Dayanita Singh’s latest book, File Room, is a trove of secrets that smell of the earth.

Dayanita Singh’s File Room opens with an image of a lot of closed bundles, containing what we imagine might be files. The walls are peeling; no one has been in here for decades. Though the photographer is present, there is no sign of her, because, though the composition is precise, the perspective is neutral. Light enters from a sole window, which we do not see in its entirety, yet the camera has likely illuminated the photograph. Like the light of the moon in the dark. Immediately, there is no source, no centre. This image seems to instruct the viewer on how to read the book: we will see parts of a whole that may not exist, so desire not to piece this puzzle.

A series of images recount stacks of things; the repetition of the action of flipping pages mimics the repetition of what we see on them. Though the files, the cabinets that contain them, the men who handle depict a culture of the serial, each image is differentiated. The book, sans page numbers and a title on its cover is anonymous, it is also an editioned object. This tension between the standard and the singular permeates every side of paper. While its ideas are heady, they are also human, never initiating but not precluding the culture in which these stories are made, and the stark Indianness of governmental rooms, the way they date themselves in wear and tear, and the bureaucracy that they have come to represent.

The series is only interrupted by two passages by Aveek Sen, but the writing, in its sensual objectivity, mirrors the images, till the lines between that which is to be viewed and that which is to be read blur. ‘A Forest of Paper’ is told with the conceit of the author researching the smell of the whittling paper, and weaves us into the deep, chaotic, worm-ridden, rodent-infested corners of the rooms in which the photographs are taken. Yet, the place described does not seem to be decaying as much as bursting with life. The predators, lizards, bats, rats, play out their earthly dramas “in that moonless forest of paper, together with the rustle of its less tangible ghosts”. Truth is tucked deep into the files, so that the more that is concealed, the more is revealed. Sen’s words, “to lie unread in the dark is to last a little longer…” seem to resonate with all the ideas that are flipped on itself in the book at large.

The second story tells the tale of a woman, presumably Dayanita, who has spent her life with files, fighting a battle over land in the courts. The files seem to multiply, indexes, dates, waiting time repeating themselves and in vain. They seem to have a life of their own, and suddenly these files come to mean real lives on the line, vast spaces in dispute, a test of patience, love and priorities. The files become objects of idolatry, woe, sentimentality, hope. Paper is personified.

When we continue flipping through the pages of photographs of files, they no longer remain as stoic as they did before. The last image we see is of a room of bundles, this time, not as condensed, more haphazard, windowless. This moving finale is followed by a conversation between Dayanita and the curator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist. She describes that first photograph at the outset of the book as “bodies, they are like families” before Ulrich describes the room as “a morgue, or there’s something very death-related about it. The bundles make it related to death”. These individualised interpretations reflect the lack of a generic code in the very archival system represented. They measure the humanity of a hall, the whim of a wall.

The size of the book is unusual, large, register-like, yet the design is pristine, self-aware. This “monument of knowledge”, as an archivist in the interview calls it, is a trove of secrets that smell of the earth, secrets that were perhaps long sent away into the skies, never to be retrieved. And then are the things that stay with you at the end of the book, things omnipresent and everywhere.

Room without a View

Dayanita Singh opens up about the making of the book and how it turned out to be her most biographical work. Excerpts from an interview:

As a child, how did you occupy yourself? 

The usual — making sketches, re arranging furniture and making rooms within rooms, houses in bunk beds, and baking cakes.

Give instructions to your reader. Now give instructions to any reader, of any book. (What does it mean to read?) 

I read to travel and gather all kinds of experience. Equally I gather to study form — from Calvino and Geoff Dyer the form of making a new form for each work, from Ondaatje the art of withholding and so on. I think there are many ways of reading and underlining and re-reading.

How do you archive that which cannot be seen?

In the finest literature I think…

What playful bookmaking is next? Will it be contained in a portable, unfoldable museum, like File Room is contained in the Book Museum? 

The book has to be substantial in itself and then when it can also be an object, it becomes part of a larger object; that’s an extension. A wonderful bonus. But, the core is the book and that must be solid. That’s why I kept bringing you back to the book. It’s full of circles and secret layers. The next book is full of chance; in fact it’s called Museum of Chance!

I found myself feeling absurdly melancholic after closing your book. I was not simply thinking about memories and records and preservation at its end, I was thinking about the essential existentialism of living, I was wondering about love, the future, gardening. Can you read me back into your book and tell me why I felt like I did? Do you think this book can make you live better? 

Not sure if it’s for me to say if the book can make you live better, but certainly it’s a book about forgetting and remembering and by now you must have read my own biography in it. And to think I started off thinking I was finally making an objective documentation of paper to find this was my most biographical work. Yes I can imagine it can bring on melancholia and dizziness.

File Room; Dayanita Singh, Steidl, price not stated.