The photograph I didn’t click, the image I carry

It was in 1992/93… I don’t really remember. I was nursing a bruised heart. My parents had come to Delhi though they had no idea of my heart’s haal. My father had a conference to attend, my mother was on a pleasure trip. I was studying in JNU then. During my parents’ visit, I was my mother’s tourist guide in Delhi. I felt very responsible doing this job of taking her around India’s capital city. Though my dad had given strict instructions to me to take my mom around only in autos, I being the one who hardly ever followed instructions did just the opposite. I egged her to go for a ride in the killer DTC buses. I gave her the logic that she must know how I travel in Delhi. She happily bought my logic and we had an enjoyable ride.

My mom wanted to see the Taj Mahal and as my dad was too busy I had to accompany her to Agra. Before that I had only seen the Taj Mahal in picture post cards or New Year Greeting cards (yes, there was a time when people used to send New Year Greeting cards. Now people wish only on Facebook or whatsapp). I was mesmerized by the Taj Mahal. Actually I never imagined it to be so huge, so grand. I always had this small picture post card images of Taj Mahal in my mind. I grew up with this romantic notion that I could hug the Taj Mahal.

From the Taj Mahal, we went to visit Fatehpur Sikri. I found it far more beautiful than the Taj Mahal. We had a wonderful tour of this fortified city meaning victory. As we were coming out of this fascinating historical place, my mother stopped by. There was an elderly man with flowing beard sitting in a kind of small structure and there was a lamp burning bright inside that place. The lamp was being lit in the memory of Emperor Akbar. I was ready to move ahead after listening to his story (I have no idea whether this tiny structure is still there or not or where exactly it was in that huge place). My mother pulled my hand and asked me to stand there. I saw her drawing the pallu of her sari on her head as she always does when she gets ready to pay her respects to anybody. I saw her touching the ground and praying in front of the earthen lamp. I have seen her worshipping like that in the temples of Odisha. I have seen her bowing like that in reverence in the Puri Temple.

There was something pure magical about that act of my mother in that moment. I felt a sense of elation, stillness, pure respect deep within me while watching my mother praying for Emperor Akbar. She offered some money to the old man looking after the structure. She got up and said “Akbar, what a great man he was! What all he has given to this country.” She added, “In the end, they all including Emperor Akbar also go away. But some like Akbar leave something behind.”

My mother in her lifetime never understood or tried to understand this whole talk of secular, pseudo-secular, communal. She didn’t understand right-wing politics or left activism. She just knew and believed in the simple art of reverence. This is what she did when she offered her respects to Akbar. I wish I had taken a photo of hers then. But I didn’t have a camera then. In today’s times that photograph would have made so much of sense. A Hindu woman from the temple town of Bhubaneswar touching the ground in respect on which Emperor Akbar walked once. An ordinary woman offering her respects to a mighty Mughal emperor. I don’t have a photograph but I carry that image in my heart.

For the last couple of days, this image is constantly playing in my mind. The image follows me wherever I go. On the roads while I am stuck in a traffic jam, while watching the mellowed sun calling it a day in my part of the world and thereby making the sky bath in soft colours or while drinking tea on an otherwise hot autumn morning. The image just doesn’t leave me yet it gives me comfort in my moments of deep hurt and agony of seeing what’s happening in India.

Who knows what will happen to our history? Who knows what lies ahead? How will the changing narrative see Emperor Akbar? Frankly speaking, I have no idea.

Like me, history is now fragile in this country. But I have that one image to cling to when I feel desolate and lonely. In today’s masculine, violent, aggressive India.

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