Gangadhar of Golden Frame Works was busy with his annual ritual of removing all the objects in his shop and washing the floors with phenyl. He would dust and wipe the frames, the glass panes and the sheets of plywood and put them back neatly in the shop. His assistant Vicky was throwing away all the rusted nails and filling the box with shiny new ones. The shop had been around since Gangadhar’s father’s time. Frames for women’s embroidery, for actors and actresses, for Gandhi–Nehru, for school group photos, for couples from long ago who stood on either side of a plastic flowerpot with folded arms – this narrow shop, where there was always sawdust underfoot, existed to frame them all.
In his father’s time there were only wooden frames. But now there was aluminium and plastic too, and coloured frames and glass. Among the pictures hung up to attract the attention of passers-by – pictures of landscapes, gods and goddesses, President Radhakrishnan, Tirupati Venkateshwara – hung the photograph of Gangadhar’s father lit by a red zero-watt bulb burning like a small piece of coal. For them, it was as though one day, after years of framing and hanging pictures, he had suddenly stopped his work and climbed into the frame above.
Gangadhar began to hurry. He wanted all the frames and the glass sheets back in the shop before the sun rose higher in the sky. One by one, Vicky picked up all the framed pictures ready for delivery. Gangadhar separated them into lots and arranged them. The embroidery, ‘Welcome’, button ducks, peacocks made from coins – these on one side; wedding photos in one pile; gods and goddesses in another; and individual portraits that had been blown up on yet another side. Gangadhar was always very careful about the last category. These portraits were usually of people over fifty, and were often brought to the shop by youngsters. Gangadhar could tell at one glance that these were mostly photos selected for framing after the person’s death. Some would bring pictures cropped and enlarged from wedding photographs, or from other group pictures. These photos had a funereal look to them. Sometimes such pictures would be of very young boys and girls, or someone in NCC uniform, and the parents who came to fetch them would have trembling hands when paying their bill.
When the cleaning was almost over, Vicky placed before Gangadhar some pictures tied in cloth, and asked, ‘What should we do with these?’ These were the pictures left undelivered every year. Perhaps customers got transferred, or forgot, or had money troubles. Most of the uncollected frames contained embroidery, landscapes, and gods, with a few being those of actors and actresses. As was his habit, Gangadhar started sticking slips on these, saying ‘For Sale’. Since these pictures cost just the price of the frame, people who had acquired a new kholi in a chawl, or moved up from a hutment to a chawl, often bought them. And this lessened Gangadhar’s burden too.
But this year, as he was pasting the ‘For Sale’ slips, Gangadhar sat up in shock. In the midst of these pictures were three portraits – a woman past fifty, an old man, and a middle-aged man. The three did not seem related to one another. Different people must have given the photographs in at different times for framing. But those who brought them had not come back. And the pictures stayed here, like prisoners no one comes to visit. Gangadhar looked at them again. The woman’s photo had been extensively touched up. A brush had been taken to the flowers in her hair, her bindi, the flowery prints on her sari. The two men’s pictures seem to have been blown up. Even though the pictures had been wrapped in paper all year long, the eyes hadn’t closed, thought Gangadhar, feeling a strange fear. The woman’s photo had an expensive frame. Then why hadn’t the customer come back? Vicky laughed mischievously and asked, ‘Shall we put stickers on these too?’
‘Cheh, cheh,’ said Gangadhar sombrely. Hesitantly, he looked up at his father’s portrait. The ash from the incense had fallen here and there on the garland around the frame.
The entire afternoon Gangadhar worried about who might have left those pictures. Did they not feel the need to collect them, or had they also left this life behind, or did the urgency with which they had handed in the picture diminish with time?
‘Let’s re-use the frames and the glass, and tear up the photos,’ said Vicky.
‘Why are you in such a hurry?’ asked Gangadhar. He would speak to Maayi when he went home that night, and ask her what to do. After his father died, Gangadhar would not take a step without consulting Maayi. Except for his father, everyone in the chawl and the locality, including her son Gangadhar, called her Maayi. She was hardly ever at home, but this was not a new thing. Since Gangadhar’s childhood, she spent more time outside the house than in. When Gangadhar was born, her milk was sufficient for a number of infants born at the same time in the hospital. It was said that even after she returned home, she would go regularly to the hospital to feed the babies whose mothers did not have enough milk. Gangadhar’s father was irritated by what he saw as her crazy behaviour.
Having fed so many infants, Maayi used to wonder how many of the young people she saw in the bazaar or the fair she had suckled. With Maayi usually looking after a boy in the neighbourhood who had jaundice, or nursing some young girl with a fractured leg in plaster because there was no space in her house, Gangadhar never felt that he was an only child. He seemed to be part of a large undivided family. And the fame of Maayi’s amritaballi decoction was another thing altogether. No one knew how and from where she managed to get hold of the herb. She used to dry punarnava and amritaballi and prepare a kashaaya. Everyone with a fever wanted Maayi’s amritaballi decoction. Those who liked the taste would come up with any excuse, like a fake back pain, to be able to drink some kashaaya. Amidst all this flurry, Gangadhar and his father were grateful to get a little of her attention and a morsel to eat. In later years, Maayi had developed another habit. She would go to the city’s hospitals, seek out those who did not have any friends or family, and feed them gruel. The city’s loom which wove lakhs of helpless breaths came as a boon to Maayi. Whenever she had some free time, she would carry gruel and pickle to the municipal hospital wards. She did this even on the day after her husband died.
At night, Gangadhar brought up the topic of his abandoned photographs.
‘You have lots of space in your shop to hang up all those useless pictures of fruits and flowers and gods. And you don’t have any room for these three poor memories?’ said Maayi. ‘If you don’t want them in the shop, bring them home,’ she added.
When Gangadhar’s father died, Maayi had virulently opposed the garlanding of his picture. All this framing business seemed to Maayi like part of the funeral rites. ‘Why put a frame around memories,’ she argued. But it was not that she was stubborn about it for long. One year after her husband died, she said, ‘Let’s have one photo of his in the house. Is it enough just to keep him in our minds? Shouldn’t we look at him from the outside too?’
Gangadhar thought he would display his abandoned portraits in the shop front. ‘Why should you think they’re dead?’ said Maayi. ‘Maybe they will come themselves to pick up the pictures.’
The next day, Gangadhar wiped the portraits clean, changed the rusted nails, and hung them up among the samples. Surely someone amongst the millions of people who walked by would be drawn by them, surely there would be some relative who would see them. Maybe at least one of them would reach its proper home. Vicky did not like this idea.
‘Why put dead people’s pictures in the display?’ he wanted to know.
Gangadhar answered with ease, ‘Why do you imagine they’re dead? They might come in person to collect their picture.’ Vicky laughed.
Soon, these three people who hung there disregarding the dust, the heat and the wind began to seem to Gangadhar like people he knew well. It also seemed as though there was some connection between those three – an old husband, a housewife, and her younger brother perhaps. Gangadhar went on stringing these wires as he worked. Customers who came to order frames looked blankly at the three portraits. What feelings they must have invoked in them!
One man asked: ‘Are they your relatives? These pictures have been here for a long time, haven’t they?’
‘No, no,’ said Gangadhar vehemently. He wondered later why he had denied the suggestion with such force.
One day a friend of Vicky’s, a young stage actor called Bandya, was standing around the shops, chatting. ‘Arre,’ said Bandya. ‘This photo is so large, so clear. One can see it from the balcony seats too. It would be first class to have this on stage.’ And he went on: ‘The drama companies of this town need pictures like these. You know, when we have to show the dear departed parents in a social play? Can I have them?’
Since they had featured in his display for a long time now, Gangadhar didn’t feel as strongly as before about them. ‘All right, let them find a new use,’ he said, agreeing to let Bandya take them. When Bandya offered to pay for them, he said: ‘No, no money. But only one condition – if someone comes looking for the pictures, you have to return them.’
‘Certainly,’ said Bandya cheerily, wrapping the portraits face to face in newspaper.
As he prepared to leave, Gangadhar felt odd, and called out: ‘One minute.’ And immediately he added, ‘Nothing. Carry on,’ and sat down quietly in the shop.
At night, he summoned up courage to tell Maayi what he had done.
‘Son, what would have happened if they had remained in your shop is exactly what could happen on stage. There’s no connection between those poor creatures and your frame business. Is yours the only shop in town? There are probably thousands. That means abandoned photos in every shop. Think how many there might be. If you all took an advance, this wouldn’t happen at all,’ said Maayi, laughing strangely. It was a laugh that put paid to Gangadhar’s curiosity about which stage the photos would appear on, or whose parents they would represent.
In his nightmare he saw thousands of photographs being burnt in the city square. The housewife’s touched-up sari, the veins on the old man’s forehead – the fire did not affect them. Gangadhar sat up in fright, sweating. The light was still on. Maayi was putting dried pieces of amritaballi into a pot of boiling water on the stove.
The following day, communal riots broke out in some parts of the city. The leaders, having set two communities on each other, sat back on the sofas in their houses and watched appreciatively as the TV channel put up the numbers of those killed. Those who had homes, locked themselves inside without going to work, and those who lived on the streets offered their bosoms up to the knives. When names were asked, they hesitated. The art of stabbing where one plunge took the gut out of a man was perfected. In the hospitals, barbers smelling of spirit waited to shave those who would be operated on. No one came to claim the bodies lying in the morgue, or the people suffering in the hospital beds. Because there too one had to provide a name, and an address, and thus reveal one’s religion. Once again a bosom bared, once again a stabbing. Respectable citizens phoned each other to find out if all was well, while labourers on the footpath stayed under the sky with their eyes open, spending the night like ghosts. Laughter was banned on the streets. Looking someone in the eye was banned. Schools wore the silence of hospitals. Ambulances shrieked through the night streets, requesting relatives to take away the wounded since the wards were overflowing.
Stealthily the shops began to open again. Gangadhar did not know what to do. Outside the suburban trains station there were pasted sheets showing the names of those admitted in the city hospitals. People were jostling to read them as though they were looking for their children’s SSC results. Who knows what they were looking for? Maayi, however, wandered from ward to ward with her flasks of gruel and kashaaya, not listening to anybody.
During this terrifying time of curfews, a boy came to Gangadhar’s shop. ‘Namaskar, I need some help,’ he said.
Gangadhar asked him to sit down and listened to his request. He speculated that the boy had lost something or someone in the riot, but that turned out not to be true. The boy’s story was this: he was an orphan who had grown up in the city’s armpits without a mother or a father. He had caught the pulse of the city, and shaped his life according to the clock tower’s hands. Now he drove an autorickshaw. He had fallen in love with a beautiful girl. He would do anything for her. He wanted to marry her – had already bought a real gold mangalsutra. He had purchased a jhopdi with a running water tap in Subhash Nagar. The girl knew he had no family, but had told his parents that his father and mother were dead. If they learned he was an orphan, they would not agree to the marriage. So when her parents came to visit him in the jhopdi, he wanted to display the photos of an old man and woman. He was even prepared to keep the photos with him forever. Gangadhar was shocked. He didn’t expect this turn of events. The boy seemed honest and helpless. ‘If you had come one week ago, your problem would have been solved. Cheh,’ said Gangadhar, wringing his hands. He asked Vicky about Bandya.
‘How can you think you’ll get those photos back?’ said Vicky. ‘Who knows which drama company they’ve gone to? Why don’t you ask the owner of the frame shop on the western side of the station?’
Gangadhar took the boy and crossed the bridge to the west. ‘No, sir,’ said the owner. ‘We shouldn’t get caught up in this kind of mess. Above all, there’s a riot going on. A time of death. Lots of work for us. In the next two months, we’ll have to make a lot of frames. So why get involved in this kind of lafda?’
Gangadhar regretted that he had given the photos to the drama company when they could have gone to as good a place as the young man’s hut. ‘Don’t worry, your marriage will definitely take place,’ he said to the young man.
I’d look after the photos carefully. Our marriage will take place in front of the photos. We’d give them all due respect during the ceremonies,’ the boy said pleadingly. Gangadhar thought of another idea, and went looking for the photo studio on the upper floor of the market on the eastern side. The studio owner did not listen to Gangadhar’s request.
‘What if tomorrow the photo owners come and raise a fuss about loss of reputation?’ he said reasonably.
‘Look here, sir, we’re using them for an auspicious ceremony. No one can object to that,’ cajoled Gangadhar, but the studio owner would not budge. Gangadhar returned to his shop with the young man. ‘Come back tomorrow,’ he said. ‘We’ll think of something.’ The boy put out both his hands and shook Gangadhar’s before leaving. When he closed the shop before dusk to go home, the neighbouring shop owners were reading aloud the news of the riot casualties from the evening newspaper.
When Gangadhar reached home, Maayi was filling gruel in two large flasks. She had put her kashaaya into a thermos flask. ‘I won’t be coming back tonight. I’m going to J.J. Hospital. There’s a young man there, the same age as you. Patient Number 2132. The nurse was saying he was admitted a week ago with thirteen stab wounds. He has three fractures, including one in his skull. After he bled in the street for two hours, someone brought him to hospital. He’s lucky – they saved his life after a number of operations. But he’s lost his memory. Can’t remember his name, his family, his age, his address – nothing. He’s like a newborn infant. If I stroke his back and look into his eyes, it looks as though he’s smiling,’ said Maayi, as she put a pair of Gangadhar’s pyjamas and a shirt into her bag. ‘If I hadn’t been there today, they might have discharged him saying there’s no space for new admissions. Where will the child go in this tomb like city?’
Maayi continued: ‘If needy people come asking for clothes, don’t hesitate, And don’t give them torn clothes. See, there’s your father’s wedding coat. It’s quite sturdy. Give that away too. It will come in handy against the cold. And my saris are here.’ Saying this, she went away.
Maayi did not come back that night. Gangadhar took out clothes to give away. As he pulled out his father’s coat, he thought how all the clothes would acquire a new life. As he lay down to sleep, Patient Number 2132 appeared before his eyes.
Having lost his religion, address, age, name and surname, and become a human infant, this 2132 is being fed by Maayi as he lies on the bed. Unprotestingly, he is swallowing the gruel in small gulps. At the corner of his mouth, a sliver of a smile is slipping out. He is wearing Gangadhar’s blue shirt.
When would the sun rise, when would he open his shop, and when would the young man in need of photos appear? Gangadhar waited anxiously. In the morning, he put the bundle of clothes in the neighbour’s house and strode rapidly to his shop. The boy was there, as if he had been there all night. Opening the door hastily, Gangadhar climbed up on a stool. He removed the garlands from his father’s portrait, unhooked the picture, wrapped it in newspaper and handed it to the young man.
As though he had found a hidden treasure, the boy stammered: ‘This is enough for me, sir. Anyone would understand that the mother is anyway there…’ He shook Gangadhar’s hand and sped away like an arrow.
Read the original story ‘Amritaballi Kashaaya’ in Kannada here.