Cover artwork by Ginevra Cave.
Translated from Tamil by Prof. S. Thillainayagam
This event, a true story, happened just after the end of World War II in a remote village in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
A photographer entered our village one day to disturb its peace and quiet. Children rushed to surround him as if he were a cotton candy seller. The photographer, wearing a green cap and carrying a box fitted to a tripod stand, walked slowly like a bird, looking around him all along the way, and finally entered the house next to ours. Everyone followed him into the house, but not me. Though not even three years old, I had been indoctrinated to think of that neighbor as our enemy.
I stood outside the cadjan fence of their house and watched everything through a hole. I had an annan (elder brother) who walked as straight as a stick. Scabies had infested his legs from knee to foot, leaving not even a tiny bit of skin unmarked. Because of that he limped a little. He was five years older than me, so his eagerness to watch everything was five times greater than mine. Still, he controlled his craving to enter the house and joined me in looking through the hole in the fence.
The green cap man was the first photographer ever to visit our village, and he had come all the way from town to photograph Kitnan, our neighbor’s son, who was exactly my age. Not only young boys and girls crowded in but also old men and women came tottering and filled the house. They were all eager to witness the grand event of the boy posing for a photograph.
Sunrays dappled Kitnan’s skin. He was wearing a collared shirt and shorts with suspenders. His hair was combed smoothly with oil and shone black and bright. The photographer observed him through the camera’s lens for a long time. Then he cast a displeased look at the sun. He remained in that bent position for some time. He did not straighten up until he was convinced that he had adequately demonstrated the difficulties of taking a photograph. He walked up to Kitnan and tilted his head right and then left to get the correct angle, and then he returned to the camera. Finally, when we heard cheers and claps, we understood the photoshoot had come to an end.
When my annan and I returned home, elaborate accounts of the photoshoot had already reached our parents’ ears. Though I was not even old enough to attend preschool, I clearly understood the torment it had caused my amma and appa. The jealousy they felt at not being the first to have a photograph taken in their house ran deep. Since I was Kitnan’s age, Appa decided the best thing was to take a similar photo of me, thereby restoring the dignity of a family that had suffered a serious setback in our village.
The quarrel between our house and the neighbor started over a trivial matter. The culprit was our tamarind tree. Though the tree stood in our yard, it spread all its high-yielding branches over the neighbour’s house, supplying them with juicy pods. The branches in our area refused to shoot out even a single pod. Our relatives, who used to counsel Appa regularly, told him that if he chopped off the branches hanging over our neighbor’s yard, the branches on our side would begin to yield. My appa should have had this idea even before they gave him the tip. Unable to control his frustration any longer, one day he cut down those offensive branches, inaugurating this intractable enmity.
When Kitnan was photographed by that tripod-mounted camera, the whole village witnessed the event and celebrated it as if it were a festival. But my annan and I alone were denied that wonderful opportunity. My parents simply could not stomach the popularity this photoshoot brought to our neighbour. I was shaken to see a tear clinging to the tip of my mother’s nose. I didn’t know where it had come from since she had kept her weeping silent.
All the arrangements were completed for the arrival of the photographer, scheduled for three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. Appa had personally met the photographer in town and paid an advance. Amma was getting me ready to ward off the insult the family had suffered. My parents were determined that my photograph should be better than the one taken next door.
An obstacle came our way from an unexpected quarter. My eight-year-old annan, who used to sleep until ten in the morning, woke up very early on that important Saturday. He began to pester Amma, asking her over and over what color shorts and shirt he should wear for the photograph. Of course, the rivalry was between Kitnan and me, and Annan was very well aware of it. Still, he insisted that he should also figure in the picture.
Amma paid him no mind. She focused all her attention on me. She bathed me with great care, dressed me in a starched white shirt reserved for special occasions, combed my hair, and put a tilak on my forehead. She lifted me up with both her hands and planted me on the floor, as if I were a tree, with instructions not to move. Annan was not ready to give up. He whined for her to comb his hair also. He held one end of her sari tightly in his fingers and followed her wherever she went. I stayed put, wondering who would win.
Amma, unable to bear his nagging any longer, snatched the sari end out of his hand and shouted at him, “What for you are hanging around me? Only your brother is going to be photographed. Stop getting on my nerves.” Annan stood dumbfounded. His mouth opened and remained so. It looked like he was about to sing a song, but instead he started crying loudly. Tears began to fill his open mouth, like a pot getting filled with water.
Then Annan suddenly changed his tactics. As blind people do, he put his washed white shirt and blue shorts on his outstretched hands and followed Amma wherever she went as if that was the job entrusted to him. But Amma never turned to him.
When Appa came home, Annan expected him to do something to fulfil his request. For his part, Appa held Annan’s shirt, pulled him toward him, and then pushed him away. Annan fell on the ground and rolled around. I feared he might crack his neck. Wailing nonstop, and covering himself in dust, he never forgot to shout that he also should be photographed.
Finally Appa said, “All right, stop crying. We will photograph you too.” His wailing stopped as if it switched off. He got up smiling and wiped his eyes with his shirt collar. Still, his eyelids remained wet. He had trained his facial muscles to cry instantly, or to stop crying, or to smile at his behest.
Annan’s joy could not be described. He finished his bath in no time. Amma cupped his cheeks in one hand and combed his hair. Annan daubed Cuticura powder on his face and body generously. Seeking nobody’s help, he put on the buttoned blue shorts that he had been carrying around. He held up the clean white shirt, which had been starched and ironed using an iron-box containing coconut shell embers. The front side of the shirt had stuck to the backside. As he unstuck them, a lovely fragrance and the sound of tearing paper arose. He wore the shirt with utmost care so as not to disturb the folds. While inserting his hands into the sleeves, he opened them just as much as was necessary. The sleeves stood stiff like the wings of a bird as he carefully tucked the shirt into the shorts. That wasn’t the end of it. He fixed a bit of sandal paste right at the center of his forehead. Now that his makeup was complete, he stood next to me holding the pillar and waited for the photographer as if he, Annan, was the most important person in the house.
The photographer was late by an hour. Children trooped into our house along with him. The old people had already gathered in anticipation and sat on the floor in a circle. The photographer examined the room and selected a spot for me to stand. The wall was behind me, and the sun fell on me directly. I stood in between a shoe flower plant and Annan. He had been standing stiff and silent for about two hours, and he continued the same stance in front of the camera. Remaining motionless was much easier for him than it was for me.
The photographer fixed the camera on top of the tripod. He then covered himself and the camera with a big black cloth. Remaining inside that cloth tent, he examined the camera for a long time. As we finally moved, thinking it was all over, the photographer pushed aside the black cloth and showed himself. Uttering not a single word, he loaded the camera with film and closed the wooden frame with a bang. Our hands, which had been kept stiff and wide to ensure that our shirts did not lose their folds, began to ache.
The photographer asked Annan to stand a little ways away, then looked back into his camera. Stepping outside his black cloth, her walked up to my brother, instructed him to straighten his shoulders, and turned his head left and right to face the camera. Finally, the photographer stepped back into his tent and asked us to get ready. We sucked in our bellies as much as we could and stood breathless, without a clue about what was happening. A hand emerged out of the black cloth like a snake. We focused our eyes on that hand. It removed the camera shutter quickly and closed the lens again at the same speed. We were told that the photoshoot was over.
My annan’s brain was small; my appa’s big. Only after we saw the photograph did we realize what had happened. I was standing in the center of the photograph with my eyes a little shrunken and staring at something near the camera a little apprehensively. The shadow cast by my nose was visible like a black spot on my lips. The slightly damaged wall could be seen in the background. The shoe flower plant was there. Even the buttons of my trousers could be spotted. Annan was nowhere to be found. Instead, only the stiff edge of his shirt sleeve was visible.
There are no words to describe my brother’s agony. He rolled in the dirt for one hour after that and stayed outside on the porch until dinner time. He could not be consoled. A week later, Appa searched for the photo to frame it. But it was nowhere to be found, despite a thorough search. Overtime, the incident was forgotten.
When I was preparing for my senior certificate examination, the wooden chest my annan had been using until he ran away a few years back came into my possession. One day as I was rummaging through it, I came across an old notebook. In it were notes on the history of the emperor Chandra Gupta in my annan’s squarish handwriting.
“Chandra Gupta belonged to the Maurya dynasty. The name of his royal advisor was Kautilya. Chandra Gupta was the first Indian emperor to defeat a large number of his enemies in war.” It went on like that. As I leafed through the notebook, I found the photo taken several years earlier pasted to the back cover. But I was not there in the photo. Half of it had been cut off. In the remaining only half a young boy’s elbow and the stiff edge of a white short-sleeved shirt were seen.
Memories of that Saturday afternoon rushed into my head. My annan’s frightened face, his scabies-infected legs, his buttoned shorts, the sandal-paste tilak on his forehead, his starched white short-sleeved shirt, and my annan posing with his drawn-in stomach will all remain with me until the end of my days. To recollect this face of my annan on that day, I do not need the tripod camera or the black cloth that covered it or the hand that emerged from it like a snake.
Appadurai Muttulingam was born in Sri Lanka and has published numerous books in Tamil, including novels, short story collections, and essays. Three short story collections translated into English have been published. In addition, his stories translated into English have appeared in the anthologies Many Roads Through Paradise (Penguin Books, 2014) and Uprooting the Pumpkin (Oxford University Press, 2016). A short story of his has also appeared in the American journal Narrative Magazine and another in wordswithoutborders.org. Muttulingam is also is a finalist for the 2023 Armory Square Prize. Among his many honors are the Sahitya Academy award (Sri Lanka), the S.R.M University of India literary award and the Markham City Council (Canada) Literary Award (2014). He is a founder and director of Tamil Chair Inc, 501©(3) created in the USA for the purpose of establishing Tamil studies at the Harvard University and in the University of Toronto. He lives with his wife in Toronto.
S Thillainayagam, retired from M.S.University, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, India as Professor of English. His papers presented in national and international conferences were published as Feminist Literary Essays. He has edited Sundara Ramasamyin Thernthedutha Katturaigal for the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. His translations from Tamil to English include A.K. Chettiar’s In the Tracks of the Mahatma for Orient Longman, New Delhi, Kalaignar Karunanithi’s Ponnar-Sankar for Macmillan,Password and Other Stories of A.Muttulingam for Ratna Books, Delhi and Pichamurtyin Selected Short Stories for the Sahitya Akademi. The last one won for him the greatly acclaimed Nalli-Thisai-Ettum Award for the best Tamil-to-English translation of the year 2019.