“What are you thinking”, she asked her quietly, almost as a whisper that was barely uttered.
“This place, it’s just so….different”, she added for the lack of the right word.
“Hmm”, her companion hummed.
“I wish Saahil could have come with us”, Bethany said missing the always cheerful man.
“If Saahil didn’t have to take this conference call today he would have certainly been here. He loves this place. But this call is with some investors. It’s important for their family business and he needs to be there”, Adah said.
“And he was talking about me needing to disconnect”, Bethany made a face.
They kept walking looking around. They were treading slowly on a winding walkway with trees planted on both the sides. The green cover was systematically planted to protect the tourists from the harsh sun.
“What is this place”, Bethany asked in a dazed tone.
“You will find out soon”, Adah replied.
“Why do I get a feeling that I am going to discover something really great here”, Bethany looked at her and smiled.
“Because you are”, the woman replied smiling mysteriously. “Come on slow poke”, she looked back and teased the photographer.
“Coming ma’am”, Bethany replied and increased her pace.
“You know Beth, this place is a self sufficient township, fully aligned with the nature”, Adah said.
“What do you mean”, Beth looked perplexed.
“Look at that”, Adah pointed at the solar panels on one side. “This place uses solar energy to generate power. The same power is then provided within the township for daily use.”
“And what happens during cloudy days”, Beth asked.
“There”, Adah pointed at the windmills that rose above the green cover of the trees.
“Oh”, the photographer looked impressed.
“You see that”, next Adah pointed at a man riding a bicycle.
“That’s a man on a bike”, Bethany said as a matter of fact.
“You didn’t get it”, Adah was surprised that the photographer’s eye had not caught on to the importance of what she saw.
“Not really”, Beth felt a bit taken aback by Adah’s tone.
“Beth, they do not allow vehicles in this township. Everyone here uses bikes so that they do not pollute the air with gasoline fumes”, Adah shared the next bit of information.
“Everyone”, Beth asked perplexed.
“Yes everyone Beth. That’s the reason you are walking with me”, Adah patted her shoulder.
“No cars”, Beth said to herself.
“Only electric ones”, Adah pointed at an electric car that went by.
“This is really something”, Bethany’s excitement was growing.
“See, here is their agricultural land. They grow their own food”, Adah showed her the cultivation section.
“Who is they”, Bethany asked.
“You will find out soon”, Adah continued to keep the mystery going.
“How soon”, Bethany asked as she pulled out her camera.
“Soon soon”, Adah joked.
Bethany clicked a picture of the woman as she laughed.
“Hey, you can’t do that”, Adah covered her hand with her face.
“Why not”, the photographer asked trying to get one more shot.
“Here give it to me, let me click your photo”, Adah took the camera.
“Ok, here we go”, Bethany stepped on the side. She combed her hair with her long fingers and set them on one side. Placing her hands in her jeans dungaree she smiled ready for the click.
Adah looked at the woman through the lens, mused over what she saw, and then clicked.
“Here let me see”, Bethany asked for the camera and looked at the photo. “Wow, you are good”, she complimented her companion.
“Thank you, I am learning from the best”, Adah winked and added, “come on now, we need to reach somewhere.”
The two women kept walking for a few more minutes and came upon a vast clearing. The place looked like a huge auditorium with a huge golden globe emerging out from the center.
The red of the sand gave a stark contrast to the golden of the globe.
“Here we are”, Adah said finally pointing to the vision in front of them.
“What is this place”, Bethany looked around amazed at what she was seeing.
“This here is called Matrimandir and we are at a place called Auroville”, Adah finally told the other woman where they were. “Come here, let’s sit for a while”, she wiped off some twigs and dust from a spot and made a sitting area.
“Tell me about this place”, Bethany settled down with her camera and water bottle.
“Auroville is a universal town that was founded by Mirra Alfassa more popularly known as ‘The Mother’. The town is supposed to be a place where man can rise above the boundaries that bind us and live in peace and harmony. This entire area that you saw Beth, it started with settlements on a barren land. It was a wasteland and nothing more”, Adah paused.
“This whole area”, Beth asked.
“Yes this whole area. The green that you see around here is the result of hard work of the people living here. It’s a proof to the modern civilization that if man was to align himself and his needs to the nature, even the most barren of lands can be turned green”, Adah looked around.
“This is amazing”, Bethany was visibly impressed now.
“There you see that”, Adah pointed to a white cone like structure jutting out in the middle.
“Yeah”, Bethany adjusted her glasses and looked carefully.
“That’s where the inauguration ceremony was held in late 1960s. You know the ceremony had youth from 124 nations representing their countries. They all added a fistful of sand from their own land into that cone. That cone itself symbolizes unity of the world”, Adah said.
“Hmm”, Bethany looked at the cone with great respect and admiration.
“You asked me who lives here”, Adah referred back to the question that the photographer had previously asked.
“Oh yeah”, Bethany turned sideways and looked at the woman.
“They are regular people like you and me Beth. They are people who do not identify themselves with any nationality or religion. You cannot be a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu here. You can neither be an Indian or American or British or German. Here you just have one identity. You are a human and you believe in mankind. That’s your identify. That’s all that you need and that’s enough to lead a meaningful life here”, Adah told her.
“How do you know all this”, Bethany looked at her. She sensed that there was something that Adah had left unsaid.
“Because I work here”, Adah finally admitted.
“You work here”, Bethany’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yes I work here as well. I am a big believer of the concept of a world without boundaries. So I joined this group as a volunteer. I come here 3 months in a year and work with these people. Saahil also likes this concept and supports me. I have denounced my religion and nationality. I prefer to be looked upon as a human being”, Adah informed.
“Woman, do you know that you never cease to amaze me”, Bethany also made an admission.
“Oh come on, you are just kidding”, Adah waved off the woman’s admiration. “I am sure you have worked with many wonderful women.”
“No I am serious. I mean you do such amazing work with all these charities that you have told me about. And then you work at this amazing place. You have embraced an identity that is just so much grounded and so basic and yet so difficult to have. You are hardly in the spotlight but you don’t need the lights on you. You have a spark within you that makes you different. I may have worked with many wonderful women and I won’t lie. Yes they were all wonderful. But you are beyond wonderful. You are you”, Bethany said passionately.
“Enough already”, Adah put a lock of hair behind her ear and blushed. “Come on, let’s go inside”, she got up, extended one hand to the other woman and pulled her up on her feet.
“Where do we go now”, Bethany asked.
“Inside the Matrimandir”, Adah answered, “remember we have to maintain complete silence in there.”
“Why”, the photographer asked.
“Because it’s a meditation and prayer center”, Adah said.
“But I thought you don’t follow religion here”, Bethany was confused. How could anybody pray without being identified by a religion.
“Beth, you don’t need a religion to pray. That’s the problem with human mind. For us it is so difficult to accept anything that is vast and immense that we immediately try to tie it down with name and identity. We try to limit it. But that’s the whole point of this place. No boundaries and no divisions. You can always connect yourself with the divine power. You can pray to the source of energy without calling it names. There is a crystal ball placed in the center deflects light in all directions. The silence of the place and the tranquility of the surroundings help you find inner peace and quiet. This is the state when human soul establishes that illusive connection with the Supreme Being”, Adah said.
“Sounds interesting. Let’s go”, Bethany put away her camera. “I am looking forward to silence.”
“Benji”, she yelled.
“What”, he rushed to her desk.
“What the hell is this”, she threw a few print copies on the table in front of him.
“Photos”, he replied trying to save his skin.
She got up from her seat and placed her two hands on the waist. She looked straight at him. Her jaw had clenched and her lips twitched a sign that she was holding back a lot of nasty comments. Her eyes were devoid of any humor or warmth. It would be a far-fetched thing to say that she was unhappy. She was mad and boy she was demanding a response now.
“I meant to tell you”, he replied nervously.
“When”, she asked him again.
“One fine day”, he replied again.
“Define fine day for me please”, she was not going to buy his nervous ramblings now.
“Ok fine, I got these done”, he finally admitted.
“What the hell”, she was definitely mad now. She walked away from her desk and went and stood by the window.
“I did it for us Beth”, he tried to reason out.
“What do you mean”, she turned around to him.
“Beth, you have not been taking any projects lately. You are focused on preparing for your trip with Charity Water to Sahel region. But that also means that we have stopped our revenue generation. So I thought that…”, he got interrupted.
“So you thought you would get some other photographer to work using my name”, she asked him angrily.
“Yes, if that means we can keep a steady flow of income here then yes, that is what I would do”, he took a stand now.
“Benji, didn’t it occur to you even once to come and ask me before you let someone use my name”, she couldn’t believe she was having this conversation with him.
“It did occur to me B but I knew you would not accept it”, he told her.
“So you go behind my back”, she was furious.
“Yes I went behind your back to save your studio”, he held his head high.
“Benji…..”, she recognized the stubborn stance, “why didn’t you tell me.”
“And what would you have done if I had told you about this earlier”, he cross questioned her.
“I would not have let this happen”, she replied.
“See, that’s the reason why I didn’t tell you”, he pointed a finger at her. “B, let’s be practical here. I know your outlook to the world has changed and you no longer look at the materialistic side of your work. But unfortunately, the world has not changed the way it works. You may be focusing your energy on working with charities to help others but that does not mean we don’t need money. We still have bills to pay. And for that I need this studio to make money”, he gave her the bitter pill.
“I would have made some money from the Charity Water project”, she mellowed down a bit.
“When B? When will you sell these pictures and make money? Or let me ask you this. Who will buy the photos of hungry and thirsty people? And how much money you will make from these photos”, he asked her bluntly.
“I am sure somebody will buy them”, she tried to argue.
“Yeah sure somebody someday. But till then how do I pay the bills”, he asked her again.
“Bills, bills, bills! Why the hell are we so worried about the bills now? We have had slumps before in our work Benji”, her frustration started growing again.
“Oh yeah we did. But back then daddy dear covered us up”, he opened another can of worms.
“And now he won’t because he hates his daughter”, she replied stoically.
“No he doesn’t hate you. He is just disappointed with you. He will come around B but we need to keep going”, he placed his hands on her shoulders.
“When will he come around Benji”, she asked him for assurance.
“It won’t be long”, he tried to soothe her fears.
“I miss dada”, her voice croaked.
“He misses you too B. Just give him some time”, he held her hands now.
“Ok so what’s with this other photographer using my name”, she asked him.
“It’s not just other photographer B. It’s your one time assistant Giselle who’s done this”, he told her.
“Giselle”, Bethany looked surprised.
“Yeah. She was working with this other photographer and I bumped into her over the weekend. She told me how she was tired of being an assistant and working with the props and was looking to get behind a camera for real. So I asked her to show me her portfolio. What she showed me reminded me of your style. After Vanessa’s villa got sold for a large sum we started getting similar requests from other people as well. They were all Vanessa’s references. I knew you would not like this kind of work but it had good money. So I talked to Gisele. She agreed immediately since it meant she got to step behind the camera for real and do some commercial work. When I told her that we would be using your name for getting work, she was more than happy to work that way. For her it was like a dream come true to work under your name tag”, Benjamin explained the entire arrangement that he had worked out.
“I can’t believe she agreed to it”, she still sounded skeptical.
“You are a role model to many budding photographers Beth and they would instantly agree to work under your tag”, he beamed.
“I still feel you should have told me about it before”, she had calmed down now but she was still not smiling.
“I am sorry but like I said I had your best interest at heart”, he crossed his heart.
“I would appreciate if you come to me next time before taking such drastic steps”, she picked up the photos and looked at them carefully.
“How have they come out”, he asked noticing the shift in her focus.
“They are good. Definitely not amateurish”, she replied lifting one photo and putting it against the light. “The girl definitely knows how to work with light.”
“She has learnt that from you”, he poked her.
“Don’t be a smart ass”, she picked up her glasses and put them on. “Hmm, she has worked well with perspective and details. She has used the available natural surroundings nicely to enhance the look of the villa”, she observed.
“I have an idea”, Benji sat down on his knees in front of her.
She looked at him and saw the twinkle in his eyes. She knew he needed her full attention. She put the photos aside and removed her glasses. She then leaned forward and smiled at him. “What now”, she asked him with amusement.
“B, why don’t we hire Giselle”, he asked her.
“Are you serious”, she was a bit surprised by his suggestion.
“Absolutely”, he sprung up from his position.
“How do you see this working”, she asked him.
“See here’s the thing. We will have to keep doing these commercial projects for money. We can’t completely turn away from them. If we have an additional photographer in the team who continues to work on such projects then we will be able to maintain a steady flow of income. This way you can focus on working with charities while this other photographer works on commercial projects. What do you say”, his enthusiasm showed.
“Are you confident of this arrangement”, she asked him.
“Yes I am”, he replied.
“I am not turning back to these kind of projects again Benji. I am done for good”, she warned him.
“And I am not asking you to. The second photographer that we hire will take care of it. All you need to do is just give a cursory glance every once in a while. You won’t need to work on them at all”, he explained.
“And how’s the paycheck going to look like. Will it be a fixed paycheck or a partnership”, she was getting down to basics now.
“Here’s what I was thinking”, he sat down in front of her again. “We have Vanessa waiting on the sidelines with her investment offer. She is a well connected woman with a philanthropic view. We accept her investment offer. She will definitely help us with the commercial projects. But she can also get you connected with a lot of charities that she works with.”
“And how much we pay her”, the photographer tried to understand the business basics.
“I have that worked out B. She will get her share which in fact is not a very high percentage. We can also offer 3% of the commercial projects to the photographer that we hire instead of a steady paycheck. It would be a freelancing kind of arrangement. We don’t pay them salaries but share a percentage in profit”, he patiently explained.
“All this sounds great Benji but I am still not sure about Vanessa”, she voiced her concern.
“B, she is not going to interfere in the creative aspects. That will always remain with you. All she will do is provide us the money and take a share in profit. She just wants to be involved with your work, that’s all”, he knew she was very close to agreement now.
“Are you sure because I am not going to give up creative control on this studio”, she warned him again.
“You don’t have to. This will always be your studio. We just get a few more people on board to help us run the place”, he smiled at her.
“Hmm, sounds good to me”, she finally agreed.
“Do you want to talk to Giselle about it? She would be happy to join the team”, he started rolling out the plan.
“I guess so”, she shrugged.
“Great I will talk to her. I will also call Vanessa and invite her to dinner at our place. We can talk about the contractual terms and let her know you are the boss”, he winked and left the room.
Bethany looked at him and smiled. This definitely sounded like a good arrangement. Benjamin was convinced that it was the right thing to do and that was more than enough for her. She trusted him. Now she had to just get things rolling on her Sahel region project.
‘That reminds me Saahil left me a message that he wanted to talk to me’, she thought to herself. ‘I wonder what it is about. I better call him tonight.’