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Photographs and Memories

Moments shared between mother and daughter with an old photo album opens up a well of emotions


By Sumana Roy   |   Illustration By Atri  |  

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"When was this, Ma?" There is no response. It's not because she's trying to remember. It's the guilt of not being able to remember. I know that face.

 I turn the page. It's not the page of a book---those are light and easy to turn, easy enough for even a breeze to move. These pages are heavy, thicker than chart paper. They are the pages of my parents' old photo album. Unlike the pages of a book, they are black in colour---greyish black, as if all the light has been eaten by the photos, leaving them bereft of light. The pages, therefore, are not light. I know I'm repeating myself. That might be because I've already begun metaphorizing them. I have started seeing in them the weight of time, their resistance to being moved.

 On the next page is a photo of my mother with her friends. Two of them---Kumkum mashi [aunt in Bengali]; the name of the second I can't remember. "Is this Annapurna mashi?" I ask Ma.

Ma takes the album from my hands and brings it close to her face, as if this proximity created by space would help her reach closer to where she wants to be in time. "I wonder where Annapurna is now," she says.

She can't say the same about Kumkum mashi. We know where she is now. Beyond our reach, beyond the reach of a camera, where most things in life are now kept trapped, for fear of them being taken away from us. In the brackets that hold the span of our mortal lives when we consign them to the strange code we've invented to denote our time on earth, Kumkum mashi's had been closed, some time in the 1980s, when I was in school.

 No one knows about Annapurna anymore. The photo, therefore, seems even more precious---that it's been able to hold a part of Annapurna that Siliguri, her hometown, or her friends couldn't, or a part of Kumkum that even life couldn't.

 A friend once told me that looking at old photographs with my mother and asking her for the stories around them will lessen some of the sadness that life has accumulated on her face (which is where I see it). And so I am prepared, as one is, when taking out an aged or ailing person on a walk. There's a target one sets in the head---to reach the end of the park, for instance; mine is to cover this first album.

We've barely started. I'm slightly irritated, though I know it's without reason---my parents have no sense of chronology: They've stuck photos in the album arbitrarily.

 I'm surprised to see so many strangers in the album. It doesn't register that, at this point, even my parents are strangers to me, as I was to them. So many names and so many relations---they all seem fictitious, which is probably true, as all relationships are. I look at my mother's face from time to time---it is, as if, I'm comparing her to the person who she once was. I feel guilty---I'm not sure which person I like more. I love my mother, I remind myself, as if that was necessary.

 That is necessary, sometimes, as she battles everyone, most of all herself. At such moments, there is only confusion. She accuses traditions of reason and rationality that come to her from the voices of those who love her, her husband and her children. I know we don't quite understand. I suspect we don't try. We want to convert her, to get her on our side, but we're unwilling to budge, to move to her side. Will this walk through the album help her move to the other side, to the one she knew once?

There are lots of plants and trees in these photos---my parents' courtship in Calcutta's Botanical Gardens, the innocent sophistication of ice cream in cups with wooden spoons in their young hands, where the veins still haven't risen to smell time; there's also water---fountains in parks, rivers, the sea, me in a bathing tub, wet floors in a couple of photos. It is as if they were discovering water anew through a camera lens. I've never felt any such urge to photograph water. I look at my mother again. But she's not very much older than me.

Only 22 years separate us. She could've been an older sister.

 In almost all these photos, she's looking directly at the camera, the way an infant stares at a ceiling fan, for instance. I look at my mother again. Was she more trusting of the camera than she was of people?

"Did you like being photographed?" I ask her. In my hand is a square photo of her. It has fallen out of the grasp of the album, the glue of the clips loosened by age. Perhaps that is what death is---the loss of glue from life---detachment.

 My mother is sleeping in this photo; her hair is deep asleep too. It is long, falling out of the pillow on to the floor. I cannot see its end … its ends. I know the history of this photo: I am inside her womb; my father has come back early from office. He takes out his Yashica camera and shoots her sleeping. I imagine the rest---the sound of the shutter waking her up, her sweet protests. I wonder whether I too was startled by the sound of the shutter inside her. Only in this photo---in this album---she is not looking at the camera. What was she looking at, in her sleep? "Did you like being photographed?" I ask her, again.

 "That was the only time anyone looked at me," she replies.

 Stunned, I look at her. The tears are in my eyes. She's staring at the floor.

 "I've never taken a photo in my life," she whispers when I get up from the bed to come and hold her. "I've never seen you and your brother and your father through a camera. That is why I keep looking at you---so that I remember, even beyond this life. I'm not intelligent like the camera."                      

 

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree and Missing.

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