Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Mohamed Nohassi
I catch a glimpse of the man that he once was, now buried in between torn envelopes and photo albums, on a Wednesday.
I have my mouth filled with water, forming two balloons on either side of my face, when he jogs toward me. He doesn’t look like the thirty-two or forty-two-year-old man that he is. With a childish smile that only a teenage boy at heart could wear, he gives me a one-armed hug before cupping his hands around my cheeks and squeezing. I spurt the water out and look at my father, a slight smile threatening to replace the daggers I was directing towards him. With that, he is off negotiating about P1s, Oracles and Codes.
The dead man returns later that evening when he tackles my younger brother onto the floor. They’re both laughing and suddenly my father’s face looks seven again, sitting in between his parents with a mischievous smile on his face. His phone rings moments later. The skin of his face falls from the crinkles his smile was tethering and the boy is dead. His skin turns into a pale sheet enveloping his skull as he moves to pick the call.
“Yes, I’ll get it done. It’s no trouble at all,” he says, tone clipped and having no resemblance to the boisterous laughter mere seconds ago.
No trouble at all. His vapid tone implies otherwise.
I hold another black-and-white photograph in my hand. Its edges are worn and creases run along the vertical and horizontal centers of the thin sheet. The polaroid’s musty smell is accompanied by the salt of the sea thrashing behind the people in the photo. A matte pallor covers the sheet but does nothing to diminish the bright smile my father sports. In the photo, he has his arm lazily thrown around his sister, and there are two other people I don’t recognise who aren’t looking at the camera. I wonder who clicked the photograph. There aren’t many photographs my father is in today, as he is always the one to volunteer for the clicking. I wonder if he realizes. I wonder if he remembers that there was a time when he wasn’t the one always behind the camera. I never want him to be the person behind the camera anymore—face forgotten with only the physical photograph by itself a proof that someone existed.
At home today, he flips open his laptop after dinner, the carefree smile back in place as he watches a 90’s comedy show. The phone rings again. His smile droops and it’s like watching a flower in my garden dry up in the blazing sun, pink petals turning brown and wrinkled, until it peels itself away and falls onto the soil.
He works until 3 AM after the call.
It’s the mornings after these calls when it feels as though the man that he is now may die. He may die once again. The bags beneath his eyes are filled with charcoal, fog clouding his eyeballs. There is a dry lilt to his good morning. He fills his throat with hot tea, the number of cups an unhealthy amount, but at least it brings a slight flush back to his face. He lives on this—the tea, the murukku, the crime novels he reads, and the ghost films he watches. I wonder if he sees these stories, sees himself in the ghosts. I wonder if he sees the remnants of the man he killed and buried with my birth, my brother’s and the job he carries.
Lunch is served and he slurps the sambhar, spills the rice as he fills his plate. Food covering his chin, and he reminds me of my younger brother learning to eat as a child. It’s in moments like these, that I see the man in those photographs come to life.
The man that smiles at my mother in their wedding album, young and not yet torn apart by the world. The man that wrote those diary entries years ago, with spelling mistakes and clever jokes that erupt peals of laughters from within my heart. He’s the man that says very good honey! in a video eleven years before from when I sang an English song I didn’t understand.
He’s the man behind the camera, the one that made everyone laugh at the lens, the one people will remember as the reason for their smiles. He’s the man behind the camera but not the one everyone forgets.