘Seriously, we thought you were off getting mauled by bear.’
He turned around. Kusum was disappearing through the trees with her cows. Mayank sprinted. He couldn’t miss it. Not now, especially since he might never see her again.
He picked up his camera.
‘And Debra, that was the first true picture I ever created.’ Mayank pulled out a photo from his breast pocket, before the speechless interviewer.
It was an old photo. The little girl was bathed in the lamp’s warm light. Wisps of hair cradled her face, a moonlit rosy orb. Kusum stood behind her cows, surprise in her eyes. She looked as if she was going to burst to life at any moment.
‘This was how I learnt to see the world.’
This story’s birth idea honestly, came to me in desperation with my head under a blanket because I was trying to brainstorm on the last two days of an international short story competition. This wisecracking little girl rolled into my mind, consoling a heartbroken creative boy. I didn’t know it at the time but really, both of them were me. The wide eyed joy and numbing stillness of fear that then interwove my 14 year old writing self. Because it was the truth, the story ended up winning. I made this friend and mentor of a lifetime through this opportunity too, the great American writer, Dr. Janine Canan.