It was not many decades ago that I was shot but since I live to tell the tale, it is only fair to reveal that the weapon of assault was a grumpy black box sporting a round lens on one end and a black tent on the other, mounted on wooden legs. Mistake me not; it was a long-lasting embarrassment rather than a moment of glory for a heart not yet ten years old. Of course, I had never heard of Ansel Adams and his view-cameras then, nor were Yosemite or Yellowstone Park part of my geographical ken.
Recalling it all, I vividly remember the fidgety man, often found lurking with his contraption near the old primary school. Monochrome mugs of matinee idols hung to its sides like a spider’s web, seducing the next victim. A tall red stool to perch the subjects stood close like a faithful sidekick. It was a rewarding experience to watch him crouching into that tent, buried above waist, his head scandalously prying the backside of the instrument. Half way through his veiled voodoo, a hand would slowly slither out to signal the subject to freeze. Digging himself out after a few more minutes he’d produce a pale square card bearing approximate shapes of the bemused customers. There would be often a shriek of disbelief, or a sharp gasp from a woman, to be followed by a prolonged debate about the ownership of the face. It would invariably leave me wondering how some people could allow such things to happen to them, unless they were country toads come to roam the city, buy t-shirts and bell-bottomed-trousers and watch Bobby in air-cooled talkies.
The man was a roadside photographer, I learnt soon, and better acknowledged as the Jhatpatwallah. And like most things associated with streets, a brush with him wasn’t flattering to one’s reputation. Discerning folks just stepped in ‘New Bombay Studio’ or the fashionably expensive ‘RK Arts’ to get their portraits or passport-sized photographs done. Nobody was sure what this pedestrian artist did under that tent and whether indeed he shot images as he claimed. Maybe he had a bunch of old photographs stacked up somewhere in that wooden box and all he did was to pry out the closest match of the unsuspecting customer. Why else someone need a hood?
Admittedly however, Jhatpatwallah was known to deliver quick results. Also, he seemed to be the sole answer to the photographic pursuits of the less fortunate. Like the boy in the dimmer section of my old school who had to be shot by him for the school identity-card when he lost the bunch he had received from a studio. It turned out to be the lad’s ticket to infamy in the aftermath of which no one dared exchange pleasantries with him for an entire year!
I had been recently moved to a new school that was a fair distance from home and it was unanimously decided to get a monthly pass of the State Transport bus service for me. Our all-knowing Leninist neighbour Mr Chatterji, who’d rather have me walk down every day, hinted darkly that a photograph may be needed for a pass. Father had an urgent business in Lucknow and since he was leaving the same day as the school opened, he thought it important to resolve my transport woes quickly. Off we went to New Bombay Studio, little suspecting the drama that would unfold soon. The guy there looked at me balefully, shaking his head like a sage. There was no way he could deliver a photograph in one day unless we were willing to pay the cost of an entire roll of negatives. Father, being the sensible man he was, quickly ruled out the possibility. We must use the services of a roadside photographer in that case, he pronounced. I couldn’t believe what was happening! A dull whine started escaping my throat but the two men remained impervious in their wisdom. Having summarily decided my fate, father led me out of the studio, holding my arm firmly. I did manage to register my feeble protest soon but it was brushed away quickly. What was there to a bus pass? No degrees of badly done photos were going to reduce the value of a document. Anyway, it was not going to show up on something critical like my school records, was it? The finality of having to perch on the red stool of Jhatpatwallah started to sink slowly in my fast fluttering heart.
My father found a rickshaw who agreed to take us just to the spot in question. Now, I was not one of those who buckled and remembered Gods when faced with a Mathematics test but prayers in such dire moments were quite in order. I squeezed my eyes hard and sent a wave of prayers begging for a sudden earthquake, a tempest, a cloud burst or a flash flood that would scuttle the plans of a determined father. The moron of a rickshaw puller drove as if possessed. Sadly but surely, the doom drew nearer and nearer. And before long, we were standing before the very man and his machine! Desperate, I changed the line of prayers: Please dear Gods, could you please stop everything human coming this way while a father watched the honour of his own progeny being disrobed by a quack-photographer!
I don’t remember well the fruits of my alternate prayer. And I don’t remember how long I had to sit on that bizarre red stool with clenched teeth and fists. I was advised to keep my eyes open for the session yet all I could see was a blur. But I could swear I had more than the regular share of spectators, what with women and girls joining in for good measure! And to confound the matters, the clown simply decided to vanish under his sack for an eternity. Eventually, he emerged grumbling incoherently, seriously upset about something. After some truly long minutes, I set my sight on a sepia square from which a vaguely familiar primate stared back at me.
The mind was a whirlwind of questions. How many people had seen it happening? How many of them were known to me? Will that image remain pasted on my bus pass for as long as I lived? Raw emotions raged as we proceeded to the roadways office for the second leg of our operation. I was feeling a strange lightness in my head and either the road under my feet or my feet over the road had started wobbling. Soon we entered the pale brown office that urgently needed a whitewash. Weaving our way through a maze of ugly halls and corners, hauling up the dark, stained staircase, we arrived at the counter which offered to issue monthly passes. The small opening was shielded by a dull blue grill and a sour looking man sat behind it crushing beetle leaves in his tightly sealed mouth. Having heard out the urgency of our business, the man tilted his head to a side and puckering up his lips, enquired my details. He pulled out a yellow rectangular card from a rack and having filled the columns in a vicious scrawl, asked my father to pay an amount of Rupees twelve and fifty paisa. Father pushed in the change along with my freshly minted photograph through the grill. The man picked up the money and carefully arranged it in the drawer underneath. I could see a wicked smile quiver under his pursed lips as the man struggled to control his laughter at the sight of my photograph. But he just flicked it back to us with his nail, producing a guttural noise that said ‘no photographs were needed for children under twelve’.