The photographer also gave us his final decision. “I not taking another photograph. Now you leave. Come back day after tomorrow—what! On Sunday.”
Incensed by his refusal I said, “How dare you say no?”
“The hell with your decision.”
“Watch it, mishter. Watch language. I not your father’s shervant!”
“What?” I stepped forward, bringing my hand in a semicircle to give him a hard one across the jaw when my eyes caught sight of a girl standing in front of a man who sat behind the glass counter near its edge. My body suddenly went numb, as if buried under tons of ice. All the tension and fury flew out of me as air does from a punctured balloon. Helpless, I looked around in embarrassment. Seeing this sudden change in me, Saeed and Shah Ji, like perfect fools, looked around to find the reason. When they saw at the edge of the counter what I had seen, they understood everything. And, like me, they too began looking around, slightly ashamed, pretending that nothing unusual had happened.
She must have been the daughter of one of the well-to-do families who shop at Elphi. Wow! What a shapely figure! Breasts like wine goblets placed upside down! Like two restless doves! So full, so perfect! Eyes that could kill with one look! A thin line of collyrium coming out of the corners of the eyes and arching like a taut bow! And the spell of the eyes themselves—Lord! A sleeveless shirt of Chinese silk sticking to her body, as though it was her very skin! Every contour, all arches, curves—everything fully visible! She was leaning on the counter, her elbows resting on the glass, holding her doll-like face in her cupped hands, and saying something to the man sitting behind the counter. The man moved the phone forward towards her. When she reached out to dial, we could see a thin layer of fine powder covering the shadow of her clean-shaven underarm. We stared at her, dazed. Our eyes were glued to her body, watching her every move. When she picked up the handset from the cradle, our hearts throbbed fitfully. Lord knows who that lucky fellow was, lucky to be the object of her smiles and good cheer!
She dialed the number. A few minutes later, while staring at us she spoke into the phone, “Hello, Vikki.” We all stood motionless, everyone feeling extremely embarrassed, each one only concerned about what impression he had made on her. Perhaps she thought we were some uncouth, illiterate, uncultured cads, coming to blows with the photographer.
Avoiding each other’s eyes, each one of us was staring at her, each wishing he were that lucky Vikki.
“Yes, mishters,” the photographer spoke, “come two day after tomorrow. Try second print. Will be thousand times besht!”
I turned back and looked at him in utter helplessness. A vague yet very clever smile, the smile of a seasoned man, played on his slightly parted lips. His eyes showed his age, the experience of a whole lifetime, the illumination of a veteran’s business acumen.
“Yes, yes. Try making it good,” we said, almost in unison. And after casting a final, wistful look at the girl, we stepped out of the studio.
On our way back we had an intense talk about her. Our keen imagination had already stripped the last stitch of clothing from her body. We visualized her body with all its sharp lines, in all its glory peering through the fine, transparent silk. Feasting on that image, we gratified all the gargantuan desires of our dissolute minds.
About an hour later, when the lights on the Elphi had begun to twinkle and when that lusty agitation in our minds had subsided some, we began arguing. We were blaming each other and asking why, on what basis, really, had we agreed to accept that worthless picture from the photographer.
Then, suddenly, in the shadows of the flashing neon signs, I began thinking: that shrewd photographer—he really knew his business.
Muhammad Umar Memon retired after 38 years of teaching at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is now Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies and Urdu Literature. He is a scholar, critic, writer and translator. Some of his published Urdu anthologies of fiction include “Tale of the Old Fisherman”, “Domains of Fear and Desire”, and “Color of Nothingness”. Penguin will publish “The Occult” as his translation of Naiyer Masud’s “Seemiya” in 2013. He also guest-edited and translated a special issue on Urdu Fiction from India for Words Without Borders.