आज़ादी विशेषांक / Freedom Special

अंक 13 / Issue 13

The Perfect Shot: Indira Chandrasekhar

‘Ram, you made it home before I did. How fantastic.’ Jeeja turned the ceiling fan on setting up a fierce breeze. Her sari, which she took off and tossed on the bed, made a translucent, grey-green pyramid that rose and fell with an urgent vibration. ‘Oh you can’t believe what today was like – that stupid Shiromani is pregnant and doesn’t fit in any of the clothes anymore.’ She twirled, lifting her bare arms and her ankle-length sari petticoat rode up gently. Ram bent forward, his eyes eager.

‘Oh, I had such a blast at the shoot,’ she continued, deftly folding the five-and-a-half metres of material and smoothing down the red silk peacocks woven into the border. ‘We are working on the tourism series again, and I had to wear a Naga costume. I thought the director’s jaw would drop off when I agreed to do it topless. He didn’t realise I was going to cover myself with a giant woollen shawl, nothing shows through that.’

She laughed and went into the bathroom. Her shadow played on the pale, tiled wall as she washed, swiftly bending and straightening, sluicing jugs of water from a bucket onto her feet and arms. When she emerged, the edge of her petticoat was faintly damp and her hair curled around her face. ‘Do you know, they are saying he may lose his job unless he signs some silly paper for the new ministry? He refuses to do it, such a bore, don’t know why he can’t make a bit of an effort – they’ll probably get us some mofussil creep with no taste to do the shoots instead.’

As she passed him on the bed, Ram caught her waist in his hands and said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing those pictures for the government anyway. You need an artist, Jeej, they don’t know how to make your beauty come alive.’

‘And you do?’ She could smell the soap on him, fresh and clean, smell his hair, she was that close, but she didn’t touch him.

‘Of course I do. I see you Jeeja. You know that don’t you?’

She nodded and whispered as she leaned into him, ‘Yes. I know that.’


‘Ram darling, I can’t stand here in this transparent thing any longer.’ Jeeja took care to hold her pose even as she protested. ‘It’s chilly. And Maro will be here soon, if she sees me like this she too may end up leaving. That girl before her told the whole neighbourhood you photograph me naked.’ She began a vivid account of what the previous maid had spread, when he stepped back abruptly from the camera, knocking over an easel. ‘Ram, I’m sorry, it’s nonsense, did I distract you, did I move?’ He staggered and sat down abruptly between the spare stands for the lights, which teetered and crashed.

Jeeja remained frozen for a moment, her hands still positioned above her head, before rushing across to him. ‘What’s the matter? Shall I call the doctor?’

‘Jeeja, I got the letter yesterday.’ She didn’t need to ask which letter. ‘They say that all my work belongs to them. Every shot I ever took.’

‘What? Even the ones of me?’ He groaned. ‘But they don’t know you’ve taken those do they, Ram? How would they know?’ When he didn’t answer she said. ‘Those pictures will ruin me, ruin me. Damn right-wingers; they don’t recognise art unless it looks like Ravi Varma.’

‘They are going to destroy my work Jeej. Everything with you in it, the theatre pictures, everything. Once I sign it over to them, they’ll destroy it all. That’s what they did to Hamid bhai’s work, a big bonfire in front of his eyes, gelatine silver flames.’

‘My god, Ram, what are we going to do?’

He clutched himself, holding his wiry frame tight, and rocked back and forth. His face was contorted as he said, ‘I won’t give in to them, they can’t survive forever, I’ll simply not sign.’

Jeeja shivered and stood up. She straightened the teetering aluminium rods, dusted herself off, picked up a paisley shawl that lay on a chair and wrapped it around her shoulders. ‘You’ll lose your job if you don’t sign, you know that don’t you?’ When he didn’t reply, she moved to the wall and touched the prints he had taped there. They were ones he had taken of her over the past week, some in the studio, some in the garden, one on the bed. In each one he’d wanted her to look directly into the camera, as if he was trying to look through her eyes and catch what was inside her. She remembered how excited she’d been when he wanted her, wanted to take his art to a higher plane through her, obsessed with capturing the ‘source of her beauty’. She wondered if he would ever find it, if she even knew what it was. She couldn’t bear to look at the photographs, nor at him, as she said, ‘I’ll have to stay with the government, you know that don’t you Ram?’

‘No, no. You can’t do that.’

‘We can’t survive otherwise. What other jobs are there, Ram?’

There was silence. Then he said with a sob, ‘No, Jeeja, no. Don’t do it, it’ll be bonus time. No soul-killing assignments – no prize-giving ceremonies or foreign visitors. We’ll concentrate on the art – really concentrate on getting the perfect shot.’


‘A little to the right,’ he said. ‘Tilt. That way. What don’t you understand? The light, I want the light on your cheekbone.’ Ram put his head to the eyepiece taking care not to displace the meticulously set up tripod. But as his body tightened for the shot, like a cat coiling to spring, a faint breeze blew in from the window. ‘Goddamn it. Sultana!’ he shouted. The skin on Jeeja’s cheek began to pucker faintly in the chill, and he called out again, his voice pitched higher. If Maro didn’t respond fast, his tongue would lose control. It was too early for foul language. Jeeja didn’t mind as much on work days when she could leave his aggression at home, but on the weekends, it was awful.

‘What the hell Sultana, what took you so long. Your husband bedding you in the morning?’ Luckily he spoke in English and Maro didn’t understand him, or so it seemed. Jeeja didn’t dare move her head but indicated the curtains with her eyes. Maro wiped her hands swiftly on her pallu and with a grimace that emphasised the dark shrivelled aspect that had inspired Ram’s nickname for her, hurried to the window. There, she crouched, making sure she and her shadow stayed out of the light as she held the curtains back.

‘At least the old raisin has learnt something,’ Ram muttered and focussed on the image once again. His finger was bent, the last digit taut above the button. He pressed and there was a swift series of mechanical clicks before he raised his head. Jeeja breathed, releasing tension but held her pose – this was only the first shot. When eventually he moved back from the camera, they all relaxed.

Immediately, Jeeja tugged her sari-petticoat back up from hips to waist and covered her upper body with the end of her sari, destroying the softened-drapery, pre-Raphaelite look she’d affected for the shot. It had taken her and Ram a full half hour to move each pleat into position; his perfectionist eye ensured that they were proportioned just right while she held them at her shoulder, gently, so the fluidity of the material about her waist and hips wasn’t stretched or perturbed. He’d asked her to wear crepe silk and chosen the colour, even though he was shooting in black and white. ‘The density of the primary hues is so different from pastels,’ he’d said, when she had first become his muse. Nowadays he rarely spoke about the craft to her. When all the pleats were in position, he’d used one of the super-large paper-clips he’d saved from college days in America, fastening the material to the blouse, behind her shoulder. She knew what kind of posture he expected her to adopt from how he dressed her for the shot. But she waited. Sometimes he surprised her. But even when he didn’t, even when she’d predicted every twist and tilt, it put him in a bad mood if she didn’t let him direct her. ‘Turn a little, twist from the waist, look over your left shoulder, right shoulder back and up.’ The instructions prepared him for the shot.

Only when Ram left the room did Jeeja step down from the pedestal. ‘Maro, can you pick up the baby, I’ll change my sari first,’ she called as she hurried out of the door. The baby had stopped whimpering a while earlier, maybe he understood that the yelling only made it take longer for his mother to give him her attention.

She looked at her waist in the mirror. It was not as it used to be when it first caught Ram’s eye, but was still slim. ‘I hope that won’t happen to you,’ he’d once said when his sister had sent them a photograph of her new baby. The snapshot was ill-composed and included little of his sister’s doting face but a substantial view of the loose, post-partum spread of her belly and the jelly-like droop off her slim arm. ‘She’s happy,’ Jeeja had replied smugly and they’d both smirked. She’d made sure her waist was still a seductive part of her even after the baby, asking old Maro to fling alternate mugs of ice-cold and burning hot water on her abdomen starting three weeks after the birth. She pulled the cotton sari tighter now so her curves weren’t hidden, and smoothed the folds over herself. Ram didn’t like too much kajal for the shots because it spread in the heat of the lamps, but she was generous now as she leaned into the mirror. Too generous, perhaps: as she went to the kitchen to get the baby, he was at the dining table frowning at a print. She bent to touch his shoulder and Ram looked up. His gaze rested on her lower lids briefly, and moved down her body, but swung back to up to her eyes again, his expression changing before returning to the print.

‘He sees me again, don’t you think?’ she whispered to the baby who gurgled back. She looked in the mirror on the kitchen door and examined herself. ‘I thought for a moment my kajal had smeared. But it isn’t that, he is beginning to get his eye back, I think.’ Maro, to whom this last was addressed, was chopping beans fiercely and didn’t answer. ‘Yes that’s it,’ Jeeja mumbled, ‘he sees me again.’ When Ram disappeared into his studio, she tried to follow him. Sometimes, if she rubbed his back, tired from bending over the light box, he was willing to talk to her. But today he was on the phone and glared at her when she entered. ‘Yes, the morning shoot,’ he was saying. He was speaking to that girl, she realised.

Jeeja wished she hadn’t brought the girl into the studio, but she had been so tired after the baby. ‘Please Ram, not another early morning shot?’ she’d pleaded. After a week, he complained of the tiredness of her skin, the shadows under her eyes, her lack of enthusiasm. She’d found the girl, an out-of-work model, through her contacts at the agency. Even when Jeeja had been ready to pose for him again, Ram had suggested the girl continued. ‘She has good lines, very good lines,’ he’d said, ‘and she’s willing.’ Willing? Willing to do what? Why had she permitted it? Jeeja’s stomach burnt. ‘It has to be the first light of morning,’ he used to say. That’s how he’d wooed her, seduced her into staying in the studio, waking her with gifts so she’d smile straight at him when she posed for him in the morning. Recently when he’d woken her early, it was to make tea for the girl. When she asked him about it he dismissed her suspicions saying, ‘She is nothing Jeeja, just an empty body,’ which had disturbed her even more.


‘Beauty,’ his voice was high, shrieking, ‘I’m not afraid of beauty*.’ Indicating to Maro to take the baby for a walk, she opened the studio door. She hadn’t stepped inside for weeks. The normally light-filled room was dim, the curtains drawn shut. A large pile of torn prints lay scattered on the floor. And Ram lay splayed on top of them. She turned on a table lamp. A photograph of herself in the paisley shawl, the folds pulled tight over her pregnant stomach, was crumpled under his right foot.

‘Fucking useless stuff,’ he said. ‘A lifetime of it.’

‘But I love that picture, Ram,’ she said softly, picking up the fragment.

‘You love it,’ he mimicked. ‘Do you think he does too?’ He waved a newspaper at her face. ‘Every day, I’ve shot you every day. Who is the bastard? Do you think he knows how to take your picture?’ It was a newspaper from last week, an article about her. How had Ram got hold of it, he hardly ever left the studio now, let alone, the house.

‘Art,’ he screamed, banging the paper on the floor. ‘The bastard talks about art.’

‘It’s rubbish, Ram, you know it. He simply creates publicity shots, it’s not art.’

‘How many layers did you take off for that picture? Huh, tell me that. Exposing yourself! And how come the government allows that?’

‘It’s perfectly decent. Besides, what do today’s money-mongering politicians care, Ram? They don’t act all self-righteous like the last chaps.’ She bent and took his shoulders and shook him. ‘Get up! What’s wrong with you? You were the one who refused to go to work when they were hiring – your principles, you said. And when things eased up, when they asked you to take your old job back, you were the one who said you wouldn’t stoop to take photos of people you didn’t respect. Naturally they don’t write about you.’

‘They write about you.’


‘And they photograph you.’


Ram sat up and flailed his arms. Bits of photographs flew about. A fragment with Jeeja’s eye stuck to his sweat-dampened face, a piece of her extended leg landed on his shirt. He began to sob. ‘I see you Jeeja, you look at me with your kajal-darkened eye, and my insides twist with the intensity of it. But every day I catch it less. Look.’ He picked up a picture – it was one he’d taken in the garden in the winter, she could see a bit of the rose bush in bloom. ‘Flat, no soul, no soul. Why do you escape me, why? You don’t shine at me anymore. Where are you? Where are you, Jeeja?’

She knelt and put her arms around him. Was it an hour afterwards that they moved, or a day, Jeeja couldn’t tell. It was Ram who first stirred. ‘Come,’ he said, and raised her up. He drew back the curtains letting in the light. ‘Stand by the window,’ he said. ‘No, don’t wipe your face. Just like that, as you are. I want to catch you as you are.’


* ‘I’m not afraid of beauty’: Quote from Anish Kapoor, used with permission.

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