Backscatter (n): The deflection of radiation or particles through an angle of 180°.

I’ve known Jayati [@jayativora] for over ten years. In the summer of 2020, we worked on this collaboration of words and images, constrained by the physical limits of lockdown (her in New York; me in Mumbai). We found inspiration in each others’ works, with my images adding a new dimension to her words. What we created together is less a mirror image than a backscatter — or at least, our understanding of the phenomenon — something that recalls the original, but thoda 'hatke se', at a remove, at an angle, not quite the same.

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If Instagram is my new city, Facebook is my new neighborhood, Zoom my new address. I cannot go out and explore pathways lit by the sun, so I venture onto the digital highway and consume images of trees, wide open spaces, water. I bump into fellow travelers online, deliberately, instead of keeping a wide berth like I would down the block. We like each others’ posts, commence conversations as we might with a stranger at a concert. We are closer now, you and me, than we may have ever been.

Her friends moved away, one by one. She used all the technologies to stay in touch, but then what to do about hugs? One day she went to a desert and recognized herself in a cactus. Getting just enough moisture to keep her going, but not enough to unfurl those prickles, to be wide and open and vulnerable to the world.

It’s not a neat stack of bricks standing shoulder to shoulder to grow a building. It’s not tightly woven cotton, edges crisp and muscular. It’s not even a patchwork quilt, where each piece joins with its neighbors to tell a story in fabric. It’s a sieve; it’s whac-a-mole. It’s homeschooling, parenting, wifing and daughtering; cleaning and laundering and cooking and bathing; breathing, working, calming and being. My dough has all the ingredients, but the lumps are showing, and no matter how I beat it, I cannot beat it into submission. It will not reveal its smoothness to my eyes.

It was singular, like her. That dusty vanity had stories to tell, its curved ankles hinting of prettier days. Empty was the treasure box — but she remembered times when it had sparkled with jewels. Drawers held cobwebs where once they hid secrets.

She turned to look at her reflection, to see the marks that a well-used life had left. But the mirror had turned out to be a window. Just like her, she mused.

Yawning, she settled into bed for a well-deserved rest, squeezing herself spine-first into the dusty stacks, till somebody checked her out again.

When the smoke grew thick, I grabbed the go bag hidden behind my unused salwars. Our passports and my wedding jewelry strained the striped pink silk.

“Thank god you were insured,” they told us. “You’ll get new sofas, you’ll get it all back.”

But I didn’t have receipts for baby photos of me in all my chubby glory; no copies of smudged letters from childhood friends; no valuations for the memories pressed between pages of my diary.

The grownup transformers changed into guns, missiles, walls, things that shattered and kept people apart. They knew nothing else — till they met undisciplined rainbow babies who bloomed in muzzles of guns, cocooned missiles in iridescent bubbles, and wormed windows into walls with ivy, allowing light and love to pass through.

The bombs destroyed museums and landmarks; they didn’t care about history or culture. People mourned the loss of generations of creative work. Some tried to recreate from memory what was lost.

But a funny thing happened.

The imitations started going awry, and they looked less and less like the originals.

The restorers had become artists.

The right and left side of a seesaw were once fast friends. They played together, tasting the sky then crashing to earth. But the right one kept asking to go up, UP, UP, and the left stayed grounded so its friend could fly. The left waited patiently, but its turn never came.

After a while it made friends with the soil, and they cradled each other in a gentle embrace.

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