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Lady In The Photos

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It was another evening of heavy traffic, dust, fumes and noise in this metropolis.  Yet, glowing above it all were the splendid colours of the sunset.   They struck Archana more richly than ever.   The rushing streams of rosy pink, purple bursting through the sky like liquid grapes and the regal golden-yellow halo around the red evening sun filled her with an unusual profusion of loving thoughts and childhood impressions of her Lila aunty.   How they used to laugh together as they walked in the sunset many many years before.  They joked about silly things, giggled,  invented funny lyrics and sang.   Those days always came back to Archana’s mind on such gorgeous evenings.   However, on this particular occasion, the flood of such delicious girlish memories was especially vivid.   There was also a certain mystique, a certain expectancy of something extraordinary that she couldn’t place.

So, it came to her as a shock when she arrived home to receive instead,  a  phone call with the horrifying news that her aunt had suddenly died in a bus accident.  For the longest time, she had wanted to visit  Lila aunty, her mummy’s sister with whom she had cherished some of the most tender childhood days.   Nonetheless, ever since relocating in New Delhi for her job, something always came in the way of this trip back to Bangalore,  work, health, poor planning.   Now, in disbelief and grief at the situation, Archana rushed to take the quickest flight going back there.

She was to discover that due to the severity of the accident and her resulting mutilation,  Lila aunty had already been cremated by the time Archana arrived in town.   That said,  she frankly doubted the family would have wanted her to be present during her aunt’s last rites, had it even been a possibility.  Her relatives hardly acknowledged her existence. They were obviously resentful at her not having visited Lila aunty all these years.  So, throughout her few subsequent days in Bangalore, she felt like an insignificant shadow in that gloomy house.   She wandered through the rooms amidst this void.    All that she had access to finally was her aunt’s suitcase having a photo album.

The album was old and faded, many of its pages brittle,  fragile like dry autumn leaves, ready to fall to pieces.   Yet it was present like a golden monument holding mysterious moments to treasure.   Archana looked gingerly through the photos, so many with her and her aunt.   They all brought loving recollections of sweet moments with family and friends.   She remembered all the birthday parties and weddings, their trips to Nandi hills, where they fed monkeys, their walks under the crimson blaze of  Gulmohar trees and the kulfi ice cream they enjoyed near the fountain in the local park.

Archana stopped browsing through the album when her eyes were suddenly struck by a certain set of photos.  She found herself irresistibly drawn to these images of a softly smiling lady she could not recognize. In one of the pictures, the woman was seated on the grass with Lila aunty.   In another, she was again beside aunty in a Hindu temple, dressed in a lush red silk sari and praying.   In the last full-length one, she stood in profile, her long waist-length hair falling down her back in soft undulating waves.   What hit Archana was the simple radiance of her presence.   With no make-up or ostentatious pose and with meeting eyebrows untouched by tweezers, the lady stood out with a subtle beauty, glowing like a delicate moon beam.

Archana asked some family members who the woman was.  Nobody cared to respond.   She longed to find out why the unknown lady’s photos graced this intimate album.   Her first clue was the string of jasmines that both women had in their hair.  She knew Lila aunty always liked to buy her flowers from that one vendor near the noisy bus stand.  She decided to start her search there in her next few days at Bangalore.

At the flower shop, she bought a jasmine garland to adorn her aunt’s photo.  “Anything else?” asked the vendor.  “My aunty just passed away, “ she said, showing him a photo.

He peered closely at the picture through his thick glasses and said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.   Both of them came here often.”

“Did my aunty say who her companion was?” asked the niece.

“No, but I assumed it was her sister or family member.   Both of them loved the flower selections here, especially the mogras and champakas.  I hadn’t seen the other woman recently.”

Archana nodded, obliged to be satisfied with this answer, but her yearning to know who this was was growing.  The lady had to be important to the family!   So, she went back to the suitcase.  She looked through some letters to see if they might give her a clue to this puzzle.  In one, her aunt mentioned a demure and charming relative Nina, who always watered her tulsi plant.

Archana thought this might be her answer until she chanced upon another letter describing Nina as the stylish cousin with bobbed hair.  She had evolved into a supermodel of western-style clothing, living overseas in New York.  Archana knew this was definitely not the lady in the photos!

So, she decided on her next strategy.  On another sunny afternoon, she took a bus to the famous local Shiva temple that she recognized in one of the photos.   There, she met the priest. She showed him the photo.  He nodded in recognition, even remembering seeing Archana there as a child years ago.

“Oh yes, she had a beautiful voice,” he said, pointing to the mystery lady in the photo. “She came here often with  Lila amma. I remember her lilting singing and the lush silk sari she had on for our pujas.”

“Who was she?” was Archana’s parrot-like question again.

“You don’t know her?  I thought she was one of you!” he answered with a frown.

“I have no absolutely no recollection of her. I’ve been trying to find out who she was.”

“I think I can help you out with that information,” he said after a long moment. “The last time she came here by herself and left a donation and her name and address  in our visitor notebook.”

“That would help me infinitely!”  exclaimed Archana ecstatically.

So finally, equipped with the address of this lady, whose name she now at least knew to be Lakshmi, she headed the following day for her next destination. She needed to take three buses to go there. When she reached the house at the corner and opened its creaky gate, she rang the doorbell.  Nobody opened the door for a while.  She rang again.  A woman’s quavering voice said from within, “They’re not here.  Everybody has gone to a wedding.”   “Has Lakshmi gone as well?”  asked Archana.

That’s when the creaky door opened gently and she was face to face with a frail woman.   Her hair was silver-white and she had on bifocals.  “My God, I recognize you!” the woman said, cackling.

“You’re Lakshmi?”

“Yes,” the lady replied.  “Come in.”

Lakshmi invited her to sit down in the kitchen.  Giving her visitor a long look, she said, “I carried you as a baby girl.  How bubbly you were,” she said giggling.

“I’m so sorry to ask you this but are you an aunt, a relative?” Archana persisted, more puzzled than ever.

“You don’t know me?” Lakshmi asked, her eyes flying open. “I suppose you were too young to remember me.”

“I’m so sorry, I don’t remember you at all.  That’s what I’ve come here to find out.   I saw your photos in Lila aunty’s album, but could not place you at all.  It look me a long time to find out your whereabouts.”

“So,  instead of going through all this, why didn’t you ask Lila amma herself directly?”

“Because my aunty was killed in a bus accident.  I live in New Delhi but came here after I learned of this tragedy.  My cousins and uncle are not happy with me because I had not come back to visit aunty until this catastrophic accident.  I feel they are almost blaming me for all this.”

“Oh my God!” said Lakshmi covering her contorted mouth.  This news is so heartbreaking.  I thought of visiting her myself.  I wish I had got to it.”

Archana showed her the photos and she smiled.   “Lila amma pampered me and gave me some pretty clothes.  She even encouraged my singing talent and treated me as special.”

“So, how did you know them?” continued Archana, feeling her foolish heart racing.

“Oh, I  was once a cook in that house.   As an orphan, I had no chance at an education. My only hope of survival was in domestic work.  It’s a fate I’ve surrendered to all my life. Your aunt was extraordinary,  an artist and a visionary who understood the song of my soul.  She encouraged me to sing in religious ceremonies and gave me books that I enjoyed reading.”

“She sure did.   Even in those photos, I could feel your elegance and charm, and that long beautiful hair.”

“Thank you, missy,”  said Lakshmi, joining her hands gratefully. “So, why did you leave that house and your job as a cook?”

“Well, my parents found me a husband.  We lived in Mysore, but it was too far away. So, I had to quit that job I loved.”  She sighed.  “After all that, my marriage was a disaster. My husband and his family did not like me to sing or even read a newspaper.   It was constant submission to their orders and demands.  Worse than that was his violent

anger.  He often slapped and kicked me.  I rolled down the stairs and my unborn child died from this hateful rage.  There was no chance of conceiving after that.  I struggled to please the family.   Then ten years later, my husband had a stroke and died.”

Archana gasped.  “Lakshmi, you didn’t deserve such a demon.  It was probably God’s grace  that an evil person was taken away before he hurt you any further.”

“Yes, but it was also too late for me to try to go back and work at your aunty’s home again.  I was sure they had found another cook.  However, I needed a job badly because my in-laws threw me out after my husband’s demise.   That’s how I finally found my way back  to Bangalore and as a cook in this house.”

“I’m so glad I found you and discovered so much that your photo showed of you in person,”  said Archana.

“My long black hair has turned brittle and silver and my back old and bent, but I’m still the same person,” said the cook. “Still so radiant, Lakshmi!  I’d love to take a picture with you to complete that album.”

“Yes, missy, that would be lovely.  Thank you for taking all this trouble to find me.  This feels like a family reunion. Though my place in your home was always one of a servant,  what mattered more was the loving connection we made despite these class differences  and my not being your family member.”

“Yes, “ said Archana.  “I yearned for this warmth in my own relatives after my aunt’s passing. How extraordinary that I’ve found this reunion with you instead.”

“And likewise, I didn’t get even a drop of love from my husband or in-laws, but instead, see such a  heartfelt outflow of tenderness here,” gushed Lakshmi.  Archana reached out for this cook’s dainty hand and Lakshmi held hers tightly. “Lila amma would have loved to see this happen years ago.  We could have all met and I would have cooked a feast for both of  you.”

“Yes, that would’ve been beautiful.  Fate and poor planning took away that opportunity, but we are here now together.   Shall we take some photos together?  Look at that sunset, it’s glorious,” gushed Archana, pointing to the sun’s evening spectacular river of vermillion and pink flooding the sky outside the window.  Lakshmi’s eyes followed hers. “Yes, it beckons us, like your Lila aunty’s natural blush.   Wherever she is, she’d want this photo!  She’d want us to celebrate this memorable moment.”

“That explains the magical sunset that day and now,” exclaimed Archana in awe.

“Lila amma would be so happy to see us together!” repeated the lady in the photos.

“Indeed.  Our photo would complete that sweet mysterious album,” added Lila aunty’s niece, smiling as she hadn’t done in all these last days.

Amita Raj (USA)

Amita Raj holds an MA in English from Clark University, USA. She loves expressing beautiful stories through the colourful magic of words. She has been a contributing writer to Deccan Herald, Indian Express and India Currents Magazine. Aside from writing fiction and poetry, she is also an accomplished singer in both Indian and western classical genres. She has been featured on All India Radio and is also a currently performing opera singer.


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    This is a great story. Great descriptive set-up, great character development in such a short space, the delicious pleasure of beautiful words describing natural beauty, the expression of an artist’s soul and the resonance of that soul with the natural beauty as it arises around her and the connection with another gentle soul. Expressive and beautiful.

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