In the shadow behind the old grotesque roadside tree, his nine-year old eyes shone like red coals. Abhilash stood there, looking at the charred remains of the only studio of the village, which silhouetted against the feeble light coming from the temple on the other side of the rivulet.
“He deserves it . . . devil”.
His face now wore the glow of a conqueror. He was about to move towards the tree closer to the studio when a bullock-cart entered from the side road and clattered along. He moved into the darkness and sat down to hide from the men in the bullock cart.
“Poor man, he was just picking up business”.
“Well, his time was up, that’s all”. The driver lit a ‘beedi’, puffed it into good burning and prodded the animals gently.
“It’s only last week that he bought a new house in the town. And he had a plan to shift the studio from this thatched house to his concrete building in the town.”
“Is he single? Have you ever seen his wife, buddy?”
“Oh yes. Nice lady. But she left him last Diwali day . . . it’s said they had a fight over some photo”.
‘Fighting over a photo? Silly woman . . .”
“What makes you think so . . .?”
Abhilash sat there frozen and shaking. His cotton shirt was soaked in sweat. He was so frightened that he could not even breathe.
The studio-man was killed?! But he saw him stepping out with Nanditha. Did he go in again? My God! Then Nanditha too . . .”
He felt his little heart crumbling inside and his vision turned yellow and then into pitch black.
“. . . Nanditha . . . “
When he entered the veranda of his house, he saw his parents smiling through the tears that just stopped. There was Nanditha’s father too, waiting eagerly.
“Where is Nanditha, . . . Abhi? She is not home yet.”
He was so worried. He saw her mother in the next room, seated in a chair and consoled by other women. He blacked out again.
He was impatient, waiting eagerly for the next morning, to tell Nanditha what he had done for her, on the way to school. She wouldn’t need any roses from his garden or lilies from the small pond near the studio. How happy she would have been to hear that. But . . .
“Oh God . . . forgive me . . . I didn’t want to kill . . .”.
He just wanted to punish him for what he has done to Nanditha. Just wanted to destroy all those photos. He never thought things’d end this way.
He didn’t want any other boy or girl for a friend. Nanditha was so cute. He would help with her homework and would carry her bag all the way school. In the class she would only sit next to him. And he was so proud of that. His friends made fun of him, because, she was a little taller than he was; but . . . not much, he thought.
She said she would marry only Abhi. . she loved to call him Abhi . . than Abhilash. He was shy and would only giggle.
It all started with that photograph. Her father and mother were sitting in chairs put under the old mango tree in front of their house. Nanditha was standing near her father, with her hands around his neck. Her cute little one-year-old brother was there on her mother’s lap, sucking his little thumb.
“Who took this picture, Nanditha?”
“We have a new uncle here, my father’s sister’s husband’s cousin.”
“The one who bought the old studio near the temple”?
“Yes. Oh! He made a lot of changes to it. It looks so beautiful now. You know . . . he is going to give it a new name - the ‘Global Photographers’. He said he would start a Ladies’ Beauty Parlour next to it soon . . . mmm . . . probably next month. He is verrry rich.”
“Would you like to take your picture . . Abhi?”
“No no. I don’t have any money”.
“No problem. He will take your picture for free. He likes me so much and would do anything for me”.
“No. My father’d get mad at me. He is a very proud man. He doesn’t like any of us asking for favours from anyone outside our family”.
“C’mon Abhi . . .you are supposed to be a man and . . . take care of me. Don’t be afraid”.
“Ok. then . . . but. . .”
“Mmmm . . . do you think he’ll ask for money from you . . . who is my best friend? You stupid. . .!”
“Maybe not . . . may be . . . ”.
“Let’s take a ‘group photo’ . . . just two of us. Just for fun. OK?”
Abhilash blushed and just shook his head for yes, and that was what he had in his mind too. Her uncle was a dark stumpy fellow. He showed them the snap and handed it to Nanditha when they went to collect it after two days. But he snatched it back from Nanditha’s hands and put it back into his table at the counter, in anger, when she said there’s no money and it should be given free, as a gift to her.
“But . . . .we want it”. She said, almost weeping from shame.
“Then go and get the money . . . the full fifty”.
He said, turning away and walking towards the dark curtain-covered room, where they sat close to each other on a decorated luxury chair. . . smiling, . . . and posed for their dream-photograph, two days back.
“Please uncle . . .” Nanditha broke into tears and hung to the studio-man’s hands.
“Look! I am very busy and I don’t have time for arguments.”
“Please uncle . . . we will do anything you say . . . we’ll clean the rooms and . . . “.
“Ok kids, I am not a cruel man . . . but . . .”
He looked at Nanditha with an ugly smile and held her close . . . err . . rather closer than necessary . . . he thought.
“Hey sonny, you run along and get me a cola from the shop near the post office. Tell him I’ll pay in the evening”.
“You’ll give us the picture?”
“Oh yes. You both are such nice kids. How can I say no?”
Why that shop near the Post Office? The are other shops selling cola near by. May be they sold spurious cola . . . who knows.!
She gave him the Photo, when he came back after a while, after the long walk and waiting in the queue. He forgot all about the errand and the classes they missed. He stared at the snap for a long time.
“How nice! Nanditha, you look soooo pretty!”
But Nanditha didn’t wait to hear what he said. She had already started walking. Her uncle was there in his chair at the counter with his ghostly face, and his typical ugly vile smile.
“Nanditha, wait . . . ”
“He is a very bad man . . .Abhi . . .very very bad.” There were tears in her eyes. . .
“How come? See . . he gave us the picture! And didn’t ask for more money either!”
“No . . . he is . . .”
Abhilash put the photo back in the cover and handed it over to her.
“You keep it . . . I don’t want it”.
She kept on walking . . . as if in a dream . . . without caring to hold his hands.
“What’s wrong with you, Nanditha? What happened?”
She walked with dropped head and wet eyes. He noticed that she had difficulty in walking too.
“He must have scolded her . . . for asking that favour”. He was totally confused.
“Why did he want cola from that far away shop, when there was one just on the other side of the road?”
“Abhi . . . we’ll never talk to that man again . . . Ok? And we will return the photo too.”
She stopped near the temple, stood there, with closed eyes, and folded hands, in prayer. None of the temple doors were open then. But the temple bells swung high in the strong wind that came from nowhere.
“Oh God, please help her. She seem to suffer a lot”.
After a while, she turned towards the Banyan tree behind the temple and sat down leaning against it, among the idols of Snake Gods! She looked strange! She was no more a child.
“She was so afraid of ‘nagas’ . . . what has come over her . . . ?”
“Abhi, do you know what he did . . . when you were away?”
He waited . . . eagerly . . .
“He said he wanted to take another photo of mine and I followed him happily . . . because he said it’s for free and we don’t have to give him any money at all. He said he’d give us candies also.”
He waited . . . gazing at her.
He felt his muscles taut and brain buzz as she went on narrating what she had gone through.
“Why would any one take such photos!”
“He is really a bad man. Bad enough . . . ”
The voice that came out of him was quite mismatching for a child of his age. It had a peculiar tone. His cute little face turned red and he started to shiver with anger. But then his eyes overflowed . . . with the intense tearing pain that drove thousands of poison thorns into his little brain.
“Why didn’t you try to escape?”
“He said . . . he’d call the police and get us arrested for not giving the money”.
“Ok Nanditha, let’s forget what’s happened. We will never go to that studio again and will never ever talk to that dirty fellow in our whole life. OK?”
His voice sounded determination and maturity.
“What’s internet, . . . Abhi? She asked after a long pause.
“I don’t know . . . why”?
“He said the whole world would see me through Internet . . . and enjoy. He took so many pictures in so many ways”.
He left her at her doorstep and went home thinking and fabricating an excuse for being late. Luckily his parents had gone to the monthly grand bazaar and returned only at dusk.
“What’s that smell in the kitchen? Abhilash . . . ”
“It’s some waste paper . . . ma . . . there were ants over it”.
He went to the backyard and blew the ash of that cursed photo all around.
Next day, they walked past the studio with utmost care . . . trying to avoid that nasty beast.
“Thank God . . . The studio is not open yet”.
“C’mon Nanditha . . . walk faster”.
He held her hands in a firm grip and pulled her along.
“What’s the hurry, young man, leave her alone. She’ll be a star soon”.
They felt dead as the studio man appeared as if from nowhere and stopped them, blocking with his old rusty bike. Before he could do anything, he grabbed Nanditha and drew her close to him.
“Don’t you want to see your pictures I took yesterday?”
He took three photos from his pocket and held them in front of her.
“No. no. I don’t want to see them”. She shrunk, cried and covered her face.
“You leave her alone. We don’t want to talk to you anymore”.
A sudden surge of power came over Abhilash and he tried to push him down and rescue her from him. But that rogue snarled and slapped him hard on his face, which made him reel like a top.
“Don’t be a fool, kid. You’ll end up in jail, if you try to come between me and my darling . . . Nanditha.”
His has his hand over her shoulders, pressing her hard against his thighs.
“And don’t ever tell anyone about our new adventures”.
He warned as he lifted her, put her on his bike, in front of him, and rode away.
Abhilash picked up her school bag and hugged. Through his tears he saw that wretched man force her into his studio. Helpless, with fear and disgust, he stared at that cursed studio. He felt his heart burst when she looked back before disappearing into that haunted studio. That pain in her eyes . . . it was more than he could take.
“Take your last snap . . . devil . . . ”
When he sneaked out of his house that evening, with kerosene can in his school bag and a cigarette lighter in his pocket, he had all the antiheroes in his mind. The muscles, the guns, the fire . . .