August 16, 2013

on a passion for jigsaws

As a little girl, I was fascinated by jigsaw puzzles. This must have been very early on because I vaguely remember wooden block puzzles made up of four squares which one matched to create six pictures. I don't remember larger puzzles but I must have made some because when we moved from Cardiff to Lahore, I was eight years old and I knew that I wanted puzzles at Eid or Christmas. When we visited the toy shop - the best one on Lower Mall which had local toys in dark cabinets on the left side of the shop, and imported ones on the right - the prices of the latter were so prohibitive that we almost never bought them. I remember sometimes avoiding looking at the cabinet for fear that I might see something that I would want and not be able to have. 

I did try to make a locally made puzzle once or twice, but the card it was made of was thin and the paper buckled easily. The pictures were glossy but the colours, depth and detail of the images were unappealing, and there was never the challenge that comes with many pieces. Suffice it to say that they were also made for children younger than me. And I now realize that I must have been able to discern the difference between a good reproduction and a bad one.

Then, on a trip to London in my teens I bought a jigsaw of Milan Cathedral, my first puzzle with 500 pieces, of which I lost one or two in the making. The jigsaw itself stayed with me despite the missing pieces, because the idea of actually having a complicated jigsaw at last was something to treasure.

From all this you might deduce that I didn't have many toys. But I had a walky-talky doll bought on a trip to England, a wonderful, fully electrified dolls' house made by out local carpenter; and although I wasn't permitted Barbies, I had a set of dolls that fit inside the dolls' house; and many, many books. In those days one didn't travel as much as people do now. When we did go abroad the focus was on museums, concerts, theatre and books. As for books, my pocket money and Eidi were immediately spent on the latter. In the seventies Lahore had great bookshops for new and used books.

But my fascination for the jigsaw remained. When I taught at kindergarten level I was also studying by correspondence for a teacher training course from the Neo Montessori School in London. Teaching aids were a key item, and faced with a dearth of them, I made my own. One of which was an alphabet jigsaw puzzle. The children loved it, kneeling on the floor to assemble the pieces, which made a puzzle the size of a sheet of boxboard. Sheets of boxboard glued together to make up the thickness were the material it was made of.

When my children were growing up I introduced them to puzzle pleasures. My daughter took to making them with great fervor. She began with the aforementioned Milan Cathedral, then went through several in quick succession: Monet's water lilies, a collage of playing cards, and a landscape of paddy fields that she reminded me of the other day because I told her that I was making an impossible butterfly puzzle. It is a 1000 piece puzzle with over forty eight butterflies, of which about a dozen are various shades and patterns in yellow, all of which are nearly impossible to tell apart. You have to sit in very good light and ruminate over them for ages before you notice the very subtle differences. 

Don't you remember the paddy fields? my daughter asked me, when I told her this.

I didn't.

But it was framed and hung over my bed, she said. It was impossible to make because all the shades looked so similar. 

The butterflies came from my used items haunt, Itwaar (Sunday) Bazaar. Rather, the Itwaar Bazaar of Isloo, in sector G-9. I now have several of these. I bought whatever was available, not caring if the pieces were all intact or not, because they were so ridiculously priced at Rs. 50 per box. That is equivalent to 50 cents. Very few people buy them. When I began buying puzzles here I noticed that customers like me would rummage through the entire pile to find what they liked. Because not all of them are interesting, and children’s and adult’s puzzles are usually mixed up in a stack shoved in to the side of the shop. The shopkeeper would be visibly upset by our ranging the boxes on his cramped counter as it would obstruct his other more lucrative customers. Who would be asking for more interesting toys: dolls, transformer figures, trucks and such.

Since they aren't a hot selling item, you sometimes see them suddenly flung into a pile in front of a shop when the owner sees customers approaching. 

50 rupee toys! the shopkeeper will shout. Only 50 rupees! Here! Take them! 

People who aren't familiar with puzzles will crowd around and look at the boxes dubiously. 

What kind of game? they will say. 

A game, says the shopkeeper. 

But we can't buy it unless we open it to see. 

The boxes are taped shut and the shopkeeper obviously doesn't want to misplace any precious pieces. 

Go home and open it, he says. It’s only 50 rupees. Do you think you can buy a toy this cheap anywhere else? 

The fact that the box rattles when shaken isn't any help to those who don't know what's inside and have never seen a puzzle. They're looking for dolls and trucks and dinky cars and more substantial items anyway. This matches a fact I learned this evening when looking up the history of jigsaws on the information superhighway; jigsaw puzzles (a jigsaw actually refers to the type of saw used to cut the puzzle into irregular shaped pieces) were originally meant for the children of the rich, and were used as an educational toy. It was only late in the nineteenth century that jigsaws became entertainment for adults. 

Sometimes my family laugh at me. They say I make jigsaws because I am fulfilling a leftover sense of deprivation from my childhood. So when I was in Nathia Gali two years ago staying at one of Ursula's apartments, I was overjoyed when I went to see her one morning and found her daughter so absorbed in the making of a huge jigsaw which she'd spread out on the dining table, that she said hello only briefly before going back to it. 

But all this is only a digression. What attracts me to puzzles after all? 

For one, making a whole from diverse parts. Matching colour to colour and shape to shape to make a picture. Which I do by beginning with the frame. It has always seemed easier that way. The butterflies are the first deviation, because there are barely any clues offered in the multiple shades of pale blue that make up the border. I could spend hours trying to match the shapes instead, but it hasn’t worked so far, whereas I have actually managed to put together nineteen butterflies. 

And this brings to mind a novel which intrigued me several years ago. Since it was long ago, I remember only the main elements. Georges Perec’s Life, A Users’ Manual is composed of multiple stories, all of which take place in one apartment block –the microcosm as it were. The stories are inter-linked, although sometimes they don’t immediately seem to be. The 99 short chapters introduce us to the inhabitants of each apartment, describing them and their activities, sometimes giving us clues as to why they are who they are. But central to the book is the jigsaw, in theme and in architecture. Or rather, a series of jigsaws, commissioned by the owner of the apartment block, Bartlebooth, who has spent 10 years learning to paint, 20 years travelling the world and painting watercolours of each place visited. Now, in the final ten years of his life, he is assembling the paintings, made into jigsaws by Gaspard Winckler, a resident of the apartment block. Bartlebooth, however, doesn’t manage to complete his grand plan, dying while making the 439th puzzle. I found the novel impossible to put down: it resembles a jigsaw within a jigsaw, and is full of 'allusions and intellectual traps.' 

The jigsaw, for me, is like life. Pieces connect, not always easily or instantly, but coming to rest in their places over time, after sudden dead ends or traps, like false clues, leading one astray.

But I also see ways in which my work in craft, art and writing simulate its premises. 

Craft and design are my bread and butter, poetry and art my passions; I will begin with the former, it being the central motif that feeds my passions, even if the energy required to run them saps the fuel needed to fulfill the latter. 

When I am making a decoupage project, which is the craft of cutting designs from paper and assembling them on wood, I look at elements in a design. Since I use photographs or photocopies, frequently Islamic floral or geometric patterns, I often pick one element and repeat it to make a frieze. Or I pick out a shape, a triangle or a half circle or half of an arch within a design – which might be a floral pattern – this is then flipped and mirrored to create a match that fits next to it. The set is then repeated to create a frieze. I might also take an element of a design and repeat it by mirroring it four times over and matching elements to create a square or circle within a stylized frame. Similarly, I use tile designs of different sizes in the same design to create a background over which I print another set of designs, often the same but in a different colour. 

All of this would be impossible without the computer and the printer, which reproduce the images over and over again in colour and in black and white.

to the left is the original design element.
the right side shows it repeated to make a
complete rectangle. this particular design 

belongs to an archway: the red area is the 
archway frame
here i have used fragments of the picture
 on the left to make the border shown 
at right. this design was at the base of a
 honeycomb, which  begins at the top of this arch

In designing with wooden printing blocks, I match up a set of blocks and look at the ways in which they can be combined. For instance, the zigzag motif in the border shown here matched the zigzag bark of the palm tree. This happened quite by chance as I was sorting through my big basket of blocks. What I’d planned originally was something different. Laying out the blocks and comparing the various elements helped me to find the ones that I felt went best together.

the two blocks shown at right will be 
used to make the basis for a 
repeated design.

The same occurs in writing. I constantly cut and paste, all the more since I now use the computer more than the pen – although I may begin with hand written lines. Lines assembled on the page await dissection; subtle rearrangements and shifts in line length await final judgement. I make comparisons by cutting and pasting poems several times using different arrangements, then deciding which layout, so to speak, is the best. This layout, of course, must not detract from the original music, if I can be so bold as to call it that. It is an aid to seeing it assembled on the page, and hearing the music in my mind as I read the composed lines. 

I might be going overboard if I said that it resembles the way I perceive human nature. But jigsaws are my way of looking at diverse elements, finding the key, the piece that interlocks several others, that gives me a glimpse of what the complete whole might be.

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