Raman took his first photograph at the age of eight. Out of an oblong window in northern Kathmandu looking out on land that had turned to marsh in the monsoon rains, peopled with frogs and the young of mosquitoes. From the top left corner of the frame protruded the jagged edge of a tin roof and in the bottom right, a fat frog, resplendent green, sat on a solitary red brick rising from the waters like an island. In between, there were sharp blades of grass and the surface of the standing water, black with fine grainy mosquitoes.
He had taken the photograph with his father’s ancient Yashica, produced in the ‘80s and as sturdy as a rock. You popped open the back with a flick of the wrist, attached the film to the spool, stretched the film across the shutter and into the other spool at the other end, closed the back and finally gave the crank a good twist so that the film stretched tight and even. What his father forgot to teach him was that the film needed be rewound once thirty-six shots had been taken. And so, after Raman had pressed down on the shutter and pulled the crank thirty-six times, he opened the back gleefully to see the sights of his marshland canvas embossed on the black of the film. He saw only the black.
Raman’s father nevertheless developed the film. The only photo that came out was the one with the roof in one corner and the frog in the other.
At the age of ten, Raman took his father’s camera to school, hidden in his backpack. He took a photo of Sudeep upside down on the monkey bars, Prateek on the swings, and Saurav pushing Dipesh, whom everybody hated, to the ground. Sneha, one of his female friends, asked him to take her photograph but he refused, fearing backlash from the boys. Sneha promptly told on Raman to the English teacher. The Yashica was duly confiscated and Raman’s father called to school the next day.
Raman’s father, an English teacher to bored management students in the morning and bored high school students in the afternoon, let his displeasure be known with a pinch to Raman’s right ear. Raman’s father was no big believer in physical punishment but he felt it was necessary to sometimes give substance to his anger, which amounted mostly to ear pulling, nose twisting and a slap on the head.
Later that year, for his eleventh birthday, Raman received his father’s Yashica for his very own.
Raman used the Yashica to take his first real portrait of the first woman he photographed–his mother, silhouetted against the screen door leading out of the kitchen and into the small backyard where a brown hand pump stood forlorn. She was bent over the counter, cutting onions, her beige shawl cinched tight around her waist. Light poured through the screen like water through a sieve and Raman’s mother was bathed in the glow of a thousand pinpoints.
Raman felt a rise in his stomach whenever he looked at that photograph of his mother. It was as if a part of her were locked forever within the frames of that innocent rectangle. Portraits, however static, seemed to contain a blink of an eye, a twitch of an eyebrow or a corner of the mouth, or a bend to the knee. There was movement furtive beneath the skin of the photograph. To Raman, the portraits looked out at him and reflected in their sheen, in the eyes of the subjects so frozen, he saw himself staring back.
He decided then, at age 14 and sitting in his bedroom with at least a hundred of his photographs arrayed on the floor in front of him, to throw away all of his landscapes and keep only the portraits.
Unfortunately for Raman, his hobby was not to turn into a profession, for he wasn’t really a photographer. Rarely would you see him trawling the gallis of Kathmandu, armed with his camera and an inquisitive eye. Neither did he like elaborate photo shoots. Once, his uncle had asked Raman to take a formal family photograph. His uncle, aunt, two cousin sisters and one cousin brother all dressed in their best wedding party clothes, slicked and spruced their hair with gel and spray, piled on the foundation and blush, and shined their shoes till they all sparkled. They had been happy enough with the result but Raman found the process an unbearable chore. He felt like a clumsy workman, a mechanic tinkering with parts he was unfamiliar with.
A good portrait depended on knowing exactly “when” to trip the shutter and to learn this “when”, Raman followed people around till he got to know their rhythm. How many beats until they blinked, how many milliseconds until they turned, how often they moved their hands, the angle at which their heads tilted when they laughed, the degree and speed with which their shoulders slumped when dejected, how expressive their eyes and eyebrows were.
In this study, Raman discovered, quite inadvertently, that women were just that much more aesthetically pleasing than men. Men’s bodies were either hard or soft, one or the other. His father, large of stomach and large of heart, was a soft man, pliable in both mind and body. His uncle was a hard man, quick to anger and quick with an open palm, and it showed in the dense straight lines of his arms. Raman’s mother, like most women he photographed, was an amalgam. Her calves and biceps were as hard as any man’s, from all the lifting, standing and walking she did. But her body was soft and yielding, a loving body, projected through her eyes whenever she got angry, giving Raman hope of a reprieve even as her brows and forehead and lips and arms turned taut and rigid.
This much he surmised from the myriad girls he invited back to his house, despite the consternation of his mother. In school and later in college, he found that there were many, men and women both, who felt inept and uncomfortable in their bodies and his photographs were a way to show them that their skin was their own. He would snap picture after picture as these girls wandered through his room, glancing at the hundreds of pictures he’d put up on his walls. And as they passed from window to wall, Raman would park himself in a corner, eye glued to viewfinder. The ones who refused to be photographed were summarily excised. The ones who stayed became more his subjects than his friends.
Eventually, they all left, but not before Raman had teased from them their best photographs. There was one of his now-friend Sneha, as she leaned out a window on the western wall of his room, the dying afternoon light marking alternating bands of crimson and gold on her back. The window frame was centred, a frame within a frame, and Sneha was a picture within a picture. She had turned her head slightly to the left just as the shutter clicked and what he captured was a hazy side-profile, almost like a thought in motion.
There was another that he cherished, of a girl named Maya as she crouched in a corner, resting on her haunches and looking straight into the camera. She occupied almost all of the frame and her flower-patterned dress caught the light in ways magical. Her hair was in her eyes but she stared wide-eyed into the lens, as if looking past and into the person behind.
There were others but in each of them, Raman found something missing. It was not so much the physicality of the subject as their presence in the photograph, which seemed not to draw the eyes into the picture but to diffuse it around the frame. Even when the focus was sharp and the subject clearly outlined, Raman wondered just how much of their soul he’d captured, even if for an instant.
There was only person who seemed capable of holding Raman’s eyes captive and that was Abha, she of the long nose and the broad face, the dirty brown eyes and the ink-black hair, the nose ring and the many-pierced ears. He saw her first in Patan Durbar Square, sitting on one of the temples flanking Krishna Mandir, with her legs drawn up and a cob of roasted corn in her right hand. Raman took a photograph from a distance, placing her in the lower right quadrant with the temples dwarfing her small body. There were pigeons startled into flight in the frame, rising on a high angle starting from behind the girl in the photograph to the high brass gajurof the Krishna Mandir.
He had only just removed the camera from his eye when the girl stood and strode briskly towards him.
“Can I see that picture you just took?” she asked, a little haughtily, Raman thought.
“It’s a film camera,” Raman replied, also a little haughtily.
“Who carries a film camera in this day?” she asked rhetorically. It was 2008.
“I do, lots of people do,” Raman tried to walk away.
“Wait, wait, I want to see that picture,” she demanded.
“I can’t show it to you until I develop it.”
“Well, find me when you do then. I’m usually here,” she said, suddenly dismissive, before walking off.
About a week later,Raman came back to Patan Durbar Square, 36 freshly printed photographs in his backpack and a new roll of film in his Yashica. He found her at the same place, in almost the same position, only with a kulfi in her hand instead of a corncob. He walked up to her and tried to get her attention by standing nearby. When that bold approach didn’t work, Raman attempted a clearing of the throat and eventually, an “excuse me”. He felt like a fool when she turned to him and asked“Ke?” rather rudely.
“I…I wanted to show you the photo I took,” he said a little uncertainly.
“What photo?” she asked again, less rudely this time.
“Remember about a week ago? I took a photo of you from over there? And you wanted to see it?” With each question, Raman searched her face, hoping he wouldn’t have to explain any further.
Finally, she said, “Oh.” And Raman heaved an internal sigh of relief before fishing in his bag.
“This is nice,” she said. “Can I have it?”
Raman mumbled his assent. Only, when she folded the photograph, Raman felt as if he himself had been broken in half. She stuffed the photo roughly into her back pocket, jumped off her temple seat and asked if Raman would like to go drink some chhyāng with her.
“Uh…” said Raman, but she was already walking and he was already following.
Into Mangal Bazaar and past a hundred tiny entranceways to a hundred tiny chowks and domiciles, she led Raman down a maze of alleys until they bent under an arch, down a narrow corridor and emerged into a large space, occupied entirely by middle-aged men in moustaches and wife-beaters, sitting at small tables and slurping chhyāng out of small bowls made of tin. She sat down and beckoned one of the serving boys, who most certainly hadn’t gone through puberty, to bring her a jug of chhyāng, a plate of chwoelā and a plate of piro ālu. Raman took a photograph of her when she raised her bowl of chhyāng to her face and had his second picture of her.
When they left the bhatti after the food, she parted easily but with finality.
“Okay, bye,” she said.
Another two weeks later, he found her again at the Square, eating an ice-cream bar, the kind usually sold from a portable cooler, the kind that is all sugar and very little flavour. She didn’t ask about the photos, only finally introduced herself.
“Abha,” he repeated like a child being taught correct pronunciation.
“Yes,” she beamed at him, her nose ring glinting in the sun.
He raised his camera and took a close-up, leading her to squeal, half in joy and half in surprise. Her face occupied all of the frame, her nose large in the centre, the stud in her nose protruding into the centre-right quadrant and her eyes in the top third. Wisps of errant hair froze in the air.
Later, at night, in his bed, he replayed all the shots in his head, frame by frame. Abha in shorts and a T-shirt, with her back to him and a wooden ice-cream stick in her hand. Abha walking down stone-lined streets with her head tilted up at the sky, watching the birds roosting under the eaves of the buildings. Abha silhouetted against the entrance to a dark corridor leading to unfathomable Patan depths. Abha at the door to her home, framed in the entrance, one hand resting against the wood, a slight smile on her face.
Their relationship progressed in stills, captured in the hundreds by Raman’s Yashica. There was the time, sitting on the open roof of the Honacha eatery, when Abha asked Raman, for the first and last time, “Why are you always taking photographs?”
Raman didn’t reply at first, but not because he didn’t have an answer. He had too many reasons and wanted to pick the one most important. Eventually, he ended up saying that it was a way for him to remember things, when he should’ve said that it was a way for him to keep things as they were, easy and understandable, flat like a photograph. But he feared he would’ve sounded too pretentious and he was just starting to like Abha. He was already surprised that she was willing to tolerate his eccentricities.
So he too asked her why, “Why do you tolerate me?”
“I don’t mind photos,” she said. “They make me feel alive.” She looked away from him and said almost sheepishly, “Does that make me sound pretentious?”
When she looked back, Raman captured her amused, as if laughing at herself.
Walking, he captured her angry, because he had mentioned that when she squinted in the sun she looked like an old woman so she needed to start wearing sunglasses. He caught perfectly the coming together of her brows, the downward tilt to the corners of her mouth, the slight flaring of her nostrils and the flash in her eyes. Two minutes later, she kissed him on the mouth and he found himself unable to think straight for a solid hour.
“I don’t want to kiss you when I’m happy,” she said by way of explanation. “I don’t trust myself when I’m happy.”
There was also that photo of Abha standing on a hill in Palpa, just after they’d been to the Rani Mahal. She was wearing a dhākā topi that she’d bought, perching it rakishly on her head at an angle, and posing with her right hand index finger pointing up in the air, like Prithvi Narayan Shah. She was wearing blue jeans and a red shirt and maybe it was just the late afternoon light that lit her from behind or the breeze that lifted her shirt and teased her hair from its confining ponytail, but Raman felt like he had the perfect picture of Abha, she as she should be, she as he would remember her, she as no one else.
In their hotel room, Raman took a picture of her standing with her breasts bared and the window directly behind her, bathing her in an over-exposed ethereal glow. Afterwards, she reached for him as he reached for his camera. He brought the Yashica to his face and pointed it as she lay on her side on the bed with her legs drawn to her chest and her head on her arms.She looked at him after the shutter had clicked and for the first time, Raman sensed something not quite right in her gaze. Later, he looked at the photograph closely, studying her face from its side profile and saw something uncomfortable in the set of her lips.
They got married in late April, when the Nepali New Year had just begun. It had been Abha’s idea at first but Raman had come around. She had proposed in December, while under the covers of a hotel in Nagarkot, and Raman had not immediately agreed. It had been two years and he was certain he loved her and yet, marriage scared him. To commit himself mind and body to one person was no problem, but he was afraid of what marriage could do to his idea of Abha – what if the many desperations of domestic life destroyed that image of Abha on a Palpa hill, the wind in her hair?
To Abha, theidea of marrying Raman seemed hopelessly quixotic. She didn’t mind the camera constantly obscuring his visage. It had come to be an affectation of sorts, something she even looked forward to. She understood that the camera was an extension of the man, much like glasses are an extension of the myopic. In many ways, she found that she learned more through Raman’s photographs than through conversation. The moments he chose were telling, like that one of her crouched beneath an umbrella on a Mangal Bazaar side road as rain poured around her. Or the one of her exasperated and outside his window, calling out to him while he arranged pictures of her into a collage. They recalled to her a book of photographs –stark black and white prints of a Japanese wife by her Japanese husband. In them, and in Raman’s photos, she found a comfort that comes with recognizing oneself in the mirror.
Abha eventually won him over, mostly through sheer persistence. The decisive moment came when Raman perused a photograph of Abha in a sari she had picked out for their wedding. It was red and green with an inlay of mirrors around the edges.In that sari, Raman saw himself reflected a thousand times over, and as if in an epiphany, concluded that if he was ever going to get married to anyone, it would have to be her.
Their ceremony was small and simple, even though Raman’s mother had wanted a lavish occasion. Abha’s parents were more amenable. There were no photographers at the wedding and the only picture of them together was one that Raman set up on a tripod. It was the first picture of the two of them together.
The number of pictures from then on only grew. From Abha making tea in the morning, dressed only in shorts and a bra, standing with the sole of her left foot flush against the calf of her right leg, her hand resting on the marble kitchen counter,to Abha looking back over her shoulder under a canopy of bougainvillea as she left the house for work, to Abha coming home in the evening, her hair dishevelled and loose around her face, her backpack slung over her shoulder, to Abha mid-way through undressing in the pale yellow light of the bulbs in their bedroom, one bra shoulder strap around her arm.
Abha had photos of her own, if only Raman would’ve noticed. Raman’s job as an English teacher, much like his father, did not take him away from home much but Abha, who worked as a journalist for a magazine, travelled frequently. On these trips, she brought back photos taken with her phone or her own compact Canon point-and-shoot. Raman would give them a cursory onceover and make a comment that was superficially appreciative at best and incisively critical at worst. Abha soon learned to keep her photographs to herself.
All too often, Abha would come home to find Raman poring over old pictures of her, all laid out on the floor like a giant jigsaw puzzle. At times like these, he wouldn’t even notice her presence, seemingly not hearing her until she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. Even then, he would be brusque, the pictures occupying his attention until he had come to some foregone conclusion.
Once, she had cut the web of skin between her thumb and index finger while attempting to pry open a can of tuna and come running to Raman for sympathy. He had been caring enough, but only after he’d gotten a shot of her gaping wound and the leaking blood. Then again, when her mother was getting a tumour operated on, Raman had taken a photo of Abha sitting on a windowsill at the hospital, her knees drawn up her to chin, and crying. The picture was beautifully composed, the light was just right and the focus just soft enough to capture the sadness that seemed to cocoon Abha. Later, she was moved looking at the photo but couldn’t quite reconcile the person sitting in the frame with herself. She felt like she was looking into the mirror and seeing someone else.
One night, Abha woke to find Raman with his camera and a portable light, perched over her bed. She stifled a scream but Raman only replied, “I am trying to photograph you dreaming.” He hadn’t so much noticed the stink of guilt around her and the way she avoided his eyes at the dinner table.
Abha told him of her affair on a whim, hoping secretly that it would crush him. It didn’t. She told him over dinner, as he looked absently at an imaginary point over her head.
“I know,” he said.
“How?” she asked.
“I saw it in that picture I took of you two weeks ago.”
“The one where you look happier than I’ve ever seen you.”
The one where Abha was at the vanity mirror in their bedroom, sitting on the floor and staring at herself. Her skin was flushed, as if she had just been running. Raman was behind her, only the lens of his camera peeking out from next to Abha’s shoulder and pointing at the mirror. It was a photograph of an image, one that studiously avoided Raman’s gaze, choosing this time to look outside the frame, eyes elsewhere. The one where she was smiling like she never did anymore.
It wasn’t that Raman didn’t love her. He had felt a deep stabbing in his being the moment he saw that image, reproduced on a glossy 6×4. Somehow, Abha’s muted conversations, the way she retreated from his touch, her exasperated eyes whenever he raised his camera and her turning away in bed every night, none of this had managed to relate to him what he knew for certain in that photograph. On that surface, he saw guilt, betrayal and a freedom that he didn’t know Abha desired.
He tried to make amends in his own way, forgiving her and pushing the thought out of his mind as if it were an image etched on the black of a film strip suddenly exposed to light. He took fewer pictures of her, choosing fractions as if to emphasize how he felt that she only belonged to him in fragments. Abha did not notice this change. All she saw was the camera and no Raman behind it.
She left quietly one morning. When Raman came home to an empty closet and an empty house, he simply photographed her absence, as if it were a crime scene.
Abha didn’t come back, even though Raman arrived at her parent’s house the next day without a camera. She understood what he was trying to promise, but she knew what he wanted and she also knew that she wouldn’t have been able to give it to him.
“You want me to stay the same,” she said to him. “Like in your pictures.”
“No…” Raman tried to say. “It’s not that…” But words had never been his medium and he felt like he could never tell her what he meant without the exact luxury of images, instead of this doggerel that was inexact metaphorical language.
“Each time you look at me, you seem to only see someone I once was,” Abha said.
“But I see you like no one else does.”
“And that’s the problem. I don’t know who I am anymore. I can’t see myself.All I see is you looking at me.”
Raman didn’t respond, he didn’t know how to. Sohe went away without a complaint.
They didn’t divorce immediately. Raman couldn’t bring himself to and Abha never really cared. It happened only because their families called for it. When Abha finally saw him to sign the papers and finalize their divorce, Raman was thinner than she remembered and his eyes were bloodshot, as if he’d been drinking. That infernal camera still hung around his shoulders but he did not dare raise it a single time.
When Abha was about to leave, Raman asked her for one last favour. Back in their house, now just Raman’s, he disrobed and stood naked in front of her. She took a photo of him, the first and only portraitRaman ever stood for. The only light in the room came through a slit where the heavy drawn curtains failed to meet. He stood in the centre of the frame, a lone figure, grey and emaciated, hunched over and not meeting the camera’s gaze.
Raman sent Abha that photo later, after he had looked it over for hours on end, trying for once to see himself whole as someone else and not just as a thousand fragmented reflections in a thousand tiny mirrors.
Pranaya SJB Rana is a writer and editor from Kathmandu. He is the author of City of Dreams, a collection of short stories (Rupa Publications, 2015).
La.Lit is a literary magazine that celebrates the beauty of writing. They aim to bring contemporary achievements in world literature to Nepal and, equally, take Nepali and South Asian literature to the world. See the La.Lit website for more information: https://www.lalitmag.com/
Artwork provided by La.Lit illustrator Tuan Dinh.