I am writing from the wilder margins of Delhi, where I am staying in one of those stillborn hotels with two-dimensional swimming pools and listless waiters with nothing to do. It is the sort of place NRIs get married in. The ruins of a Monsoon Wedding lie around me: fake-marble colonnades, red-and-gold thrones, and pointless festoons of sheer white cloth billowing in the wind like Isadora Duncan’s deadly scarves. When I come back to the hotel at night after my day’s work, I do not have much to do. So, I snoop around, studying the lights of the night.
Last night, there was a Madhubala moon, sliced Un-Chien-Andalou-style by two perfect slivers of cloud, and a solitary star pinned just the right distance above them. And beneath that celestial tableau, there were the little coloured fairy-lights of the hotel, entwined with foliage and flower. It was a filigree that mingled electric with organic — leaf-green fixed and frosted by fairy-green, and punctuated by trumpet-blasts of floodlight on the building or lawn as if in expectation of some spectacular crime. The sprinklers spun round and round all night, turning floodlit grass into crushed glass.
Everything looked brilliantly green, the colour of nature. But the feel of that greenness was electric and gem-like. Walking in it was like moving about in a giant aquarium in which the fish swam in green light instead of water. In that light, leaves and grass, flower and flesh turned rich and hard and strange — not quite nature, nor quite art.
That limbolike place — part dream, part nightmare — was the creation of electricity, of artificial light falling on rocks and stones and trees. Places like that exist as much inside our heads, in the imagination and visual memory, as outside, in the more public spaces we develop, transform and inhabit in the city, town or village. On the other side of the hotel wall, outside my island of lights, lay a moon-forsaken world of orange light. News from this other world of the night reaches me every morning with the papers as stories of modern crime. If the neon gods in that timeless Simon-and-Garfunkel song split the night and touched the sound of silence, then the halogen gods outside my hotel are unflinching and indifferent; the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road has got them used to deadlier stuff.
Cocooned in that inner world of light, I reached for my phone to take photographs. A spider at the centre of its web, stretching across the branches of a tree, glittering in reflected floodlight. My long shadow on the bleached concrete of the parking lot. Fairy lights dangling among the roots of a banyan tree (also called “strangler figs”, Wikipedia tells me). The ghost of a chandelier inside the skeleton of a marquee. Neon signage making ordinary words sound sinister in close-up. The security guard’s face bloodied by indicator lights.
Back in my room, I tried using Bluetooth to transfer the images to my laptop. (The name, Bluetooth, seemed full of fluorescent menace.) But my phone crashed during the transfer and all the pictures were lost. Just as well, I thought. The night and its different worlds of light turn us all into inveterate picture-makers. But I knew that every image I had made with my phone camera could be traced back to other, infinitely more accomplished, images — the work of writers, photographers, film-makers, lodged in that black and shamelessly unoriginal instrument, my head, and freed regularly into the night, like bats riddled with light.