Rayan Shah (2002)

Undertow by Rayan Shah
(originally published in Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung ed. Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto)

Waves of colour, light and shadow undulate around and fall of the two bodies as they swim and seek. The camera follows kicking feet and huge underwater bubbles in their wake. In the rose-tinted waters, two men swim, frolic, play. The swimmers stand, then one dives between the other’s legs. The camera records the rush of a face coming through legs, spitting air bubbles form a corner of the mouth and the nostrils, followed by arms against the torso, shimmering tiny bubbles falling off protruding ribs, a flash of a black bathing suite and kicking legs rising quickly. As the body breaks the surface above, there’s a rush of air pockets and rippling waves.

These images of underwater swimming haunt and envelop Richard’s narration of his sister Nan’s illness. She is stricken with thalessemia, a rare hereditary blood disease; it produces anemia and literally kills by poisoning the heart, the spleen and the pancreas with iron deposits. Richard’s narration of Nan’s illness is punctuated by travel across the globe; from Trinidad to hospitals in London; for adventure with his lover Tim in turkey and Nepal, to escape parental demands, to share nostalgia in Ireland; to come home to Trinidad in the ‘60s, and to Toronto in the ‘70s. The images of swimming in water convey a different sense of movement than the conventional details given of travel by planes, trucks and buses.

Playing in the water evokes feelings of curiosity, and suggests the intimacies of shared experience and discovery. They connect Richard’s childhood play with his sister, to his young adult travels with Tim. The home movies of Richard and Nan running on the beach with inflated rings around their waists, jumping and splashing in the water. The whimsical repetitious rhythms of play, the memories of childhood frolic, echo in the adventures and amusement of Richard’s adult years with Tim.

In those intertwined stories of Richard, Nan and Tim, the histories of blood, illness and intimacy create a compelling undertow. In Richard’s storytelling, Nan’s struggles with thalassemia and Tim’s struggles with AIDS break out of the confines of clinical analysis. Emotions disrupt the alienating and objectifying power of western medical practice and knowledge.

The rose-tinted waters dilute and refract the blood everywhere. The colour of the water recalls the blood heredity; the blood that carries illness, the blood that can cause distress, and the blood of intimacy. The rose-tinted water is languid, peaceful and warm. It does not induce terror or dread. As Richard wrote to his sister Arlene, “I’ve always lived close to illness.” The mixing of blood and water offers a sense of this intimacy with illness. Water and blood are familiar and unknown; comforting and unfathomable. The undertow is unrelenting.