“Can you print this one, sir?”
Thummalabailu 2017. The woman scrolling through my phone pointed to a picture of a man next to the the TV and a shower of red and yellow cables spilling from under a burlap sack tablecloth to the car battery on the floor. The TV was resting on a sewing machine table, the foot pedal out of view. A man wearing a maroon and yellow plaid shirt and blue pants is crouched with one hand on the table and the other in a philospher’s pose, his chin on his knuckles, his elbow resting on the knee. He is neither at rest nor in action, neither about to move nor to settle. And he is posing, looking directly into the camera. But there is not enough light in the room, and one half of his body is illuminated by the window light to his left, and the other half is in darkness. The camera, or more precisely the person behind it, cannot be still either, and the final image is a face blurred, one eye wet and large, the other hidden, and we cannot read his facial expression. It is a handsome if vague profile.
The woman dabs the edge of her eyes with a sari as she looks at the screen – the screentimes out and she hands it back to me to bring the image up again. Venkatayya explains to me what everyone else in the room knows.
“That was her husband,” or did he say “That is her husband” ?
He was in that room when the photo was taken, when we watched Titanic together 14 years ago.
Chinthala, 2003. In one of the later scenes of Titanic, an old couple lies in bed together as the flooding water rises around them. The first time I saw this movie was in a new theater in Himayatnagar, Hyderabad. The front rows were filled with teenage and twenty-something young men. Their reaction to this scene can best be described as “hootin’ and hollerin’’” which made me embarrassed and slightly alarmed for my American women friends at my side.
The scene in the improvised home theater in Chinthala where I watched Titanic again, with three young Chenchu men, one of whom would be married and then deceased, could not be more different from that in the rowdy Hyderabadi cinema. They asked me whether this was what life in America was like, and I described the best I could the singularity of the movie – a historic moment on a particularly opulent ship. They compared scenes to those in Telugu movies also set abroad, the orchestra comes to mind. I was prepared to explain, to translate the English dialogue, but there was no need. The plot and class dynamics in the movie were obvious to them, these Leo de Caprios, only a few years my junior.
Mostly I remember them watching in silence, young husbands, at an age when sweetness had not yet been replaced by cynicism. I remember watching their faces in the moment where the elderly couple – I later learned they were Isidor and Isa Strauss, co-owner of the Macy’s department store I do my best to avoid as I pass through Herald square in Manhattan. Isidor had refused to leave his wife when given a seat on the lifeboat, and Isa had famously given her fur coat to a maid who survived to tell their tale. In the young men’s faces, did I see an appreciation for the precariousness of life, that heart-tugging sentimentality so many of us feel, despite ourselves? Did I see simply an enjoyment of a dramatic scene in a blockbuster movie? It is hard to say now, my own memory tainted by knowing what came after and by time. What I can say is they appreciated a good story and felt connected to it; it was both outside their experience and familiar.
He died maybe 5-6 years ago.” Venkatayya says.
I don’t ask how he died, but someone volunteers.
“He was killed in a fight.”
I glance at the wife, but if she has a reaction, it is hidden to me. She is still looking at the screen. An older woman inches closer but does not touch her.
The story is maddening to me because such a tragedy is so common and so matter of factly said. A violent end is the fate of many Chenchu young men I once knew, many people in the old photographs I asked about. There are nuances here it seems I can never understand – whether for language or for cultural reasons borne from my privilege – and my hosts seem to be protecting me or protecting themselves, I cannot tell. In these moments, I cannot think of questions; Though there are so many; I already feel like I’m taking something that is not mine. A thought crosses my mind – we are all characters in a story we don’t understand but that we hope someone cares about, that is worth remembering and holding dear – but I say nothing.
The small group watches as the instant printer slides out the color photo, pulling the image back in and pushing it out 4 times. Each pass adds another layer of color – yellow, magenta, cyan, and a clear coat to protect the final print. I give the woman the picture. She looks at it and smiles. She does not hold it tenderly in the corner like others do, nor does she cup it in her palm which would bend the print. I think she puts it in a fold of her sari – both protected and out of sight – but she does it very fast, too quickly for me to comprehend. The tears are gone, and she says nothing as she stands without looking back at any of us, bends at the waist to glide out of the hut and into the bright cloudy day outside.