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Interview with Dayanita Singh

Myself Mona Ahmed is a photobook and a work of epistolary world-building. Published in 2001 by Scalo, it comprises photographs of the life of Mona Ahmed, a woman who lived in the heart of old Delhi, and letters in which Mona tells her life story. She addresses the letters to Walter Keller, the publisher, and signs them off ‘With love, Myself, Mona Ahmed’. The images in the book were taken by the artist Dayanita Singh, Mona’s friend, sibling, parent, lover, confidante – Singh struggles to give their relationship a name. She met Mona in 1989, while on assignment for The Times UK newspaper. She walked down Akbar Milkman’s Lane, in the historic neighbourhood of Turkman Gate, to the house of Sona and Chaman – a famous pair of hijras from old Delhi, known for their high glamour and elegant dances. Mona, who was Chaman’s student at the time, opened the door. Covered in jewellery and delicate makeup, she posed for Singh’s camera for hours, only to ask for the film roll, because she wasn’t happy with where the images were to be published. The exchange of that first roll of film was the start of a decades-long friendship.

 

Mona was raised in middle-class Delhi, separated from family in Pakistan because of Partition. As a child, she read the Quran, played with her dolls and dreamt of becoming a performer. When Mona was estranged from her family she found a home with the hijra community. She danced at weddings, housewarmings and children’s naming ceremonies; she gave blessings, she sang. In 1990, she adopted a baby girl, Ayesha, whose birthmother had died during childbirth. Ayesha was orphaned, and left in Mona’s care by her grandmother. ‘I distributed sweets in the neighbourhood and recited the azaan (Muslim prayer) in her ears,’ Mona writes in a letter to Keller, ‘I wanted to give her all the world’s happiness.’ For Ayesha’s first few birthdays, Mona hosted elaborate parties, inviting hijras from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Singh was the designated photographer, and the images are magnetic, each detail revealing the thoughtful extravagance of Mona’s world: flower bracelets to welcome the guests; special dances; live music; feasts with elaborate buffets and espresso machines.

 

‘Love is like the moon. When it is full it lights the whole world,’ Mona wrote, and she was a doting, attentive mother. She dressed Ayesha for school, and bought her the most expensive fruit from the market. But one day, without notice, Chaman took Ayesha away. Thus began the process of Mona’s second estrangement: driven by grief, she moved into her family’s ancestral graveyard in Mehendiyan in northern New Delhi. She started a new life in a makeshift home, built atop and around the graves. She became the subject of films, novels, poetry, her story a living legacy of survival and resistance that inspired generations of young trans and queer people. ‘Our society is like that. They cannot see beyond our being a eunuch. They forget we have a heart, a mind, a point of view,’ says Mona in a letter included in the book.

 

Mona passed away in 2017, and Myself Mona Ahmed has never been reprinted. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the book’s release, The White Review invited teacher and philosopher Vikramaditya Sahai to speak with Singh about making Myself Mona Ahmed, and her memories of its star. Sahai’s writing – especially on desire, community and gender – plays an essential role in contemporary discourse in the Indian subcontinent. Their conversation was an ode, a memorial, a Zoom-call wake.

 

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

A

Dayanita Singh

— In Myself Mona Ahmed there is a photo where Mona is sitting with some of the images that eventually make it into the book. They are laid out on a desk in front of her as she sifts through them. She selected each photograph for the book; she wrote all of the captions. The caption for this image reads, ‘Looking at photos of myself. Sad memories, happy memories, but only memories.’ Years later, when a mainstream foreign news channel came to make a film about Mona, she told them, ‘That book, all lies, you give me money, I will tell you my true story.’ And she wasn’t being dishonest. This book is just one story, the one she chose to give me.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— When was the last time you sat with the book, not just the images, but the whole book?

A

Dayanita Singh

— [Gesturing toward her desk] It’s right here. I look at it every few days. People ask me if I miss Mona, and actually, I don’t. I feel she lives inside me. The only thing I miss is that I can’t argue with her, she always had her own take on things. The problem with somebody living inside you, however, is that they live there quite comfortably, and you can’t fight with them.

 

In January 2001 we had a book launch for Myself Mona Ahmed in New Delhi. The book was supported by Andreas and Michèle Reinhart, a Swiss couple, and the publisher Scalo was Swiss too. I thought it would mean so much to Mona if I could get the Swiss ambassador to release the book. He agreed, and so I told Mona, ‘The ambassador has invited you to the embassy and they will host a special dinner for you.’ Mona was unimpressed. Instead, she said that the ambassador would have to bring his Mercedes, decorated with its red and white Swiss flag, to the graveyard, and release the book in her home. She said, ‘When the Swiss ambassador arrives, all of the police stations in the neighbourhood will know that the ambassador came to visit Mona Ahmed. If I come to the embassy, only your friends will be there, what’s in it for me?’ And so that is what happened. The launch took place in the Mehendiyan qabristan (graveyard) with 25 people present, and sure enough, the Swiss ambassador came in his black Mercedes with the red and white flag. What happened to Mona that night, I don’t know, because she was completely drunk. At one point during the evening, she went and pulled the ambassador’s cheeks. There was nobody, no force on earth, that could control Mona, not in the least a Swiss ambassador.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— I couldn’t have asked for a better start to this conversation. We are already grappling with how Mona’s spirit was always in excess: of her body, but also in the way that she seeped into the many lives she shared with her friends and lovers. She bent the world to suit her will.

A

Dayanita Singh

— My best friend lived in a qabristan, and she wanted to build a staircase that led to nowhere, and a moat with a bridge even though there was no water to fill it up. When Mona first moved to the graveyard there was nothing there, just her sister’s grave. Gradually, she built an empire.

 

Do you remember the story of the swimming pool from the book? Mona had a pool made because she wanted to teach Muslim girls to swim. I said, ‘Mona, I really don’t think anyone is going to send their daughters to swim here.’ She thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Never mind, I will make a pickle factory here, and call it Ahmed Pickles.’ She even made a zoo for Ayesha, and put two peacocks in it. Mona would build freestanding grilles in her home, just because she liked the idea: the grandiosity of having ornate metal grillework, even if it wasn’t designed to protect anything. She did need security, however – people often stole things because she had no doors. But instead of building doors, she asked the man who made the graves to build her translucent walls made of old shampoo and glass bottles; he embedded them whole into cement. She had many objects encased in cement – whiskey bottles, whatever she wanted – and they were put into the walls. She was an artist. She made her own exhibitions.

 

With the royalties from the book, I had wanted to open a fixed deposit account for Mona, so she would have a regular income. But Mona wanted to buy a car. She said she would rent it out and make money this way. A Maruti car was bought for her, one with AC and a new music system, and it was taken to the graveyard and parked there. It never moved, it remained parked at her front gate. Gradually, the car disintegrated and was sold for scrap. In one of our fights, I confronted Mona about spending so much money on a whim. She replied, calmly, ‘Tumhe kya maloom bachpan se meri khwahish thi ki mere ghar ke samne mere liye ek gadi wait kare’ (You don’t know this, but since I was a child, I have wished for a car to wait in front of my house, just for me). She got her wish. For seven or eight years the car just sat there, waiting at her front door.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— I think there is something particular about how queer, trans, gender non-conforming people take to images: they create themselves from no map, no toolkit. They break the world and hold it to ransom. What Mona does to the graveyard, she does to her own image as well. She builds a flight of stairs that take you nowhere – and asks you to imagine where you are when you reach the top. She asks you to imagine how you will swim in an empty pool. You knew both Mona as a person, and Mona as an image. Was there a difference between the two?

A

Dayanita Singh

— I think I understand what you mean, but in the early days with Mona, there was no separation between the person and the image. The Mona work was never meant to be published. In the early 1990s, a popular publication ran a profile piece on Mona, which went into a lot of detail about her castration. I was very upset, and Mona was really, really angry. They had spoken to her about many different things, and yet only focused on the surgery, her gender. She told me, ‘I don’t ever want to print this work.’ So, the photos that are now in the book were never meant to be anything other than just me, finishing off a roll of film.

 

Since this work was never meant for an audience, it had a different objective, or impulse, which was only Mona, and her love of being photographed. Mona loved, loved to be photographed. It’s like she was made to be photographed. If you look at any of my photographs of Mona, there is not a single one where she is unaware of the camera. Mona used to call me for Ayesha’s birthday parties, and I made boxes of four-by-six-inch prints of the images for her, many of which are now in the book. The moment I reached for my camera her body language would change. I could never beat her to it – she would determine how she wanted to be seen.

 

There were secret Monas that I didn’t know, and I think Mona could become what she thought you wanted her to be; she would meet each person at their level. She wouldn’t get thrown off by anybody. Once, I was with the actress Shabana Azmi, who expressed that she would love to meet Mona. I thought Mona would be thrilled. When we reached the graveyard, Mona was standing at the door, unfazed. She casually said, ‘Toh aa gayi Shabana?’ (So, Shabana, you have arrived?)

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— In the book, we see how Mona’s own house is full of images – of herself, of those close to her, of actresses and musicians. She has an independent relationship to photographs, one that is not just about being photographed by you.

A

Dayanita Singh

— The moment Mona adopted Ayesha, her room was full of photos of her. I don’t know how many hundreds of rupees she spent taking Ayesha to neighbourhood photo studios. She used to plaster whole walls with the images. For Mona, what mattered was going to the studio every few months, dressing Ayesha up, and making sure that her picture was taken.

 

Everything had to be recorded, even Mona’s depression had to be recorded. And, of course, she had complete control over each image. It was not the kind of work I was doing elsewhere, it was not the kind of photography I saw around me, which was sort of ‘fly on the wall’. I was not that kind of photographer, just shooting from the hip. But Mona required very special attention, she was very conscious of narrative. She had a strong sense of what an image was, but she was also an archivist, she kept exhaustive records of her life. Even of her death.

 

The night Mona passed away, on 9 September, 2017, I was in Venice. I got a call from Mona’s number, but I was on a tour of a museum with a curator, and I couldn’t answer. I called Mona as soon as I could, and her nephew picked up and said that they thought she was dying. I asked them to put me on video with her. She looked very weak. I told her that I would be returning in a few days – I asked her to please wait for me. I don’t even know if she was opening her eyes. I was getting hysterical because I could feel that she was slipping away. No more than five minutes later, she had gone.

 

Her nephew said that even in her death, she wanted to be documented in some way. Until the end, she wanted there to be a record. Her nephew had me on a video call for her burial. The phone was in his hand, so all I could see was people’s feet, but at least I felt I was there.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— I’m the last person my grandmother saw before she passed away. I feel, sometimes, people are lucky enough to be able to decide who they want to see before they die.

A

Dayanita Singh

— Friendship seems too small a word for what Mona and I had. It’s a deep love that doesn’t have a clear language. She’s not my mother. She’s not my sister. She’s not my lover. She’s not my friend. It was beyond any of these and it was all of them together – mother, father, lover, son, daughter, whatever those words are. We have been through all of those phases. I always thought that one of the failings of the book is that it doesn’t truly explain how close we were. In those days, I felt that as ‘the photographer’ I could not be a part of the work. Yet, in both our lives, the strength is our friendship.

 

In the younger days, it was fantastic. We would both be like girlfriends, lying in bed and talking about love and sex and orgasms. Then the moment we stepped out, she was like this alpha with me, nobody would even dare to look at me when I was with Mona. She would give such galis (abuses) to anybody if they said anything.

 

Mona and my mother were always in competition. It was very important to Mona that when I arrived in Delhi, I first got in touch with her, and then with my mother. The three of us had a special bond. Mona, who was a year or two older than my mother, used to call her her Mummy Ji, and she used to come and lie down on her lap and cry. What she was crying about I don’t know. But that was her relationship to my mother.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— Your mother is also a photographer. Did she ever take pictures of Mona?

A

Dayanita Singh

— She has taken the most beautiful picture of Mona and me – it is the one where I am lying in Mona’s lap.

 

How come you never met Mona? She would have loved to meet you.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

Myself Mona Ahmed is one of the first books I bought for myself, for about 5,200 rupees in 2009. Once, I was just 10 or 15 minutes away from where Mona lived. But, I thought, it’s not my place to show up unannounced, or without her permission. I did have a relationship with your book, and that was enough.

 

Mona was brutal in the execution of her dreams: as you say, nothing fazed her, she built an empire from a graveyard. There is also a beauty to Mona’s constraints. I learned that from her through the book. I learned that I did not need to ask for more for there to be more. I did not have to live a life of excess to have more than what the world promises. Even though I think it would have been lovely to hear Mona sing, what I learned most from her was the quiet.

A

Dayanita Singh

— It’s just perfect that you mention her singing, and I want to show you something. Could I share my screen? [Singh plays Mona and Myself, a video portrait of Mona Ahmed first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013.]

 

This was shot in my studio in 2013. Mona is lying on my couch. For me, it is the most important work I have ever made, and it is not a photograph. It is the essence of what, by then, was our 23-year-old relationship. It got made by accident: I wasn’t familiar with digital cameras then, and that afternoon I was just playing around with one. Mona had told me to find Lata Mangeshkar’s Rasik Balma – the 1956 song from the film Chori Chori with Nargis Dutt playing the lead – on YouTube. As I put it on, Mona started singing, and I thought I would make a portrait of her. But instead of taking a photograph, I began recording her. Somewhere in the footage, Mona becomes the song. I forget myself, and I become Mona through the lens.

 

I know this piece is beyond photography and film. I think Mona watched it about a thousand times. I always insist that it be shown really large, a single projection on a wall – so that Mona becomes a landscape. While watching it, it’s impossible for your eyes to not become a little moist. But what is it, really? It’s so simple, Mona is just listening to a song.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— As soon as Mona recognises that the camera is on, she softly holds her face – she frames her face for you.

A

Dayanita Singh

— Yes. She always made the pictures.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— You have a generous eye towards her. You hold her beauty and do it justice. Friendship gave us this film, this book, all of your work with Mona. Myself Mona Ahmed wasn’t even supposed to be a book – it is the intimacy shared between two people, which you both decided to share with us.

A

Dayanita Singh

— In the making of this book, along with Mona and me, there is another very important person – the publisher Walter Keller. Scalo, his publishing house, was going to do a monograph of my work, and Mona was to be a part of it. Walter saw some of the images and they stopped him in his tracks. He said, ‘This is it Dayanita, I only want to make a book with the Mona work, the rest can wait.’ I sent a fax to Mona saying, ‘The world’s best publisher would like to make a book on your unique self. Do you agree?’ She wrote to Walter directly: ‘The whole world calls me a eunuch. You call me unique. Which is true?’ After receiving this, Walter decided that only Mona could write the text for the book.

 

Those were the dial-up internet days. Mona would come over, I’d get online and type out whatever she said. The text in the book comprises letters Mona addressed to Walter. Walter did not edit them, and in some ways, the book has its contradictions. But that was Mona’s magic, every time she came over, she had a different story to tell. You just had to believe whatever she told you. It was the truth for that time.

 

Walter was so convinced that the book was a classic – something more than just about photography. Yet, only a few people were interested when it first came out. I was told by distributors that, to be of interest, Indian photobooks have to cater to a tourism market. They have to be about Rajasthan, Pushkar or the Taj Mahal. Who is going to buy a book about a person?

 

When people talk about the book today, they say, ‘oh, the hijra book’ or ‘the eunuch book’. It breaks my heart. Yes, her being a hijra is very much part of who she was, but it’s not everything. It’s so easy to undo everything that we’ve tried to do, Mona and me. For most people who see the book, or my work that has Mona in it – she is the other. They don’t get that she is me. She is inside me. People often make her into a bit of a caricature, you know? She was always smart enough to realise that.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— Dignity is a practice that has to be cultivated, cultured and nourished by paying attention. There is no universal dignity; Mona informed you of how she wanted it to be offered to her. I think the letters in Myself Mona Ahmed offer dignity from inside the book – from inside the image.

 

When I think of my relationship to Mona I find myself grasping for an answer as to why she means so much to me. Why is she so important to me? Perhaps it’s because she holds our pain – the pain of those of us who are lonely, those of us who feel estranged from community, who rest beside gender, thrown out of normativity. Mona takes to the graveyard because she knows that you have to leave one world behind in order to create a new one.

A

Dayanita Singh

— Mona released something in me, too. She gave me the permission to begin creating worlds of my own. It was an incredible gift.

Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— In anthropology, there has been a lot of writing around ‘the gift’, and the idea that societies are built on the circulation of gifts as transactions to create relations between people. Dr Ambedkar thinks about this in terms of women, how women are transacted in caste endogamy as gifts between sets of relations between men. Luce Irigaray, the philosopher, turns the whole thing upside down: for her, a king cannot give a gift, it is only the poor who can give a true gift. The king gives what he has, but the poor gift what they cannot part with.

A

Dayanita Singh

— The critic Sheila Dhar, in her writing about the singer Begum Akhtar, says that Akhtar could only sing when there was dard (pain) in her life. When there wasn’t dard, when there wasn’t a heartbreak, when there wasn’t a longing – she would just invent it. She would invent a relationship with a man, only to be betrayed by him, only to be able to sing the way she sang. But Mona could turn on the dard at the snap of a finger. Not just turn it on, it was second nature to her.
Q

Vikramaditya Sahai

— When you’re pointing to Begum Akhtar, I think you’re also pointing to something else: a generation of women who willingly suffered in silence; who thought of suffering as an ideology, a way of life. The contemporary discourse around self-care, and self-protection, wasn’t available then, and still isn’t available to everyone. The heart was opened, and remains open, in many different ways.

 

With Mona, it is the singularity in her thinking that holds us to ransom. Our hearts and our thoughts. She asks us to pay attention and to give regard. I honestly think that this is something special to trans people: images cannot capture us. The book is not an ordinary text or document. She decided the terms of it, she has offered it to you, and later, to us. In it, Mona holds the pain that we still cannot, and turns it into song.

A

Dayanita Singh

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

VIKRAMADITYA SAHAI is a teacher and researcher with the Centre for Law and Policy Research. They live and love in Delhi.


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