My Last Photo of Vandana

Woman looking outside

My cousin rented her West Delhi apartment on a month-to-month agreement from a blind Marwari widow, who, in exchange for a flexible lease, asked her to commit to an errand or two, like delivering fresh groceries every other evening. Simple enough for her because it usually meant dealing with the vegetable sellers nestled at the foot of our building. Only the universe and I knew why this task was a particularly cruel and ironic thing to inflict on me, indirectly.

"Karma points," Vandana said and dragged me downstairs.

With whatever money the widow gave her, she bought eggplants, tomatoes, dirt-encrusted okra, bitter gourds, and potatoes full of eyes. She didn't haggle unless the widow was standing at the mouth of the narrow stairwell, expressionless like the statue of blindfolded Lady Justice, draped in a transparent white saree. Her presence had its intended effects; Vandana became more righteous in the pursuit of a fair bargain. Petty change became a matter of one's ethics.

"Just remember," Vandana yelled at the vendor, "the cost of your cheating me today is my loyalty tomorrow."

The blind widow added curses of her own in Hindi. "I may not see, but God can."

I didn't understand what an extra fifteen rupees meant. It was less than a dollar. Maybe that money helped the vendor carry home an extra pound of rice to feed his family. If he stole as much from all his customers, it might've sent his kid to school. If he had a kid. These were just presumptions. I liked to believe that when someone cheated me out of money, it was the universe forcing me to do some charity.

But Vandana raised her voice and fought so hard and long over so little. A brown Karen. Kiran. Especially when someone was watching. Or, in the case of the blind widow, listening.

I asked her to relax. She ignored me. Was it a bit reckless of me to stay with her, a hothead, so unlike my passive nature, and a relative so distant that my mother had to draw a map of the family tree beyond three generations to illustrate how and why we were cousins? Too late to think now, three months into my six-month photography fellowship.

The vendor lowered his eyes to the camera around my neck. "Press?" he muttered to me, wishful. He adjusted his shirt and straightened his slouch.

I mouthed no, and yet I saw the press as a part of my future, too. After grad school, when the debt weighed on me like an invisible but potent, rotting albatross, I'll set aside desires of becoming an artist, of showing my photos in galleries, and join a magazine. Photojournalism was respectable. Or I'll sell out. Become one flash in a mob of paparazzi chasing celebrities. At 4'11" and 105 lbs., my body is designed for invisibility.

"Don't talk to her." Vandana snapped her fingers at him. Usually, she spoke in Hindi beyond me, with slang and speed I could've followed had I been raised in India, too.

But the insults seemed intuitive. If I stood at the right angle to the light, I could capture the spittle escaping her mouth with a fast shutter speed. I can caption it: 'passion is only passion when something leaves us involuntarily.'

While Vandana argued, I photographed the market: bikes parked under a streetlamp, heavy foot traffic, cars and rickshaws squeezing through, negotiating the narrow lanes with some modicum of pride, because who said India wasn't developing? The Glory of Trash. Dogs. Crows. Uninspiring. Caption: 'stock images for a stock imagination.'

However, much of the film was also of Vandana, in the background, as the focus, as the irritated bystander or vexed guide. Vandana biting her nails as she read the news; Vandana in white—bodiless behind wet floral sheets on a clothesline; Vandana's back, waiting to cross the street; Vandana's arm feeding a monkey; Vandana berating me. I wanted to find angles that might reveal how we were alike. How the photographer and her subject might become alike over time. That seemed like a decent project's thesis. But so far, we were two strangers of the same race.

I wrote much of that in an email to my advisor, and at the bottom, I attached a file of the untouched portfolio so far. Moments later, an automated reply arrived in my inbox: if you're asking me to leave my toddler to consider your work, it better be inspired.

***

Vandana's one-room rental had a blurred glass window, which distorted the view of the street but doubled as a flattering mirror at night. Though it opened in the mornings for ventilation, it regrettably didn't shut when the breeze turned chilly; most evenings, the temperature inside remained a little higher than outside. Sometimes we drank extra batches of tea only so we could wrap our fingers around a warm cup.

The weather now called for a cardigan, but it was a challenge to find any piece of garment in Vandana's closet—whether it be a traditional kurta, a satin blouse, or a cashmere sweater—without holes and tears from all the political pins she wore.

I was still searching for something to wear to a club when she finished her shower.

Vandana exited the bathroom, wrapped in a thin checkered towel; her collarbone glistened with the droplets she had left for the air to dry.

"Why you are not dressed?" my naked cousin accused.

"Why don't you put your buttons on towels, too?"

She squinted. "What organization deserves such a prime location on my wet towel?"

"I don't know, V. You stand for too many things."

Tossing the scarf in my hand back into the almirah, I sat on the bed where my suitcase lay open and unzipped. The tunics and cotton T-shirts I'd brought with me were too casual for a place that had 'disco' in its name. And while Vandana was generous about sharing her clothes, even if they fit a little loose, they all had holes on the chest, back, and arms.

She selected a black dress off the hanger. "What about this one?" She placed it on her chest and modeled for me. "Is this a showstopper? New Delhi, my runway."

"Sure, if you're planning to ask a cute guy to count the holes in it for you."

"Freaky flirting."

"You'll know if he can't count past ten."

"I'll hide the problems," Vandana said, "I'm really creative." She switched off the light and in the dark, I heard her wriggle into the dress.

After, my cousin emptied her bowl of plastic buttons. She chose five for the bust like a heavy necklace. Many had mugshots of the politicians she supported. She had me help her pin Extinction Rebellion to her back.

"Doesn't all this weigh you down, V?"

"Do my principles weigh me down?" She pinned "my life, my choice" right in the valley of her breasts. "My best real estate. My billboard. When men stare, I control what they see."

"Then you should charge to wear these logos."

"All right, stop delaying. Get ready. An hour late is fashionable, but two hours means we pay the bill. Anand will be too drunk to know numbers from words."

"I'm not drinking," I said.

Vandana whisked a comb through her damp hair. "Your professor isn't going to email you because you're staring at your computer," her reflection in the splotched mirror said to mine.

It was the weekend, and she was right despite never having met him. He wouldn't open his computer until working hours on Monday in California.

"Pick something out for me, V," I said.

Vandana gasped, mocking, "Do I dare?" She applied her lipstick and eyeliner. When she was done, she found a plum saree in the back of her wardrobe. "We'll drink in a saree and confuse the patriarchy."

"You want me to run around Delhi in a saree?" I fingered the delicate stitching on the blouse.

"Who is running? Are we being chased? No. You'll be gliding."

It took both of us to drape the saree as best as we could while following a how-to video on YouTube.

***

The guard at Dare-to-Disco pocketed an unlit cigarette as we approached the front of the line. Using the back of his elbow, he shoved away the men begging for entry. "Madam, madams," he said, like the vegetable seller, "Please come, please."

The club had invested nothing in the outside décor. Soundproof black curtains stapled to the walls teased the party promised inside. Briefly, a techno song cut off midway, and a DJ said something about an upcoming dance competition.

Vandana dug in her wallet for the cover charge. Someone tapped my shoulder as if I were a friend they recognized, but I knew no one except for my cousin in the city.

"One second, sister?" the tapper said, holding up his finger. "Please?" He craned his neck low to speak. "Your saree, beautiful, excellent, sister. You're the definition of an Indian woman."

Vandana was still talking to the guard, calling him uncle. It was something she had shared with me on the night I moved into her apartment. 'Tip number one of being a woman in Delhi, ‘rape capital’: make all strangers your relatives—an uncle, aunt, brother—they might be less likely to harm you and may even help you if you need it. Safety guaranteed if you can make them believe they owe you a favor.” But this was the first man who was calling me sister, so what did he want, I wondered, or did he feel threatened by me?

He wore a glossy maroon shirt and khaki pants. His hair was gelled back with a straight side part, which made his ears stand out more than might've been good for him.

"So?" I channeled my inner Vandana.

"Yes, sister, I will come to the point. Please help me."

Suddenly the others in the line had a live show to entertain them.

"Help me, help me, sister. Pose as my girlfriend." He raised his hands in defense, anticipating my what. "Until we enter the club only. I have no bad intentions. See, this guard says girlfriend is compulsory. See these men," he pointed to the long queue, our audience. "No girlfriend, no entry. So, they are busy texting friends, girls, cousins, their sisters."

"You can do the same," I said in broken Hindi.

"Oh, see, sister," he cringed. "I'm not like them. My girlfriend is here. We came together tonight to party for her birthday. But then, I take a phone call outside." He waved the Nokia in his hand. "No signal inside. So, I come here. Answer my boss's call."

"How did you get the call if there was no signal?"

"He gave me a missed call," he said.

His quick responses made it seem as if he were telling the truth.

"But, sister, nothing is more important to me than my girlfriend. I try to return to her. It's time for the cake-cutting and I don't want to miss this moment. But the guard stops me. 'Where is your girlfriend?' he says."

"Bribe him."

"Sister," he crossed his arms, "why should I? I already paid entry fee for me and my sweetheart. I'm not like the others here."

"Ask the guard to call her outside."

"Sister, he refuses to leave his post. He does not believe me at all."

"I can find her for you."

"No, she will not come. She already is angry with me for leaving her for a phone call on her birthday. I must go to her only. She's fairer than you, so she has a big head." It took me a moment to realize he was comparing our complexions.

He scrolled through the photos on his phone to find one of her. I'm no one's girlfriend anymore, but I was surprised by how long it took him to pull up a good picture. Then he showed me a young woman caught on a flight of stairs, a thin pile of books shielding her chest. Her hair hid half of her face, and the exposed half was blurry. The photo itself was taken from a distance, with zoom, and she couldn't have known, not even as a candid. Pictures didn't lie; photographers did.

"See, she's pretty, no?"

"Call her," I said.

"No network connection inside. That’s why I came out here to take my boss's call. You forget my story, sister. Are you listening?"

Out of curiosity more than because I believed him, I agreed to act like his girlfriend.

"Thank you, sister," he said, sighing, "thank you for your sweet heart."

The Guard Uncle was now straining to read Vandana's buttons. She offered one to him for his black shirt.

My fake boyfriend touched my shoulder again. "Look, just see how perverted he is, sister. Peeking down your friend's dress. He was eyeing my girlfriend as if he were ready to eat her. You should protect your friend, sister," he said. "Sister, what is your good name?"

"Mavalika," I said.

"Nice name," he said, wrapping his arm around my shoulders. I shrunk. He was fake, but his touching was real.

Vandana finally noticed us. "Oy" she said, her forehead scrunching. "Why are you entertaining this duffer?"

"Duffer?" he said, gripping me tighter toward him, our shoulders becoming one plane. "Oh, hoy, Madam. Give respect and take respect."

"I don't need to learn respect from someone like you," Vandana said. She pushed herself between us, and for the first time since I had arrived in New Delhi, I was grateful for her. "Let me guess, your girlfriend is 'inside'?" She air-quoted his words. "Do we look like we were born yesterday? How can we believe your face has a girlfriend?"

"Oh, Madam, ask your friend. I showed a photo on my phone."

"Aamir Khan is my wallpaper, but does he know he is my boyfriend?"

"That's your business, Madam," he said.

"Exactly," she snapped her fingers. "Your girlfriend, your business." She pushed me in front of her and through the entrance.

The Duffer's yells faded behind us.

***

We inched through the darkness and cold steam hit our faces. The lights flashed emerald on the ceiling before swiveling to the dance floor again. A man was gyrating under the spotlight.

"How can you be from America and be so naïve?" Vandana said. "There is no girlfriend."

"But what if he was being honest?"

"Oh, how can we be blood relatives?" She laughed.

"We have friends inside," I said, embarrassed. I was older than her and yet she made me feel like a younger sibling every time.

"If his girlfriend missed him that much, she'd check outside. No girl is stupid enough to leave her boyfriend alone with other girls present. Even if he was stupid enough to leave her alone in a place with other guys."

Suddenly, someone planted himself in front of Vandana, and she jerked back. "Anand," she screamed and flung her arms around his shoulders. "I rescued Mavi from her first duffer."

"Is that why you're late? Now I'm jealous I missed the fun."

We settled by the bar, where he proceeded to order two weak cocktails, and finding his glass empty, asked for a pour of scotch. Vandana, meanwhile, told him what had happened to me at the entrance as if it had happened to her.

"After that duffer follows you in, he'll tell you his girlfriend must've left without him," Anand said.

"She slipped out of a back exit," Vandana said, mimicking a guy's voice.

"There is no back exit," Anand squealed.

"He will show you evidence of it. Text messages of 'I hate you' or 'We're through' or 'We're done' or what is it that you say in America, 'It's over.' These will start coming maybe ten minutes after you bring him inside. All designed for your sympathy."

"Sympathy, yes," Anand enunciated his 's' as he sipped more of his drink. "And then, he would have latched onto you the entire night. Crying. Telling you memories of their meetings, their dates, his gifts. All fake. Fantasy. Until you, psychologically, begin to wish you were his girlfriend. He'll wait for you to say it."

"'If I were your girlfriend, I wouldn't have acted like that.' 'You deserve better.' 'Any girl would be happy to have you,'" Vandana supplied the lines. "Four hours later, when you're too tired to think clearly, he'll thank you for listening."

Anand said, "He'll say, 'You are so supportive. I need a friend like you in my life. May I have your number? In case I need to talk later.'"

"That's how they trap girls," Vandana said. "Then, slowly, his lies come to the surface—one by one. There is no girlfriend. He does not have a job. His father is not handicapped. His mother is not dead." She pushed away the empty glass and refused another the bartender offered on the house. I wondered how many duffers had fooled her before she discovered the pattern. "In conclusion, I'm a hero," Vandana said, "and the American buys tonight."

The DJ announced the dance karaoke and welcomed partners onto the stage. Some remixed iconic tune I didn't recognize played on the loudspeakers, steadily increasing in beat and rhythm.

Vandana and Anand dared one another to slide onto the glossy floor, but neither moved from their posts at the bar. Both were having too much fun catcalling and judging others. Anonymity was the easiest costume for courage. I held my drink but didn't taste it. I wasn't comfortable drinking in new places when I had no one that I trusted to take care of me.

The rest of the night, until the bar closed and Anand and Vandana had each consumed more than four drinks, I scanned the crowd, wherever the spotlight landed, searching for the guy from the entrance. I so desperately wanted to see what Vandana would look like when she was proved wrong, even if I didn't have my camera to catch it.

***

On Monday, my professor sent a less automated reply of 'meh.' It wasn't the most disappointing message I'd imagined from him until I thought longer about it. He couldn't be bothered enough to write a negative critique. My work hadn't inspired any finished thought, sentence, or proper word. I searched the definition of 'meh' and said it in different tones, tossing in a shoulder shrug to see if I could understand his reaction through my body.

I snapped another photo of Vandana scrolling through her phone. Her hair was in a messy bun on her crown. Then, another photo of her reflection rubbing white ointment on a new chin pimple. I wanted these photos to tell me why I was taking them. Why I was compelled to watch her. What was I trying to understand or show someone else through these photos? And who cared if she was my cousin? She wasn't even nude in any of these. Nudity could pass as art.

I typed another email to my professor and read it aloud. "Thank you for your time and consideration of my work. I will rethink the subject."

"Why do you care what he thinks?" Vandana said. "You're the artist."

Was I though? I worried sometimes that I was missing some great opportunity. That was what my advisor had called it. "You're missing a great opportunity if you don't tap into where you're from." Where I'm from. As in where my parents were from. As in India. Hence, New Delhi, and not New Bedford, Massachusetts where I was born. To add to that, many photographers in my cohort had captured much less than a person. For example, my nemesis, A, just sold her 'Fruit of My Eden' series to a major publisher. Sixty photos of exotic vegetables she had grown in her backyard but arranged on her black marble countertops; elegantly lit and framed, of course, and yet they were vegetables so meh. She was from Bentonville, Arkansas, but her kitchen was apparently unique enough to display in art galleries and collect in a book to set on a coffee table. I wondered if she ever thought she might have to become a food photographer after graduating.

I thought of doing a parody of A's photography using Vandana's steel plates, cups, and vegetables from the vendor downstairs. That ought to draw more out of my advisor—who had also hooked up A with her literary editor—than a breathy meh.

Vandana said, "You're passive."

I didn't expect someone who worked in sales at a shoe company to understand how the American art industry worked for people of color.

"I can't call my advisor 'uncle' and make him help me, V."

My advisor, for what his gray hair was worth, believed he knew what I needed to photograph. Until I lucked into his idea, I had to keep trying. He'd never just straightforwardly tell me what he believed I should do, in case I found the courage to accuse him, a white man, of boxing me in, of pigeonholing me, of racism. He had even refused to sign off on my grant application until I changed my country of interest from Italy to India. "There's no point," he said, "Why Italy, why you? It doesn't make sense when you have no connection. But India… that's your connection. That's where you'll find your story." Now he expected "inspired work" from a place that failed to inspire me. "But sometimes you have to do what others want you to do until you've earned the power to do whatever you want."

She clapped when I finished talking, breathless and cold. "You are related to me. Finally, I see it. The fire. This is why I pin my values to my chest. To remember what I stand for. You need a pin that declares 'my camera, my photos.'"

We laughed, though only I found it particularly funny that I was complaining about photos. I mean, photos. I was complaining about my artistic freedom to take photos. That was my cause?

Then, someone knocked on our door, startling us.

“Market time,” the widow hollered. “Vandana?”

Vandana wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. "I swear she’ll ruin my life with her love of vegetables."

"She'll lecture you about last night," I said. We had left the club with Vandana drunker than she could agree. The widow heard me struggling with Vandana's key in the corridor. She twitched her palms for the key and opened the apartment door faster than me. Her blind eyes could still judge.

"But if she lectures me," Vandana said, "I'll blame you. The uncouth American-you."

"Where's your fire now to fight her?" I said.

It was the first time I saw Vandana offended by my words. "You won't understand."

"Right," I said, "I don't know Hindi. I'm not from here. What does it matter what she thinks of me?" I was only repeating what she always said about me.

She quietly searched through her purse. "I don't care what she thinks of me, too. If she wants to lecture, I have my defense." That said, she untangled her headphones.

***

After a while, voices echoed in the small corridor. Setting aside my laptop, I tiptoed to the peephole. The back of Vandana's head moved from side-to-side.

"I can smell bad fruit. I can smell you and her through my door. City’s stink in your mouth. What would your mother say if she saw you? Good she's gone. God showed her mercy. All these bad habits, are they yours or hers?"

"Are you doubting me?"

"Then she must go," the widow said, relenting.

"She knows only me in Delhi."

"She's spoiling you."

"She looks like my mother."

I didn't. Not at all.

But the widow didn't know. She softened. "I will not let her ruin you."

"Not tomorrow," my cousin said. "In one week. Please. I give you, my word, Aunty. You won't smell her."

The widow grimaced. "Don't get smart with me."

"Or hear her," Vandana said.

The promise seemed gratuitous, but I wasn't expecting her to defend me or tell the truth about the previous night. On impulse, I grabbed my camera and prepared the settings for low, evening light. This new face Vandana made as she entered the door, as she sulked around the bedroom, as she thought about what to say, as she strung polite but firm English phrases in her head so she could ask me to leave, I wanted to capture that expression. That emotion of hesitancy? Or embarrassment? Or apology? Of passivity, perhaps. Of powerlessness. How it might’ve been different from the way she talked to vendors and random guys trying to enter clubs. Because I am, after all, family. I believed it might let me capture some similarity between us that I hadn't found before.

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