Living Pathways, the new (2013) book of our friend Dr. Nat, is new in at least four important ways:
1. The way it was created patiently involving hundreds of people.
2. The way it appears with images on nearly as many pages as the text.
3. The fact that images constitute a heart moving text needing no letters to formulate their signification.
4. The unique opinions it projects.
In this essay I limit myself to commenting on the first three points, leaving the fourth one on the author’s opinions to another exercise.
My comments are a meditation on the book as a book. To start with I share with you the fact that at first I found Living Pathways so different as a book that I was inclined to call it a non-book. That expression borrowed from libraries where objects like maps, statues and the like are rightly considered as non-books. However, since the 1970s, under the influence of the common use of the internet, some scholars have started to call non-books any writings that do not follow the usual manner of forming a book especially with regard to linearity. I myself attempted to write a few of my books as non-books.
However, when I think of Living Pathways, a book that is not rigidly formatted by linearity, I find it a unique book, a South-Asian book, a new type of book – surely not a non-book— making an unusual though most successful use of images. In this case, the slogan I like to use, applies most aptly in this case: one does not take photos, one makes images. As you look through the photos of Living Pathways, you sense that someone is making images. The author is an iconographer. And it is also unique that he presents his images mostly each in a full page and without captions. What may appear missing to some users of the book may work as an invitation to look at the image and allow it to sort of work into you.
Take, for instance, the image on the front cover of the book. You definitely have two levels of people: some on the stage and others below it. It is difficult not to see there a representation of two classes of people: those below work on the production of plants, those on the stage, in somewhat overly formal dresses, proceed in what seems to be a highly ritualized performance with or without any relevance to the people working down the stage in the water. Moreover, as the whole image represents two social levels of people, those on the stage are again divided into three social levels by the way they are dressed. In comparison the workers are similarly dressed.
Strikingly, this same image appears again at the very end of the 32 meditations of this book. But the image occupies not just one page as on the cover but exactly two pages. The image is not enlarged but shows a larger part of reality. Thus whereas you have 18 people on the stage in the cover image, there are 19 people on the image of pages 104-105. And whereas there are 4 workers on the cover, there are 12 on the image inside the book. Could that suggest that in the book itself more attention is given to the ordinary people?
The size of the book is exactly 9 by 10 inches. The large images having no margin occupy the full page where they appear. Thus the large images are 9 x 10 inches in size.
The book has a total of xxxii and 152 pages for a total of 185. Of these 85 – nearly half the book—are large images. Among the large images 16 occupy two pages. So, there are 8 images of two pages each. As for the images that occupy one page, they all appear on the left hand pages. So, there are 85 pages having pictures on the left page and the right side pages have the text. Thus in the major part of the book you always have a text on the right hand side facing an image on the right hand side. It is as if you had two parallel texts, one in letters (right) and one in an image (left).
The 32 meditations that constitute the main part of the book, both in the number of pages and in the importance of the subject, occupy pages 24 to 103, thus a total of 79 pages. The section comprising the 32 meditations has 40 full pages of images and 29 full pages of text. In addition, there are two pages of text with one small photo each. Then, there are two figures occupying two full pages each, and two figures taking one full page each. Five pages of text include one small figure each.
The figures are very well designed and are marked with useful captions. On the other hand, the photographs, big or small have no caption whatsoever. It is evident that the author is of the opinion that you do not need captions for the photos. Indeed captions might distract the reader. Besides, while the text is addressed to the mind, the images are offered to the heart. The images create in you the feeling that helps you to understand the text.
It is quite striking that in this world of machines, on the 85 large photos you find only two on which a couple of cars can be seen very small in the landscape. Similarly two small boats in the photo of a large bay, a photo that spreads on two pages, can be seen if you look attentively. No big machine is seen on the photos. Also on the nearly 100 photos of the book, only one small photo has two lovely deers (caribous). No wild animal is seen on the entire series of photos. In a word, the nature depicted by the photos is a humanized nature. Or would it be better to conclude, especially when observing the villages, houses, footpaths in the forest, it is man who has been naturalized? I think that to be the case, for that is the effect on me when I contemplate the images.
Another unique thing in the images is that there are four full pages containing over 60 portraits of Asian people. And in this one case you have a single caption for all the portraits, rather discrete on one of the four pages: Dedications. Have you ever seen -or have you ever looked at- over sixty portraits without having any information as to the names, place and time when these images were made? The fact is, in another section of the book titled acknowledgements; you probably have much more than sixty names of people to whom Dr. Nat gave thanks for their help. But then, supposing that the acknowledgements include the information about the persons photographed like their names, place and date of the photos, even if that information was printed next to the concerned person, would that information be of any help to you? I doubt it. What we are offered is the opportunity of looking at faces, the faces of our brothers and sisters.
Gaston Roberge is the Executive Secretary, Social Communications for the Society of Jesus in Rome. He lives in Calcutta.