It’s not just a Photo is part 2 of the story Once Upon a Time in India.
As soon as the British announce the partition of India, blood flowed on the streets like water. It seemed as if the devil had unleashed his minions who were hellbent on enveloping the entire nation in its brutal grip. People, consumed in insatiable rage, murdered one another like beasts. The incessant banging on their door felt like nonstop punches to Akriti’s head. She wanted her mother to assure her that everything was going to be alright like she had done the day Parth had left India. But, to her dismay, her mother had decided to close her eyes and chant Sunderkand. Her father had been missing for days, so she couldn’t even turn to his reassuring face.
To hold on to the last thread of sanity, she forced her legs that had turned to jelly toward her chest. With shaking hands, she rummaged through the junk until she found a crisp photograph. With a sense of foreboding, she wobbled toward the lone candle to look at Parth’s smiling face in the photo that she had fished out of the box. The horrid noises still seeped through the walls, but now she was ready to surrender to death if that’s what awaited her. As if on cue, the door flew open and two bulky shadows shuffled inside, almost bumping into each other.
At the sound of the forced entry, her mother shrieked as if in pain. Unsure and helpless, Akriti squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her palms on her head. As a hand gripped her shoulder, she flailed her arms and legs wildly.
“Akriti, stop it!” The booming sound of her father broke her trance. In one swift movement, she jumped on her feet and hugged him tightly.
“Maa, papa is here.” She looked over her shoulder to find her mother lying on the floor like a rag doll. The other man shook his head slowly and walked toward Akriti. Her father ran toward his wife and lifted her limp body in his arms.
“Let’s go. We don’t have time.”
Akriti had one million questions, but she snapped her mouth shut in fear. In the midst of inconceivable chaos, Akriti watched as his father assumed the role of their savior. They joined a bunch of other men and walked toward a dark tunnel that would lead them to safety. She stole one last glance at the house that was her sanctuary and felt fresh tears stream down her face. Life as she knew it would never be the same.
“With all due respect, Kabir, I write short stories for your newspaper. I cannot assume the role of a journalist.” Parth slammed his hand on the table and moved to stand up.
“Oh, sit down, Parth, Your flair for theatrics is getting old.” He motioned for him to sit down.
Parth respected the guy too much to deny his simple request, but he was asking him to be an impostor. That was beyond acceptable to him. He raked his hand through his jet black hair. His chestnut eyes held his gaze with an intense ferocity. With his eyebrows knit together, he said, “No, Kabir. You want me to put on a show, but I am not an actor.”
“Hear me out. If we do not report this builder real quick, those poor children would lose their chance at a free education. Do you want that?” Kabir crossed his arms and returned his stare.
“Emotional blackmail? Really, Kabir?”
“Not at all. I am just stating the facts. You know, doing my job as the editor of this fine establishment that is facing a shortage of reporters today.” He winked at Parth.
Parth could not deny that he had a soft corner for Kabir. Although the guy came from money, he was far from being a snob. Instead of taking advantage of his father, he had built his newspaper company, Dincharya, from scratch. “Alright! But you owe me big time.” Pushing his chair behind, he stood up and walked out of Kabir’s stuffy office.
Handing out the address of the school to the driver, he leaned in the back seat. Despite his resolve, he hadn’t been able to locate her. Even after years of failure, he still hadn’t left hope. He could not let go of hope. He pulled out his wallet from his pocket and flicked it open. Just a glimpse of her twinkling eyes that challenged him to look beyond the ordinary warmed his heart.
If there was one thing that Parth ever felt grateful was the day his father agreed to invite Akriti to his sixteenth birthday party. That was the day when they got their picture clicked by a photographer. When he finally got his hands on the photo, he ran to surprise her. She clapped her hands with joy and snatched the photo from his hand. “Be careful!” he shouted, his hands reaching out to get the photo back from her. He wanted to frame it and keep it close to him every single day. Apparently, she had other plans. In one quick motion, she folded the photo and ripped it in two parts. Clutching one half in her hand, she handed the other half to him.
A smile found its way on his lips as he remembered the past. He looked out the window and saw the haunting sight of a building that was actually a school. A sudden pang of guilt gnawed at him. There he was living in a huge mansion, while kids had to suffocate in this dangerous place. It was evident from its condition that this property was surely burned down at one point. Somehow, it survived complete destruction, and somebody thought it appropriate to convert the leftover into a school. Disgusted, he let out a groan and continued walking toward the structure.
Soon, he found himself being led into the administrator’s office. The man, who sat opposite him, appeared clueless to a whole new level. Apart from being an ignorant nincompoop, he seemed bored. Parth caught him suppressing a yawn a couple of times. Clearly, Parth concluded, the man did not wish for the place to be saved. Wrapping up the interview in a record five minutes, he got up and left the place vowing never to return. Even his driver seemed excited to leave the dreadful place. As soon as he reached home, he poured himself a big glass of scotch and gulped it down. The damn school building taunted his huge mansion until he dozed off.
The next day, when he entered Kabir’s office, he intended to blow up at him for wasting his time. But, before he could say anything, Kabir handed him something.
“Why are you…wait a minute. It’s my wallet.” A wide-eyed Parth observed each side of the wallet as if he was looking at it for the first time.
Then, as he was about to put it into the pocket of his trouser, Kabir gestured for him to sit down. “You had dropped it at the administrator’s office. Now, before we get into the details of your meeting with the man, check if nothing is missing in the wallet.”
Parth was about to say that he had nothing valuable in his wallet but he didn’t wish for Kabir to go on and on about the necessity of the task. So, inhaling deeply, he opened the wallet and checked it thoroughly. Just as he was about to close it, his eyes landed on the photo that was now staring back at him. Instead of Akriti’s lovely features, he found his own face glaring back at him. Contemplating his sanity, he shook his head and blinked his eyes. Once again, he opened the wallet and found his younger version smiling at him, which felt more like a mocking grin at the moment.
In his bewilderment, he didn’t even notice when Kabir left the office, and at his place, sat a beautiful woman clad in red salwar kurta. With a mischievous smile, he bent forward and placed a photo in front of him. It was Akriti’s photo, but how did she..? His musings stopped mid-sentence as his eyes landed on hers. Even if he lived a thousand years, he would never forget her eyes. Akriti. His heart pounded in his chest as the realization struck him. Time stopped while he tried to remember the script that he had rehearsed for so many years.
“I knew I’ll find you,” Akriti said in a soft voice and allowed herself to cry for the first time in years. Her resolve to never cry in front of her man broke as she saw a sob escape Parth’s pursed lips.
Love recognizes no boundaries.Maya Angelou
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