Glamour Studio was a landmark in its own right. Not because it was big or famous, but because it stood at the intersection from where roads ran off in four different directions, neither at a well defined angle or slope. If a right-handed person would draw an X with her left hand, it would still not be as crooked as the roads that took birth at this intersection were. Though Mr Bahuja, the owner of Glamour Studio and the town’s only photographer would insist that his shop was where the four roads converged. Either way, people would use the name of his shop to speak of which way they were going from there. Other than that, they had little use for the shop as most of the photographs that Mr Bahuja clicked were during weddings and birthdays. For the weddings, he would go to where the ceremonies were being held, and for birthdays, it was customary for the families to walk into his studio to get one clicked for posterity. This being before mobile phones and even personal cameras, the results that he printed and framed before handing them over were far more prized and treasured. Though even the combined bounty from his work added up to far less than what he needed to get his studio in a better shape. The one exception being the three layers of curtains that people could pick from to form the backdrop of their photographs. These he replaced every single year on his own birthday.
On a Sunday after a particularly heavy snowfall, Mr Bahuja was clearing the snow right outside the front door of his shop when he was greeted by a man’s voice from behind layers of wool. He looked up from his crouched position to see a young couple, both wrapped in far too many layers of wool and other assorted fabric. Judging from their eagerness to step out on a day like this and from the amount of clothing they were carrying about their person, he deduced that they must be among the few tourists who were reportedly stuck in the town after this sudden change of weather, from this earlier-than-usual winter. He too was only at his shop clearing the snow so that he could get inside his shop where he had left his reading spectacles three days back and had gone as many days without reading the old newspapers and magazines for none had been delivered from the city at the foothills as all the roads had been closed for some time.
Mr Bahuja greeted them back and got back to clearing the snow, wondering if they were still talking to him or among themselves. Their voices were too muffled for him to know for sure, and his own ears were covered with his cap. Besides, he was at an age where he heard a lot less clearly. He looked up again and saw the two still looking at him. Sensing they needed some help, he stood up to get his ear closer to their mouth.
With some effort from the man part of the couple, and some because he exposed his left ear that was a shade better than the right, he understood that they were asking him if knew when the doors to the Glamour Studio would open.
“It’s up to me, really.” Mr Bahuja replied.
There was an awkward silence for the resident photographer had given a fair reply and he didn’t know what else to say. If it was directions that they were after, it would have nothing to do with his shop opening or not. And what else could they be after, he couldn’t imagine.
The couple on their part had asked the right question as far as they were concerned, and were only waiting for him to follow through on his reply, and open the doors.
“We wanted to have our picture clicked.” It was the young woman this time who spoke. She sounded clearer than the man, or at least far more clear in what she wanted.
Now this did come as a surprise to Mr Bahuja. His shop was at an intersection, but it was hardly at the point where people stopped to get themselves clicked. If they stopped at all, it was to ask for directions to the 3-Point Hill, the highest you could get in this town. Or to the Swan Lake Garden, the lowest point where there were no swans but swan-shaped boats on a small pond that went by the name of a lake till people discovered that it wasn’t. Both lay in opposite directions, and the other two roads to the cemetery and the old town, both that the tourists avoided. He spent a good time during the peak tourist season pointing one way or another. And there were photographers at both these points who came with the season from the city below, with their cameras and local dresses and with mules that all combined made for the kind of pictures people wanted to take home with them. The pictures that Mr Bahuja clicked suited only the locals. But that did mean that he had business — however thinly spread — all through the year. Barring days like these when no one stirred out of their houses.
But then today went against all precedents and here was business wrapped up in layers, shivering from the cold, a thick mist escaping their mouths every time they took a breath.
“Your pictures. Ah! Of course.” Mr Bahuja was already struggling to put the key in the lock as he said this. The snow had stopped falling at some point in the night, and the skies were now getting clearer. In a day or two, the snow would start melting and that is when the winds would turn cold, biting cold. But before that happened, the air would be still, the temperature cold outside but you could stay as warm as you wanted by huddling around fires, staying in bed, or keeping yourself in wool. Once the snow would start melting, none of these would help. That’s when the very air you breathe in would seep past the defences and get inside the skin and deep into the bones and your toes would swell and your cheeks would get so dry they would start appearing brittle, and the only thing warm around the fire would be the flames.
But that was still two or three days away. For now, as the sun strode up the last of the hill beyond the road and peered into the intersection, it was all blue above, white below, and a cheerful yellow that was filling up the space in between wherever the sun’s rays fell. It was a beautiful hour to get a picture clicked in. It made Mr Bahuja wonder why locals didn’t care for it one bit. Maybe because this is how it was four to five times a year, every winter? Or maybe because they knew what was coming soon afterwards? But here were two innocent souls, unaware that if they didn’t get out in time, they wouldn’t remember the place for how it felt and looked now, but for the cursed, terrible cold that had penetrated deep into their bones.
Mr Bahuja smiled a big, beaming smile. No point in spoiling it for them.
“It’s the magic hour, that’s what we photographers call this light.”
They were now inside, the narrow shop dimly lit by a yellow bulb. Nothing magical about it, other than the fact that the electricity was still getting pumped to the houses. But only Mr Bahuja knew that. He picked up his camera and hurried them out.
“You will have to take off that scarf, and that cap, or at least pull it back. And the shawl ma’am. That jacket’s hood needs to come down. Can you take off those earmuffs? Is that another scarf you are wearing? Can you be without it for just a moment.”
With every instruction and every layer, the couple were losing some of their fear of the cold outside. The sun was now right outside the shop and though hindered by the Leo Toys And Curios Shop across his, it lit up a bench that was facing the valley on the road that ran down to the cemetery.
“That’s where most tourists get themselves clicked.” Mr Bahuja was already walking towards the bench, wondering where to place himself and his camera. No tourist had ever asked him to click their photograph on the bench. If the snow hadn’t covered it, they would be looked right down at the graves and he would have either captured their shock, or if clicked from another angle, the graves would have been the backdrop to their picture.
But at the moment, on this day when the place was covered in a single, thick coat of snow, and the yellow sunbeam bounced off it softly to give it a strange surreal feel, it really was a great place to get their picture clicked on. The couple agreed that it really was and sat down, at first a bit awkwardly because of the snow that had to be first brushed off, then because of the cold of the metal that couldn’t be brushed off. Soon, however, the sense of adventure took over and they sat beaming at the camera, the sunlight catching a flare off the woman’s dark hair and shimmering over the slight baldness of the man’s.
He clicked three pictures, shook their hands, told them how excellent they would turn out and that these would be the most cherished thing they would take back with them, and saw them off, after promising to keep the prints ready by the next morning. They would leave the next day, they said, no matter what. Mr Bahuja agreed. They must. He didn’t want them to leave the place with any other memory than what his photographs would capture.
But next day, just as the snow started melting under the strong high-altitude sun, the couple didn’t turn up. The prints were ready, and Mr Bahuja couldn’t take his eyes off them. Even as they were developing in his dark room, he knew he had something he would be proud of for the rest of his life. Glamour Studio finally had its calling card. The poster he never knew he would ever think of having.
The sunlight cut across the road in a way that it lit up the bench and the snow around it, but to the right, where the intersection lay, it was still a few inches away. To the left, the board over the shop where the faded letters said Glamour Studio could be seen. It wasn’t how he had framed it, but that’s how it had come out and it was just lovely. The couple looked young, happy, smiling, and in love. His picture had captured it all. And he had the three pictures, slightly different but similar in so many ways, framed in very simple frames. Nothing but the pictures themselves should attract the eye. Everything else would only distract and take away from the pictures.
He hung these up on the wall and waited for the couple to come and claim them. It wasn’t about business or money any more. He was just a proud artist waiting for his creation to travel the world, or at least beyond the town’s limits. He would take out more prints from the negative once these were taken away.
But three days since the pictures were clicked, the frames still stood on the wall of his studio. The biting cold was now sweeping the town and few ventured out. Only those in need of essentials, and he because he waited for the couple to come to his shop. He should have asked for their hostel. He hadn’t and all he could do was wait.
It was after a week had passed when the town had started returning to Shambhu Barber’s shop to catch up on gossips and newspapers, to Fauju’s for his samosas, to Bhagat Ji’s for vegetables. Only then did the news of the missing couple finally reach the roads where the locals lived, far from where the hotels and resorts stood, closer to the two places that the tourists came for.
The couple had stepped out one morning for a walk in the snow, the day before they were to leave. And never returned. No one quite knew where they had gone. The local police and then police from the headquarters were pressed into service, but no trace of them remained. Footsteps in the snow, that could have given any indication, had long melted and turned to vapour. The pictures on Mr Bahuja’s studio showed they come this far, and his statement revealed that they had left in the direction of their hotel that was just a 500-metre walk away. But if they had slipped and fallen down the valley, or lost their way, no one knew.
The case was closed after 6 months of an intense search. Only the pictures hung on the wall of Glamour Studio. And Mr Bahuja, who could no longer look at the young couple in them, still found that the pictures got him some business. Many tourists, none of whom who would ever know of the young couple’s case, would see the frames, and would ask to be clicked on the very same spot. Of course, without the snow or the sun or the hour, the results were never the same. But they would collect their pictures and pay and go away. Not everything that this place or even their lives offered lived up their expectations. They didn’t seem to regret it, especially because a apologetic-sounding Mr Bahuja would hand over the pictures and tell them to visit again when it snowed. That helped draw his customer’s attention to the missing pieces, that was not their fault, nor the photographer’s. And it gave them something to return to. Though they never did.
And Mr Bahuja waited, for at least some of them to return so he could capture that magic again.
For at least one to return, so he wouldn’t have to capture it again.