Honestly, can you believe the year is over? It's gone like a puff of smoke. But before it disappears altogether it's time for the last challenge at Write...Edit...Publish... based on Roberta Flack's iconic number - The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. Here is my entry, an excerpt from what's going to be a rather long short story. I hope you enjoy it.
The first time...Wait, no, hang on a minute. I didn’t really see your face, did I now? So I damn well couldn’t think the sun and moon rose in your eyes, even if I had a mind to. Did I get a shivery someone-walking-over-my-grave feeling that this person will turn out to have some monumental impact on my life? No, to be honest, not even that.
Truth be told, I’d just felt a stab of interest and admired the photograph. Clear, crisp, high contrast, the chiaroscuro effects superbly employed. Not many people put up B/W photos on their profiles now, the vast majority of photography is carried out in colour, often overmanipulated, too vivid to be true with a million filters available at the touch of a single button. So it’s intriguing when one comes upon a stark portrait like that – a lady in the fashions of decades ago sitting formally at a Victorian table with an outsize art deco radio, a vase of flowers and a silver framed photo. Too senior to have an independent social media profile, so I assumed it was the job of a grandkid. Which, you told me later, was true, it was uploaded by you, she was your grandmother. Your picture was the one framed in silver, your babyface partially visible and anyway too blurry to see suns and moons anywhere. I liked that idea – the invisible profile pic. Meeting the requirement of being pictorially present without giving anything away, quiet, private, a little quirky. Also a tribute to your grandmother whose death anniversary had just passed. I liked that even better.
Anyway, all that came later. I saw the profile pic and on some insane impulse, messaged you about the provenance of the photo. It must have stood out from the wannabe-friends messages that beautiful women get by the bucketful. Different enough that you wrote back - the studio stamp was legible on the back, the name was clear, the address was too faded to read. No date, but roughly mid/late 70s from the baby photo. Even that had the same name at the back. You wrote you’d taken it out of the frame and checked. You even attached a picture of the stamp. It was like a gut punch – bony fist reaching out from a forgotten past and socking me a massive one. Took my breath clean away. I had come a long way from the last time I saw that name.
My mother’s uncle, Samudra or Sam Gain, was one of the first non-European photographers employed by Bourne & Shepherd’s in post-colonial times. He later opened his own studio. It did moderately well, photography had a different weight those days, it was specialised and somewhat more seriously practiced as art and/or business.
He used to take me to the studio often when I was a child. I remember watching him in the darkroom, the details of the images slowly getting filled in – it was magical to a child’s eye. He employed an assistant when the running around got too much. People joined, photographers and accountants came and went. I got to high school and had no more time to lounge around watching films being developed. The B/W photos in the window got replaced by colour prints. Sam got a little more stooped. But his hand was still steady on the shutter button. Then one day, he died – there in the darkroom, without any warning, any preparation, felled clean in one stroke. He was unmarried and had no other surviving relatives except my mother and her sisters. The studio with its forty-year load of images passed to them.
His three nieces and nephews-in-law knew zilch about photography or running a business. They agreed that there might be negatives of archival value stacked away in the backroom. But no one had the time to look through them. The junior photographer kept on for sometime, but he couldn’t carry the studio on his back like the original owner. The orders dried up, the staff dispersed and soon the doors were shuttered. The signboard got so dusty that the lettering - Focussed Gain’s could hardly be read.
That random photo opened up two parallel conversations – one with you, thus the details about your grandmother. The other with my parents about the studio, whether anything had been done with the little two-and-a-half-room corner of that large property, where Sam Gain had meticulously photographed his clientele.
No, they told me, the tenants on the other floors refused to move. The negatives were still untouched, gone beyond retrieval probably by now. The rooms couldn’t be let out unless someone cleared out the whole place. The property itself was getting into its 7th decade and needed massive repairs. No-one had the time or energy to take on that job. Or that of wrapping up a dead man’s existence. If he had had his own children, maybe they could have. But it didn’t seem fair to ask great nephews/nieces to upend their life and sort out the aftermath of his death.
“Why?” my mother asked, “after so long?”
I didn’t know the answer. Seriously, why? I was working abroad, settled in my life, I had left my hometown more than a decade ago. Why was I letting an old photograph randomly viewed, stir up what? I couldn’t even properly name it – vague disquiet? hankering? - for impractical explorations, to connect imaginary dots where probably not a speck existed.
I resolved to put this whole wild goose digital chase to an end. But then you wrote you had made some enquiries of your own. The props – the table, the wooden polished radio, had never been part of your grandmother’s home, no one could identify where the photo was taken. That silver frame was the only thing that everyone remembered and that was with you. There was something rather odd, an undercurrent in the messages which I couldn’t pin down. Maybe there were some dots to connect after all.
Tagline : A random photo can open up a can of worms...
Okay, so that's as far as I can get with the word limit. The full thing will probably run to about 5K or more, we'll see. The MC will go back to his hometown, to his great uncle's studio and discover things that connect the grandmother and granddaughter to Sam Gain. Against the backdrop of B/W photography in mid-20th century Calcutta.
Will the MC fall for the granddaughter? Should he? Will that make the story more interesting? What do you think?
Incidentally, Bourne & Shepherd was one of the oldest photography studios in the world, set up in 1863 and finally closed a few years ago. There were many studios during the 60's and 70's in Calcutta and studio portraits did good business.
I'm hoping this story when done will become the final title of a collection of shorts themed on the word 'return.'
Read the other entries here:
Like the previous years, Plague Year 3 has been mixed, life has continued to throw challenges at an unprecedented rate, some I've enjoyed and some not so much. I am expecting the next year to bring more changes - keeping my lamps trimmed and ready for them, nothing fazed! Most changes pan out positive given time - at least in my experience, anyway.
Wish you all a happy festive season and a wonderful, joyous, healthful, fun and tranquil 2023! Much travel for those who like travelling, stillness for those who prefer to be still and a good balance for those who like both. Keep smiling, keep writing.