The man trudged up the red mud lane carrying a rucksack on his back and a tin trunk in one hand. He mounted the three steps from the lane and stepped over a metal stile flanked by gateposts. An elderly woman sat on the concrete platform in front of the big white house; she seemed to be waiting for him.
“Bayool Maami?” the man asked, joining his palms in formal greeting while introducing himself, “Shyam Kulkarni.”
“I was expecting you two hours ago, Painter Saheb,” Bayool said, rising slowly from the cement platform and hobbling into the sitting room, “Come, come. Sit,” gesturing to the sling back armchair.
Bayool was an elderly woman who wore dentures. Shyam noticed that when she smiled there were gaps in her dentures that made her teeth look natural.
“The bus broke down,” he said simply. “Bayool Maami, please call me Shyam.”
He sat in the armchair and looked around. Through the floor-to-ceiling bars that made up one wall of the sitting room, he observed a cottage nearby.
“You will live there,” Bayool said, pointing to the cottage.
The property adjoining Bayool’s seemed impenetrable with trees, briars and tangled creepers, but Shyam saw outlines of a roof and walls and broken down windows of a house through those trees.
Gopuji tore away the blanket. His shirt was drenched in sweat. He dragged himself out of bed. When he foamed toothpaste in his mouth, he heard it again. It seemed to be a classical tune of great melancholy, of Western origin rather than a Hindustani one. It flooded his ears. His temples throbbed. Sudden chills in the forty-degree Mumbai heat and humidity. He remembered last night’s dream of feathered attacks. Yes, that was what it was. Wet wings slapping at him as if they would murder him in a pond or lake … hard forceps-like things clutching his neck … a thick fleecy rope winding around his neck … tighter and tighter, claws gripping him and tearing his flesh.
Even the memory of it sent streams of sweat down his body as he showered and got ready for work. The lilt lingered into his hearing.
Gopuji was accustomed to background music. In fact, he was more used to it than most average people. He was a filmmaker. How many times, while making films, had he ardently wished for a personal background score? A score that would act like lyrical second thoughts, drizzling around him, making his life more meaningful and understood by those around. Was it this wish that followed him now? This principle that if you wished for something strongly into the Universe it was bestowed upon you?
The only thing I could do for him was take his picture. So I heaved my DSLR up—it had to be bulky, to give that touch of authenticity—and peered through the viewfinder, focusing on his face.
Not that I needed to. The camera was perfectly capable of capturing the shot on its own. But this was art, and I, the artist. I had to at least appear to work for my fee.
Through the unforgiving lens, Harun Shamsuddin looked even worse. Despite being powdered over with makeup, his pale, papery skin seemed like it would shred at the slightest touch. The luxuriant wig perched on his scalp made the deep furrows on his forehead look more pronounced. He was dressed in his old lawyer’s robes, now billowing over his shrunken frame.
“You can Photoshop the tubes out, right?” his daughter Mimi asked over my shoulder. I lowered the camera and studied the tubes affixed to him intently, giving the impression of great concentration. There were fewer than most of my other subjects: just one going into his nose, and another dangling out of his arm. The others were all concealed beneath the robe.