The Lost Photograph

 

A pair of worn sandals under the chair next to the window. They were constant companions to my grandfather’s walking stick, hooked on to the backrest. He was a tall, quiet, severe man, who sliced off overgrown fingernails with an iron-bladed knife, and brushed his teeth with salt. I was intimidated by him as a child. He rarely smiled. He seldom spoke. He would occasionally peer at me through round rimmed spectacles, and ask me if I was doing well in school, promising a gift if I topped my class. The gifts never came, but my grandmother once accompanied me to a bookshop on his behalf. For him, there was always a next time.

At the age of seven, I don’t know what compelled me to take a picture of that chair, with his walking stick, and his sandals beneath. The sunlight through the window was striking, and the sandals were fascinating. Polished brown leather, scuffed and comfortable. Perhaps, my grandfather not being around to see me, and the lazy summer afternoon, had something to do with it. I was possibly just as interested in tinkering with the camera my father left lying around, and the circumstances were perfect. I sat on the floor and released the shutter without thinking of the composition or exposure. The print eventually showed a flared out, blazing window, throwing shards of light on the floor in front of the chair, where they collected like pools. The sandals, walking stick and chair were soft, and without much contrast. I did not think much of it then. A few years later, when I found the print again, the emulsion was badly damaged by moisture. But, somehow, I found myself liking the photograph more than when I had first seen it. Knowing that the negative must be around, I did not think twice before discarding it.

My grandfather lived till he was 89. Much later, after his passing, I got to know that he, along with my grandmother, father and my father’s younger brother, had abandoned their home in Rangoon (now Yangon) in the third week of February, 1942. Japan had begun bombing Rangoon by air. My dad was three. His baby brother was 72 days old. At the docks, my grandfather managed to get berths for my grandmother and his two sons on the last steamer to be leaving for Vizag, the SS Edna. Apart from Europeans, only a few fortunate women and children were allowed on board. He remained behind, forced to complete assignments as a senior engineer of the Central Public Works Department. A few months later, after Rangoon fell, he, along with thousands of others, made a 2000 kilometre journey back to Calcutta, through Manipur and Assam, a large part of it on foot, through fields, wetlands, mountains and jungles. Cholera and malaria decimated the walkers. Children who were sick were simply abandoned when they got too heavy to carry. Others carried the dead bodies of their young till they could go no further. From Calcutta, Alleppey was another 2400 kilometres away. He hitched rides on trains and buses, and walked.

By the time my grandfather reached Alappuzha, it was 1943. He was bearded, desperately thin, extremely ill, and barely recognisable in his tattered clothes. He had no belongings or money, and he hadn’t eaten for days. My grandmother, who had given him up for dead, almost turned him away at the gates of my great grandfather’s house. He had contracted tuberculosis on the way, and developed severe ulcerations in his stomach, both of which he never recovered from, till the end. Over the next twenty years, despite his poor health, he moved to Mumbai and did what he needed to do, to get the kids through school, keep the home fires burning, and the family together. At some point, when his health began to fail badly, he retired. I was born in Mumbai and got enough time with him to see that he was a man who kept his own counsel and asked for no favours. As his body dwindled away, he accepted help, just as he would have accepted if nobody helped him at all.

My family albums contain several formal portraits of my grandparents. But the photograph I miss the most is the one I threw away all those years ago. I ask myself if I miss it because I made that picture. Or because it represents the man so well. The sandals, walking stick and chair. And that he is not in it. Just as he was missing, in some ways, from my life. The original negative was never found. I have little hope that it will turn up some day, during some clean-up spree. While previous sprees have turned up some surprising gems, this photograph continues to be lost.

His walking stick is still around, though. It has found its uses. I have seen my mom and aunt use it for putting up clothes on the clothesline. An uncle uses it, once in a while, to drive out cats from under his bed—there have been generations of cats that have used our house as a nursery. Lately, my sixteen-month-old daughter has taken a liking to it, making me hold her in one arm while I use the walking stick with the other.

There are those few images that get away, and we don’t usually care about them amidst the toil and turmoil of our everyday. The ones that stick on in the mind are from memories we cannot forget. The most singular, though, are those that take on meaning slowly, interminably, over the years, as the stories unfold and the dots connect. They are the ones that are most special, even if they don’t exist.

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