‘Hmm should I use this one? Or this? No wait, even this one looks good. And this one, yeah even this one is nice. And this one is lovely. I can add that here. But if I add it here then where does this one go? Can I find some other place for this? Hmm I may have to move a few pieces here and there again. Man, I can’t decide here. I am confused’, Bethany thought. She was leaning over some photos spread across her desk. She shifted uncomfortably, a movement that hurt.
Bethany removed her glasses and placed her palms on her tired eyes. They were hurting. She pinched the bridge of her nose trying to will away the headache that was threatening to assault her. Running a tired hand across her tresses and leaned back in her chair. Her back was also hurting. She had been sitting on that chair for far too long. She picked up her coffee mug and realized that it was empty. When had she gulped down the remnants of that dark amber liquid? Hard to tell. She lifted her hands over the heads and stretched out. She stood up and stretched sideways to relieve her waist of those cramped up muscles. She stepped out of her shoes and kicked them off unceremoniously in one corner.
Picking up the photos that were placed on her desk, she moved to her picture board and started pinning them on it. Her nose crinkled, a sign that she was completely focused on the task at hand. So focused was she that she didn’t notice the person that had walked into her studio.
“You look tired”, the person said.
Bethany turned around and the color of her face drained. “What are you doing here”, she said in a terse voice.
“I came to see you”, Catherine replied and walked further into the studio.
“I am not free”, Bethany turned her back on the woman.
“Hmm I can see that. Where’s Benji”, Catherine asked looking around for the ever present assistant of the photographer.
“Why do you care”, the photographer was determined not to give the backstabbing critique any time of her day.
“It’s just that I am not used to not seeing him here”, the woman replied sensing the hostility in the photographer’s tone.
“He’s taking a vacation”, Bethany tried to put it across simply.
“Wow Benjamin Hart finally takes a vacation. No wonder you look so stressed and tired”, Catherine voiced her observation.
“How do you know I am tired”, Bethany had turned around now with her hands placed on her hips, a stance of defiance from her.
“Your shoulders are slouched which means your neck needs a massage. Your hair is tussled to one side which means you have just ran a tired hand through them. You don’t have your glasses on which means either your eyes are hurting or you are sensing an oncoming headache. You have taken off your shoes which means the heels are hurting your lower back”, Catherine smiled sweetly.
“You got one thing right. I could sense an oncoming headache”, Bethany replied sarcastically.
“Oh come on Beth, don’t be such a bitch”, the woman didn’t appreciate the sarcasm.
“Oh is that what I am being now? And what about you Catherine? What were you being back then”, she challenged aggressively.
“Beth I have told you hundred times that I was just trying to save my ass and my job”, Catherine explained once more. It was evident that she was feeling guilty for what she had done. She knew she had hurt Bethany and was genuinely sorry for it. But Bethany didn’t see it that way.
“By dishing dirt on me? Nice try”, the photographer was not buying it.
“Beth we were friends back then and believe it or not, I still consider you a friend”, Catherine tried.
“Yeah well, I don’t. You consider me a friend, a friend that can be the ladder of your success. But I am not that naïve anymore Cath. I am not going to get trodden over by you again”, Bethany made her stand clear.
Catherine smiled contentedly. After a long time Bethany had called her Cath, a name of endearment frequently used during those dorm roommate days.
“What are you smiling for”, the photographer got curious.
“Nothing”, the critic replied.
Bethany stared at her suspiciously for a minute and then went back to her photo board.
Catherine came up and stood right behind the photographer looking at the pictures. “Wow, they are good”, she commented.
“Don’t need your opinion”, Bethany shot back.
“It’s not an opinion Beth. It’s a compliment”, the critic was not ready to give up on the artist.
“What do you want Catherine”, Bethany was getting impatient now.
“You know what I want. I want to do a documentary on you”, she replied.
“And I say no to that”, the photographer didn’t even take a minute to respond.
“Why”, Catherine asked almost shamelessly.
“You have got to be kidding me. Have you forgotten what you did to me last time? I am not risking anything with you again”, Bethany went back to her desk.
Catherine stood there at her earlier spot looking at the pictures. She had noticed something. “Beth, who is this woman”, she asked staring at one particular photo.
Bethany saw what the critic was looking at and reacted suddenly. She rushed to the board and plucked out the photo and hid it behind her.
“Stop invading my work space”, she shot back angrily.
“Who is she Beth”, Catherine asked once more.
“Mind your own business Catherine and stay away from me”, Bethany pointed a finger at the critic and threatened her.
“She is someone special isn’t she”, Catherine continued prodding.
“Catherine, don’t you dare go digging there”, Bethany said menacingly.
“She is a common element in all your recent shows Beth. You never show her face. You only have a faceless figure in all your shows. And you are never ready to sell any of these pieces to anybody, no matter what price they offer. This makes me believe that the picture is personal. You know this person. You value her a lot. She is special. That is what makes you so protective about her”, Catherine was not giving up. “Who is she Beth”, she asked again.
“Listen to me carefully Catherine. I don’t want to see you here anymore. Just get out”, Bethany said the last part slowly but menacingly enough for the critic to take a step back.
“Ok, alright I get it”, she lifted her hands in surrender. “I will go. Just let Benjamin know that I came over to talk to him”, she said.
“What do you have to do with Benjamin”, Bethany asked.
“None of your business”, Catherine shot back.
“Don’t play games with me Catherine”, Bethany threatened.
“I am not. I came looking for Benjamin because he had told me that he would try to talk to you about the documentary. But looks like he has not done that yet”, Catherine revealed. “Anyways, I will catch hold of him later”, and with that the critic left leaving a frustrated photographer behind.
Bethany stood there shaking from anger. She was so close to slapping the lights out of the critic. How dare she ask about those pictures! They were too personal to be even spoken about in front of anybody else.
Bethany lifted the photo that she had plucked off the board and stared at it. Catherine was right. She had been using this faceless figure in her shows. She would never name it. She would never sell it. She would never talk about it to anyone. But the photos were always there. And people were noticing the pattern – people like Catherine.
Bethany picked up the phone and called Benjamin. She was determined to confront him about his involvement in this whole documentary thing.
“Hiya”, Benjamin answered the phone cheerfully.
“Why are you so cheerful”, Bethany asked noticing the tone.
“Because I just won 3500 bucks in a game of Russian Roulette”, he replied sipping a martini.
“You are gambling”, Bethany’s jaw dropped, her tone held that hint of shock and awe.
“Yeah baby I am”, Benjamin replied.
“Something is seriously wrong with you. You never gambled Benji, not even at Vegas”, the photographer could not believe Benji had just called her ‘baby’.
“That was different Beth. I am a change man now”, Benjamin slurred into the phone as one of the waitress there lightly pecked his cheek.
“Grrrr”, Benjamin growled at the waitress and made a gesture of taking a bite.
“What was that”, Bethany heard the growl and asked.
“Oh come on Beth, just tell me why did you call me”, he asked preparing for a meaningless romp with the woman making advances.
“You know what, just let it be, nothing important”, she decided not to spoil his fun.
“Alrighty, talk to you later”, and with that he went behind the woman standing at the door waiting for him.
Bethany sat down on her chair and leaned her head back. She felt lonely and abandoned. Benjamin had been a constant in her life so far, to the extent that she had started taking him for granted. But now that he had moved on and was trying to find happiness somewhere else, she felt a gamut of emotions. She was happy for him in a way, relieved that he was doing the right thing. She was also jealous that he could so easily move on while she was still struggling. She felt intrigued by Benjamin’s evolving behavior. There was so much she needed to learn from him.
But most importantly she needed to learn to let go. How could she do that? She sighed.
‘What I see is bodies – beautiful gorgeous bodies that look sexily elegant through your lens. But that’s what they are just bodies. Where is the soul?’
The voice echoed in her head again. A simple question asked to her had set off a chain of events that were getting out of control. A simple question had put her on a quest of a lifetime.
“I am really sorry if I have offended you”, the woman apologized.
“No, no you have not offended me, don’t worry about it. In fact you have intrigued me”, Bethany confessed.
“Intrigued”, the woman tilted her head in question.
“Yeah. I mean everywhere I have been people have used terms like wonderful and lovely and fantastic to appreciate my work. You are the first person who has used the term crap for it”, Bethany said, “if you are appreciating it like I am assuming.”
“In that case I have left an impression”, the woman smiled.
“Yes you have”, Bethany responded, her tone changing to a whimsical whisper. “So Adah, would you please share something about you?”
“What do you want to know”, the woman asked as the two of them moved away from the photo on display and started walking towards a quiet corner.
“Well let’s see. Why don’t we start with you telling me who you are and what you do”, Bethany set tone to the conversation.
“Like I said I am Adah Merchant. I am an only child of my parents. My dad has this business of exporting Indian spices to Europe. My family has always been a trading family. That’s where we get our last name from ‘Merchant’. My mom is a retired French language professor. She spends her time now translating literature from French to Indian languages. I do not have any siblings”, Adah shared.
“And what do you do Adah”, Bethany asked giving the woman her full attention.
“I…”, the woman hesitated. “I am not sure if you will get it”, she said.
“Try me”, Bethany said.
“I work for an NGO called Saahas”, she said sheepishly.
“And what is an NGO”, Bethany asked.
“It’s a non-government organization that takes on community based projects and operates as a non-profit unit. It’s social service”, Adah shared.
“Ah so you are basically changing people’s lives”, Bethany was impressed.
“I don’t see it that way. I just see it as being more human in today’s materialistic world”, Adah said.
“Wow, that’s deep”, the photographer smiled.
“See I told you it’s nothing great”, Adah said.
“No, no that’s not true. What you do is really important”, Bethany said.
“Really? You think so”, Adah looked surprised.
“Why, you don’t think so”, Bethany questioned.
“I love what I do. I think it makes a difference. But Saahil doesn’t agree”, she said.
“Saahil”, Bethany looked lost.
“Saahil is my fiancée”, Adah said.
“Oh you are engaged. Congratulations”, Bethany shared good wishes.
“Thank you”, Adah blushed. “Actually Saahil is a photography enthusiast. He is the one who drags me to these gallery showings and opening nights”, she said.
“So you are not into photography”, Bethany asked.
“Oh no, not at all. I can’t even hold a camera still”, Adah laughed.
“Well that’s interesting. Back there when you said my work was crap I thought you were commenting as an expert”, Bethany shook her head. She could not believe what was happening.
“I was commenting as a viewer”, Adah responded.
“Care to elaborate on it”, Bethany shifted now paying more attention.
Adah looked at her skeptically for a minute, trying to make a decision. But then she saw Bethany’s warm smile grow and she made the decision to share her idea of the photos.
“What I see is bodies – beautiful gorgeous bodies that look sexily elegant through your lens. But that’s what they are just bodies. Where is the soul”, she asked the photographer.
“Hmm”, Bethany reacted deep in thought.
“I see models here who are made to look perfect by you. But the fact is that women in real world are not perfect. They are flawed. What I see is confidence on their faces here. But real women are insecure. They are neglected in some places and exploited in some places. The one thing that I can agree to when it comes to your photos is that you are showing them as powerful species. I agree to that. They are indeed powerful. They have great inner strength. Despite being treated as inferior sex in most of the world, they emerge on top. They are God’s mechanism of nurturing life. And only a person who is strong can nurture”, Adah finished.
Bethany stood speechless looking at her. Nobody had questioned her work so intricately till date. What everybody saw was angles and use of sunlight. For the first time she had met someone who was looking at the photo as a reflection of real world.
“How do you do that”, she finally found her voice.
“Do what”, Adah asked.
“Understand photos as people”, the photographer explained.
“I work with a lot of women across the world with Saahas. We work with women from different segments of the society and help them make their lives meaningful”, Adah said.
“So how do….”, Bethany started but got interrupted by a male voice.
“There you are Adah”, the voice interrupted the conversation.
“Saahil I was just talking to Bethany here”, Adah smiled at the man. He was tall, handsome, and definitely well groomed.
“Bethany Hill, The Bethany Hill. Wow I can’t believe I am meeting you personally. Saahil Shroff”, he said extending his hand, “I am a big big fan.”
“So you are the lucky man”, Bethany gave him a full smile and shook his hand warmly.
“Lucky”, he looked confused.
“Adah told me that you guys are engaged”, Bethany said.
“Yeah we are. I am lucky to have her”, Saahil said putting a hand across her shoulder.
“Saahil loves photography”, Adah said smiling at him.
“I do play around with a DSLR once in a while. But I still have to learn finesse”, he tried to play down his involvement.
“Photography as a hobby always starts with a single photo”, Bethany encouraged him.
“Right”, he agreed. “So Ms Hill how has this country treated you so far”, he asked.
“Well it’s been good. I have liked it”, she answered.
“Like it? That’s not done. If you just go back thinking you have liked it then you have not been treated properly. You should go back thinking you have loved it”, he made a point.
“What do you propose I do Mr Shroff”, Bethany teased.
“Join us”, he said without hesitation.
“Excuse me”, the photographer didn’t understand the proposition.
“Me and Adah are planning a trip around this country. We will be visiting states and cities from all the four corners of the country. Why don’t you join us”, he explained.
“Are you serious”, Bethany could not believe what he had just said.
“I am. It’s a trip that we had planned to take before we stepped into the world of wedded bliss. I think it will be a good idea for you to join us. You will have someone local with you and you will get to see the different cultures of this country. And we on the other hand will get a chance to post selfies with you on Facebook and make our friends jealous”, Saahil tried to convince the photographer.
“I don’t know”, Bethany was still not convinced.
“Oh come on Ms Hill, I promise we will be good hosts. You will have a good time”, he tried again.
“Bethany, please join us. It will be a pleasure to have you with us”, Adah added.
“Ok if you guys say so”, Bethany smiled and agreed to the proposition.
This was it. This was the experience that was going to change Bethany’s life. On the face of it, it was just a trip across an unknown country with an unknown couple. But underneath it was the foundation of a metamorphosis. She was going to see colors like never before and experience life like never before. She was going to have the time of her life. It was just a matter of wait and watch now!