Friday, 24 February 2017

Develop

Madapura is a minuscule village hidden in the overwhelming wave of coffee that emanates off Coorg. The winters are deliciously chilly, while summers welcome a sea of white flowers, their maddening scent knocking at your temples. At an altitude of 1200 feet, you can afford to surrender to your reflexes, without indulging in the brain corroding series of ping pong games.

I remember that other time I visited Madapura, frivolously 22 years old. I still took photographs then, while my day job was eating into my youth. I wore white converse shoes like trendy Americans but barely walked. I was a bit of an idiot.

My uncle and aunt lived in a three roomed cottage. It was scented with the finest coffee and their bitter divorce. I could not comprehend how I had a chance to stay in love, when the luscious coffee estate did not keep them together. I examined the skylight when I lay in bed, it reminded me of myself. How it pretended to emit light of its own but faltered shamefacedly at night.

I did not like my job. I probably did not even do it well. A series of (un)fortunately coupled fears and doubts held me in place. My grandfather had been a photographer for The Telegraph, we huddled over newspaper clippings of his saved work : Nehru assigned Prime Minister, the Gateway of India, the Camel's Back road to Dehradun, and the coffee estates of the family my mother married into. As the black and white swam into each other, pregnant with color, I picked up his camera and felt something.

But like every other technicolor dream that I dreaded waking up from, photography found a place in my resume, rows below my farce of a degree.

It was the final week of April, I think.The sun had risen somewhere far east when I yawned my way up one of the narrow paths. The soft mud drenched in dew lagged under my clean white shoes. I turned sharply into a corner that looked unexplored, to hear a faint shuffling from the depths. I moved closer holding the camera to my eyes till I stood at the mouth of a clearing. And I saw a girl with a scarf wrapped around her head.

She was a pretty girl. I couldn't tell the color of her eyes, half turned away from me, half darkened. Her hair was an overwhelming black braid, lips pursed over a tapering firm chin. She stood there around a five and a half feet over the pristine ground, but there was a resolve in her posture. The complete lack of tentativeness that I had been yearning all my life. I clicked.

She looked at me startled, then smiled in mild recognition. 'Morning, you work here don't you?' I offered lamely. "Yes, during the summers," she looked away, "You are the nephew. I should get to the other side" she vaguely motioned somewhere.
"Wait, don't go. Can I take some pictures?" I asked quickly, taken aback by my audacity.

She turned to face me entirely. Black, her eyes were fresh charcoal.
"Are you a photographer? For the newspaper?" she snapped
"Yes. A photographer," I told her, equally surprised.
She hesitated for a few moments, as if only because it was expected of her. I wondered what a girl like her would do if nothing was simply expected of her. Then she demanded to see some.
"I will have to have them developed, but I will send them to you."

You know that voice in your head that talks to you and instructs your every move? And sometimes when you smoke up, that fine thread between that voice and your actions disengages. That really happened to me.

She nodded happily and drew herself up. We spoke briefly as she swirled around, threw her head back, loosened her scarf, adjusted her basket. I zoomed in on her eyes, her chin, her fingers, lost in a faith I had just discovered.

I can only tell you what I remember from that encounter,because I don't remember the girl from Madapura. The girl in my photographs is of course, carved in my memory.
We parted ways with my reassurance of photographs and an inexplicable confidence so unfamiliar to me.

And miraculously, the next two months found me feverishly mailing copies of the photographs to every competition I had eyes on, every agency, every individual from my grandfather's grubby diary. I barely clocked five hours at work, yawned at strategy meetings, lingered at the mailbox every morning. On the sixtieth day I quit, I said thank you very much with an insincere ' hope we stay in touch'. I did not squirm, I did not cringe, I did not pay heed to the cynical sparrows chirping into my ears, I really did it.

It has been a rigorous couple of years. I got a call back from a lifestyle magazine, they sponsored a summer tour of Europe, where I shot twilight photographs at ten in the evening, of red wine splatter and the dull sun bouncing off polished nude sculptures. I also slept with this red haired Venetian girl I met in Prague, now we are in love and we got a cat together. It is unreal, but I really did it.

I went back to Madapur last month. My aunt has the house to herself now. Two hours into my old room with the cobweb streaked skylight, she called out to me.

The girl from my photographs was at the door.

Except that she wasn't the girl. She had gotten fat, but she looked smaller. Her eyes were sunken and her chin drooped. She was holding a baby.
"You didn't send me the photographs". She sounded so sad. I wanted to look away. So I skipped back into my room and fished out some copies that I still carried. A talisman. A pride that I had not earned.

She held her hand out and gazed in wonder, giggling and cooing to her baby, as if the lump of flesh could comprehend the boundless beauty of the girl I had captured.
I felt the familiar rush of my old self flooding back : an amalgam of revulsion and insecurities and prejudice and skepticism. And I felt anger.
"Look, if you want some money.." I began, irritated.
Her smile wavered. She glared up at me, flashing her old self too as she handed back the bundle to me. " No, I don't want your money."

I caressed the photographs absent mindedly as I watched her walk away. "Close the windows. Mosquitoes,"my aunt yelled.

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