My son wants to fly.
Since ‘time immemorial’ (whenever that was) man has longed to fly, enchanted by creatures – real or imaginary – that can. Small wonder that the creatures that mark the half-way point between Man and God (or woman and goddess) are angels. Winged creatures carry with them a mystique, a touch of the divine, at any age, but when you’re five-and-a-half, and surrounded by mythical creatures – Superman, PowerPuff Girls, Perman, Power Rangers – who can fly, it seems most unjust that you can’t.
If I could fit my kid with child-safe rocket boosters, or perform a painless wing-graft, I would. But I can’t. So I took him down to Birla Mandir to have his photo taken instead.
They say the camera never lies; but this particular one tells some pretty tall stories. Over sixty years ago, it traveled – with its owners – from Lahore to Delhi during Partition. It’s a battered old venerable wooden Cyclops, with a single eye scratched and dimmed from the passage of years, three spindly legs to support its large square body, and a long black tail, hanging from its rear end like a deflated windsock. On a screen to one side of the small concrete photo booth is a selection of photos for you to choose from. If you don’t want to be snapped flying unaided over the temple, you can go for self-portrait in helicopter, or as Punjabi Braveheart fighting leaping lion, or Me emerging from lotus flower or Me swinging on a star. If these are not surreal enough there’s also: Me offering beheaded head to Goddess, or (my favourite) large Me regarding mini-Me sitting on own hand.
Once you have chosen your pose, you are arranged on a bench, out there in the dusty sunshine, and instructed to hold still as the photographer whips off the lens cover – with a little wrist-flick like a true magician – and then replaces it. He inserts an arm up the windsock, like a vet delivering a calf, and slides back a small wooden panel in the roof of the camera, which with its red plastic filter, converts the inside into a mini-darkroom. There he develops and fixes your image, as a paper negative. This is extracted and washed in a bucket of water for a few minutes. The backdrop – also a paper negative – is wetted and stuck, upside down onto a small wooden plate that hinges up about six inches from the lens. Your figure is cut out of the first negative, and stuck, wet, onto the second. This is then re-photographed (making a positive) and – twenty minutes and fifty rupees later – bingo!
The two such photo booths that operated here until recently have dwindled to one. Watching it in operation is like seeing a rare animal in the wild. Who knows how long before this unique process becomes extinct? A year, maybe two?
The photo in my hand is grainy and blurred. The edges are too sharp. It has none of the sophisticated blending of PhotoShop, but despite – or maybe because of – this, it feels like a slice of magic in this prosaic world: my son, soaring.
Delhi Time Out, December 2008