The Engineer of Human Souls

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Rehaan Engineer lives by a simple diktat: whoever wishes to devote himself to painting should begin by cutting out his tongue

IT SEEMED ODD that perched at an altitude at Kheerganga, nestled under a tent near the hot sulphur springs, with the feisty Parvati bellowing in the distance under the haloed light of a glistening, almost-full moon, I should dream of my neighbour, Rehaan Engineer, back home in Delhi. I’d spotted him walking through one of the bylanes of Kailash Hills, where we live, and when our eyes met and we recognised each other, he greeted me the way he always does, with a warm, bear-like hug, during which I rested my torso against his taut muscles. When I’d moved into the neighbourhood four years ago, a friend had informed me that the area was also the site of his residence. But I didn’t fathom then the degree of proximity between my building (located on the corner, and so perennially exposed to light) and his (park-facing, with the bedroom door opening out to the stunning façade of a late-blooming silk cotton tree). The narrow lane adjacent to the entrance of my building leads to a gate that affords a much quicker exit than the usual route, and is thus the site for much human traffic through the day.

One morning, back in 2012, I encountered him as I was setting out for a quick grocery run. I hadn’t yet moved into the vicinity but was on the verge. I was a regular visitor, though, for other reasons. I recognised him instantly: his shaven head, his tall physique and his signature blue-inked circle tattoo imprinted on the right side of his neck. He was as animated as I expected a thespian to be. My last sighting of him had been years ago, in 2008, in Mumbai, when I went to watch his adaptation of Howard Barker’s House of Correction. I’d been attracted to the British playwright’s work ever since I’d read Golgo, as part of my research during my MA programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University. But I’d always been hard pressed to find people who knew of his work. I was obviously impressed by Engineer. It was impossible not to be, especially if you’d watched him act in Rahul Bose’s 2001 magical realist indie film, Everybody Says I’m Fine!, in which he played the role of Xen, a hairdresser with an uncanny ability to listen in on the private thoughts of his customers as his fingers make contact with their hair.

I have a vague memory of introducing myself. I cannot recall the specifics of our conversation, but I remember clearly that he had in his hand a postcard. He was on his way to the post office down at the C-Block market. I learned then that he uses the postal services regularly, doesn’t ever shop online, and even pays his bills in person. He has no internet connection and doesn’t own a mobile phone. He depends squarely on a dongle (he doesn’t like the odd shape and size of modems), and the best way to reach him is via email. He seemed to conform quite easily to the stereotype of the eccentric Manjit Bawa.

When I finally did move to Kailash Hills, I sent him an email asking if he still lived there. This was when we exchanged addresses and I learned he lived less than four or five buildings away. I realised that his apartment, on the third floor, was the source of the ethereal music I would often hear when I passed his home stretch during my walks in the park.

Soon after I learned that he had put his theatre days behind him—a supreme loss for the scene indeed—and had chosen for himself the more reclusive life of an artist. An inheritance afforded him the apartment in Kailash Hills, and so he moved from Mumbai. But unlike every other artist I’d met, Engineer has never been keen on being appropriated into the art gallery nexus. His stance is almost anti art market. If you want to acquire anything by him, you simply pay him 30 per cent of your last month’s income. “It seems fairer,” is how he justifies it.

It became a standing joke between us over the next two years, during which he could be seen regularly at the now defunct Yodakin bookstore in Hauz Khas Village, where he manned the counter. I’d be walking through the colony contemplating my broke state of being, once even in tears because I was so enormously touched by the fruit and vegetable vendors’ generosity (“Take what you want, don’t worry about paying us, Madam. We can wait,” they’d both said.), and I’d bump into Engineer.

“I was thinking of you, Rehaan. I earned only 10,000 bucks last month,” I’d say.

“You should just buy a work instead of thinking about buying one,” he jested one day. But I’d already decided that were I to acquire a work by him, it would be when I had earned decently enough. I didn’t want to be cheap.

It was perhaps sometime in 2012 that I first visited him at his apartment. I climbed up three floors and walked towards the white iron gate on the last landing. Refrains of what seemed like baroque music were blaring through his speakers. It was being played off an LP. After a warm welcome, I left my slippers by the door and entered the vast yet minimal living room. To the left was his keyboard with sheet music for Bach’s compositions, the wide wall opposite the entrance was lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, in between was a spare workstation where his laptop and reference books were placed. To the right, at a distance was an open door that exposed his low-lying bed with crisp white sheets, behind me to the right was the kitchenette with a simple hot plate instead of a stove, a sink and a counter, and a fridge that connected the cooking space to the dining table upon and around which were scattered many more books, prized among them to me was Anne Carson’s Nox.

In some of his works, Engineer intersperses the written word with figurative sketches, the image thus embodying textual nuances

It eventually became routine, my visiting Engineer at his apartment over a hot cup of tea, sometimes accompanied by Shrewsbury biscuits (Pune’s finest), and extended conversation as he worked his record player. Hours would pass and by the time I’d leave, I’d find myself in a kind of intoxicating haze, like a piece of text in an illuminated manuscript.

Engineer often punctuates his position by reading aloud from whatever inspires the moment, and, given his fabulosity as a performer, it is nothing short of a wild treat to be not just the only audience at such a recitation but to be its sole intended recipient.

One such indulgence was when he read to me Delay, a short poem by Elizabeth Jennings, while we were speaking about the semiotic subtleties of light and darkness in Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay, In Praise of Shadows:

The radiance of the star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eyes may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how
Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

When I returned home, I found he’d mailed me a link illuminating the reference he’d made to what the 13th-century philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste had said about light. From my first visit itself, Engineer had begun a tradition where he’d lend me a book that served like an addendum to our conversation, on the condition that I’d return to return it. He’d then give me another. It has so far been the best lending library I’ve ever subscribed to, however inadvertently.

ENGINEER IS UNFASHIONABLY straightedge. He abstains from any and all intoxicating substances. He’s also vegetarian. Despite his apartment being on the top-most floor and thus exposed to direct summer heat, he prefers not to own or rent an air-conditioner. I wonder often if the disciplined, somewhat reclusive life he leads is the reason behind his clear-headed and prolific artmaking.

My last visit was the trickiest to manoeuvre, since I wanted to meet him more ‘officially’ for the purpose of this column. “I’m happy to meet and happy for you to come have a look at stuff. And even happy to talk—only not about the drawings I make,” he replied. His hesitations were justified. “When I started thinking about making this the centre of my life, there were a couple of worrying things that I had to sort out in my head. One was the arbitrary nature of how money worked in the art world, and the related business of the fetishised art-object, and how I might avoid that by making the pricing of the drawings a little more rational.” Another, he explained, was his discomfort with the “reams of commentary generated by people about objects they had themselves made”. Engineer quoted a powerful line by Henri Matisse: “Whoever wishes to devote himself to painting should begin by cutting out his own tongue.”

So, when we met, I began by skirting the subject entirely. Soon, over a simple though delicious daal-bhaat lunch he’d prepared, we got totally sidetracked. I started to tell him about my current fixation with listening to every available rendition of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor, which led us to the subject of Bach’s Cello Suites, which led him then to play three different interpretations of the first suite: the first, a transposition onto the viola by Maxim Rysanov, the second on violin by Pieter Wispelwey, the last, an early Yo-Yo Ma recording. Then, because something I’d said demanded it, he made me browse through his copies of Edward Gorey’s morbidly delightful Amphigorey, The Doubtful Guest and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, while I introduced him to a comic sketch from comedian Louis CK’s Louie, where he walks into the New York subway entranced by the melody emerging from a supremely talented busker’s fiddle while a homeless guy lathers himself up in soap in the background. He tells me about A History of Bombing, a book by Sven Lindqvist that he’d recently read that was so intriguingly strategised, you were instructed to flip between pages to follow mankind’s convoluted history of bombardment until you actually lost track of your place within the book.

Finally, over coffee, I mustered the nerve to ask Engineer to show me some of the books he’d made. All of his work is freely available for viewing on a website (, well-catalogued according to medium, genre, and their status as either completed or ongoing. The books section, containing images of 11 original handmade books, is my favourite. Engineer often creates work using a set of alphabetic stamps he’d found once at a flea market abroad, coating each letter in a red ink, sometimes covering the entire page with individually stamped-in words and lines, and sometimes inscribing just a single running line at the bottom of the page, allowing words to run on, sometimes incomplete, so that the letter itself is a narrative device. In works like the book of the white dog or seven glances at a boy at the bus stop or the book of jumper, 34 notes on a remark by Piero della francesca, he intersperses the written word with figurative sketches, the image thus embodying textual nuances. Some read like reflections, some like meditations; but poetic undertones run through each one.

Paper Bags is another series that has Engineer’s red-stamped lines, but imposed upon brown paper bags as messages to friends (Steven Lim I gave your pendant away to a boy who admired it), that are, as he describes it, “Things I can’t say, to people I hardly know any longer.” These are among his most easily accessible works. The rest are, like poetry, reflective of an economy of expression, minimal sometimes, yet scaffolded by a complex universe of critical and emotional engagement (example: riding the modal auxiliary and semi-mechanical moons to accompany an edo period haiku by takai kito).

This time Engineer handed me a pile of books, even begging to be forgiven for presumably piling them on me. One was a set of pamphlet-like books published by New Direction, one was a novel, on a subject I’m interested in, the lives of saints, and the other was CS Lewis’ treatise, Miracles. My follow-up about a photograph for the piece was quashed upon my making its entreaty. He finally agreed to my suggestion about having a sketch of him drawn up from a photograph I once took of him, the afternoon he’d made lemon choux pastry using his grandmother’s recipe. ‘What a terrific and bizarre idea,’ he wrote in his email. ‘A little like those wanted criminal identikit images, only with the secret intercession of the photo...’