Thoughts: essays galore

In the Museum

by Syona Puliady

this photo essay explores the complicated relationship between being and belonging through the story of two bodies that accidentally stumble upon each other in a museum. despite how the two share the same home, language, and faith, they are forbidden from engaging with one another, given the museum's rules. a strange reality emerges, and the narrator struggles to grapple with this bizarre scenario.  

ancestors are always dancing in and out of my memory. once in a while, they draw me in, pulling me into their whirling twirling spinning circles. a dance to remind me how we are still connected. this connection escaped words, but doesn't need a name, label, reason, or rhyme. dancing ancestors understand that one does not need words to feel. speechless as they are, they are still intrinsic, intangible, and very, very real.

like an isthmus, I am a body spread thin between two lands. the elements I crave from the ancestral home are not present in my new home. no matter how much happiness, solace, and peace I find in the new home— there will always be a nagging feeling in the back of my mind of What Could Have Been on the other side. because, on the other side, rain doesn’t smell like a stranger. my hair grows; life is remembered through the eyes of a child.

The increasing loneliness of being far from everything that reminded me of home sent me to a museum one day. I missed feeling like I belonged somewhere. I thought I could recreate that sense of belonging in the museum, by spending time with artifacts belonging to my heritage and ancestry. The museum seemed like the place to uncover that sense of belonging again.

"a security guard nearby warned me not to go any closer to the idol. he pointed to a sign on a wall. it said I was not allowed to worship here."

I believed museums could create illusions that could propel us back into history.

I wanted to go back, far, far back into the past, where I could see things my ancestors would have seen too.

the following experience only exists in my memory, but it is as vivid as ever.

I was standing in a strikingly white corridor. Its placement felt accidental—haphazardly squeezed between two closed-off exhibits cloaked in rich, black tapestries.

a corridor that felt like an afterthought.

the corridor was completely empty except for an elevated pedestal on the other side of the hallway, and a small stone statue encased in thick glass was standing upon it. I don’t know why I felt compelled to walk out of my way toward the statue, but I did. I was a moth in the dark, fighting to stay near the light; there was an electric current drawing us together in the corridor that was an afterthought.

I tried to look at the idol in the glass cage, but my reflection blocked the view. I was staring half at myself, half at the idol—a strange version of Ardhanaishwara, the form of Shiva and Parvati joined together as one. but even with the realistic, perhaps divine, distortion, the idol was familiar. with fish-shaped eyes, long slender nose, petite lips, popped hip, familiar hand gestures—I have seen this idol before. my eyes met this idol more times than I can count in my ancestral home on the other side.

I began to wonder how strange it is that—had we been on the other side of this planet—I would be placing flowers at this idol’s feet, and asking for its blessing. it was an uncomfortable, yet unnamable, feeling knowing that I couldn’t do that here. and even though I couldn’t name it, it was real.

a security guard nearby warned me not to go any closer to the idol. he pointed to a sign on a wall. it said I was not allowed to worship here.

intrinsic, intangible, and very, very real.

from the warning sign, my eyes wandered to the informational placard on the glass encasing the idol. I first saw it was from the temple that rests in the heart of my ancestral hometown. the temple I practically grew up in, the temple that is a physical link between myself, my ancestors, and our divinity. the electric current between the idol and I made sense now. but as I kept reading the placard, I learned that this idol had not seen our home temple in quite some time.

"in a moment, the museum’s illusion was broken, and I felt broken, standing in front of a broken statue."

its “new” home, for the last century or so, was a museum in London. if you put the pieces of history together—the ever so puzzling histories they don’t and won’t you teach in school—you will understand why I was flooded with a helpless sense of sorrow that ran so deep, even the ancestors above shuddered with grief.

idols are often interpreted as symbols. the idols in the temple of my ancestral home symbolize the celebration of a sacred wedding.

the idol in the museum—the one that was from the temple back home— symbolized centuries of European exploitation that looted, destroyed, and splattered blood across what is left of history.

in a moment, the museum’s illusion was broken, and I felt broken, standing in front of a broken statue. we stood face to face, bodies born from the same land, unable to speak to each other in a language we shared. elsewhere in the building, a museum docent was telling others about our stories.

how strange it was to be in a place where someone else carried the power to tell us about our stories.

in that moment, the museum ceased to be a bridge between past and present—it became a prison, a cemetery, a funeral pyre for memories, souls, and ghosts held hostage and trapped by distorted passages of time. broken histories unable to speak their tales, to give us their wisdom fruits that sustain and nourish us. the museum allowed for once venerated subjects to turn into lifeless, consumable objects. if this is what the museum could do to our most sacred ancestral emblems— what does the museum want to with me?

how does the museum see me? does the museum see me at all?

I shut my eyes and sang a song about home; I followed as it took me on a journey traveling backwards in my memory to another dimension. a dimension where the idol and I could engage in what flowed to calming tides of history instead of feeling like washed up, broken pieces on an unfamiliar beach. a dimension where the relationship we had could be questioned to strengthen rather than weaken. where that relationship was allowed to be tense, volatile, alive. where we could rage against one another at war. where our exiled love could become entwined in vines of a sacred forest. a relationship that was intense, passionate, erupting at the seams. where disloyalty to faith doesn’t need to be questioned when legitimacy and respect are not up for grabs.

in the museum, we cannot engage like that. how can we, when we are not even seen as beings who are alive? I see half my reflection in your face and it is clear we are both trapped. kept within the confines of what is acceptable in the new home, we are trapped.

home is no longer a place, or an idol, or a memory for me. it is an unattainable dream, buried somewhere in my subconscious, fabricated by the songs I whisper to myself when no one is listening. home is where tigers dance with peacocks, where dust collects around palm trees, where monkeys sit with God as they both throw coconuts down from the palm trees. sometimes they also throw down a noose disguised as a garland of flowers to adorn my wounds. God jumps down from the palm tree, carried by the sacred winds of our ancestral hometown. I want to run away—but God grabs me by the arm and asks again and again and again why I didn’t leave flowers in the museum. God asks me if I have forgotten where I come from. God asks me who I am.

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.