The compartment was fairly empty for a Saturday afternoon. She thought that it was probably not season yet for travel. But the thing she felt a little queer about was the guy sitting opposite to her. It had been an hour and he had not taken his eyes off the scenery his window was offering, not even to have a peek at a pretty girl sitting right in front.
“Anything particularly beautiful you are looking at?” He was taken aback by the hint of sarcasm in her voice.
“Nothing particular. But beautiful, yes!” He looked at her for the first time. Eyes so expressive and purposeful! She gave him the “care-to-explain-yourself” look.
He smiled. It was an innocent one. “Here, come this side and see for yourself.”
She came and sat by his side. The sight was perfect. They didn’t speak a word for a long time. It was the sun’s last act of the day and the most beautiful one!
He spoke first. “What a spectacle! It actually looks like our train is chasing the sun down into those curvy mountains. He seems to be pretty tired after the day’s work and we are catching up on him. On his way, he stumbles upon those gorgeous trees which add their color to his light. What a delightful duet!”
She soaked in the beauty that his eyes had just conjured. “My visualization was not so enthralling. What are you? A writer? A poet?”
“No, someone less profound! I am a photographer.”
“Wow.. I could never be one!” There was a subtle pain in her voice.
They watched the sun as it disappeared into oblivion. “It rests to scorch another day.” She sighed as the last traces of the sun left their eyes.
He took a few beats to crystallize his thoughts. “For the last half an hour, we have seen the sun grow on us. Its golden shimmers accentuated the beauty and serenity of every animal, foliage and emotion they touched. As our train got tantalizingly close to the mountains, the sun was bigger, clearer and more meaningful than ever. And then he disappears leaving us to be consumed by the darkness. Does this mean anything to you?”
“I see you are poised to say something profound. Go on.”
“Well, profound or stupid, is for you to decide. It reminds me of the shallowness and the false hopes and promises that make up our lives. Don’t you share my melancholy?” He looked at her intriguingly.
She smiled playfully. “Not really. I think he dims his light for us to search for it within.”
“Now that is profound indeed. What are you, a philosopher?” He winked.
“Well, something more human. I am a painter.”
“I am sure having such expressive eyes helps! They can temporarily arrest nature’s splendor and you can immortalize it later on paper.” She gushed at his poetic compliment.
They were about to go back to their silence when he suddenly asked her a question she was hoping he wouldn’t. “Why did you say you couldn’t be a photographer?”
After being pensive for a while she opened up. “Because my dad was one!” This time he couldn’t see any emotion in her eyes. “And he was brilliant at it. The best! He took several pictures which were adored and celebrated. They brought him name and fame. But most of these photos were meant to portray a world that was not real. A world that was clinically enhanced; sprinkled with artificial beauty, fake emotions and non existent colors! The world as you want it to look like! A world of your dreams!” He did not interrupt her as emotions were slowly starting to erupt.
“And then one day he took his best photograph. It just told a simple truth. It was a piece of art. Sometimes, that is the worst curse. It shows life in its purest and darkest shade. It is too much for one to take. It tells you a story you so hoped didn’t exist. And the story of this photo changed my dad. It made every other photo of his look inconsequential and meek. It was the last photograph he ever took!” She was still breathing heavily but had slowly managed to gain her composure back.
A stunned silence ensued. “It must have been a very potent picture!” He whispered softly.
“Sure it is!” She took out the photo from her bag and gave it to him. It was a breathtaking capture of a man was carrying his son on his shoulders. He looked at it intensely for a while and then handed it back to her. “It is priceless.” His eyes had a semblance of torture.
“What happened? I thought you would want to see that picture a little longer.” She could not understand the emotion he was going through.
He smiled contritely. “If you allow me, I will keep looking at this picture for the rest of my life.” She did not understand but didn’t want to press, fearing she might hurt a raw wound. But that had already been done.
“Well, you see, I don’t have a photo of my father and I never seem to like any of mine.” He said nonchalantly.
She was shuddering. “Is this…. You?”
He was gently caressing the man in the photo. “Yes. I am the unfortunate son of this man who did not have any reason to smile in his whole life but found every opportunity to do so. He spent his whole life with a heavy baggage on his slender shoulders. In the morning he would carry me to school. It was 10 kilometers from our village and he had to cross a dense forest barefooted. He would then chop wood in the forest the whole day. He would carry my little baby sister along with him to the forest. He made her a little cradle in the woods and the birds would sing her lullaby. In the evening he will carry the wood to the local timber house and sell it to them for a paltry price. He would then come to fetch me again. Those three hours on my father’s shoulders were my most precious moments of the day. He would tell me about every single sight, event and incident on the way. I started seeing the world through his eyes. I wish time had frozen at that very moment. But that was not to be. May be I was too much a burden for him to shoulder! Or may be, I was not destined to play with my baby sister!
A famous actress of that time adopted me from my father; for a good sum I guess. Thanks to your dad’s priceless photo that melted her heart. My father was happy that I was going to get a life that he could never give me. But I knew he cried and bled internally. I knew his heart would never be able to give me up. He wanted to carry me on his shoulders all his life. But life is cruel. It takes your soul and you can’t even cry!
Time slowly heals you. I started afresh. For 10 years, I lived a life of solitary luxury. I had everything. I even had love. My new mother was not the best but she took good care of me, though I never felt the mother in her! But I had nothing to complain until one day she had a son of her own. Now I was just a complication! So she got rid of me. To be fair, I was well taken care of. She put me in college and fixed a decent accommodation as well. So here I was, after being rooted out from my father’s heart and shoulders and planted in a place where I never fit in, alone, out in the world to find a soil again.
I had always looked for an inspiration, a calling to live or die for, and I found it through your dad. Strange it may seem, but he shaped my destiny! This unknown man, who immortalized my father in a frame of memory, who gave me new parents (for a while), a great house to live, a great school to study, gave my father and my sister the opportunity for a better life; he became my idol. He still is! That is why I am a photographer today!”
His eyes were moist. So were hers! “You never tried to find your father again?”
“I wanted to. So many times. But then, what would I tell him? That I have been an orphan for 15 years! That I have everything I haven’t even asked for but not the one thing I have always longed for: his love. He would have imagined great things about his son. I do not intend to bring down the fond castles he has built in my memory. He will not be able to forgive himself. He has had enough agony for one lifetime already. Sometimes it is best to live in the truth we have come to believe in. I am happy to live with the belief that my father and sister are happy somewhere! I can’t take any other truth!” He was choking for words.
She caressed his shoulders soothingly. She had no words to console him. She knew that none were necessary. She put the photo on his lap. “You can keep the photo. I think it means much more to you!” He had no words to thank her. He knew none were necessary.
She moved away and took out her diary and started writing something. He looked at her eagerly.
“It’s nothing. I just like to record memorable conversations.”
He smiled affectionately. “I am so glad you thought this one is memorable!” He was still looking at the photo. Tears were parting his eyes profusely. She finished her diary and went away to shed a tear of her own.
He glanced at her diary. Something inside him urged him to read it and he tried hard to battle that thought. A truth’s destiny hinged on his action!
Excerpt from her diary:
How can I tell you that this photograph means as much or more to me!
I wish I could tell you that I am your little sister. I wish I could ask you to sing me a lullaby.
How can I tell you how much our father loved us? How can I tell you that he would have never given you away if he was not dying? Yes. Dying slowly but surely!
I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent looking at this photo, touching and feeling the two of you.
How can I tell you that my father watched our father die in my arms and then took me in his arms? I cannot tell who I love the most, but both these men are our heroes!
And how can I bring my heart to tell you that both of them are no more! I have suffered the agony of watching them die: one of pain and the other of grief. How can I let you go through the same?
This photograph is our destiny. It is our doom. It broke us. It made us. I can’t allow it to break us again. I am just happy it brought us together, what if it was for just a moment! Sometimes it is best to live in the truth we have come to believe in!
A SHORT STORY BY RAJ