BY Vikramaditya Sahai in Opinion | 23 OCT 20

‘Myself Mona Ahmed’: Revisiting Dayanita Singh’s Landmark Photobook

Taken over a decade and published in 2001, Singh’s book documents the life of her friend Mona Ahmed 

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BY Vikramaditya Sahai in Opinion | 23 OCT 20

This article is the first part of a series on contemporary art in South Asia guest edited by Skye Arundhati Thomas

In 2011, Dayanita Singh’s collection of letters and photographs, Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), meant the world to me. In it, Singh, a photographer and bookmaker, compiles photographs of Mona Ahmed and her correspondence with Walter Keller, the publisher of Scalo Books. Singh first met Mona on an assignment to cover the hijra community. Theirs was an unusual friendship that Singh documented through images, a selection of which she shares in the book. Mona was born in pre-independence India in Old Delhi. First, her family abandoned her due to her gender; then, the hijra community abandoned her too, because of her unconventional decisions. She made her home in a cemetery in Old Delhi, where she passed away in 2018. 

Dayanita Singh, We lie around like a normal mother and daughter, 1992. Courtesy: the artist
Dayanita Singh, We lie around like a normal mother and daughter, 1992. Courtesy: the artist 

Books were the most respectable way of bringing queerness home, no matter how illicit their solicitations. Myself Mona Ahmed offered me relief at a time when trans and hijra lives were less ordinary in the queer politics of Delhi. Today, six years after the historic judgment of the Indian Supreme Court recognizing ‘the third sex’, I continue to turn to Mona to learn from her refusal. 

The first reviews of Singh’s book obsessed over Mona’s eunuch-ness as her uniqueness, emphasizing the gap between Mona (her hijra name) and Ahmed (her given name) as the struggle of her gender. But to read her life only as a struggle to live in her gender is to succumb to the pervasive power of its norms. Ahmed isn’t just a boy’s name; it is also the name by which her mother loved and protected her, a name she grew up with, carried and resisted. Why must trans folx give up their pasts to live in the present? The breath between Mona and Ahmed is a contradiction, but also opens up to the possibility of play. In it, I find compulsion and autonomy – mobility, if not freedom. It is more than gender; it is the divide between two worlds – of being hijra and with family, of offering blessings and receiving respect, of leaving and being asked to stay. 

My beautiful monkey Shabnam (my eunuch brother’s name) that was killed by the Muslims. They said that a monkey is a Hindu god and therefore cannot live in a Muslim graveyard. So they poisoned him. 1999
Dayanita Singh, My beautiful monkey Shabnam (my eunuch brother’s name) that was killed by the Muslims. They said that a monkey is a Hindu god and therefore cannot live in a Muslim graveyard. So they poisoned him, 1999. Courtesy: the artist 

Mona Ahmed also refuses the neatness of the ‘before-and-after’ trans stories the media cannibalize. She refuses the complete occupation of one gender, which the pharmaco-pornographic industry demands, refusing to inhabit the courage and frames of overcoming that radical politics needs. But, before any of this, Mona is a self, her own self, the ‘myself’ of Singh’s book. While frequent use of the word ‘myself’ as a stand-in for the first-person pronoun can be a sign of first-generation English speakers in India, Mona’s ‘myself’ is an emphasis of her presence, an insistence, a refusal to capitulate to the insignificance assigned to people of her kind. The name that follows is only catching up with her. It is this self that refuses to be indexed in the photograph. It is a refusal to be captured by a camera or otherwise. Singh’s book caringly offers us this opacity, presenting humbling images of Mona away from iconicity.

Dayanita Singh, My rabbit Moti (pearl) that the cats ate up a few days later, 1999. Courtesy: the artist 
Dayanita Singh, My rabbit Moti (Pearl) that the cats ate up a few days later, 1999. Courtesy: the artist

Gender is a terribly visual grammar – from the doctor who assigns a baby her gender to the law that seeks to legislate who is and isn’t trans, as in the case of India’s 2019 Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. Everyone relies on sight. To interpret a photograph using only its immediate visual information is therefore to demand the same visibility that kills trans persons. If hijra folx beckon each other by clapping and announce their arrival with music, it is imperative, as the Black feminist scholar Tina Campt writes in Listening to Images (2017), that we listen to images. 

In photographs of her daughter’s birthday, Mona cajoles her child in her arms, softly pushing her cheek for a kiss. She is talking with her community – a gentle pride in her smile – at the birthday gathering she has arranged. She is singing and blessing those who dance with her. From the softness of her touch to the drama of her movement, her sensuousness animates the scene. However, as we turn more pages, whether Mona is at the mosque or among her animals, her lips keep drawing closer and closer together till they resign to silence. Anyone who holds this book in their hands must attend to the sonic frequencies of Mona’s journey – from the audacity of her song to the quiet of her prayer. 

When I feel like dying because I cannot bear the world any longer, Dayanita arrives to give me love and encouragement. 1998
Dayanita Singh, When I feel like dying because I cannot bear the world any longer, Dayanita arrives to give me love and encouragement, 1998. Courtesy: the artist

In one of the final images in the book, Mona sits with her daughter and her guru, contemplating this invitation to witness her own desertion, as she comes to terms with her daughter’s increasing distance from her, now that they no longer live together, and her guru’s fancy new home. It’s a scene she must grieve as it unfolds. We feel the words in her mouth that she does not bring herself to say. What do we do with these quiet images? We hold them as lumps in our own throats. Since Mona’s death two years ago, trans persons have stolen their place at the table; it is a fugitive act, as their needs are still considered illegitimate by the mainstream LGB movement. Returning to Mona is an act of rememory, as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison writes in Beloved (1987). Rememory is how ancestors and beloveds advise and guide the abandoned in their haunting. Mona is a force whose dreams continue to animate the present. 

Nixi became Dayanita Singh, the photographer, here on the lap of her favourite Mona Ahmed, New Delhi. 2013
Dayanita Singh, Nixi became Dayanita Singh, the photographer, here on the lap of her favourite Mona Ahmed, New Delhi, 2013. Courtesy: the artist. Image from The Archivist by Nony Singh, published by Dreamvilla Productions

Mona belonged to an upper-caste Muslim family. Some in the neighbourhood called her Ahmed Bhai (Brother Ahmed) – a sign of respect and another reason the name was difficult to give up. Caste entitlement animated her sense of loss, her desire for legacy. A measure of her destitution was to mingle with the many others rendered disposable by caste patriarchy. And mingle she did. Seeing common cause with the ‘lowly’ – from mentally ill women to dogs and monkeys considered haram (sacrilegious) – Mona made abandonment into a shelter. Upon meeting Homai Vyarawala, India’s first woman photojournalist and chronicler of the Indian Independence movement during the 1940s, Mona came to understand that even success can’t protect you from sadness. Mona refused the world to refuse the loneliness it assigned her.

Mona and Myself, 2013
Dayanita Singh, Mona and Myself, 2013. Courtesy: the artist

A refusal is not a ‘no’. A ‘no’ accepts the sovereignty of the question to which it responds. A refusal is dreamwork. In her decision to build a home, a wedding hall with a swimming pool or a school in a cemetery – plans that she shared in her letters to Keller – Mona dreams of, and worked towards, an otherwise. To borrow again from Campt, Mona acted in the present as if it were already the future she desired. She acted from the heart so that, even when her dreams didn’t come true, defeat didn’t claim her spirit. Mona’s dreams were animated by this odd intersection of caste and abandonment – a refusal that never settled into identity. The task for us is to tether a practice of freedom from her loneliness.

Main image: Dayanita Singh, Ayesha fulfilled my dream of becoming a mother, so I celebrated her first birthday for 3 days and 3 nights and invited over 2000 eunuchs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (detail), 1990. Courtesy: the artist 

Vikramaditya Sahai is researcher and teacher. They live and love in Delhi. 

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