The Old Picture

I was busy correcting the answer papers. Shaking my head in disbelief after reading ridiculous answers. The notification light on my phone started blinking. I opened it. Someone had shared an old picture in our family group. It was taken many summers ago when we got together for the holidays at our grandmother’s house. My cousins and I were huddled together over a sofa or was it a chair, it’s not clear. We all had that expression – the one people have in between clicking photos. One is getting ready to smile. One is peeking what the other is doing. One is getting ready to show ‘V’ sign behind another’s head. One is staring with a blank face at the camera. It was natural. Real. I was happy back then. Everyone was.

I look at our old albums when I am home. My dad sits beside me and points at a guy and asks, “Do you remember him?” I wouldn’t know. He tells me what present that uncle got me many years ago. He points to another aunt and tells me she passed away recently. I look at her photo again. She was younger then. Smiling and completely oblivious to the ticking time.

I look at my brother’s photos. It’s his birthday. Mother is helping him cut the cake. My brother has almost disappeared in the folds of my mother’s saree. There is a picture of a tricycle with ribbons on it. I ask why there are not many photos of my birthdays.

There is a picture of my mother ironing clothes. This was before me or my brother was born. My father is taking the photo. She is blushing. Looking sideways at the camera trying to hide the smile. The saree she is wearing has become old now. Torn into many pieces and used as a hand-cloth when we clean the house.

I see a photo of me and my brother watching TV. We are sitting on a sofa. I liked that sofa. I loved the texture of it. I used to roll all over just to feel it. There is a photo of me eating chapati with my mother sitting beside me. I still remember its taste.

In one of the photos, I am sharing my birthday cake with my cousin. My T-shirt sleeves are going beyond my elbows. I was in oversized clothes in almost all of my photos. My mother brought me larger size clothes so that I can use it for a longer time. Mother and I would go to a wholesale shop. I search in a huge pile of clothes. I like one. Mother sees it and asks the salesman to give the same in a bigger size.

Mother sees a photo of me and asks- “Where is that yellow t-shirt? Are you still wearing it? You should wear it more. It looks good on you.” I am getting ready to go somewhere she comes holding that yellow t-shirt on a hanger. “Wear it!”, she says. I say, “It’s too flashy.” She goes away. Another day I wear it without her telling me. She sees it. Gives an approving smile and disappears into the kitchen.

Mother never had friends outside the family. There is an old picture of her college friend. I ask her where is that friend. She says she is living somewhere nearby. My mother had once met her, years back, at a bus stop. The friend was holding a baby. Standing there they talked for a long time. They said goodbyes. After that, they never got together.

With oily hair and sweaty faces, the cousins are lined up in front of the house for a photo. I don’t recognize the landscape anymore. There are lesser trees now. New houses have come up. But the well, from which we used to draw water for drinking while playing cricket, is still there.

Our teacher had asked a question for the class. If there was a fire and you can save only one thing from your house. What would you carry? She was expecting us to carry cash or money or gold. But we were kids back then. Nobody cared about those things. The class clown told he would carry an underwear. Another told he would carry God’s photos. The studious one told he would take the school bag. But one girl told she would carry the old photo albums.

There is a class photo. I am sitting beside someone who was close to me. We ate brinjal curry from the same tiffin box. But I have never spoken to him for years.

There are more birthday photos of my brother. I wasn’t born then. I see the younger versions of my parents, uncles and aunts. Younger, stronger and healthier. It’s night. Many have travelled from far away places to attend that event. How will they go back? It’s late. Buses are rare. Maybe they will stay back. I see my mother is busy making everyone eat the cake. It’s dark outside the windows and I cannot see what’s it like out there. I imagine an uncle holding a torch and walking towards the house to attend the function. He is walking on the narrow path amidst the areca nut trees. Through the paddy fields where years later my cousins and I would spend our evenings running barefoot. Where I would ride cycles. Where I would peek into the well during the rainy season to see the tortoise. I wonder how was it back then.