a short story of sorts

Posted on Apr 07, 2017

a short story of sorts

by WASWO X. WASWO

From the book "Photowallah", published by Tasveer

The Photo-वाला, obsessive as ever, kept the postcard in his back pocket. It had been his invite; his invitation to this land. He had spied it years ago, protruding from a little wooden bin, snuggled among far less interesting postcards, but jumping up as if to say “Look at me!” The wooden bin sat on a green-painted shelf attached to one of those squat bookstalls along the Seine… the kind of bookstall that sells beaten leather tomes, and faux antique maps of erstwhile colonial geographies. The Photo-वाला had purchased this card for a mere half a franc. It had been a long time ago. Now he just kept it in his rear pocket. It was a reminder. A talisman.

***

The-Old-Woman-Who-Sat-In-A-Darkened-Doorway was clever. She knew she had the look. She knew the ways of the pink-skinned tourists in धोतीप ुर, and she knew they loved to photograph her. But she did not so much love to be photographed. It was just a business. Her price was twenty rupees. Oh yes, they made weak efforts to bargain her down to ten. But these pink-skinned types didn’t know how to haggle. The-Old-Woman-Who-Sat-In-A-Darkened-Doorway would remain firm, and if they bargained too much, she would double her price with annoyance.

She kept her face stern, but inside she was often laughing. “They all seem to think they have found a great subject for their cameras”, she’d inwardly sneer. “They think they are being very creative and smart, but they come down this road like a parade of  बक रयो , each and every one of them aiming their cameras at all the same things!”

The Photo-वाला knew it too. He had watched The-Old-Woman-Who-Sat-In-A-Darkened-Doorway for many years now… for all the long years he had made धोतीप ुर his home. He knew how often the tourists would stop and ask to photograph her, and he would listen to her feigned protests, her sly acquiescence, and her ‘fixed price’ that never did anything but rise.

The-Old-Woman-Who-Sat-In-A-Darkened-Doorway knew the Photo-वाला too. He was the one who seldom carried his camera, The-One-Who-Had-Never-Asked-To-Make-Her-Picture. She eyed him at a distance, as he eyed her. But the parade of chattering, clicking बक रयों kept her busy enough. They pulled their little whirring boxes from their pockets, or revealed long and threatening lens pulled from bags at their waists. “This one here”, she’d muse… “She thinks I’m a perfect specimen. And that one there is trying to get a close up of my wrinkled old face! He will get close to my big bulbous nose, and he will show the ugly photo to his friends back in Pinkieland. He’ll go on and on about

my dignity! Not one of them realises I’m smart enough to have chosen this darkened doorway because I know it is the perfect black background. Not one thinks I’m smart enough to appreciate the beautiful stone carving on my own ancestral steps! Ah, I am old, too old. What a way to spend my ageing years!”

It was one chilly morning, while The-Old-Woman-Who-Sat-In-A-Darkened-Doorway was in the middle of such musings, that she noticed the almost equally old Photo-वाला approaching her with his equally old and decrepit camera. “I’d like to make your picture”, he said, “and I will pay the twenty rupees”. There was a moment of silence, and the two peered deep into each other’s eyes. “Hah!” she finally said, while inwardly her mind tumbled into blackness nearly as darkened as her doorway. “Him too!” she thought. “I was expecting better!”

That night the Photo-वाला decided not to develop the film. It was so difficult to make photos in this place and these times. He would do it later. But he knew he had a special image. It was the photo of The-Old-Woman-Who-Made- A-Business-Out-Of-Being-An-Old-Woman. She was, in her own strange way, a kind of Taj Mahal. The tourist photographs of her could stretch from here to the moon and back. She was a special woman, and now, like what must have been thousands of others, he had her on film.

It seemed like just a few weeks later (or was it months?) that the Photo-वाला again ventured into धोतीप ुर’s Old City. He was on his way to purchase a linen cloth in the bazaar. As he wound his way down the street where The-Old- Woman-Who-Made-A-Business-Out-Of-Being-An-Old-Woman sat, a sight struck him that stopped him in his tracks. The old woman was gone. And so was her house. “What has happened to that woman!” the Photo-वाला exclaimed with a mixture of disbelief and rage, “And what has happened to that beautiful little stone haveli?” The local street boys, who all knew the old Photo-वाला with various degrees of intimacy, were unanimous in what they said. “That old woman expired over one month ago. Her eldest son did not waste more than two weeks before he tore that old building down. He’d been wanting to build a new mobile phone shop there for years. He’ll  sell bottled water there too. It was only his mother who had stood in the way”.

That night the Photo-वाला finally developed the roll of film that contained the picture of the old woman. But as the image swam up to him in the chemical bath of his darkroom he immediately knew it wasn’t her. It was not The-Old-Woman-Who-Sat-In-A-Darkened-Doorway, neither was it The-Old-Woman-Who-Made-A-Business-Out-Of-Being-An-Old-Woman. He wasn’t sure who it was. He didn’t know her name. She looked at him with eyes that silently spoke, and he could not return her gaze. She had had a name, but he had never learned it. His vision, and his thoughts, drifted to the timeworn details in the timeworn steps, and he imagined her warming her bare feet upon them in the sun.

***

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