CHAPTER 3: The Girl in the Shadows
I woke up early the next morning and set off to the river side to get the sunrise on film. It was still dark outside with a chilly breeze in the air. I had finally worked out a mental schedule for the next 3 days. It was unlike me to have shot only one picture after staying at a place for two days I had to get over this uncharacteristic laxity to get some work done and get back to Madras. Seemapuram was great but without Stella it felt incomplete. I couldn’t wait to go back and take her out to dinner or the movies or just walk with her down grand park road. Buried in these daydreams, I tripped over a little rock on the road and almost dropped my camera. I held on to the bags more firmly and walked with my eyes cemented on the road. I increased my pace a little to make sure I didn’t miss the sunrise. By the time I reached the little forest at the end of the road, it was still rather dark. In the distance, I could see a small light on one of the benches. As I got a little closer, I noticed a familiar silhouette sitting on the bench. In the flickering light of the kerosense lamp, I identified the anonymous figure- The girl from the doll house. I took two steps towards the bench and suddenly heard a rustling sound behind me. For a second, I froze. I heard it again, this time accompanied by a bloody thirsty howl that shattered the peace that had shrouded the entire area. My grip loosened on the bag that had my tripod. I slowly took another step towards the bench and then another and from my peripherals noticed a 4 legged creature following my footsteps in the sand. I threw my tripod bag at it and made a dash for the benches. “RUN RUN!” I screamed as I ran past the benches and to the edge of the river. I didn’t know to swim so I had to run along the length of the river and hope to outrun the thing that was behind me. I ran without looking back for a while and then when my legs began giving way, I remembered the old story about the boy who played dead when he ran into a bear in the forest. It seemed like my legs had a brain of their own and decided to execute the thought themselves. I collapsed on the sandy shores of the river, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, held it and waited for the execution of my fate. After what seemed like an eternity, I heard the laboured breathing of the creature getting closer to me. It walked around me a couple of times and then sniffed my hair. I could feel my heart beat a lot faster than usual as I felt its moist breath on my forehead. I heard it walk away and lifted my head a little bit to see if it was safe to get up. In the background, the first rays of the sun had broken through the fragile clouds. That would’ve been my shot and it was too late now. I’d dropped my tripod near the forest and my camera lay next to me in the sand. I picked myself and dusted the sand from my shirt.
“Rajasthan” said a voice from behind, startling me.
“What?” I asked, part confused part shocked, to the young lady who was walking towards me.
“Those dolls. They’re from Rajasthan” she clarified.
“Oh” I said, even as I kept looking over my shoulder and all around for signs of the creature that had launched the scathing attack on me.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
“We should get out of here. There’s some dangerous animal on the prowl here” I said as I began walking towards the benches to leave and stopped after 2 steps. What if there were more? What if it comes back? The thoughts began clouding my mind. Suddenly, a laughter dispersed the cloudy thoughts. I can’t describe why, but the laughter calmed me down. Something about it made me feel safe in the slightly scary dawn I was standing in.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Rambo! Rambo!” she yelled. And as soon as she did, an adorable, fluffy dog came running from the distance. I’d been tricked by a dog. I sheepishly kicked the sand around with my feet and turned around to retrieve my tripod. She didn’t bother stopping me to mock me as I left. My mind was blank as I picked up the bag in which I’d kept the tripod from the slightly muddy ground near the forest. Slowly, I gathered my thoughts and my bags and walked back towards the sandy shore I’d come from. It was still very early in the morning, too late to shoot the sunrise but still early enough for a shroud of serenity to engulf the region. Intermittent sounds of her laughter livened the atmosphere but didn’t disturb its tranquillity. Rambo ran in rings around her, jumping when she lifted her hands, sitting when she asked him to and rolling around in the sand when he got bored of the instructions. I got my camera out and took some shots of the islands in the background with the girl and her dog playing in the foreground. When I got closer Rambo stopped playing and ran up to me sniffing and pawing my legs and then eventually jumping on me, trying to get my empty camera bag. I held my camera out of his reach with one hand lest he scratches my precious lens and petted him with the other, adjusting the bags on my shoulder simultaneously.
“Little help please?” I said.
“Rambo. Come here.”
“Can I know your name, miss?” I asked, as politely as I knew to.
“No.” she said and began walking back towards the forest.
“I was here to shoot the sunrise. I lost the moment because of the little drama that happened courtesy your dog. I’m only asking for your name in return” I said, fully knowing how pretentious I sounded.
“The sun will rise tomorrow. I’ll make sure Rambo and I aren’t here.” She said and walked away, her hair shining in soft rays of the rising sun. It wasn’t a reply I’d anticipated and certainly wasn’t one I wanted but I wasn’t sure how to respond. With her dog walking by her side and the forests in front, I clicked another picture.
“I could give you some really nice pictures of you if you come here tomorrow” I said in an attempt to bribe her.
She stopped and turned around and said “When did you take pictures of me?”
I clicked another. “Just now”
I saw her expression change. She walked away in a huff.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to offend you” I said but it was already too late. She’d walked past the forest into town. By this time, morning walkers had started filling the space. I packed up my stuff and left for my room.
After a quick bath, I waited in my room for George to bring my morning coffee. I saw Col. Arthur walk past my door in his all-whites but there was no sign of George. I decided to have coffee at Appu’s and locked my room when George came running up the stairs with a cup of coffee in his hand.
“I didn’t find you in your room in the morning sir!” he said, panting.
“I’d gone to get some pictures at the river” I said, sitting on Gangamma’s table. I dragged the chair and gestured to George to sit down. “Do you know where the nearest photo studio is?” I asked him.
“There’s one near the airforce base in vothil sir. But they’ll charge you as much money as needed to fuel their planes and their greed. The rascals.” he said with some contempt.
“You don’t like the airforce guys?” I asked inquisitively.
George got up from his seat and walked down the stairs. “They give their lives for the country flying those metal coffin birds sir. Why wouldn’t I like them?” he said as he left, not before a solitary tear escaped his eyes. “Why wouldn’t I like them? Why wouldn’t I like them” he kept repeating, his voice fading away as he climbed down the stairs.
A voice in my head told me that it was going to be a bad day. I’d already upset the only two people I’d met in the morning and maybe it was just going to be that kind of day. I finished my coffee and carried on to south station road to make my daily phone call to Stella. The roads were slowly filling up with people- morning shoppers, people on their way to work, children on their way to school and many others. I looked towards the doll shop but it was closed as were most of the shops near it. The only establishments that were open were small pushcart hotels selling fresh idlis and coffee. They didn’t operate on fixed timings or in any location in particular. They’d stop where they found a large group of hungry people such as this one and they’d stay open till the kerosene in their stoves lasted or until no one was interested in the food anymore. The former was the case more often than not. Normally I’d have stopped for breakfast but I was anxious to find out how Stella’s review meeting the previous day had gone so I rushed towards the phone booth.
The operator dialled the number I had written on a piece of paper, a ritual we’d repeated for 2 days now.
“Hello?” she said.
“Good morrrrrrning sunshine!” I said energetically even though my body was begging for some food.
I couldn’t hear what she said thanks to the disturbance in the line.
“Hello? Hello? Stella? Can you hear me? Hello?” I said to no avail. Soon enough, the line went dead earlier than usual. I pestered the operator to try a few more times but as ever, the line wasn’t going to connect again for the rest of the day. My contempt for the government was beginning to grow with every failed call but there was barely anything I could do about it. I hadn’t wished her for the meeting and I wasn’t even able to ask her how it went. “Another person added to the list of people I’ve upset today”, I thought to myself.
I hung my head in disappointment, crossed the road and walked into Appu’s to have some breakfast. Surprisingly, Appu’s was full of people. There was absolutely no place to sit or even stand. Rahim was near the kitchen, managing service and making sure everyone got what they’d ordered for. I picked up some chatter from the people eating around me. As it turns out, they were passing through town to attend a rally organised by the freedom fighter, Tirupuchelliraman Nalikantan. He was one of those great leaders who was under the indirect tutelage of Gandhi. After independence, specifically after the passing of the mahatma, leaders like Nalikantan were working very hard to ensure that his message would dictate Independent India’s governing. I spoke to a couple of people at Appu’s and found out that the rally was being organised just on the outskirts of Seempuram that evening. For me, this was a gold mine discovery. A political rally with the beautiful hillside of Seemapuram in the background. I had my idlis and coffee and went back to the paramount to prepare for the evening photoshoot.
I met a fuming Gangamma near the entrance.
“Is something wrong?” I asked her.
“That queen of Bombay is going to feel the heat of my palm on her right cheek” she said and simply walked away.
I didn’t understand what she was saying and she didn’t seem too interested in explaining so I ignored her and went to my room. As I opened the lock, I noticed that the room to my right was open. I hadn’t seen anyone there for 3 days even though I knew, from Gangamma’s impressive register, that someone stayed in that room. I knocked on the door and pushed it open a little more to peep in. There was no sound from the inside. I took one step inside the room and looked around.
“Thief! Thief! Help! Thief!” someone shouted from near the common bathroom at the end of the corridor.
I jumped around looking for the intruder but there was no one except the lady who was shouting at the end of the corridor. I realised that she’d mistaken me for a thief trying to break-in to her room.
“I’m not a thief ma’am. I stay in this room” I explained, pointing to my room.
A couple of lawyers had come running from the floor above to check the reason for the frantic screams. I reassured them that everything was in order.
“I’m Peter Matthews” I said, offering a hand shake.
“I didn’t ask” she said haughtily and walked right past me and into her room, locking it behind her.
I stood there for a while wondering why I was having such a terrible day and then went inside and started cleaning my lenses.
To be continued…