The photograph had been discovered under a dying man’s pillow. After he and the bedding were removed, the small black and white photograph lay alone. The words “my mother” were written on the back. The pencil marks defied time and left the family with a challenge of epic proportions.
The man’s eldest son pocketed the photograph and did not share it with his siblings. It took another twenty years for him to reveal it, and then, he only showed it to his son. This son worked in advertising and was a gifted photographer; he was given to retouching photographs as if he were painting. Under his hands, the woman’s face remained untouched, but her clothing, hands, and ornamentation all went through something of a transformation as he made copies for various relatives. Before long, different members of the family had variously come to believe or disbelieve in the photo and its significance.
The family itself became scattered all over the world. After the Partition of India in 1947, the younger generation of this particular Kashmiri clan settled not only in Pakistan but in Europe and North America. The photograph was brought along with other documents and records by various members from one country to another. Many third-generation members of the family had copies of the photograph placed in albums and had forgotten about it. It never generated a dialogue among the ten granddaughters of the woman in the photograph. It was as though this generation’s memory had been wiped or a prohibition placed on talking about it.
One woman passed by the enlarged, framed photograph daily in her home. This woman, Nina, known to be a sentimental aesthete, spent months searching for the right frame in which to display the picture. She settled on a stunning Italian Renaissance design whose beauty complemented the subject. The frame was only thirteen by sixteen inches, but it made viewers linger as they gazed at it.
Of all the objects in her art-strewn home, Nina took a sense of reassurance from her own history. Yet this framed photograph of a young woman who could not have been more than nineteen or twenty when it was taken continued to exert a hypnotic effect on her, and she began to feel that it was not a one-way street. It felt like a case of the watcher being watched. The resolute expression on the face of the young woman was astounding for its time period. This apple-cheeked beauty with jet-black eyebrows, which slashed her forehead and created a border for her eyes that blazed with an unspoken fury, made her stare back, resolute with an emotion. She used her eyes like an X-ray machine. Nina wanted to get inside this face and touch its real history.
When the woman embarked on a search for the origins of the photo, she was met with resistance. Finally, an octogenarian niece of her mother’s released some information about the story of the woman in the photograph; she was her maternal great-grandmother. Nina clung to the fragments of information she received and placed them in the vault of her memory, as if storing gems.
As the story went, when her great-grandfather, who was a lawyer and enjoyed a good fortune from his land holdings, visited a home ten miles away from the city, he was led to a formal sitting room. His host offered refreshment, and he was intrigued by the sound of a voice in the adjoining room. This voice, and the Persian words that entered the room through a gauzy curtain, wrapped around his senses as though he had been submerged in a pool of silky water. He was mesmerized both by their proximity and the unseen voice. He was already married and the father of five children, yet he left that home obsessed. Within days, he indicated to this family that he wished to marry the young woman who recited Persian verse so beautifully. As he was a man of substance and personal wealth, his offer was accepted.
It was late one night when a sound awoke Nina in Toronto. The hum of the central air conditioning normally prevented sound from entering her bedroom. She started and knew immediately she had not been dreaming. It was the sound of a song. She walked into the living room wondering if her music system had started up on its own. Yet no sound emerged from that area. In this late summer night, moonlight flooded through the floor-to-ceiling windows which led to the balcony. She walked slowly, coming closer to the wall where the portrait hung. She leaned down and switched on the lamp which sat on a small ornamental table close to it. She looked up out of habit. The frame was empty.
She raised the palm to her lips, and her tongue told her it was salty. A tear had been shed, she was convinced of it.
Every year, for three months, the girl’s favourite uncle came for a visit. He had fought for her education and taught her everything about Persian poetry. The girl was bright and grasped sufficient vocabulary of Persian, although Urdu was the language of the region. She was encouraged to recite for her father, who smiled with pride. By the time she had reached the age of fifteen, marriage proposals started coming for her, but her two elder sisters had to be married first. She didn’t care as she climbed trees in the big garden of the house and draped herself in her mother’s shawls and created little pageants out of speeches and poetry. In the summer, her fair complexion reddened with the sun; her dark, long hair framed her face; and her eyes sparkled. Her thick, straight, jet-black eyebrows forced attention to her face. Four years later, when she was informed that a proposal had been made and accepted, and that her husband-to-be was an educated lawyer, she was disappointed; at nineteen, she wanted her life to continue just as it was. There was something about living with a stranger in a different home that seemed disturbing; however, she had to keep these thoughts to herself.
This man, who had aquiline features and light hazel eyes, sent ropes of pearls fashioned as a necklace and long, delicate pearl earrings studded with tiny rubies, along with a set of ivory brocade clothes, for the wedding. Her mother was appalled at the restrained shade of the clothing and made her wear a deep crimson outfit instead. When the girl signed her marriage contract, her fingers trembled; the man leaned forward and steadied her grip on the pen. She had not looked up at him from under the ornate head-covering fabric but felt immense gratitude for this gesture. He had saved her from embarrassing herself and her family. A fragrance floated from him which intrigued her. She was only familiar with the essence of rose that she wore. Waiting for them outside was a strange conveyance: a car festooned with strands of jasmine, in which he settled her in the back seat before taking her away. The engine started, surprised her, and she clenched her hands. Seated beside her, the man chuckled softly and forced her hands to release their tension, and she was shocked by the intimacy.
The house he took her to was in the inner city. It was built around a large central courtyard but had no garden. A staircase spiralled from the ground to two upper floors and the rooftop. The room he ushered her into on the second floor had a big bed, which was decorated with garlands of flowers, and a magnificent carpet. Covering almost the length of one wall was a gleaming teak armoire for clothes. The girl had never seen anything like it. On an ornate dressing table lay his set of hairbrushes with wooden handles, flanking a bottle of sandalwood. That was the scent lingering in his clothes. The other, empty side was for her things. A double set of windows opened out from the room, and all that could be seen was the central courtyard below. She was then led up to a rooftop terrace, where flocks of pigeons sat around the ledges. A bird cage on the terrace held two parrots, and another had a pair of nightingales. There were three clay containers which held flowering plants. The girl’s spirits lifted a little when she saw the jasmine bush and a miniature blooming wild rose as well.
When the man brought her back inside from the terrace to their room, he moved closer and playfully slid her head covering off.
“I wanted to see your hair, Inam. How long is it?”
He had used someone else’s name. But there was no one else in the room.
“I have changed your name. It will now be Inam. A prize. Because that is what I feel about you.”
The girl promptly burst into tears. Her own name was gone, as was the garden she had grown up playing in. She hated birds in cages. She felt that this man was making fun of her. She knew there would be physical intimacy in the bed and was frightened. Perhaps the tears would repulse him and he would leave. Instead, he pulled out a white handkerchief from the pocket of his long wedding tunic and, making her sit on the edge of the bed, gently wiped her tears. So she continued to weep and he continued to smile as he dabbed her face.
Back in Toronto, Nina stood aghast, looking at the empty frame. She blinked furiously. A chill overtook her body in spite of the night’s warmth. Was it a mind game? The minute she had seen the empty frame, she had looked at the floor hoping when she looked up again, the frame would not be empty. She sought refuge in humour. Perhaps the young girl had gone for a walk and would return. Perhaps people in photographs were imprisoned and often they found a way to simply walk away. Nothing could induce her to look at the empty frame itself again. She had loved the girl in the photograph for years and felt she lived with her.
Nina had recently taken up the practice of vinyasa yoga. Through its slow pace and meditative breathing techniques, she had found that vinyasa could lead to an altered state where physical dimensions dissolved. One particular posture could make her relax to the point that she felt she was having an out-of-body experience. Now she lay down on the carpet and held the pose and began a breathing exercise. From her forehead to the soles of her feet, all physical tension vanished. Her outstretched arms and legs created the sensation of being weightless. Suddenly she felt a drop of moisture fall on the palm of her outstretched right hand. She raised the palm to her lips, and her tongue told her it was salty. A tear had been shed, she was convinced of it.
Inam sat at the dressing table trying to coil her hair into a chignon at the nape of her neck. It was a tedious exercise, but her husband had requested that she do this. It suited her better than a tight braid dangling along her spine like an animal’s tail. When Ismail tucked a sprig of jasmine or a tiny rose on one side, her reflection in the mirror did not displease her. She thought she looked like the women in Persian miniature paintings. But still, she fought each new ritual this odd man who was now her husband eased her into. He had a gentle authority and graceful manners which confused her.
When she released the pair of nightingales from their cage, he had simply sighed and said, “Now you will have to sing twice a day, as the birds sang twice a day.”
She blushed at the suggestion, but he just laughed uproariously. He had asked her if she could cook, and she told him she had never been interested. He suggested that she visit the ground-floor kitchen and observe the cooking. She was expected to cook on special occasions. “I want to eat what is cooked by your hands.”
Inam found his ardour flattering and yet unsettling. He often took small trips away, which she assumed were related to his work, but when he returned, she could not stay the quiver of excitement that rippled through her. She would prepare a special dish for him. Often it was a dessert. He created a ritual out of making her try the first spoonful, offering it to her as though a parent feeding a child. As though all the fuss was for her and not him. There would be gifts which he would produce like a magician. A fountain pen with a bottle of ink and sheets of loose cream-coloured paper just appeared on her side of the dressing table.
“I have had a small table and chair placed on the terrace,” he said one day. “You can write poetry there in peace.”
The day Inam learned her status as a second wife, from an elderly maid in the house, she was so shocked that she could not utter a word. Her thirty-eight-year-old husband had already been married for fifteen years, had five children. He had been maintaining two homes. Inam never recited a single poem for him after that day. His gifts to her lay unused in the teak armoire. Silently, she would give birth to their two sons in sequence, repressing the fury which raged within her. She was scared it could flavour the milk in her breasts. Her contact with her own family became minimal and strained. In arranged marriages like theirs, decisions were made by a bride’s parents. A second marriage was not uncommon. But her pride was shattered. She had given four years of her youth to this man.
Nina woke up on the carpet in her apartment. The bizarre night and the fact of having actually fallen asleep in shavasana confounded her as she opened her eyes. She looked up at the wall, and the young woman with dramatic eyebrows gazed back at her from the frame. So it had been a dream. Her imagination could no longer be trusted.
Later, she pulled out a file folder from her papers. Inside was a hand-drawn family tree. It started with Ismail. Then Nina rifled through an album of photographs. Against a range of both fashionable and traditional clothes and poses portrayed by the women of her family over a century, no one else’s clothing or accessories resembled those of Inam, the second wife of Ismail.
She looked at the photograph more closely. Women in the late-nineteenth century did not pose boldly, as Inam had: the cascading earrings made of flowers and the ornate rings and bracelets on the long-fingered hands folding over an elaborate necklace flowing down her chest. The pose itself, of one ankle crossing the other as she stood leaning against a chair, could have been that of a contemporary model. She also wore the kind of heavy anklets and shoes associated with dancers.
The cousin who had enlarged and circulated the photograph was dead now, and when Nina had questioned his wife about the photograph being retouched, the woman had vehemently denied this. An extended family treasured this image of a great-grandmother. So she backed off.
There was a psychiatrist Nina consulted from time to time, and he had always encouraged her to be in touch whenever she needed to.
“It was late at night. Was the frame truly empty? Did you have any alcohol or take a sleeping pill that night?” the doctor asked when she told him the story. He was bent over his notepad, writing.
“No. I was wide awake. I was stunned and then frightened.”
“It was outside the limits of reality. Perhaps even supernatural.”
He jerked up his head and gazed at her. “You mean a hallucination? Or did you just imagine this? What is your relationship with this photograph?”
“I think we both watch each other,” Nina blurted out.
“Photographs are inanimate material not known to have physical movement. But you know that,” he said, smiling. It was like the time she had called him Merlin because he handed magic spells to her.
She gathered her thoughts. The doctor waited for her to say something that would drive the session along.
“I have a close link with the woman in the photo through my grandfather. She was his mother. So it’s there. I think the photograph has been retouched; today we would call it photoshopped. I think it is fake. She is not fake, though.”
“What do you think guided the person who did this?”
“I don’t know,” Nina said. “He was a photographer. He is no longer alive. It’s a dead end.” She felt desperate for the doctor to unravel her mind, her behaviour, and the story.
When she got home, she stood in front of the photograph, still back in its frame, and did not move for a while.
“Is this a fake photograph? Did someone choose these clothes for you? Royal courtesans of the Mughal era dressed like this. Was this just your husband’s fantasy?” she asked the impossibly beautiful face.
The eyes gazed back without revealing anything.
Inam was heavy with her second pregnancy. The daily antics of her older son, who was three, exhausted her. Ismail had brought a special pair of baby shoes for the boy, Siraj. He told her they were replicas of shoes made by English shoemakers. They would keep the ankle firm and had excellent support. It was her duty to ensure that Siraj wore them daily despite his penchant for crying and kicking them off.
Ismail was absent from the home more often now. When he returned, he brought fine gifts. Inam, wise to her status, wondered if the gifts were indications of a guilty conscience or genuine affection. She did not have the courage to confront him outright, and he never shared details about his other family with her. These troubling questions crystallized into a knot of pain. Gone was the laughing girl who had so enchanted her husband. Like the missing nightingales, the sweet strains of her gentle conversation went away. She was growing older and bitter. Yet, in front of Ismail, she behaved as was expected of her. She had become a model wife and was now a mother. A small hutch was built on the terrace for a pair of rabbits her toddlers played with. Instead of reading poetry aloud, she experimented with writing a story of her own but remained uncertain about her narrative. She did not share this pursuit with Ismail.
When Ismail was home, she worked at embroidering a tablecloth. If he was disappointed in her, he did not reveal it; instead, he read to her from a large, heavily illustrated book containing the work of the poet Rumi. She was stunned at the reach of the words she heard. She did not realize that this work, Dīvān-e Shams, had been inspired by a work compiled by Rumi for someone he loved who had died suddenly and mysteriously. Ismail had chosen its words of love and longing wisely. He thought, perhaps, that as she listened to the quatrains of longing, she would return to him.
After her second child, a son called Miraj, was born, she avoided physical contact with Ismail. She was angry and felt he did not understand how she, a favoured and pampered child of her own family, could be humiliated as she had been. Would he marry again if he tired of her? When Ismail reached for her, she turned limp and was unresponsive, and her puzzled husband did not force her. Instead, he held her gently. To Inam, her husband had also become someone else. Yet the bonds of this marriage were traditional and older than each of them. She had given him two sons and maintained a comfortable home, so she had not shirked her duties. He had given her status, comfort, and beautiful sons. Inam felt very strongly that there was no convention that dictated that she had to share what was in her heart with him or anyone else.
Nina embarked on a trip from Toronto to the city where Ismail had brought Inam as his bride. The old section of Lahore still existed. Ismail’s courtyard home had an intact ground floor, but the upper two floors were in ruins. An elderly family member who lived in Lahore consented to escort her, amused by her great interest. The relative said Nina was at least a hundred years too late. The home was a ruin, the family no longer owned the property, and some very poor relatives lived in the two rooms on the main floor as squatters. These people did not mind visitors. Nina walked through a laneway which would only permit space for a bicycle or for two people to walk side by side, the houses to either side blocking all but a filter of sunlight.
Finally, she reached a wooden door with some embellishments that had turned dark with age. Crude plaster covered the walls to either side of the brass-accented door. On one side, a chunk had fallen off, and a sliver of red brick was visible. The sight of this three-inch scar in the brick electrified her. The home had withstood time, and Inam’s history had not perished.
Inside the darkened vestibule, a man greeted her, and she resisted his entreaties to bring her farther inside and stepped out into the courtyard. Here the sun shone on the pitiful, ruined two upper floors. Only windows remained, shaped like conical archways. The roof had fallen. She wanted to see the ghosts of her great-grandparents recite Persian poetry in this courtyard. She wanted to hear Inam’s bracelets and anklets tinkling and the sound of singing nightingales. The man with her kept repeating, “There is nothing here. The municipality sends notices to demolish it, but we manage in the two rooms. We don’t let them inside. But we will have to go soon.”
“There was a woman, my great-grandmother. She came to this house,” Nina said and could feel tears gathering in her eyes.
It was obvious this man had no inkling of the history of the family that had owned the place.
“My wife has made some tea for you. Please come inside,” he said, tugging at her arm.
Inam knew that Ismail had something in his mind. He told her he was expecting his nephew who had returned from studying in Germany. Preparations had to be made. She was to be dressed formally. Then he went to his side of the armoire and brought out two velvet boxes. The old maid was to take both the boys to the rooftop and keep them there. Inam knew that her older son, Siraj, would be happy playing with the rabbits, but the younger one, Miraj, clung to her and disliked the maid. Ismail bore his stern, authoritarian air, the one he used in court. Inam knew she could not disobey him. Hearing her younger son’s wail pierce the house as he was carried away, she hated Ismail. There had been no time to give the maid any lumps of gurh, the brown sugar confectionary studded with nuts which both her sons loved.
Ismail placed the boxes on the bed and told her to open them. Inam was quite stunned to discover that the first one held an ornate necklace with medallions of pure gold shaped like leaves. The second box contained heavy anklets as well as gold bangles and rings. The jewellery blazed like a king’s treasure in the bedroom.
“I want you to wear clothes over which this jewellery will sit well—wear white,” he said and walked out of the room.
He thought, perhaps, that as she listened to the quatrains of longing, she would return to him.
Inam was curious about the jewellery. She put on the necklace and the heavy anklets and stepped onto the carpet by the bed. The oval-shaped mirror above the dressing table only showed her head and shoulders. Was he taking her to a wedding? It was clear there was a purpose to this. What was so important about this nephew?
She draped a length of diaphanous white fabric over the back of her hair and over her shoulders. The ornate necklace with decorative medallions flowed over her chest. She slipped on the rings and bangles, but there were no earrings in the box. She knew she could remedy this and, lifting the strands of jasmine from a saucer of water on the dressing table, threaded them around her earlobes. The effect was dramatic; the flowers cascaded down, brushing her cheeks. The brocade shoes with turned-up toes were big for her, but she slipped them on her feet anyway.
Ten minutes later, Ismail returned with his nephew. Both men were transfixed.
“Please let her stand. Maybe against the chair,” the nephew said, pointing to the narrow chair with a cane seat and a simple curved frame. He was holding a camera.
“Inam,” said Ismail, “let’s make you immortal. Now you will never be forgotten.”
Nina only spent twenty minutes in the ruins of the house. Although she longed to go up to the second floor, the stairs had disintegrated. The terrace no longer existed, brought down with the roof when it collapsed. And so she left her ancestral home and returned to Toronto as her project also collapsed. Back in the penthouse, she moved the framed portrait of Inam into an alcove. She had found the trip and the endless speculations around it to be exhausting.
That was until a call came from a prominent poet from Pakistan. He told her he had an anecdote to relate about her grandfather, Siraj, who had been a literary critic in Sialkot. He also wondered if she had any copies of her late grandfather’s works of poetry. She told him over the phone that she did have a few xeroxed copies. It was becoming a lengthy phone conversation. His last comment was intriguing.
“Your grandfather held a literary salon in Sialkot,” the elderly poet said. “Poets recited their work and your grandfather presided. He was quite instrumental in promoting poetry and always thanked his mother for that.”
Then he chuckled. “His father was a lawyer and, apparently, quite notorious.”
“Well, there was some scandal about a courtesan he married and kept hidden.”
“She was never hidden.” Nina chose her words carefully. “Come for lunch tomorrow and I shall introduce you to her.”