“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.
He put his hand in his breast pocket to feel for his credit card. It was still there––tucked inside a folded post-it note, which contained a list of errands he had to run that morning. Mr Munshi suddenly remembered that he had promised Usha he would buy a present for her niece. She had asked him this almost a week ago, when she had already collected most of the other gifts for the family—soaps, lotions, chocolates, baby clothes. Of course he had forgotten. But his wife would surely remember today. The thing with Usha, he had learned over these years, was that when she found one problem, she suddenly remembered twenty other things to complain about.
He turned back and walked down to the pharmacy, which was thankfully open. He looked up and down the shampoo aisle, the soap aisle and finally lingered by the creams. Mr Munshi stared at the fancy labels and pictures and high price-tags and decided this would please his wife, who insisted that the gifts couldn’t be anything ordinary and a certain amount had to be spent in order to appear generous.
She liked silence nowadays. It was the music she strained to listen to, in this bustling world, the music most rare. Here, the bodegas were simple, the sidewalks untouched by organic clothing stores, day care centers, fair-trade coffee and tapas bars. The disrepair was romantic, commensurate with the direction her life was headed. She liked that she could cross a river and start all over.
Sometimes, she feared there were no new beginnings for people like her—people with no real longing and this was just the second part of the same journey. Different mistakes, the same failure. What a shame people would say. She had so much promise.
Over time, her parents grew more poised and reticent. They were worried these days that like many of their friends’ children, she would come back home, demand coffee be brought to her bedside at noon. With all bold ambitions, the greater is the risk of failure. She would tell them this, What did you suppose? It was you who set me on the path of great expectations.
She practically heard the sky exhale. The headiness of victory. No. The relief.
Only when you do good things can you look back and say– everything happens for a reason. Else, it’s all a waste.
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.