Red Paths is an atmospheric look at India in words, photos and paintings. India has been Ahlstrand’s second home for two decades.
Representing Ahlstrand’s paintings from 2006 and 2007, Red Paths is
an autonomous sequel to his two previous books, Brilliant Lightness, 2004-2005
and Lars Ahlstrand 1997-2004.
© 2007 Pia Blak and Lars Ahlstrand
The taxi snails ahead into a new traffic jam. We’re stuck here in an inferno of horns and exhaust fumes.
On the sidewalks, many small fires burn. A bucket of coke is smoking, keeping mosquitoes away.
It’s extremely hot. Occasional rain showers leave the streets flooded.
The only way to get around is to wade in water up to your knees. I asked the driver to take me to Cotton Street.
That’s where I buy canvas for painting. A few powerful flashes light the sky and thunder rolls across the city.
The driver looks at me and shakes his head, with some resignation.
Unlike in the West, shaking your head here means yes.
He probably thinks I’m a bit crazy. Most people stay indoors once the monsoon sets in.
We drive through Lalbazar as lightning flashes and thunder cracks in the streets.
The taxi drops me off on a corner near Cotton Street and I have to run, because it’s starting to rain.
Now it’s raining buckets. I seek shelter in the first store I find: an umbrella store – of course! It’s full of
people seeking shelter from the downpour. We cram in to make room for others
and soon I’m chatting with those around me.
Orange puddles. After a shower, orange dust still sticks to the lower part of walls.
Like a veil on the wall or the wall color. The lower walls of white houses turn an unusually beautiful orange.
Street smells assault me. Kerosene. Frying grease from food vendors. Feces, paraffin, spices,
mildew, diesel – you name it. Every smell seems to be represented.
We walk through streets where strange, defunct transformers stand around
like Joseph Beuys installations. Around several of them, shanties have been built.
A man with his face covered in big cysts is coming our way. I’d like to think he was
an extra in a big-budget American horror flick shooting around the corner, wearing a very well-made
mask a stylist has spent days crafting. No such luck. That’s how he looks. Ghastly.
Further on, we see a man squatting on his heels. His loincloth only partly covers
the stream he’s discharging into the gutter. The houses around us now are ramshackle.
The plaster has peeled off and the walls are raw. Here and there, paint from old billboards
has kept the plaster in place, preserving the walls. Billboards are painted directly on the walls here.
Coca-Cola’s red-and-white colors are among the best most freshly painted.
I step over another dead rat. An Indian man outside a small temple – a god’s office in the street –
performs ceremonial gestures before an icon. Small temples are everywhere in these streets.
Every time we pass a rickshaw, the driver rings a small bell to attract our attention.
“You want rickshaws? You want?” If we give no address, we can be hauled around for hours.
A man without legs uses his arms to pull himself across the street.
Resting on his pelvis, he extends a begging hand in our direction.
We avoid eye contact. Eye contact would only make him follow us endlessly
and the moment we gave him a coin, fifteen other beggars would put out their hands.
At a water pump, three Indian men are washing themselves.
White with suds, they scour and scrub all over their bodies.
Another man is sitting down, brushing his teeth with a frayed root.
Indians actually practice excellent personal hygiene.
Other kinds of hygiene, however, seem entirely absent.
We pass a naked sadhu. Sitting in the street in an odd posture,
he is covered with so much dust he almost looks dressed.
We leave him a coin and he looks at us wild-eyed.
He looks like he has left this earth but isn’t quite dead yet.
There’s room here for many different kinds of people.
The doctor will see you shortly, the woman opening the door says, asking us in.
At first glance, Dr. Channi Churi’s consultation room does not look the part.
I’ve known the doctor for fifteen years, though, and I know how good he is.
The walls remind me of Tage Andersen’s patinated walls in his royal flower shop in Copenhagen.
The turquoise paint in Channi Churi’s consultation room is blistered and crackled,
testament to the damp periods of the monsoon that floods Calcutta’s highways and byways.
In one corner of the ceiling there is a big black ball of cobwebs and dirt.
The tables and chairs do not bespeak an awareness of the function of cleanliness in combating disease.
We sit down and almost immediately I feel something on me crawling and itching.
The doctor keeps cats and an army of fleas is already feasting on the new arrival.
On the wall hangs a calendar from 1987 and a water-damaged photo of Dr. Channi Churi as a young man.
A bare light bulb in a lamp fixture on the wall is the only light source.
On the red-painted cement floor stands a pile of old suitcases and file cases.
Covered by dust and cobwebs they almost seem to have grown together.
All papers on the shelves are wrapped in different colored plastic bags.
Dr. Channi Churi comes in, sits down on a cot and opens a bottle of “sixty,” Bengali booze
made from sugarcane. Two cups appear on the table. He tells me that the house next door
has collapsed and everything in the way of bugs and vermin has crept from the ruin into his house.
It’s getting dark outside and we hear the sound of someone blowing a conch.
It is the custom here to say a prayer for one’s neighbor’s wellbeing and blow
on a conch shell afterward. Soon, we hear the echoes of other conches, and
the sound spreads around the neighborhood like rings in water.
Bengali nature, green-black palms and rice paddies, red paths and dusty roads.
The paths are made of the finest orange-red powder.
Pick some up and you feel how fine and soft it is.
The farther out of the city you go, the worse the roads get.
Out here, you find Bengal’s original people, the Santals.
It’s morning. The sun is dancing across the sky and I’m painting on the roof of the house
. “Marsh!” someone yells, “fish!” A fish peddler is at the garden gate.
I have to keep the gate locked or the garden would quickly fill up with children,
animals and people selling things. Most animals walk around untethered.
Occasionally a wild elephant turns up in Santiniketan.
I have my hands full with the big monkeys that sometimes ravage my studio.
They like to use my rooftop studio to eat papayas, and when
I come up there I find my paintings knocked over and holes punched
in the canvas awning I have stretched out as a shield against the sun.
Rina calls up to me. There’s a cobra in her bedroom.
We don’t know what to do and try to find the landlord who lives nearby.
He’s not home and when we come back, the cobra has seen itself
out into the garden. It has caught a rat and is devouring it.
A red path takes me to the river. I hear loud squeals, screaming and splashing.
The glassy surface of the river is broken up in rings.
Bright, black water-buffalo eyes are resting in the water
and children jump onto the animals’ backs one moment and into the river the next.
They scramble onto the heads and dive into the water.
The big swimming toys move slowly around the murky river, their sharp horns hidden in the water.
Three girls come skipping along the road like little flies,
picking paper and plastic waste off the roadside.
One girl is carrying a big bag on her back.
I realize I’ve seen them before. They are unbelievably beautiful.
In an instant, they’re gone. All day long they walk the roads and paths.
Just before dusk, the Santals reach Shyambati market.
Chatting with a man from Kolkata, we watch the proud-postured,
brightly clad people arrive at the clockmaker’s shop.
The smallest shop at Shyambati, it’s like a box or a small table with a roof and four legs.
The clockmaker sits atop the table. It almost looks as if
he’s wearing the shop like a big jacket. Proudly, he shows off his wares.
A Santal puts a finger on a clock face. Their eyes shine in the dark.
The clock hand moves. The man from Kolkata has been following
the proceedings and says, “You got clocks – we got time.”
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Midday at the teahouse. Shadows evaporate in the heat.
She’s waiting for the bus. The sun is piercing, the heat holding
us still in its iron grip. Completely calm, she stands in the shade of the
date palm by the teahouse. Time seems to have stopped.
Even the flies on the tabletop outside the teahouse are without motion,
only primming their wings a bit. I look at the shrubbery across from me,
sun dapples on green, dark green and yellowy brown. The cicadas stop their song.
The woman looks frozen in place, a small child asleep on her shoulder.
She is standing tall and still. The bus won’t be along for a while.
Only now do I notice the two women standing near the shrubbery on the other side of the road.
They, too, are motionless, as if frozen in place.
They have been there the whole time, blending into the shadows, stopped like a clock.
I wonder where their thoughts?
The bus approaches in a cloud of dust.
Translate by Glen Garner