This is my favourite picture of me. I am about 5 years old in this, and I have no memory of this photograph being taken. It was taken in the corridor of our first-floor house in Hanumanthanagar. Judging by my expression, I gather that my grandfather has taken this picture.
My grandfather had a very strict idea of how portraits should be shot: dead center compositions
against humble backgrounds. He’d order his subjects to offer a small smile that wouldn’t alter the general structure of the face, and he wasn’t big on goofy grins. My stance here (even to this day) is my general understanding of formalness.
At home, photo-shooting meant an occasion of dignified behaviour. Photographs were expensive and we were allowed just one chance at committing something to forever. So it called for us to make it a picture that we – both photographer, and photographe-e – could cherish. Given I am wearing my favourite plastic-pearls necklace and a stone-encrusted sticker bottu, there was probably a small-scale festival (not a Gowri-Ganesha; perhaps an Ayudha Pooja) in progress.
I love this picture for the details of me that it includes in its confines, and outside of it.
I have never been comfortable being photographed. From a very young age, I knew that a photograph was some moment of truth that had been frozen forever – and so my face, my expressions, my demeanor in them were all very true things, and I was accountable for them all. Growing up, I entertained the rationalization that my moments were moments, fleeting, and to dignify them with the gift of eternity, as with a photograph, was somewhat pointless. Not much of what I do, and what we are doing, deserves a photograph.
And yet, this is a photograph of me. A photograph I love, because it conveys to me the absolute trust that I had surrendered to the able hands and eye of my grandfather. That as always, he knew what he was doing. He knew what wealth he was saving. And I was right.
I savour old pictures of me, my family, friends, even strangers. But what I enjoy even more, is asking
questions about the details in them. Is the suit you’re wearing in it, yours? Did your mother knit you that sweater? Was there a fight before this picture? Why are you standing in height order? Do you also remember how the straw mat you’re sitting on would leave itchy imprints on your bottom and on your thighs?
Because of this picture, I remember a tiny me filling up a medium-sized bucket, leaning over to one side to counter its weight, carrying it carefully, without splashing, a mug bobbing inside, and pouring a measure of water into each pot in this garden here. I remember dribbling drops, like a libation, over the heads of money plant creepers. I remember the hiss of thirsty earth leaching water, and me gripping my toes against the resistance of wet rubber slippers. I remember this being my duty before I bounded off to go and play.
I don’t know if my grandfather wanted to capture all of this. But I’m grateful he captured whatever he did.
We are seldom the heroes of our youngest photographs. We had no say in who we were in them. And yet, years later when we look at them, we find our own versions of us in there, lurking in unlikely places. Maybe in the things that the photographer chose to leave out. Maybe still in the frame, just out of focus.
For example, there is enough in here to remind me just how much I hate crotons.