The long stretch of highway that connects the Jodhpur crossroads to our workshop venue is adorned with hundreds of murals. The murals are painted on the outer wall of what I understand to be a space research facility. Many of them target global warming, exalt Indian achievements, or otherwise call attention to the salient issues of the day. One in particular, however, spoke to me in a voice that seemed quite distinct from the others. From the first time I noticed it, I have tried to catch a glimpse of it every time I pass, hoping to peel off its layers of meaning and get to the core of what it might be trying to say.
The mural itself is simple enough. At the center is a black rectangle with a somewhat disembodied face in it. Most prominent are its eyes, which carry a kind of expressionless but stark gaze that cannot fail to escape the observer’s notice. Outside of this monochrome, almost prehistorically styled face is mostly emptiness, with a little text here and there. The text is economical and significant: Above the mural, we read “I HAVE BEEN TO SPACE” with no punctuation. Then, on the right, there is the half-asked question “HAVE YOU” with a clear emphasis on the YOU. This language reinforces the impression - created by the face - that the mural speaks directly to the observer.
The first-person nature of the text is significant. The disembodied face is not any face, it is the face of the speaker, who, it is claimed, has been to space. And the text is not a random platitude like “save our trees;” It belongs to the speaker, the face which in this way is transformed into a full-fledged character, with the text as its character development and backstory.
The proclamation “I HAVE BEEN TO SPACE” is not a patriotically tinted case of self-glorification, though this might be expected. It is, indeed, an eerie counterpoint to similarly themed murals around it. Many others sing the praises of past and future Indian achievement in space exploration. “India reaches Moon,” reads a colorful mural not far from this one. Another tries to make a pun on “research,” positing it as a mix of “search” and “reach.” An achievement-focused, proud nationalism pervades all of those spatial murals, and this one seems to be the lone exception. The disembodied face making the proclamation is not some happy-looking role model; it does not project inspiration or success. If anything, the seemingly inexpressive face reeks of unmistakable hollowness, hints of despair, and suggested pain.
The key to this seeming abnormality, I think, the half-question: “HAVE YOU”. The lack of question mark, combined with the stark monochrome, makes it half-hearted and uninspired. Yet this uninspired question is the only vestige of anything resembling nationalist fervor or inspiration. Framed differently, it could have been an Uncle Sam-esque call to arms: "I have achieved this for my country, what have YOU been up to?” But instead, it becomes a tellingly dismembered trace of these sentiments that were perhaps never even present. Seen in the context of our one-time astronaut character, it turns into a depressingly impotent attempt by the astronaut to claim a glory s/he does not truly believe in. This hardened, almost cynical unbelief makes the attempt at claiming glory (“I have been to space, have YOU?”) miss its mark and backfire in a spectacularly haunting way.
So what does this mural tell us about space? Not much. Unlike the ideologically driven space murals that surround it, its vision of space evokes only interstellar emptiness. Rather than handing down answers, it raises questions: Is space a truly worthy national frontier? Surrounded by a juxtaposition of earthly murals that look at society and other murals that look to the stars, the absent question mark turns towards the space-as-national-achievement narrative itself.