“Here you go”, he handed her the next set of prints and stepped back. He watched her closely as she contemplated which print to put up on the board. She looked at each print carefully and then picked out one photo. She put the rest of the set on the table and went ahead and pinned the selected photo on the board.
She then took a few steps back and looked at the board, her forefinger close to her bottom lip. She tilted her head a little sideways, a sign of contemplation. Unhappy with one of the pictures she removed it from the board and put another one up there. This was something that she did almost always.
“What do you think Benji”, she finally asked him for his opinion. This was a sign that she was almost satisfied with her selection.
“I think it’s good. Hard to say which one is better than the other”, he admitted.
“You say the sweetest of things”, she winked at him and moved towards the board rearranging the pictures again to find that perfect placement.
“Is that right”, he asked skeptically.
“Uh huh”, she said picking out picture and replacing it with another one on the board.
“You mean it”, he asked again.
“Yeah, whatever you say Benji”, Bethany was clearly not paying attention to the tone.
“Come here, I need to talk to you”, he pulled her away from the board and made her sit.
“What is it Benji”, she got irritated at getting pulled away from her board.
“Promise me you won’t overact”, he held out his hand.
“I thought we were past that age Benji”, she joked.
He held his hand in the air and chose to let the gesture do the talking for him.
“Ok I won’t”, she mumbled and placed her hand in his as a promise.
“B, what happened in Hawaii was not right”, he started.
“A lot of things happened in Hawai Benji. What are you talking about”, she tried to evade the topic.
“You know very well what I am talking about”, he was not amused and it showed.
“Ok alright I agree it was not right”, she gave in.
“You not wanting to teach Vanessa photography I can get that. But I don’t get it when you decline her offer to invest in your studio”, he said very bluntly.
“Benji, I don’t want any interference in my work”, she ran a hand through her hair.
“Interference? I can’t believe this”, Benjamin sounded surprised. “This is not interference Bethany. It’s called investment.”
“I don’t need investment”, Bethany’s stubbornness showed up.
“Oh yes we do. B, we need the money. Come one don’t tell me you don’t know that”, Benjamin argued with her.
“No I don’t”, she got up from her chair and tried to walk back to her board.
“Oh no you don’t”, Benjamin held her arm and pulled her back, “don’t you dare bail out here.”
“Let me go”, she struggled against his grip.
“Sit down”, he forcefully pushed her down, “and listen to me now. You say we don’t need investment. Well here’s your reality. You need the money. You need Vanessa’s money to be precise. You know why? Because that money will fund your trips to Africa and India and Latin America to pursue the kind of photography that you have gotten yourself involved with. You need Vanessa’s money because there are not enough buyers for your photos anymore.”
“You can let go of my arm”, Bethany said sternly.
“B, I understand you wanting to work for the philanthropic and charitable organizations. But try to see the business side of it. Nobody wants to hang the photos of starving dark skinned kids or domestically abused women in their homes. They want glamour and beauty. Your photos will look good only in magazines and journals and there’s no money there. So if you want to fund your trips you need Vanessa’s money”, Benjamin looked worried. For the first time he was talking about the financial troubles that were brewing for Bethany.
“I hear you”, Bethany replied not giving away anything more.
“That’s what you do, you just hear. Do you understand B? Tell me honestly, do you ever understand”, the man was definitely getting tired now.
“Can we go back to the board please”, Bethany asked, her face not showing the inner turmoil.
“Can you please at least tell me why you declined Vanessa’s offer”, Benjamin tried another tactic.
“Benji, she is not an artist. She is a millionaire who is looking for investment opportunities. She comes with a drive to make profit. A person in her position will never understand the passion that drives an artist to do things that they do. For her it will all be about how much money we are minting”, Bethany explained, her hands making gestures to emphasize what she was saying.
“I don’t agree B”, he held her hands in place. “Vanessa may be a millionaire and she may have looked at your studio as an investment opportunity. But money is far from her mind. You have forgotten that she is also a philanthropist and wants to support your efforts. She values your work B”, he added.
“How do you know that”, Bethany still sounded skeptical.
“Because I talked to her. You never gave her a chance to explain her proposal. Instead what you did was just refuse and get up and leave”, Benjamin reminded her.
‘Thank you for your offer Ms Goodman but I would like to keep my studio and my work a very personal thing. I appreciate your interest but I am not ready for a partner. You will get copies of your villa photos soon. Benjamin will send them across to you. And thank you for the lovely breakfast. Bye.’
Bethany had made a hasty retreat. And as promised, Benjamin had emailed the soft copies to Vanessa and even apologized to her for Bethany’s sudden departure. In response, Vanessa has sought the young man out for a drink and explained her proposal to him.
“You went behind my back”, Bethany looked furious.
“No I didn’t. All I did was evaluate a meaningful investment opportunity for your studio. And don’t you dare accuse me of betraying you”, it was Benjamin’s time to get furious now.
“I didn’t mean that”, Bethany changed her tone.
“I know you didn’t. But think about it B. Think about Vanessa’s offer. You need money B. We need money to keep the studio going and God knows that we haven’t made a lot from some of your latest photos”, the man was right.
“Are you saying that we make photography a money making machine? It’s my passion Benji. I have never thought it as a money generating channel”, Bethany was shocked to hear her loyal assistant’s views.
“You never had to think about it like that because till now your photos always made money. There were always people ready to open up their check books for you. But now the things have changed. Now your photos don’t sell. No matter how grand an opening we have for your show you don’t sell. The positive reviews have not helped and neither has our marketing machine worked”, he thought it was definitely time now for Bethany to know the reality.
“I don’t care”, she replied and got up from her seat. “I am not letting some money minded third person take over my studio”, she said and left the room.
“For God’s sake it’s not a takeover”, he yelled behind her. When he didn’t get any response he banged his fist heavily on the table, his frustration spilling over.
He was interrupted in this bout by the ringing phone.
“Hello”, he literally spat into the phone.
“Not a good time I assume”, the voice on the other end asked.
“Not really”, he replied rubbing his forehead.
“In that case can I talk to Bethany”, the woman on the other end asked.
“Listen, why don’t you call us back after some time? We are really into something important”, he tried to control his irritation.
“Yeah no problem, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Just tell her I called to check on her. It’s been long time”, the woman said.
“Adah, she is a big girl and knows how to take care of her. You don’t need to check. And there are enough troubles in our lives here right now. Just don’t add to it”, his tone had become nasty and he knew it.
“What troubles”, she asked ignoring his previous jab.
“Just stay away from us”, and with that he banged the phone. He was in no mood of being Mr goodie good with anybody right now, including one Ms Adah Merchant or should he say Mrs Adah Saahil Shroff.
He banged the phone this time. This was the fifth time in the week Bethany had hung up the phone without really talking to him. It was almost as if she was avoiding him. Every time he called her up, she was either on the road or busy doing something. At times her phone just rang and rang but he didn’t get a response or a call back.
Just as he was thinking this, his cell phone beeped. It was Bethany who was calling him.
“Hello”, he answered tersely.
“Benji I am sorry but I have bad signal here. Just wanted to tell you that I am ok”, she yelled trying to make sure that he heard her voice over the swooshing wind.
Benjamin could hardly make sense of what she was saying. All he could hear was a lot of wind gushing into the phone.
“Bethany where the hell are you”, he asked.
“I am in an open air jeep Benji. We are going to Talakaveri”, she yelled.
Adah pulled her down. “Sit down and talk. He won’t be able to hear you”, she said.
“Am I audible now”, Bethany smiled at the other woman and asked to the man on the phone.
“Better now. What the hell are you doing”, he asked.
“Oh I was just standing in this open to air jeep taking in the scenery around. And then loved the way the wind blew into my face as Saahil kept on driving”, she giggled.
“Beth what the hell are you doing in an open jeep”, his anxiety grew.
“Going to Talakaveri”, she responded.
“What the hell is that”, he asked.
But before she could respond the call dropped.
“Shit man, the network here is really bad”, Bethany mumbled.
“Beth, why don’t you just disconnect for a few hours and enjoy the ride”, Saahil asked.
“What do you mean disconnect”, she asked looking confused.
“I mean you are always on the phone doing your social media thing or checking your emails and stuff. For once in your life why don’t you just let go of your phone and enjoy the beauty of this place”, Saahil explained.
“Hmm let me try”, Bethany agreed and switched off her phone.
She stood up once again in her seat and looked around her. What she saw excited her.
She saw lush green fields in the vast expanse with an outline of mountains on the horizon. The tops of the mountains were hidden by clouds that had descended very tenderly like huge cotton balls.
Against the lush green backdrop she saw an almost abandoned wooden house. Unable to control her extinct, she pulled out her camera and asked Saahil to stop for a minute.
Once happy that she had captured the moment for eternity through her lens, she told Saahil to start the drive again.
Saahil and Adah showed her the coffee estates and the pepper farms. They stopped on their way at one of the coffee plantations and had some freshly brewed coffee. For someone like Bethany who was a coffee addict, this coffee tasted like straight from heaven. She bought few coffee beans for herself as they made their way ahead.
As they trudged ahead on the winding slopes amidst the pepper plantations and other greens of the area, Bethany’s heart soared. If this was how the route to this place Talakaveri was, what should she expect at the peak? What was it going to be at the top where they were headed?
And she found out soon, what the peak of the place was going to look like.
At the peak was a temple built to celebrate the start of the river Kaveri. The place was neat with a small artificial pond constructed in the middle.
Saahil walked her around the place and explained her the importance of it. He pointed at the pond that was filled with water and told her that this was the water collected from the first springs of the river that was kind of a lifeline for the southern part of the country.
He then took her down the steps and asked her to take a small sip. Hesitant at first, she saw him do it confidently and followed suit. She was surprised. The water was clean and cool. But it was also sweet.
She clicked pictures of the place and even some devotees. Coming back to the top she noticed a few benches tucked away in a corner. The cloud cover had descended further making the whole place look misty.
On one of the benches she saw Adah sitting staring down into the valley. She looked back at Saahil and winked. She then focused her camera on the unaware woman and started working her magic.
Adah was so lost in her admiration of the natural beauty of the place that she didn’t realize what the duo was up to.
Standing at a distance from the woman so as not to startle her or alert her to their presence, the duo started doing what they had secretly planned. Bethany showed Saahil how to use the minimal light available and the misty atmosphere to his advantage. A fast learner himself, Saahil caught up with the technique and clicked a few quick ones.
Every now and then Bethany would lightly touch his arm to ensure that the camera was held in the right place and at the right angle. Her assistance was a welcome gesture for Saahil.
Happy that they had succeeded in phase one of their covert operation they walked back to the woman.
“Hey there you are”, Saahil smiled.
“What are you so chirpy about”, Adah noticed the change in his tone.
“Nothing”, he replied instantly.
“And why are you smiling like that”, Adah asked Bethany who was trying hard to hide her smile.
“Smiling like what”, she asked.
“Like a cat who has just had her fill of cream”, Adah narrowed her eyes and looked carefully at the photographer. “I swear I can even see a faint outline of that cream.”
“Nonsense”, Bethany waved off the speculation.
“Let’s go ladies, we want to get back to our rooms on time”, Saahil said as he started walking back to their car.
Thankful for the interruption Bethany started walking behind him with Adah in tow.
They came back to the quaint little home stay that they had rented at the foothills of the place.
“Alright Beth, we will meet you for dinner in an hour”, he asked.
“Yeah one hour is fine for me”, Bethany replied and walked back to her room.
Once back in her room, she pulled out her camera again and started going through the pictures that she had captured for the day.
She looked carefully as a faint smile appeared on her face. She liked what she saw. She liked the pictures that she had captured. They were good. They were really good. She didn’t know whether it was the place or the company or the thrill of doing something naughty, but whatever it was it was good for her. She was liking it and it showed in the photographs.
Putting away the camera she went to freshen up. She splashed some water on her face and looked into the mirror. Her reflection spoke to her. She then gave a full blown smile. She was ready for the next place, for the next adventure, and the next experience.