Parvati Nair

Parvati Nair: The Figure of “The Immigrant” & National Identity


Parvati Nair, director of the UN University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility, says that migration is bringing to the light questions of diversity and that the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants will address human mobility.

A Different Light is the first in-depth study of the work of Sebastião Salgado, widely considered the greatest documentary photographer of our time. For more than three decades, Salgado has produced thematic photo-essays depicting the massive human displacement brought about by industrialization and conflict. These projects usually take years to complete and include pictures from dozens of countries. Parvati Nair offers detailed analyses of Salgado’s best-known photo-essays, including Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000), as well as Genesis, which he began in 2004. With Genesis, Salgado has turned his lens from human turmoil to those parts of the planet not yet ravaged by modernity. Interpreting the photographer’s oeuvre, Nair engages broad questions about aesthetics, history, ethics, and politics in documentary photography. At the same time, she draws on conversations with Salgado and his wife and partner, Lélia Wanick Salgado, to explain the significance of the photographer’s life history, including his roots in Brazil and his training as an economist; his perspectives; and his artistic method. Underpinning all of Salgado’s major projects is a concern with displacement, exploitation, and destruction—of people, communities, and land. Salgado’s images exalt reality, compelling viewers to look and, according to Nair, to envision the world otherwise.

By Parvati Nair

The McGlynn: The author is our “daughter” (daughter-in-law; I hate the word “in-law”.

BA (London), MA (London), PhD (London), FRSA

Professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration Studies

Director of the Centre for the Study of Migration


Areas of specialisation

Parvati Nair is Professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration Studies. Her research is in Cultural Studies, with a particular interest in theories and representations of migration, mobility, urban spaces, displacement, ethnicity and gender. She writes mainly on photography, film and music in these contexts and relies on an interdisciplinary approach that includes fieldwork. She is the Principal Editor of Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture and on the editorial board of the Hispanic Research Journal.
As Director of the Centre for the Study of Migration, Parvati Nair invites expressions of interest for interdisciplinary collaboration on migration-related research across faculties and institutions at Queen Mary and beyond. For more details, please see the Centre’s website.
Parvati Nair has published and spoken in the media, in particular in the Guardian and on BBC Radio 4. She also writes a blog on flamenco that is linked to her research interests in this area.

Listen to this item on BBC

The acclaimed dancer, Maríá Pagés, talks about the traditional Andalucian dance with Jenni and Parvati Nair

Flamenco, the hand- clapping and foot -stamping traditional dance form, originates from the Andalucian region of Spain. The dancer Maríá Pagés, who is one of the stars at the 2010 Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells, London, joins Jenni to talk about the flamenco and what makes it so special. To discuss the history of the dance and its social importance, they are joined by Parvati Nair, Professor of Hispanic Cultural Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of a blog on Flamenco.

Publications Books

  • A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado (forthcoming in November 2011, Duke University Press)
  • Rumbo al norte: inmigración y movimientos culturales entre el Magreb y España, Barcelona, 2006, Barcelona, Edicions Bellaterra
  • Configuring Community: Theories, Narratives and Practices of Community Identities in Contemporary Spain, 2004, London, Modern Humanities Research Association

Edited books

  • Hispanic and Lusophone Women Filmmakers: Critical Discourses and Cinematic Practices, co-edited with Julian Gutierrez-Albilla, in press, Manchester University Press.
  • Gender and Spanish Cinema, co-edited with Steven Marsh, 2004, Oxford, Berg

Selected publications in edited books and refereed journals

  • ‘Displacing the hero: masculine ambivalence in the cinema of Luis García Berlanga’ in Entertaining Ideologies: 100 Years of European Cinema, ed. D. Holmes,Manchester: Manchester University Press, June 2000
  • ‘Homing the Other: the Immigrant as New European in David Planell’s Bazar in Beyond Boundaries, ed. Andy Hollis, Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, December 2000
  • ‘Elusive song: flamenco as field and negotiation among the gitanos in Córdoba prison’, in Constructing Identity in Twentieth Century Spain: Theoretical debates and Narrative Practices, ed. Jo Labanyi, Oxford University Press, 2002
  • ‘Vocal In-roads: Flamenco, Orality and Postmodernity in Las 3000 Viviendas: Viejo Patio (EMI, 1999)’ in Music, Culture, Identity, edited by Richard Young Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2002
  • ‘Border-Line Men: Gender, Place and Power in Representations of Moroccans in Recent Spanish Cinema’ in Gender and Spanish Cinema edited by Parvati Nair and Steven Marsh, Oxford, Berg Publishers, 2004, 103-118
  • ‘Another Beat: Displacement and Relocation in Spanish-Moroccan Raï’ in Between the Local and the Global: Popular Music and National Identity edited by Ian Biddle and Vanessa Knights, London: Ashgate, 2007, 65-80
  • ‘Europe’s “Last” Wall: Contiguity, Exchange and Heterotopia in Ceuta, the Confluence of Europe and North Africa” in Border Interrogations edited by Simon Doubleday and Benita Sampedro, Oxford, Berghahn Publishers, 2008, 15-41
  • ‘Fotografía en torno al Estrecho,’ in Dos siglos de imágenes de Andalucía edited by Alberto Egea, Sevilla, Centro de Estudios Andaluces, 2006
  • ‘Trazar frontera: inmigración y movimientos culturales en España,’ chapter in Irene Blásquez and Ángel Chueca (editors), Migraciones internacionales en el Mediterráneo y UE: un reto, 2009, p.11-21
  • ‘After-Images: Trauma, History and Connection in the Photography of Alfredo Jaar,’ chapter in The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 2010, edited by Pamela Prado, Santiago de Chile: Dirac Publishers, 63-78
  • ‘Travelling Song: Music, Iteration and Translation in La leyenda del tiempo (The Legend of Time, Isaki Lacuesta, 2006)’, in Rob Stone and Lisa Shaw (eds.), Screening Songs (forthcoming in 2012, Manchester University Press)

Articles in refereed journals

  • ‘Between Being and Becoming: an ethnographic examination of border crossings in Alma gitana (Chus Gutiérrez, 1995)’, Tesserae, Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies, 5:2, December 1999, 173-188
  • “Albums of No Return: Ethnicity, Displacement and Recognition in Photographs of Moroccan Immigrants in Spain’, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, 1, March 2000, 59-73
  • ‘Straddling the personal and the public: elastic boundaries or a case-study of two gitana daughters of reknowned flamencos’ in Journal of the Institute of Romance Studies, Spring 2001, 49-63
  • ‘In Modernity’s Wake: transculturality, deterritorialization and the questio n of community in Las flores de otro mundo’, in Postscript, April 2002, 38-49
  • ‘Memory in Motion: Ethnicity, Hybridity and Globalization in Self-Photographs of Moroccan Immigrants in Spain’, Journal of Romance Studies, Vol.3.1, 2003, 73-86
  • ‘Moor-Veiled Matters: the hijab as troubling interrogative of the relation between the West and Islam’, new formations, no. 51, winter 2003-2004, 39-49
  • ‘The Regard of the Gypsy: Ramón Zabalza’s gitano photographs and the visual challenge to the stereotype’ in Prácticas de poder y estrategias de resistencia en la España democrática, edited by Óscar Cornago Bernal, special issue of Iberoamericana, 24.4, 2006
  • ‘Voicing Risk: migration, transgression and relocation in Spanish/Moroccan raï’ forthcoming in Interventions, Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Summer 2006
  • ‘Autography from the Margins,’ Hispanic Research Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2008, p.181-190
  • ‘Here, Now, Then, There: Cities, Memory and Movement in Photographs by Young Refugees/New Londoners’ in Moving Worlds, special issue edited by David Farrier, forthcoming in 2012.

Current research projects

Parvati Nair is currently writing a book entitled Flamenco Rhythms: People, Place, Performance on the global dissemination and adaptations of flamenco, as a predominantly urban musical form, and its persisting ties with the culture of southern Spain.
At the Centre for the Study of Migration, she is actively fostering a research focus on city spaces, starting with London’s East End. The Centre has strong ties to this part of London and supports research in this area. The Centre’s key aims include the fostering of interdisciplinary work on migration, the development of research on London as a city of immigration, more specifically of the East End as an urban immigrant zone, and the study of London as a city of transit and settlement. The Centre runs a regular programme of seminars, workshops, lectures and conferences. It is currently in the process of preparing to seed-fund six interdisciplinary projects from within Queen Mary on the city and migration as of 2011. This is part of Parvati Nair’s DiversCity project. Local immigrant and arts organizations are also involved. Parvati Nair is also involved in supporting a cross-Faculty research projects on migration.

Courses taught

At undergraduate level, on the Hispanic Studies and Comparative Literature programmes. The following are modules she has taught:

  • Society and Photography in Spain: 1939-1975
  • Re-Viewing the Spanish Civil War
  • Exile and Memory in Modern Spanish Fiction
  • Spanish Realism: Galdós and Alas
  • Feminine Voices in Modern Spanish Fiction
  • The Generation of 1898: Literature, Debates, Ideas
  • Migration Through Photography

Current plans for collaborative cross-Faculty teaching at postgraduate level include a module on Migration for the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Research Students

Parvati Nair has acted as first or second supervisor to several doctoral students, working in the areas of film, literature and photography. Those who have completed their doctorates have gone on to establish themselves as practising academics. Current doctoral students are working in the areas of film, photography, migration and urban studies.
She welcomes proposals from prospective students interested in pursuing research studies in the following areas:

  • Migration Studies
  • Visual Culture
  • Comparative Cultural Studies
  • Modern Peninsular Studies

Proposals must have a strong interdisciplinary focus and a well-defined theoretical framework. Parvati Nair will be happy to discuss draft research proposals with those interested.

Letters from London

The Lens Looks Back                                 May 7, 2009

By Parvati Nair

This spring, we Londoners have been thinking quite a lot about the role of cameras in our lives.

Granted that here in London, we may not be the most photogenic people in the world… but that doesn’t stop us from being the most photographed. We all know that every time a Londoner steps out of her or his front door, the unseen cameras relentlessly track us as we make our way through the city. Rough estimates indicate that the average Londoner can get photographed up to 300 times on a normal working day. We all know this, and occasionally, we catch a glimpse of ourselves on the television monitor as we enter or exit a tube station, fill our trolleys in the supermarket or stand in line at the cashier’s in a bank. We all know this… and we are inured to it. We are happy to carry on with our lives, even if we are being photographed every time we take a step, turn a corner, meet up with friends for a coffee or go in and out of work. In any case, we seldom see photographs of ourselves and, as the saying goes, out of sight is out of mind… Indeed, we may not realize it, but the enthusiasm with which we Brits follow the TV show Big Brother possibly indicates a distinct penchant for surveillance in our society and even for delight in the bizarre camaraderie of fellow-subjects who rub shoulders before an all-pervading lens. The irony, of course, is that as we indulge in the inevitable voyeurism that the TV show feeds off, we too are subjects housed in the city and watched by others whom we neither see nor know.

Only occasionally does surveillance intrude upon our lives and that, most often, occurs with the sudden flash of a camera as we exceed speed limits whilst driving or commit some kind of traffic offence. Certainly, a strange discomfiture accompanies the moment when a parking violation notice arrives by post, authenticated by a photograph of us or of our car caught in the act of infraction. Those are the moments when the colour drains from our faces, as we realize with some shock not so much the fact that we did something we shouldn’t have done, but rather the extent to which our every move on any given day is tracked, stored, open to scrutiny. The camera records and remembers even the moments of our lives that we have forgotten.

Tracked, stored, open to scrutiny…? By whom? For what?

By the authorities. To keep us safe. To ensure our civil rights. Ostensibly… after all, this is a city that has been victim to terror attacks, a city where burglaries occur daily, where pockets are picked, where knifings can sometimes happen. Surveillance is part of democracy and citizenship as we are taught it and as we live it here in the UK, and many of us, in the wake of horrendous crimes, such as that of the fatal stabbing back in 1993 of the teenager Stephen Lawrence (the lack of footage meant that no convictions were ever made), actually think that we’re better off with it than without it. In a city as vast as this and with a population that unofficially exceeds the 12 million mark, much can go wrong and we Brits have always been the kind who’d rather be safe than sorry.

Also to keep us safe, the authorities decreed a while ago that while the public are photographed repeatedly, we, in turn, could be questioned about our intentions if we photographed either the police or any place or vehicle of public transport. Public photography can be a cause for detention. The aim is to deter anyone taking photographs with the intention of using them for terrorist purposes. This is part of new anti-terrorist measures. Thus, not so long ago, a father and son from Holland, both fans of British double-decker buses, were held and questioned by the police here in London for innocently including in their three-day tourist itinerary a much anticipated visit to a local bus depot in order to photograph the parked buses. They had not known that they were laying themselves open to suspicion. They had not expected to be questioned as if they might be terrorists. Imagine, then, their terror at being suspected of terrorism. Adverts from the anti-terrorist hotline remind us that ‘Thousands of people take photos every day. What if one of them seems odd?’ This implies that not only are we the subjects of incessant photography, but that we should be surveying one another as well, if cameras are in view. Also, as arbiters of oddities, it is assumed that here, in a city of 12 million, where over 300 languages are spoken and where people of vastly different ethnicities, religious beliefs, social values and income levels co-habit, we all share a view of what is normal, i.e. not odd. The very notion, if you ask me, strikes me as odd…

In the light of these severe constraints on public photography, spring in London saw a protest march organized in mid-February by the National Union of Journalists to highlight the constraints – constraints, not prohibitions, but decidedly inhibiting nonetheless — on the freedom to photograph. There are two sides to the debate: some believe that the freedom to photograph is a democratic right; the authorities claim that everyday democratic freedoms, namely the free, safe and unfettered circulation of goods, capital and persons through the city, depends on all of us being surveyed whilst also being constrained in our own photographic ventures.

Not everyone is free or safe, though, when ordinary people have to think twice about whipping out the camera and while CCTV is silently at work to safeguard us… Indeed, it appears that CCTV does not always operate as and when it should. Back in July 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian living in London, was shot and killed in the London Underground by police who mistook him for a terrorist. Subsequently, the police have claimed that there is an absence of CCTV footage showing what happened at the scene. There is, in fact, a total absence of visual recording of that tragedy… an absence that has led to a lack of proper accountability.

In the last four years, the camera has become much more of an everyday accessory that we take with us, along with the wallet, the mobile phone and the house keys. If lomography (a movement first started in Austria that later spread round the world to promote, casual snapshot photography, phrases such as ‘take your camera everywhere with you,’ ‘use it any time, day or night,’ ‘photography is not an interference in your life, it is part of it’ being among the ten guiding mottos of lomographers), was an eccentricity that appealed to a minority of photophiles just a few years back, then developments in visual technology make practically all of us into photographers today. The ubiquitous presence of the camera in our lives has meant that we increasingly record life as we live it. Indeed, perhaps we even live more intensely when reality comes to us filtered through the lens. The camera has become the tool through which we apprehend, understand and relate to the world around us.

An odd tension surfaces here between, on the one hand, laws that constrain public photography and, on the other, the growing public practice of photography in public. Could it be that surveillance society has by default turned us into a society of photographers?

I said earlier that the camera records and remembers even the moments of our lives that we have forgotten. No doubt this is so. Also true is the fact that, recently in London, we have seen that the camera records and remembers even the moments that some of us would rather were forgotten. The G20 summit here in London was notable not so much for what went on amongst the prestigious leaders of the world’s most powerful nations inside the convention hall, but for what happened on the street outside. For some days after he died, the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, struck by a police baton as he walked home through the crowd, was reported to have collapsed, been drunk, even been disorderly. It was only when the Guardian published video footage sent in by the public that the truth was acknowledged. Tomlinson had been hit on the abdomen by a policeman, whilst simply wending his way homeward through the crowd. It could have been any one of us instead.

Tomlinson was innocent and uninvolved in what went on around him. He was not a protester. Who knows, he may even have been disinclined towards the protesters. His name will be remembered, though, for the fact that the sudden and tragic loss of his life did not happen totally in vain: at least, it vindicates the democratic power of the lens when it looks back at those who look.

This is not meant to pit the police against the public: that would be absurd. It is to point out the politics of the lens, to note that a top-down, one-way gaze from the authorities to the public reifies the subject who can neither look back, change nor challenge his image. It leads to fixing and stereotyping of voyeur and subject alike, dangerous precursors to fascist enterprise and the breakdown of civic freedoms. There is more democracy in the exchange of glances… and with it the acceptance that there can be more than one line of vision. Public photography, as we saw at the time of the G20 summit, photography in public by the public, is a crucial reminder that here in this multifarious city, another point of view is always possible…


About Simon

Parvati Nair, 13 April 2009

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Simon. This is the reason why.

London has grown quiet over this Easter weekend. Traditionally, the Easter break is when Londoners stay home, visit family, plant seedlings in the garden. As is often the case in this global city, though, not everyone has been relaxing. Saturday saw some 100,000 people gather on a protest march in central London in a bid to convince the British government to intervene in the on-going massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. On the day, the protest was mentioned briefly in the news, but most Londoners still do not know much about what it was all about. Most of us Londoners do not know that since the start of this year, over 2,000 Tamil civilians have been killed, as Jaffna and other predominantly Tamil-populated parts of Sri Lanka come under relentless bombing by the Sri Lankan army and soldiers plough through these regions, murdering, raping and looting as they go, while the population struggle against shortages of food and medicine. Most of us do not know that as we plant seedlings in our gardens or hope for a sunny afternoon, a steady and very real genocide is taking place on a small island in the Indian Ocean. Closer to home, most of us do not know that outside the Houses of Parliament in central London lies Parameswaran Subramaniam, weak from a hunger strike that he refuses to lift. Subramaniam is one of two Tamil students who have, in Gandhian style, gone on hunger strikes to protest against the massacre of Tamils that is currently underway in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The other student, 21 year old Sivatharsan Sivakumaraval finally lifted his strike on Saturday, on the understanding that he would be able to travel to the United States to put the Tamil plight to the American authorities. His mother is by his side, concerned about the damage already done to his kidneys from the lack of fluids. Nonetheless, like so many other mothers of children born to oppression -Palestinian, Saharawi, Kashmiri, Kurdish, Tibetan – she understands that, whether he resists or not, her son has no alternative but find his life placed in the line of fire.

The Tamil conflict goes back many years. Since independence from British rule in 1948, Tamils in Sri Lanka have been faced by discrimination, with limited access to jobs and higher education, relegated by the dominant Singhalese to second-rate citizenship. Inevitably, and as is the case with so many communal conflicts that render the Indian sub-continent apart, the British had their part to play in the division of labours and communities in Sri Lanka. It was the British who shipped the Tamils over in large numbers from their native Tamil Nadu, in southern India, to work in tea plantations. It was the British who, until 1948, maintained control over the two communities by demarcating them and assigning them separate identities in their colonial zeal to divide and rule. Small wonder, then, that upon independence, the Singhalese majority should claim the rights to power.

The politicization of Tamil struggle first began in 1972, with the formation of the Tamil Tigers. Viewed as a terrorist group by the Sri Lankan authorities, as well as by governments in several other countries, the Tigers call themselves activists who seek a nation state of their own. Over the last thirty or more years, news of violence in Jaffna and other parts of Sri Lanka have sporadically hit the news. If the Tigers are seen as terrorists, their activities, even now when ‘terror’ has become the buzzword of our times, do not rank high in the media’s agenda. This is because, unlike Islamist action, the struggle of the Tigers is a localized one, confined to a small part of an island far away from the West.

Even near-by India is turning a semi-blind eye. If the Indian government has, in recent months, made rumbling noises of warning to the Sri Lankan authorities and vacuous promises of aid to the Tamils, then this is largely to pacify the unrest that events in Jaffna have unleashed in Tamil Nadu, where the ancestors of Sri Lanka’s Tamils came from. The truth is that strong bonds tie Tamils in India and Sri Lanka. In Hindu mythology, the Lord Rama rescued his wife Sita from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka figures large in the cultural imagination of Hindus, through its centrality in the epic Mahabharata. The city of Rameswaram, a site of pilgrimage for Hindus, is less than 40 kilometres by sea to Jaffna.. Spiritually, racially, ethnically, geographically and linguistically, Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils are pretty much inseparable. India, however, cannot afford to be too openly or too actively sympathetic. For over sixty years, India has had its own blood-soaked history of massacres in the backyard through its military occupation of Kashmir – an on-going conflict that has its roots in another violent legacy of colonially-imposed communal divisions. As the old adage says, those who live in glasshouses should not throw stones. Much that goes in Jaffna is no different from what goes on in Kashmir.  Such is the nature of state oppression.

In keeping with our contemporary form of imperialism, Sivakumaraval now hopes to turn to the powers that be, those of the United States, for intervention. It remains to be seen whether anything will change.

To return to Simon, whom I first met some thirty years ago in a small South Indian restaurant in a backstreet of central London – I wonder what he makes of the latest turn of things… Simon and I became friends as we sat eating the same food on adjacent tables, the conversation turning from the commonality of our shared Carnatic culinary heritage to events ‘back home.’ Simon, it turned out, was an ‘asylum seeker.’ He had once been a student at the University of Jaffna, where he found himself in the heart of turmoil. ‘I couldn’t live there,’ he explained, ‘too much violence. You were in trouble if you were a Tiger and in trouble if you weren’t. Nothing there… No future at all… nothing for young people.’ Over the years, we have met occasionally, always by chance and almost always in the same restaurant. Simon inevitably comes along on his own. For a while, he lived in a shelter for refugees, then in a bed-sit in a bed and breakfast place in Earl’s Court. ‘Very dirty place,’ he complained, ‘small, small mice running about everywhere at night.’ Then things got slightly better. He obrained the right of residence in the United Kingdom and got a job as a janitor in an old-age home . A room came with the job. Later, he moved in for a while into a house rented by Tamils. He had to move out. ‘Dangerous,’ he told me, ‘Two of them are Tigers and they are pressurizing me. Me, I am fed up of all this dirty game politics. I just want a normal life…If I get mixed up with them, I could get kicked out of the country and where would I go then?’ At one point, Simon entered into a relationship with an Englishwoman. It did not work out. He seemed dejected. ‘What to do? Cultural difference. She couldn’t understand about things back home.’

Simon, presumably, also could not let go of things ‘back home.’ As violence rips Jaffna apart, his words frame all those who are forced to flee for their lives and then live them out in displacement: ‘No peace at home and no home in peace.’


Tamil Tigers: 1,000 Civilians Died In Govt Raid

April 21, 2009, AP

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels said Tuesday that 1,000 civilians died in a government raid on their territory that the military says freed thousands of noncombatants from the war zone. The military denied the accusation.

As government forces have pushed the rebels into an ever-shrinking sliver of territory, both sides have accused the other of endangering civilians. Rights groups say the rebels are holding many against their will to use as human shields. But those groups have also accused the government of indiscriminate shelling in the tightly packed region in its bid to end the 25-year war.

It is not possible to obtain independent accounts of the situation because the war zone is restricted to journalists.

The international Red Cross warned that a final offensive “could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties.”

Human Rights Watch, which said between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remained stranded, warned more will die if the government launches a major attack.

“Both sides need to show far greater concern for civilians, or many more civilians will die,” said Brad Adams, the New York-based group’s Asia director.

On Monday, Sri Lankan soldiers broke through a barrier that the Tamil Tiger rebels had erected to defend their slice of territory. Some 35,000 civilians then poured out of the area and the exodus continued Tuesday. The government said more than 50,000 have fled thus far, and the figure was expected to rise.

But the rebels said in an e-mailed statement that more than 1,000 civilians died in the government’s raid and nearly 2,300 were wounded.

“And today a situation of bloodbath is prevailing,” the statement said.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the allegation.

The rebels called on the United Nations and the world community to act to rescue the trapped civilians.

The rebels have fought since 1983 for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority Tamils. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the years of violence.


Lost and Found

By Parvati Nair

When John handed the suitcase to me, the thought I had was not that I was taking it from him, but that it was taking me somewhere. Walking towards the station, I noticed how so many people looked at it as I walked by. The suitcase seemed to have a life force of its own, an ability to attract attention. In the sunlight, its colours ranged from the lightest gold to a burnished copper. I stood for a moment on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street and looked at it. More than anything else, more even than our memories, material objects speak to us of the irrevocability of time. You cannot find a suitcase like this any more, I thought. Where these days would one find a suitcase made of wood and leather? With initials engraved? Now they make them flimsy, disposable, entirely anonymous, even hard to distinguish, ready to be thrown into the hold of a plane and then out onto the baggage rack. And so, too, has the nature of journeys changed. We seldom say farewell anymore to loved ones. Or embark on voyages. We expect to arrive anywhere in the world in less than a day and to text home to say we’ve landed, to stay in touch via the mobile phone and internet. I watched a strange incongruence unfold before my eyes as I sat in the tube — the stillness of the case against the jarring sounds coming from my neighbour’s iPod. The suitcase revealed the newness and the raucousness of the contemporary. The three Japanese ladies sitting across me looked at the case, then at me and smiled. I knew the reason why they smiled was not because I had a suitcase with me, but because I had this suitcase. This suitcase, that spoke of another time — indeed, another sense of time and another sense of place.

The suitcase is here in my study now, where it will remain for the duration of its stay. Mark took a photo of me as I came home with it. My plan is to find objects to put into it. Objects that will somehow be meaningful and symbolic. However, as I begin to think of what these might be, I ask myself also what I shall find inside this case. Pandora’s box, maybe or, perhaps, a treasure chest?
In the morning light, the marks on the suitcase looked at first like scars. Some were deeper than others; there was one like a bruise that had scratched the surface, others no more than faint lines that petered off. Then it occurred to me that indeed perhaps they were not scars, but traces. The casual imprints of collisions, happy encounters, rough resting places, the rubbing of shoulders between strangers. . . Like the traveller who comes home, the suitcase has many stories to tell. And like the traveller from afar, the suitcase is mysterious, impossible to know. All I could read at first were the letters J.D.P. My thoughts went to John’s grandfather, Captain John Perivolaris. My sole reference points for him were the words and photograph on John’s blog and of course, this suitcase. I tried to imagine the suitcase in a cabin on a ship. Might there have been a porthole in the cabin? An endless, shifting seascape outside? Had I ever known any sea captains? Ports? Or ships and anchors? I remember my mother once telling me that when she was young, she had spoken to a man who had travelled widely on ships. She was still in India then. He spoke of faraway places, of having been in Las Palmas, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Singapore, Aden. At the time, my mother had yet to travel much, though she wanted to. The names seemed glamorous. Exotic and faraway. So she had looked at the globe to find these names, but it was hard to tell what the places were like or how far away they really were from home. Later, she found herself visiting nearly all those places and each time, she would retell the story of that man and of how he had ignited in her the desire to see the world.

I remember too the port of Ceuta back in the 1970s, a small Spanish town on the northern coast of Africa that I used to visit as a child. The main street would fill for a day or two with sailors whenever a ship came in to port. This happened often, at least twice or thrice a week. They would fill the bars, speak foreign languages, laugh, drink and buy things and then, of course, disappear forever. They came from all over: Turkey, Italy, Greece and further afield… India, Japan. Strangers who came and went with the sea breeze.

That old, forgotten memory made me realize the suitcase itself was a sort of port, a solid rectangular object that stayed the same whatever the tide. Perhaps it was so for Captain Perivolaris, as it accompanied him throughout the voyages of his life. Now it was here moving from hand to hand and we were the sailors, the travellers who visited it and stayed for just a little while. The suitcase is resolute. It remains unchanging regardless of what we put in it or take out from it. My thoughts turn from John’s grandfather to others I do not know but have become linked to, Margareta Kern, Caroline Watson, Dinu Li, and John by whose desk this suitcase had remained for some months. Somewhere, in some ineluctable form, their traces were also on this case. On its surface. Like me, they had held the handle. They too had opened the lid, looked inside, wondered where it had been, what thoughts it had triggered. They too had sought to inhabit it for a while, filled it with their memories and the haunting of what once was. By bringing the suitcase home, I have entered an invisible weave of strangers, all of us bound by the ephemeral, the fluxes of displacement that are uniquely ours, and ours alone. In so doing, I am encountering the odd familiarity of the stranger. I know nothing or very little about you, and yet when looking inside this case, I feel your presence here in my midst… As I pour my memories into this case, I watch them swirl and mix with yours. I had not expected this… This unexpected connection with those I do not know.

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