April 4, 2014

Taking Notes While Trailing Abandoned Sofas


Wherever I go, I happen to see them, the abandoned sofas: do they follow me or vice-versa?

That's another thing: I do not see what eventually becomes of them. I instead merely take their pictures, plotting the coordinates of their presences upon the invisible, shifting, fluid map that is my memory and imagination. Even if they will disintegrate or be subsumed into the anonymity of a landfill, they still exist upon this map, my map, still abandoned nevertheless but not forgotten. 

** OMAN**

Lonesome: Seeb, Oman
I began spotting the abandoned sofas a few years ago. While driving through the sun-bleached streets of the sea-side Omani town, Seeb, I would often spot them sitting outside the modest one-story homes. They were more often than not faded, patched, stained, and sagging, the arms seemingly displaced from the sockets. 

There also happened to be a street in Seeb which was exclusively dedicated to selling wedding function articles; as you drove past that street, you would see fancily dressed up sofas, faux-flower festooned arches, and tables on display outside the shops, almost akin to mannequins in boutique windows. Like the mannequins with their perfect figures and features and coveted clothes, these sofas too were aspirational, strongly redolent of shiny, happy and beautiful occasions that were weddings. 

Yet, no such fragrance emanated from their less worldly, infinitely more battered cousins, these abandoned sofas. I wondered about them: had they been simply put outside as an extension of the private living space, the domestic blurring into the public? Or had they more likely been rejected and abandoned, left to the mercy of the harsh Omani weather: the searing sunlight, bone-white heat and dryness? Meanwhile, inside, their younger, fresher counterparts commanded court, blissfully ignorant of a similar future which awaited them as that of its predecessors outside.


Lavender: Barka, Oman

 One November morning, while walking towards a quiet beach in yet another sea-side town, Barka, I encounter an upended gutted lavender-hued sofa on the roadside; its color nevertheless still remained sharp and fresh in the sunlight. Perhaps, the previous night's thunderstorm had cleansed away the years of accumulated dust and blemishes leading it to be re-presented in its original glory days. Yet, regardless of its seeming newness, it stolidly sat there, like a tortoise turned upside down, waiting for someone to upright it. I did not know how long ago it had been discarded or abandoned; the sofa itself faced an abandoned, burnt house across the road, whose turquoise walls still gleamed brightly despite the layers of black ash caking its surface – and a shattered mirror, shards of its glass soul shimmering in the sunlight. 


Ship-wrecked: Al Khod, Oman

 A fervid Friday afternoon in a self-contained university campus: everybody is still immersed in the throes of a siesta, unwilling to awaken until the sun extinguishes itself. 

An avid walker, I can't recall why I happen to be walking at this hour and temperature of the day though. Even though I usually stick to a routine walk-path, I still find that every time I walk past one particular corner, there is a new surprise awaiting me; it is as if the corner deliberately invokes surprise, as if to compel me to walk towards, rather than past, it. And, surprises, they are: a marmalade cat looking up at the  ripe, brassy full moon in wonderment, as if it has glimpsed something quite unlike it before. A bougainvillea bush, sprouting from the burnt biscuit-hued sand: a welcome oasis-island of fuschia. A miniature township of cardboard boxes and scraps. I cannot help but pause, reluctant to leave behind these nuggets of extraordinary and return to the quotidian. 

Today, I find this: a ship, ship-wrecked, unmoored and dislocated. It sits like a king in the tree-dappled shade, adamant to retain its hauteur even though its courtiers and menials have long dispersed and disappeared. Having been discarded and abandoned, it attempts to establish a new kingdom nonetheless, intent on attracting a new coterie. 

This is its present reality, though. What lies ahead for it? It sits there, the cracked wall giving it company, watching the world walk past it without as much as giving it a glance. Even if they do, for onlookers such as myself, it is nothing more than a whimsical oddity to be briefly examined and wondered about. And then...the next step beckons, tantalisingly laden with discovery of new sights and worlds. Once the corner has been eventually turned, who remembers what lies behind? 

Yet, it still fills the air with its presence, adamant in its longing to be noticed and listened to. And yes, perhaps, one day, someone will want to hear its story. And it is this hope that sustains its illusions, its bid to become a whole, rather than a bit player, in the scheme of things. 

 Every time I walk around the corner, I hear its plaintive siren call...will I succumb one day? Who knows?


 I leave Oman and hopscotch to the United States; even here, the abandoned sofas find me and I find them. While my husband navigates supposedly the steepest street in San Francisco in our rental car, I glance through the window only to find a powder-blue chaise lounge primly standing outside a pink-blossom smothered blue porch. Viewing from the car, it appears to be slightly tilted, as if bit bemused by its fate. Is it being sold? But who could voluntarily abandon so serene and elegant a piece? I want to jump out of the car and photograph it. Yet, we are already careening down the slippery slope and into the undulating maze of San Franciso's terrain. This is the only picture I have of the blue sofa and can present to you of: a word snapshot. 

Mirror Door: Pittsburgh, United States

 A languorous, mild July evening: returning from a heady, summer-fevered street party, I short-cut through a damp, mossy alley en route to my apartment. Fragments of a party fall upon the ground from a large window set in a wall. I am more interested in the sofa standing upright and against the wooden door leading up to the house; there's a mirror placed against it too and for a moment, you would be forgiven for thinking that the sofa was mirror-studded, a fantastical sofa specimen, if there ever was one. However, it is apparent that the sofa and the mirror have been bid farewell. This is an university city and at this time of the year, students are packing up their rooms and apartments, their mobile, temporary homes – and the sofa has been peremptorily placed there. I take pictures but it's night and the phone does it scant justice; the next day, when I go to take pictures during the light, the sofa is already gone and so effectively has it been cleared away that it might as well never have stood there. 

Pillowy: Pittsburgh, United States

One morning, as I am musing about jewel-tinted glass birds which I have seen minutes before in an art-gallery I collide into the sofa, almost apologising before realising it is in fact just an inanimate object. It is a bleached sky blue sofa sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. Once again, the question impatiently neon-lights through my mind: Who put it there? Couldn't they have found any other place in the world? There is nothing else next to it. Everyone else walks around it, paying scant attention to it while it may just as well be invisible for the cars streaming past it. No longer irritated, I try to take pictures of it as is my wont - but am dissatisfied with the results; the angle is just not right, I somehow am unable to convey the sofa's character. It doesn't occur to me that perhaps, it doesn't want to be photographed: it simply just wishes to be sat upon and carry on with its business. 


Why are they so peremptorily abandoned? Does anyone rescue them – or perhaps, that statement merits questioning: do they need to be rescued, after all? These abandoned sofas inhabit a liminal country, having become permanent refugees. They cannot return to where they were exiled from – and yet, what future awaits for them? 

Are they merely objects of contemplation or does anyone actually sit upon them in their abandoned state? I think of the bleached sky blue sofa: how tempting and inviting and pillowy it appeared, seductively calling out to be sat upon and therefore, claimed. This is my original function, it says, rather than having metamorphosed into this eccentric oddity stalking the streets and outsides of homes. Sit upon me and endow me with dignity. 

Perhaps, that is the crux of it all: their function. When positioned inside a home, they performed according to their function: they provided shelter and comfort, a sanctuary after a long, exhausting day when the only and most desirable option was to shut out the harsh world beyond. They were one of the multiple pieces of furniture and objects that constituted the matrix of a person's home: they too were a story, part of many stories. 

 And yet, outside, in the streets, it is an entirely different matter: their former stories have lost currency. The streets are already interlaid with dozens of smashed unheard stories: fallen leaves, feathers, and flowers, one shoe, one glove, torn pages from a poetry collection, and crushed, juicy plums. In midst of this menagerie of oddballs and misfits, the sofas too attempt to locate their place, striving to understand what is now their function, striving to be understood.

 They cannot be ignored, they cannot be overlooked: for they determinedly make themselves visible, refusing to vanish into nothingness. And so, the least we can do is to ask them: what is your history? Where did you once live? And yet, we must simultaneously be aware of and sensitive to their present: displaced and existing upon peripheries. They may be abandoned - but they are not dead. Like migratory birds which cannot travel back to their original habitats, they must evolve and adapt to their new ones, abstracting vigorous novels from their present narratives. In the process, they become significant emblems of transition and metamorphosis in this dynamic world, drawing as much focus to themselves as to the liminal pockets that we, the onlookers, too inhabit and yet are consciously oblivious to. 

Whenever you encounter them, do pause and donate them your time and attention; they have much to say and every time you listen, you grant them a presence in their new world, enlarging their scope of purpose and function. 

 Perhaps, that's what they have been trying to tell me all this time.


This post originally appeared in The State's blog here


  1. What a great post. I love your prose... mind you captured me with the great title.

    1. Thank you so much, Sue, I really appreciate it! As for the title, that's always something which has challenged me: I want something that encapsulates the mood of the pieces and frames the work, so to speak...it's often something I leave till the end as I am constantly juggling titles in my mind...pleased that you liked it!


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