My car heaved and lurched as it raced over pothole-ridden roads. The good thing about these jolts was their democratic nature. Young or old, famous or nondescript, every single soul in cars, on bikes and in buses rose and fell rhythmically with the road’s ups and downs. Idly, I wished I could capture them mid-motion, in a photograph. People gazing rapturously down at their phones, people with their noses pressed to their windows, people with arms and dupattas dangling outside autos and people with handkerchiefs pressed to their noses to insulate from the smoke. “Do you enjoy photography?” I asked Shayan, who sat with his hands crossed in his lap, the picture of docile obedience. “Not really.” “Why not? Aren’t art and photography closely related to each other?” I persisted. His hands uncrossed themselves and a glitter appeared in his eye. “There is a fundamental difference between the two,” he said earnestly, leaning towards me while I continued to deny him, peering at the traffic instead. “Art can never be duplicated. Yes, we have excellent forgeries but there will always be a flaw somewhere, tiny though it may be. But with photography, it is possible to duplicate a picture with the very same composition and time of the day.” I smirked. Shayan was starting to become predictable now. “So you’re saying that visual art is superior to photography. All artistes believe their discipline is superior to everything else – be they photographers, painters or musicians,” I remarked. He shrugged. “I don’t know about that. But I do know that my work has to be exclusive.” I took the car a few inches ahead. “You discount too much. There are so many technicalities involved in photography. I’m sure a professional will be able to provide many counter-arguments.” Being an amateur photographer, I was aware of terms like shutter and aperture but I knew better than to expound on their intricacies.
There is no particular trait common to all camera-friendly individuals. Television anchors may be extroverts, introverts, aggressive or peaceful people. But none of that matters when the director gives his cue. So I had no way of predicting the sort of relationship Shayan would develop with the camera. “Were you aware of the events that led to flat 103’s owners moving out when you rented it?” Oddly, I felt as though I was in a courtroom. We waited to see how the witness would respond. “No, I was not. I was in a hurry to find a suitable flat and this one sounded perfect. I was hardly inclined to ask the owners why they moved out.” He could have been talking to me on his couch, a mug of coffee cradled in his hands. We had hit the jackpot. Shayan was that rare commodity who was totally oblivious to the camera. “So you think that tragedies should have no impact over the value of real estate?” I stayed out of the frame, this being a byte and not a full-fledged interview. Shayan shrugged. “I don’t really have an opinion. But I do believe that every place has its own vibe. If you like it, then you choose the house. If not, you don’t. That, coupled with practical factors like location and size make the decision for you.” I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to use that. It sounded too whimsical. But personally, I agreed with Shayan. I asked him to stay for lunch but he declined, as I had known he would. “Shayan,” I said suddenly when he was about to descend the staircase. “Thank you.” We stood there, a few feet apart, our eyes entwined in a smile. It was a good moment.
One Saturday evening, I woke up from a disturbed afternoon nap to find that I had slept through my jogging time. Hurriedly, I pulled on the Nike pants and sports bra that made me feel particularly sexy. I opened the door and found two ghosts staring me right in the eye. “Mr and Mrs Ganguly,” I said at last. They looked tired and gaunt, as though the sun denied them its daily lustre. “What a surprise,” I added, unable to prefix the surprise with ‘pleasant’. Mrs Ganguly’s face twisted into a parody of a smile. “We thought we’d collect this month’s rent in person; see how things were faring around here,” she explained. I wondered if they had seen Shayan’s paintings of their dead daughter. “No one is answering the door though. Do you know where Shayan is?” Mr Ganguly asked. I was relieved. I didn’t think their weary spirits could bear another shock. “I’m sorry, I have no idea. Would you like to come in for some tea?” I hoped they would refuse my offer. The Gangulys were nice enough people but after those unsettling dreams, I needed the release of a good run. And then it occurred to me that perhaps Suvarna was haunting their psyche too. So I held the door wide open and allowed the Gangulys to walk in. “Please make yourself comfortable,” I said mechanically. I brewed the tea in my kitchen, wondering if Mrs Ganguly noticed the peeling walls or the way the sunrays filtered through my curtains. I imagined them looking into the distance vacantly, each lost in their own memories. I had an overactive imagination. The tea came to a boil.
“We were lucky to find a tenant for this flat despite...” Of course he couldn’t complete the sentence. “Suvarna’s death?” I wanted to say cruelly. After all, they had conveniently left it out while leasing the flat to Shayan. But instead, I smiled. “It’s nice to have a neighbour again.” I wondered how to broach the subject of Suvarna’s haunting. Were the Gangulys superstitious? ‘Aren’t all Indians?’ my alter ego smirked back at me. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about,” I began with a deep breath. “Do you sometimes feel like you can sense Suvarna’s presence? In your dreams perhaps?” Mrs Ganguly gasped. “What are you talking about?” her husband asked, sounding a tad defensive. “I dream about her,” I admitted. And then I noticed that Mrs Ganguly had begun sobbing. Her husband noticed at the same time. “Look what you’ve done!” The man was furious. This wasn’t going well at all. “I’m sor...” I began but they were already leaving. “We should never have come back here,” Mr Ganguly snarled before banging the door into my face. My door, in fact. I wasn’t any closer to solving the mystery of Suvarna’s haunting. But I had spared the Gangulys the trauma of witnessing their daughter age on canvas. At least, that’s how I rationalised Mrs Ganguly’s tears away.
(To be continued)