So after my wedding, I entered a big mansion, full of men, women and children, and hoards of sahayaks, both male and female. The rooms were very big in size. The walls of each room had big framed photographs of ancestors, mostly of men. After four days in my new house, I asked my husband, whether there was any photo of his mother. Unfortunately, there was none. My husband had a great interest in photography since his college days and had a passion for trying photography in different cameras. Yet he was very unhappy about the fact that none in the family had taken a photo of his beloved mom. He was too small a boy at that time. Had he been a big boy, surely he could have captured a memory. Alas. He assured me that after the busy nuptial ceremony he would inquire whether anybody has one within the family. But he could not get the opportunity in the din and rush. He had taken leave of fifteen days for the wedding. He was working as an electrical engineer with the State government. He had to join work after a week.
I married the man, who had lost his mother at a tender age of five. So I went to a family without a mom-in-law but had two aunts-in-law. The family was quite large. My father-in-law had two elder brothers and one younger brother. The youngest brother had lost his life in an accident, just after ten months of the marriage ceremony of my father in law. Three brothers bound by hearts stayed in three mansions in near vicinity. Compared to his brothers’, my father-in-law had a small family: two sons and one daughter, my husband being the youngest. Whenever there was any ceremony in one mansion, the occupants of the other two, would come and stay together for twenty to thirty days to arrange and enjoy a successful ceremony.
In those days, hardly anyone took interest in taking photos of the ladies in the family, though photographers from studios came to take photos of the housemasters. Then the photos were enlarged, framed and hung on walls. Oil paintings were made of the best photos and were of quite big sizes. Those were generally put on the walls of the living room.
The relatives, while talking to me would often mention about my mother-in-law. Her ways of life, how she looked, what she ate, how she cooked, and so many things. Hearing all these, my desire to see her photograph intensified. My husband’s elder sister, my loving sister-in-law could read my mind. So she took me with her many times to the other two mansions, in the hope to find any photos there. She searched the almirahs, shelves and drawers for old albums there, but in vain. We both returned unsuccessful every time.
Few days were left of my stay in my in-laws’ place. Arrangements were made regarding my sending back to my husband’s workplace in the big town. Finally, an auspicious day was chosen by the kul-purohit. My papa-in-law and the eldest aunt-in-law were chosen by the large family to escort me to my new destination. When I bode goodbye, the cousins, most of them my contemporaries, had tears in their eyes. I also cried as I did the day I left my family. For a girl, the second home gradually turns into the first home where she was born and brought up. Anyway, I sat in the car with an aunt in the back seat, and papa sat at the front seat with the driver.
On our way, the seniors were advising me on how to run the household properly, without the guidance of an elder person. They advised me to stay alert when the husband has left for the office, and to lock the door, etc. Aunt was pouring kitchen tips and how to take care of her nephew. But the interesting thing was papa’s apprehension about his son’s obsession with photography. “Bohu, he has two cameras now. In his leisure time, he will take photos. He climbs hills and trees to take photos. Be careful. Don’t allow him to do so. He may run inside a river or sea. So you dissuade him.” I was thinking it’s a natural concern of a father, that too for the youngest child. I was nodding in approval to their important sermons. Our journey ended in three hours, and finally, I entered the house which I was to make a home very soon.
We started our new life. It went sweetly and smoothly. On holidays we would usually meet our parents. We two would be pouring out the incidents and anecdotes of our past to each other. Not the past life, but about our lives before our marriage. That is mostly about our families, friends, siblings, school, college, and whatnot. One thing I found out: he was always happy to narrate about his departed uncle Purnachandra, fondly called Purna at home. After finishing his BSc, Purna uncle chose to join a flying club in Calcutta. His mission and obsession were to be a pilot. He was not interested in joining the family business. His parents were not very happy with his decision. The elder brothers supported him and he went to Calcutta. He was a daredevil, very handsome in look and loved to travel. On the marriage of my father-in-law, he took the leadership of the groom’s party with a camera hung on the shoulder. He was the only person in the family to own a camera then. Very smart and adventurous a person during those days.
During the course of time, we were blessed with three beautiful children: two daughters and a son. Every year, we used to visit the hometown with children. A yearly visit to hometown with children continued. Papa loved the grandchildren very much and the kids too liked his company. After their exams were over, the kids would urge their papa to visit grandpa as soon as possible. They enjoyed the company of grandpa, and the sweet mangoes of the garden each summer, year after year.
It was a rainy night with lightning and thunder. Children were already in bed and we both were going to sleep. The phone rang then. Shambhu mousa, housekeeper and papa’s aid, was on the other end. He broke down when my husband responded. I got panicky. Some bad news for sure, and it was. Papa had a stroke that evening and was hospitalised, his right side is paralysed. Next morning we drove to hometown to be with him. We went straight to the hospital. He gave a wane smile to us. We all sat near him. Children were heartbroken, seeing the ever smiling, energetic grandpa in a hospital bed. In the meantime, my husband’s elder brother with family were on their way from Delhi. Sister-in-law in the US with her husband was making frantic calls and enquiring Shambhu mousa about papa’s condition. Elder son reached the next day; only the daughter was far far away.
On the seventh day, he breathed his last in the hospital, surrounded by two sons with their families. Within a moment we all got orphaned.
Cremation was done. A huge crowd, almost half of the town came for his funeral. There was a pal of gloom on every face. On the fourth day, the death rituals started by his eldest son with the help of a pundit. The cleaning of the mansion was totally in charge of Shambhu mousa. The exterior white-washing of the mansion was completed. Then the rooms were taken up to be whitewashed. The largest room was selected for the eleventh-day shraddha rituals. The two big wooden almirahs inside that room were to be shifted to the veranda so that cleaning could be done. The first almirah was taken out by four labourers. It was locked. Then the second one was lifted to be taken by the same four men, which was not locked. When they were putting it on the veranda, the doors opened and heavy utensils fell down scattered on the ground. Shambhu mousa ran to the spot to see what happened. One of the men was groaning with pain. He was hit on the head by something dangling from a hook inside the almirah. The man had put his palm on his head. “Biju Babu, come and see.” screamed old Shambhu mousa. My husband went there and found to his astonishment, a leather cased Argus camera hanging from a hook inside the almirah. The leather belt released the camera and it hit the worker straight on his head.
So this is Purna uncle’s camera, he murmured. After dressing the wound of the man, he came to the bedroom with the camera. He sat on the bed, he dusted the camera with a towel. Then he opened the leather case. Took out a clean and beautiful black camera. He kissed it with so much of love. I noticed his eyes were moist, nostalgic. He opened the back of the camera and lo, it was loaded. He immediately dressed up and went to the Agfa photo studio of his hometown. The owner was well known to my husband. Both went inside the dark room to wash and develop the photo reel.
Seventeen photos had been clicked and it was of the marriage ceremony of his parents (my in-laws). The rest of the reel was blank. As Purna uncle was a busy pilot perhaps he had no time to click the rest, or maybe he was waiting to come home to finish the reel. Cruel death snatched him away, and all his possessions, including the loaded camera, was brought by an airport officer from Calcutta to be handed over to the family in a large aluminium box.
My husband returned from the studio with the black and white photos at three o clock in the afternoon. We were all waiting for him for lunch. He handed over an enlarged photo with a satisfying smile. “This is what you were searching for a long time.”
The photo was of my parents-in-law. Purna uncle had taken the couple’s photo just after the wedding ceremony was over. Both of them were sitting on a bed. My veiled mom-in-law with her beautiful round face was looking straight to the camera. She had a wonderful pair of bright eyes. I felt so happy – “O God you have fulfilled my wish,” I prayed silently.
The news of the photos brought sensations to the family which was in deep mourning then. Everyone ran to see the photos. The photos vividly revived the wedding procedures, and see at what time? When the person had left for his heavenly abode! No chance of return. Death, how cruel are you! Anyone born has to die one day. But it’s very difficult to accept the truth.
With the photos, everyone remembered Purna uncle. My sister-in-law who had come from the US to take part in the rituals hugged me. “So finally you got a photo of your mom-in-law. Now tell me how much she resembles Biju?” She teased me. She described everyone how we both were searching a picture of mom in those days.
Demands for the copy of that photo went on increasing. All were assured of a copy after the shraddha and dana. The magical effect of a forgotten camera and the undeveloped film was awesome on me. It became the talk of the small town.
Praises for Purna Uncle galore. His efforts brought back the sweet memories of a chapter from the forgotten past. A memory found a shape. I could see the picture of a very important person I have been visualizing in my mind.
At present whenever I see the photo in my bedroom, I feel like the history of the family unfolding. The hope, the search flashes in the mind’s eyes.
The Undeveloped Film was indeed a MIRACLE.