The Online Journal of Contour biennale

November 4 2016

The Dreams of Cynthia: Dispatches From a Dead Book / Preparing a Scenario

By Pallavi Paul & Anish Ahluwalia

Pallavi Paul: “In the old days there were several ways of murdering a book,” he said. One of them was to publish it, but ensure that no one got a copy. It had to be known that there was a paper object somewhere, but not anyone who could claim to have seen it. Soon a real thing would become a rumor, a misplaced claim. Cynthia lives inside one such rumor. Even though she is the tragic heroine of a murdered book, the death of the book is hardly a tragedy. This is because books do not die like people, but, like people, different books do die differently. An infinite horizon of relay and hysteresis, such books mutate to become not un-alive but to have a force beyond the world of the living. Like salamanders, they regrow lost parts—some willingly surrendered. We watch Cynthia watching—the theater of a dead book reconstituting itself.

Anish Ahluwalia:

From her perspective

Death was not visible

Only its fragile transitory shadow

Could be seen

On its other side is a crowd

Or rather, a gathering of white noise

I stood at the far end

Watching Cynthia watch.

PP: Reconstitutions both instigate and foster several hypotheses. Roughly within the precincts of the meta-discourses of history and reality, we see a reveling contest between polemics and narrative. If there is a story there must at least be a contingent starting point. But again and again, we are led away from the question of where it begins. Again, we find ourselves within an Atopia. The poem lays no claim on a place, and there is also no space of its occurrence. In a moment of exasperation I had asked, “Is she a character? What was her life like? Did you know her?” He told me her story, but ended by saying, “You don’t know how to think like a poet.”


She was a good dancer

Although none of us had seen her dance

We had heard that she had come from Assam

Like Helen

Hence the story about dancing became associated with her

But some believed that she had come from Goa

Nobody knew for sure

But in those neighborhoods nobody knew anything for sure

Whether it was murders on the streets in gleaming sunshine

The vagrant brothel-bound lives of pickpockets and petty thieves

Or mute rapes in alleyways or homes

Everything was a rumor

Just like Cynthia’s dancing.

She wanted to become a movie star

There was no proof of this ever

Just rumors

We had seen her only on crowded evenings or under the limp yellow haze of the streetlight, floating like a leaf

Or marching with a solider like alacrity

Almost running

“Solider” reminds me

Of her only known friend

She probably came to know him after  Roshan left her

Nobody knew his real name

Everyone called him Campa

Cynthia spoke only to him

But we did not see this either

They used to believe Campa also came to Bombay to become a movie star

He lived under the staircase of a Chawl

He was always about fifty years old as long as we knew him

Always dressed in army fatigues

He had two sets, which he wore interchangeably

Every day he would eat only an omelet of two eggs and four slices of bread, and drink a bottle of Campa Cola

This is why he came to be known by the name of Campa

This was Campa’s stipend

Granted to him by the Irani owner of the neighborhood Irani restaurant

A lifelong stipend

In return the Irani man never asked Campa to perform tasks at his restaurant

Perhaps apart from “struggling,” Campa was unable to do much else

In those days looking for work in cinema was known as “struggling”

To that word everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Campa had equal claim

In return Campa would leave on foot every day to “struggle” outside film studios

He could never go beyond meeting the security guards at the gate

Before leaving for “struggle” he would always get a shave and tuck his shirt into his pants.

If we ever saw Campa with an overgrown beard we would assume that he had taken some time off from “struggle.”

We used to be kids then

For many years Campa continued to be the reason behind us being late to school

Because on the way to school was the Irani restaurant outside which Campa could be found sitting with his world stuffed in a cloth bag.

The kids would insist that Campa sing for them

He would try to turn his face away or chase them away

Upset, we would hassle him from a distance occasionally pelting him with stones.

Till then we had not heard Jafar Bhai, the cashier of the Irani restaurant, recite the Ghalib Couplet

“Oh! Assad! Driven by my childish anger I raised a stone to throw at Majnun

Only to be held back thinking of my own head”

Sometimes he would give up and reluctantly agree to sing for us

Always the same song

We would feel very happy by that song sung under utter duress

This was because he surrendered to our obstinacy

Incidentally this was also the only evidence we ever had of his talent.

It has been years since Campa Cola went off the market

Campa must have also died

Campa, who according to rumors was

Cynthia’s friend

PP: विघटन [Vighatan] किसी वस्तु के संयोजक अंगों का इस प्रकार अलग या नष्ट होना कि उसका प्रस्तुत अस्तित्व या रूप नष्ट हो जाय। He uses the word “Vighatan” repeatedly. It does not mean a simple disappearance wherein things recede to the margins before becoming invisible. Vighatan refers to a kind of dissolution whereby each part of an object is destroyed or severed in a way that it becomes impossible to recognize the original. The violence is absolute. Poetically rendered, the meaning of this violence is abducted and taken away from the schemes of analysis. It exists like Cynthia herself, a provocation to analysis.


Campa was not Hindu, he was also not Muslim

Some believe that he was perhaps Christian

He hardly spoke

Nobody knew or wanted to know which part of the country Campa had traveled from

This is why after many years and since many years I have been thinking

What must have happened to Campa’s corpse?

He must have not been burnt

He might have been buried, but who buried him and where?

Maybe he was burnt

Years later passing through the edges of those winding alleys

Once I steeled myself and asked the taxi to

Pull over for sometime

I knew Cynthia would not be there now

Campa too

There was a pale yellow light in front of my eyes

And the smell of smoke in the air

Smoke was not really visible

But I instantly detected


Anger buried under the mound of garbage, was burning.

Confusion was also burning

PP: Analysis brings us to translation. The contradictions of translation, to be precise. It is done to share in meaning with the awareness that a big chunk of the sensations that produce meaning is being hacked away by the bludgeoning weight of language. It is my deep faith, however, that poems never get tired of this weight. Rather they use this weight to their advantage. They play coy until the translation admits its inadequacy. In translation the poem lives inadequately, in the absence of translation the poem dies partially. This quasi-hypothetical conundrum reminds me of a morbid choice that the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn presents to a character in his book The Cancer Ward. Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a Stalinist mid-level bureaucrat in post-Stalin Russia, finds himself in a cancer ward after he starts developing a lump in his throat. Once inside the ward he meets two different kinds of people (thereby imagining two possible futures for himself): there were those who could be operated upon and those who could not be. Those with operable cancers would often undergo amputations, sometimes repeatedly, they looked like devils with their mangled, scar ridden bodies but appeared pain-free, they slept peacefully knowing that they could be back in the ward but also equally they could be cured forever. Those with inoperable cancers looked like Rusanov himself, their outer bodies intact. Not a mark on their smooth pale skin, but they were the ones that kept him awake all night, howling in pain like beasts, there was nothing anyone could do to help. Solzhenitsyn made Rusanov’s choice a difficult one. To choose between suffering and suffering is tough. What choice have we giving Cynthia? A translated heroine.


One of Cynthia’s claims was absolutely baseless

That people howl, cry, and laugh hysterically

In her dreams

But they do not recognize her

My youth has been the proof of the falsity of this claim

There were many drunks who would join us

Under the tree at night

Under the breeze

We would all together watch Cynthia, running

They would smile

Say she is hot

They paused for a bit and said

“Everyone sleeps with Cynthia”

We asked, “Who?”

Everyone …Shiva, Anand, Douglas

Douglas too?

This was unbelievable

Douglas was a pickpocket and a petty thief but was counted among the nice boys

We would ask, “Is she raped?”

They would never reply, neither would they concede that someone like Cynthia could be


Doesn’t she shout?

No she laughs

Lies there numb

We would keep guessing

But a consensus would form around one thing

That sex with an insane person was not commonplace

It was not called rape

In fact they did not have a word for it

In their world it had no place

That is when we first understood

That words also need a place to live

It was not as if no one saw Cynthia

How does one not see dried sweat on the body

There was just no word for it

In this sense Cynthia was closest to Campa

And also to the book of poems

PP: It must be clearly understood that poems have their technologies of endurance. In this sense they outlive many things—the poet, the book, the conditions of their production, the reader, and even the lives that may have been located within them. This, however, does not mean that they continue to be relevant with the passage of time. It simply means that they acquire immunity against assaults on the poetic imaginary. Even as they become senile, impenetrable, or self-referential over time, they accrue a kind of nervous respect reserved for geriatrics. Those who seem to have survived abstract traumatic events in their lifetimes—wars, the death of loved ones, the end of youth, physical infirmity, social upheavals. On the verge of disappearance, they are also co-witnesses to the contemporary. To rephrase: a part of our contemporary on the verge of disappearance. Symbols of persistence. I try and picture Cynthia’s response to this. Perhaps it can be the opening sequence of my film. A filmmaker trying to interview an imaginary character. As I try and write a scene, yolk together her response, I feel her slipping from my grip. Unlike my imagination, she seems to have no fear of disappearing. In his poem she counts compulsively—millions of ants, thousands of clouds, billions of stars. Nobody speaks to her, she speaks to nobody. There is not even a street that leads to her house. She looks up from the poem for a split second, we make eye contact. As I struggle to explain my film to her she asks: “Can the invisible ever disappear?” I turn to him to relay her question, he is gone. I call out, but an empty echo returns to me. I look back at Cynthia—she too has gone back to counting.


Cynthia the singer of undying impassioned songs

Was not bothered by the fact that

A book of poems far outlives its poet

Poets either die or are killed

Burnt or buried

Poetry books have a different fate

Especially those that die soon after they are born

Like young birds who die in their own nests

Before learning to fly

Slowly ants eat them away

A dead book of poems is a like this but also a little different

The paper yellows

The ink fades

The art of living without breathing is reserved only for these books

Their remoteness has made it impossible to find a word to describe them.

Ironically, the poems of these books accept their fate with unbelievable ease

As if they intuitively know about the infinite history of silent deaths of countless poems

It has normally been taboo to talk about them

It is presumed that with time their memory and bitterness would vanish into thin air

Like us the book of poems accept its fate

Except that it would never know

That its exile into oblivion is far longer and far more complete

Pallavi Paul, The dreams of Cynthia, courtesy of the artist.

Pallavi Paul, The Dreams of Cynthia, courtesy of the artist.

Pallavi Paul, The dreams of Cynthia, courtesy of the artist

Pallavi Paul, The Dreams of Cynthia, courtesy of the artist

Pallavi Paul, The dreams of Cynthia, courtesy of the artist

Pallavi Paul, The Dreams of Cynthia, courtesy of the artist

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The Dreams of Cynthia: Dispatches From a Dead Book / Preparing a Scenario

By Pallavi Paul & Anish Ahluwalia