At that first glance, she just looked reed thin but then that was expected. If at that, one would hazard a guess and decide that she was barely in her mid-teens, the error in judgement would be huge. It was only when one looked on closely, a trait imperative in his profession, that one noticed the curves that could never belong to just a teenager.
His first impression of her was the dirty, yet poignantly lovely child-like face lit up with simple joy that was so incongruous with her surrounding that it had the combined effect of him being sucker-punched in the gut. It was not the attraction for the fairer sex, though Lord knew, no one appreciated them more than he, neither was it the thrill of capturing a captivating subject through his lenses, a thrill that had directed him to be the celebrated photographer that he was, it was something much, much more potent than that. Dusk reflected in her eyes, with the falling sun’s rays rapidly being overshadowed by the storm clouds, but could not hide the childish yearning of frolic and merry in them.
Age and experience hardens everybody, no one escapes it or so he believed. As a photographer he had travelled places unreachable and unthinkable to common man and had pictured first hand what misery could be. The effect of his wanderings had resulted in contempt, bitterness towards the elite social circles in his personal life, women who thought themselves abused if refused another fur or trinket by their husbands, men losing thousands over a game of poker or a race-horse in an evening’s recreation, children who threw tantrums over any single thing that didn’t go their way, all in all people who had everything in life, and yet were not happy at all. Husbands kept mistresses and wives cheated on their husbands, money spent recklessly and lives were empty.
He hadn’t chosen disdain but it was impossible to sympathize when he had seen children fighting over one morsel of food, teenage mother scavenging for food against the abilities of her body for that child which wouldn’t live for long anyway. He had seen ten people residing in a single room which would have been too small for three people, families braving elements to live under the open sky for want of a roof, women selling their virtues for nothing just to live another day, children travelling miles in a day just to get water to drink. What he had seen in each of the remotest part of the world that the common man knew naught about was, despair and disillusionment. Hope and happiness were aliens where men and women struggled just to see another dawn.
And he had thought he had seen everything.
In that moment suspended in time, he could only stand and stare at that child-woman. For a blink of an eye, he could forget that the woman with the musical laughter, running about in the field chasing the snowflakes, was one of the refugees of the camp, who had no place to live, no food to eat, no warm clothes to wear in the cold weather. She seemed totally unmindful to the fact that it was fast approaching zero degrees and she was wearing just a long skirt and blouse that would be better described as rags. Her eyes were alight with joy and she was running and skipping over the rapidly-turning-white grass, her long, unkempt, dirty black hair flying behind her. She was the widow of one of the men in the camp, he found out. She had lost both her husband and her child to famine and drought, he learned. And he couldn’t help gaping in awe. She had lost everything but he saw in her what he had never seen before, the spirit to live.
He watched her play around like a small kid from afar, till late. As she made to return, he scurried back to the camp before she could spot him watching. As with every place he had been to, he was an intruder in that camp too, and he was treated with polite courtesy and caution. Every expedition he had been to, capturing essence of human lives, the job had been done in exchange for mere money, a few dollars were riches for them and it had been no different here. He sat around a fire inside a tent with his expedition team, along with few other refugees of the camp, talking and learning. A little later, the woman came forward tentatively. He could see her longing for the warmth of the fire. He invited her to join the group and she acquiesced with a slight nod.
Conversations went around the fire for hours in the tent, with a slow storm raging outside. The food and fire provided by the expedition team went a long way to help eliciting answers to his subtly prodding and sensitive questions about their lives in a light-hearted banter. But all the time, he could feel the woman’s eyes on him, slightly bemused and wondering.
The next morning, the last of his trip, he woke up early as was his habit and wandered out of his tent to explore. The grounds had turned white overnight, the sky was still grey with a hint of blue near the mountain peak which was barely discernible in that foggy morning. He was startled out of his reverie when someone called out to him. Somehow he was not surprised to see that woman standing there.
Up close, her quaintly pretty face was lined with fatigue and the long years of hardship. Her voice had a high timbre and an abrasive edge to it which somehow was more endearing with the image he had of her in his mind. She spoke haltingly and uncertainly in the native language he understood, and this was the gist of it.
“I heard from the others, that you are a big man and very famous. You take pictures and write stories about us. But I think you are taking wrong pictures.”
He was taken aback. Whatever he had expected from her and he was not sure what, it was not this. She continued hesitantly.
“You take pictures of our camp and our suffering but you do not see the Nature. They make happier pictures. Then when you will think back, you will think good things. I will be your guide and show you where you can take nice pictures.”
He knew of the lake near the foot of the mountain where she took him to but hadn’t visited. It wasn’t a part of his expedition. She took him to the lush green, now snow-capped forest and to a cliff from where they beheld the panaromic view of the camp below. He wasn’t a nature photographer but his stills that day surpassed many of those who excelled in nature photography. They made it back even before the others had woken up.
He tried to show his gratitude and his inner celebration of her spirit in the only way he could, by taking out a couple of hundred dollar notes. He knew it would go a long way in abating her plight as a refugee. But she just shook her head, smiled lightly and turned away saying, “Give it to the children.”
As she walked away from him, in an unprecedented show of bafflement, he shouted after her. “How do you do it? How are you so content even… even… in midst of all this?” He asked her gesturing towards the slowly-stirring camp.
She turned back to him and earnestly replied.
“You see, you just live one day. I take one day and live. So, no matter if I see another day or not. After all, some see many ‘one day’ and some less. Then why live the day sad?”
He stared after her as she walked back to her camp and stood there for a long time.
He had thought, he knew everything there was to know in this life, but he was taught what it is to live by a woman who lived in that part of the world where suffering was a way of life, who had lost everything and had nothing to live for.
He never saw her again.
In the opulently decorated home of a renowned globe-trotter and photographer, there only hung a single life-sized photograph- a wide-eyed, bereft-looking woman with arms splayed wide dancing in the snow in falling sunlight. People knew it was his picture symbolising Life and Hope, as he had told many.
But no one knew the story.
This story is very close to my heart, a completion of a thought, a revival of sorts, a favourite with a few of my favourite readers. Republishing on request. Neha, you listening? G.