My father loved making pictures. There are cupboards in our house stuffed full of them. Assorted albums, haphazard rolls of film, squares of yellowing paper jumbled together. Glimpses of forgotten decades captured in black and white. Bellbottoms and political revolution. Football on the maidan and guitarists on the footpaths of Calcutta. Pranksters and drama queens, friends and ex-flames, and two familiar people in the middle of that universe who were very much in love. I only know that they would never admit it in those exact words.
My father photographed time. A time of leisurely days and slow, elegant glamour. None of this undignified pushing and jostling for elbow room in buses and pujo pandals. Friends were found in paras, not malls. Ambassadors, not yet monopolized by fat balding politicians, meandered placidly here and there. Cha and early morning news on dadu's radio. No tuition for your children, they'll manage to pass and what more can you want? Coffee House, not CCD. Kite flying was an art form.
The stories came alive in the pictures. And I fell in love with the romance of those days. Longed to see a world that has perhaps died out forever. Dealing with early childhood disappointment, I turned for consolation to the only witnesses, once my father's accomplices. One Olympus and a Canon SLR. Picked up years ago at Muslim Bhai's black market shop on Esplanade for what was then a carefully hoarded fortune. The shop is still there if you care to look, but now it pays taxes.
My father was then in his first year at Jadavpur, clean shaven, underweight, one of five boys in the whole of the English Department. Now he insists he is forty-five going on sixty, brings his work home in brown paper files, and forgets what little he reads.
It's been a long many years but the cameras are still here, compact beautiful creatures, nestled in airtight containers, polished once a week, kept out in the mild sunlight to drive the dust out of their joints. They're antiques now, I'm told, worth anything only to collectors. But I still hold them carefully, screw in the required telephoto lens, gently twist the dials with my left hand. Adjusting aperture, focus and shutter speed until a chunk of hazy light coalesces into a picture. Right index finger poised over the shutter. Wait while the indicator hovers, then falls into place, and-
The photo is different from what it was supposed to be. My father mutters about how an Olympus is not a beginner's camera anyway and that it's hard finding studios that develop film anymore. Back to polishing while I pull 0ut more tomes from the bookshelf. Plough on through composition study and polaroid lenses, eager to shake off the tag of 'beginner'.
To this day I've never been able to use my father's cameras. For class trips, holidays and birthdays, I rely on the digicam and its robotic loyalty, its ability to zoom in and freeze smiles as the occasion demands. The SLRs wait huddled close together. Unresponsive. Faintly dead. Maybe my touch is not mature enough, my eye weak or my hand still unsteady. But I think, more than anything else, it's the light that leaves them cold. The strange, hard light of a new world. They don't recognise this light. They've seen better days.