An empty shell
Her aunt Rukmini had been specially summoned for the occasion. She has an auspicious touch, grandmother had insisted. Everything she's involved in, ends well. Gomathy herself had woken up early that morning. Earlier than usual, having been unable to sleep much of the previous night. Which is why, she would remark many years later pointing the photo to her grand daughter, I have those dark circles under my eyes. She couldn't tell her grand child about how Rukmini athai had smeared a good half-a-tub of kohl under her eyes in the name of warding off evil. And how she had run quietly to the bathroom to wipe it away. And how, because there was so much of it, she didn't manage to take it all off. Her grandchildren grew up in a world vastly different from her own and they would laugh at her old stories.
Gomathy had chosen her mother's deep blue silk saree and a matching blouse to go with it for the day. But someone had suggested that it would make her appear dark in the photograph. And everyone knew that nobody wanted a dark bride. So a pale orange chiffon saree that belonged to a neighbour had been picked instead. Gomathy's mother oiled and plaited her long hair, smoothing its wavy curls as she ran the comb down its length. She then tied a yellow ribbon at the end. Gomathy winced as her mother tugged out a few strands from the back of her head to hook a long string of jasmine flowers. Finally, her mother had taken her aside and dabbed a generous portion of Cuticura talcum powder on her face. Gomathy could still recall the sticky sweet smell of talcum powder as it mingled with the sweat from her mother's arm as she lifted it to use to the powder puff. A big round pottu, like a fullstop smack in the middle of her forehead, completed her make-up.
They had paraded, all four of them (three was an inauspicious number) - her parents, aunt and herself - to the most prominent studio in town. She was made to stand against the backdrop of a cloth curtain which had the image of a lush waterfall painted on it. The photographer had propped a papier-mache pillar which came up to her waist, for her to lean against. She rested her arm on it as if it were a short friend. The photographer then adjusted the lights in his studio this way and that way and she struggled to keep her eyes open as bright light beamed straight at her. Twice she batted her eyes just as the camera clicked and the photographer chided her for doing so. The third time her eyes leapt open, more in anxiety than anything else. It made her look surprised as if she had not been expecting to be photographed in that studio.
In the following months, the photo would be circulated among families with eligible young men. It would catch the eye of 24-year old government employee Jagannathan who thought Gomathy resembled a frightened doe. They would be marrried five months after the photo was taken. And it would recede to the far corners of Gomathy's trunk where it would lie undisturbed for several years.
This afternoon, Gomathy's 11-year old grand-daughter Lavanya was visiting her and she had wanted some old family photos for a school summer project. As Gomathy picked up the photo, she noticed how it had lost a lot of its detail, much like her memory. The waterfall in the background was barely distinct and the pillar by her side looked faintly ridiculous. Almost all the people associated with the photo were now dead and gone. Her time would come soon. And when she left, she would take with her the last remaining memories attached to the photo. Leaving behind the empty shell of an image. Here, said Gomathy handing the crispy thin photo to her grandchild, you can have this one. It's just an old photo of mine.