One Saturday morning, I happened upon a group of ladies doing their washing. I asked if I could photograph them. They agreed. A few days later, I returned, to give them prints. They were thrilled and invited me into their homes to take more photographs- photographs of their children, visiting siblings, cousins, friends; photographs of them cooking and playing and getting ready for New Years Eve. I took back more prints. They requested more shoots. And so it went on. I visit them almost every week. I call them my Saturday Morning Laundry Ladies.
Soon, the adjoining houses began to ask for photographs, then the local tea shop owner and the butcher and the lady who lived in a shack next to the tea shop I frequently visited.
I don’t photograph people of a slum to document poverty. I wasn’t photographing them with a project in mind. There was no ulterior motive for me. I was photographing these people because I was interested in them. The slum dwellers just took me in at a time when I was very unwell and just trying to survive one day at a time. Taking photographs helped that battle. So I kept returning. I’d make them prints because taking their pictures made me happy and I wanted to try and give back some of that happiness.
That’s how over the years I became their Photowalli Didi. (the sister with the photos). Our relationship is unequal, we come from different worlds but we both give and take something from each other. This is an exploration not only of our strange and intimate relationship but a project about strength of communities, an investigation into and perhaps most importantly a project about belonging, about breaking barriers and that of challenging stereotypes and myths. It is a celebration as well as an elegy.
Yet, two decades had dissolved away like ice in lukewarm drinks. They hadn’t gone anywhere.
His debts had piled so high, he could no longer think of leaving. And now, with his heart condition, who knew what sort of treatment was available in Calcutta, where there were no health plans.
Once in a while, when he would look around his decrepit store—at the cracked linoleum floor, the creaking door that didn’t close unless properly, the dirty curtains whose colour had faded to an indistinguishable cream––the possibility of going back home flickered in his mind like a wavering flame. But he’d look up and down Lexington and realize that once he left, Gopal would die of diabetes, Nafisa, who was still stuck on her citizenship process, may wind up deported and Mohon like a crumbling terracotta statue would turn to dust in his store.
Twenty years. Washed away by the monsoon rain; had drifted far across the continents. But instead of being lifted into the endless skies he had landed somewhere in the rough. Even now he could picture his young self in the same blue blazer with gold buttons––one hand tucked smartly inside grey trouser pockets, sifting through the crowd at a party at the club, a glass of whisky in his right. And the women. Oh the women. He would ease the empty drinks from their hands, fill them at the bar and take a turn with them around the far end of the garden where few guests strayed. They talked about their lonely lives at home. He told them he understood.
How differently his mornings had begun in Calcutta––a walk around Victoria Memorial after which Bhaskar used to drive him to the club, that wonderful chilli cheese toast he had for breakfast. Invariably he bumped into a golf buddy, or a colleague, who pulled up a chair. And if no one came, he sat underneath the shamianah on his own, feeding the stray dogs, watching a ball that had just teed off; following its course till he couldn’t find it anymore; till the wind carried it away. In twenty years, Calcutta had been reduced to a fond memory. Usha still considered it her other life.
Mr Munshi wanted to grab the phone and say none of it was true. That it was only a store in Chicago that bought in small quantities. It added up to no more than a few hundred dollars. That the High Commission had called to make some inquiries but nothing had come of it yet. And Mimi? It had ultimately taken her six years to finish college and she temped through an agency and shared a one-bedroom in Woodside––a part of Queens Usha refused to visit as it involved switching the train twice. It made Mr Munshi nervous to overhear his wife’s conversations. He could barely keep track of her lies.
“I know. Can you believe I’ve managed to make him come this time? Normally things are so hectic, we both can’t take off you know,” Usha said on the phone.
“Yes, of course we have someone working for us, but he has to travel so often. What with the clients on the west coast.” She said this in a hushed tone, with her face turned away from her husband, but he had heard.
“No, Mimi can’t make it. She has her exams and she is so busy applying for jobs. There are three universities that want her, can you imagine? But she is still waiting to see if she can find something closer to us.”
As he walked in, she raised her head but didn’t say anything. He too raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement of her presence. This is how they spoke after forty years of marriage––with signs and gestures. Lexington Avenue divided Mr Munshi’s life into two distinct halves. On one side was Mohon’s endless chatter, on the other, his wife’s infinite silence.
But last month Usha had begged her husband to come. “Year after year I go on my own and they’re always asking about you. What do I keep telling them? I’m running out of excuses. Soon I’ll have to say you’re dead.” She had looked at him with a sad face and threatened him with tears and he couldn’t say no. But Mr Munshi knew it wasn’t just a plane fare. These gifts being purchased were for her sister, his brother, nieces, nephews and now the grandchildren that had begun to pop out one by one. There was no stopping these damned babies, he thought, gloomily. And once they went back, every evening their house would be filled with visitors who needed to be fed and entertained. That was another added expense.