By Muhammad Umar Memon
Translated from the Urdu by Faruq Hassan and the author
“Why are you making all this fuss? Don’t you see that the photograph is out of focus? Even a blind man can tell that!” Saeed, the most balanced and centered and calm person among us all, tried to explain as rationally as he possibly could to the ugly photographer who, undisturbed by it all, went busily on retouching some negative. Saeed’s words couldn’t have fallen on deafer ears. For us this calamity, the ruin of the picture, was far more earth-shaking than, say, the Agadir earthquake, or the fear of the Super Power confrontation in Laos and Cuba, or even the possible outbreak of the Third World War. The monstrous, misshapen photographer, on the other hand, went on calmly retouching the negative—as though God Almighty, the Lord of the heavens and earth, had created nothing besides his pencil with the two-inch-long pointed tip and that damned negative. Not even once did he bother to raise his head and look at us.
His prodigious indifference, his colossal equanimity truly burnt me up. I picked up our group photograph and slammed it down on the glass-top counter and roared: “You think the money we gave you was ill-gotten? Don’t you see the picture is so bloody out of focus that none of us is even recognizable? Who allowed you to become a photographer, eh?”
When I slammed the picture down, my hand hit the glass-top of the counter. The slap disrupted the photographer’s composure, but only for the briefest moment. Shaken a bit, he paused for a second. Inadvertently, his pencil registered a little more pressure than usual on the negative, but that was all. It was as if he had physically absorbed the shock of my little outburst. But he still didn’t bother to look up. He pushed back the thick glasses that had slid down to the tip of his nose. Then he picked up his cigarette from the ashtray, took a couple of drags, coughed a little, shifted a bit and resumed his work.
This threw me into a fit of rage. It was a rare opportunity by all counts, one that we could be rightly proud of. The chairman of our Society had commissioned to have a group photograph taken after the farewell party which the junior grad students had thrown for our graduating M.A. class. He had also agreed to pay for the photograph out of the Society’s funds. For my own part, I had managed to persuade Shah Ji, the vice president of the Society, to have the words “B.A. (Hons.), Departmental Representative” printed after my name on the photograph, so that after I was finished with the University I would at least have a memento of my life there—well, you know, something to brag about.
It was not exactly that I was dying to serve the promising sons and daughters of the nation that I had run for D.R. two years in a row. The purpose of this whole exercise simply was to get an insignia for my blazer pocket and a pin for my tie. I was looking forward to wearing the blazer and the tie during the winters. Then I would have proudly walked down the interminable hallways of the University, shrugging my shoulders every now and then, looking busy and important. But what could I do now? That whole purpose had gone down the drain. Success had eluded me at the very last moment. The first time I decided to run for the position of the D.R., the elections were delayed for so long that when I finally got around to asking for the insignia, I found out that all such tokens of self-glorification had already been doled out. The second time, the president of the Students’ Union had ended up in jail for his alleged involvement in some political affair. As a result, all the activities of the Union were suspended indefinitely. The prospect of receiving the insignia and the pin had again evaporated. And now that I was about to earn the small honor of having my photograph taken, the wheel of fortune had decisively turned against me. To Saeed the loss was not a serious one. He had many times been captain of soccer teams, both in college and the University; he already had a whole pile of blazer insignias and group photographs. And as for Shah Ji, well he was a typical Pathan from the Frontier for whom the only things that truly mattered were commitment to studies and the display of the typically northern hospitality.
In other words, this was important only for me. That was why after promising Shah Ji and Saeed to meet them at seven o’clock at the photographer’s, I had rushed there. I was the first to arrive and had asked this dolt of a photographer to show me our group photograph. One look at the print and I knew I had been exposed to the full fury of a powerful earthquake; it had leveled everything and dashed to the ground all that was valuable and meaningful in my life. All those rosy dreams of a future were shattered: bottles of soda pop began to explode in my brain. This stupid, ugly photographer had snatched away whatever little glory I had hoped to gain. The photograph was so fuzzy that I felt like smashing his head with the heavy paperweight lying on the pile of memos on his showcase. I could only grind my teeth in anger and wait, restlessly, for the arrival of Saeed and Shah Ji. Three heads, I thought, would be better than one.
They too were just as shocked to see the photograph. Shah Ji was, perhaps, also worried that the chairman might doubt his integrity. He might think that Shah Ji had made a shady deal with some third-rate photographer in order to siphon off the Society’s funds.
“Mister, what kind of a picture is this? It’s so dim …”
“This print not for you. This only a tesht copy. Still to do re-touching on it. Then you see. It will be thousand times besht—what?”
“What are you talking about, man? Are you trying to rip us off or what? This picture … and becoming best? Not a chance!” Shah Ji said, astonished. “There’s no way in the world this picture will become any better. Come on, you must be joking!”
“Then is it my fault? Ice-factory wall was casting shadow in cafe. I told you make the photo here in studio. You disagreed. Didn’t listen. Now if there was shadow in cafe lawn, then, my friend, is not my fault.”
“What kind of a photographer are you?” I roared. “Why didn’t you tell us clearly that the photograph would come out this bad?”
“No photographer can doing that. You have to take this picture—what! What will I do with it?”
“Why will we have to take it?” I shouted. “I can’t figure this fellow out. I don’t know what he means by saying we have to take it. Listen, you! Our money wasn’t ill-gotten that we can waste it on a picture like this. You claim to be a photographer and you don’t even know whether the picture will turn out all right. How long did you say you’ve been doing photography? Thirty years? Twenty?”
Seeing my dreams shattered, I lost patience. I cannot recall how much abuse I must have heaped on the fellow. He however was not perturbed by any of that. Inching forward his pumpkin-like distended belly, he continued retouching the negative. On the other hand, I, like one who suffers a loss in indigence, had been transformed because of my grief into the living image of Schopenhauer’s philosophy.
“Listen,” I said to him, “you will have to take another picture. You know damn well we are students. Even normally we are hard up. And look at you—you own such a big studio. If one of your photographs turns out bad, surely you can afford to take another one. But we cannot afford to pay you an extra penny.”
“How you can blame me for bad picture?”
“I don’t know how we can or cannot, but I do know that if you cause us any more trouble, I am going to bring all the students from the University down here. One charge by them and your whole studio will be in shambles. What do you say to that, brother?”
But my threat had no effect on him whatsoever. It was like trying to make an etching on water. Without raising his head he said with perfect serenity, “Mishter, why you making these khali-peeli threat? I told you, not my fault. Not take another picture.”
“Why the hell not?” I thundered.
Suddenly it struck me that from his accent he seemed to be a Gujrati. Why not try to reason with him in his native tongue? It might work. So I asked him in Gujrati, “Where are you from, mister?”
He was startled. He readjusted his glasses. The corners of his fat drooping lips, coated with layers of sealing wax like paste from his incessant pan-chewing, suddenly fluttered like the flesh of a newly slaughtered goat. He understood my attempt to trick him. Realizing that this community-relationship would cost him dearly, he plainly lied his way out of my trap, and banking on his favorite expletive (“What!”) answered, “I from Karachi—what!”
“Are you ever going to come straight, man?”
“What can I say, mishter? You people using force on me. I told you. Come day after tomorrow. Try other print. Will be thousands times better.”
“But this print is so hazy that nothing except our ties are visible. The next might become a little bit better, but it will never be perfect,” Saeed said, disappointed. “There is hardly any hope!”
“Mishter, give it try. I make it really good—what!”
“Well, it’s the same old story. No shopkeeper ever finds fault with his wares, and the whole world is yellow to a jaundiced person. Come on, man, be reasonable.” Saeed was still intent on bringing the photographer round with politeness, but I was enraged by the continuous cawing of the man.
“Stop this nonsense and return our money. We didn’t give you an advance for this kind of rip-off.”
He didn’t bother to answer me but kept busy with his retouching.
“Well then, what will it be?” I tried to get a final word from him but Saeed pulled me back by the shoulders. He moved forward and said sternly, “Mister, you’ll have to take the picture again!”
The photographer’s petty-mindedness came to the surface. He threw his brush-holding hand in the air, describing a curve with it, and said, “Oh, yes? Why I take the picture again?”
“Because you have spoiled the earlier one.”
“Who says I spoil it? Are you a photographer—what?” he hissed loudly.
“And are you? You who don’t even know whether a picture will turn out well or fuzzy?”
“In Firdaus Cafeteria no photographer can be taking clearer picture than this.”
“Because ice-factory wall shadow and because on back wall was a creeper.”
“But was your brain asleep at that time? Why didn’t you warn us?”
“Oh, stop my brain-hammering. Come day after tomorrow and try second print.”
“And who will be responsible if the second one turned out just as awful?”
“I am not. You think that also bad!”
“Are you out of your mind? We haven’t been bitten by a mad dog to go bothering a photographer if he takes a good picture.” I couldn’t take any more of this arguing. I pushed Saeed away and moved near the photographer and said, “You finish your job honestly or you’ll have to deal with the whole University crowd in your studio.” Then I announced my decision as categorically as I could, “You will have to take the picture again and we shall not pay you an extra penny. That’s it.”
Shah Ji, who had been quietly watching all these goings-on, said, “This dolt doesn’t give a damn, does he.”
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.