“Sir only thirty rupees, very good photo in front of gateway. Only thirty. See this album, good photos” said the photographer trying his best to put English words together. The couple walking hand in hand stopped to scroll through the photo album. Chotu nudged at the man’s jeans. He bent forward like an old man and sported a puppy face which always worked for a rupee or two. Even after the man gave him a two rupee coin Chotu stood there. It was the next act he was keen on witnessing.
“Yeah, let’s do this titanic one” said the lady as she handed over the album.
“Very romantic pose madam, Very good choice. Please stand here”
The two stood almost 30 steps away from the Gateway of India. The man stood behind the lady and they raised their arms sideways, looking like two collinear T’s. Chotu stood behind the photographer neatly observing their pose and their smile. He even tried to imitate it by raising his tiny arms. His smile revealed his yellow teeth.
“Sir move a little to left. Hands a little up, more up” Chotu repeated everything the man with the camera ordered the couple to do, almost like their shadow. “Yes perfect. Smile”.
Frame. Click. Flash.
The photographer brought them a print of the photo. Chotu seemed more anxious about the photo than the couple. The lady who was noticing the little boy all along called him and showed him the photo. Chotu gave a broad smile and gestured “Amazing” with his fingers. The lady ran rubbed his hair and gave him a five rupee coin and they walked off holding hands again.
Chotu was a 7 year old boy. He was usually hanging around the Gateway and begging with his puppy face. When he was not at work he would stare at the sea, the soapy brown waves, the boats floating in a synchronized manner. He would look at the people posing in front of the Gateway. They had different poses and they smiled so much. He figured they were all so happy.
Chotu never bothered to look at the cameras they were shot on. He was only interested in their smiling faces and the varied poses. There was a time when he told one of the street kids that people are only happy when they smile, so everyone can be happy if they get their photos clicked all the time.
One reason he was begging more often than playing these days was to fulfill a wish, a wish to make his mother proud. He figured his mother would be proud of him when she would know he was happy. So, all he wanted was to get a picture of himself in front of the gateway. He wanted to be happy if only for that little moment. He was a little boy with little wises.
He would follow the photographers and their posers. He would observe and study the different poses. He would imitate the poses and practice them each night before sleeping. He would try and learn the names of those poses and gestures the photographer suggested. ‘Titanic’ for couples, ‘Yo’ ‘Shahrukh Khan’ ‘James Bond’ for the men and ‘modelwala pose’ for the ladies. He knew them all after hours of practice and observing.
Chotu sat on footpath counting the coins he had. “One, two, eleven, twenty one” The total was twenty five, five more and he would be smiling in front of the gateway with a photographer asking him to move to the left, raise his arms. His face lit up just thinking about it all. He touched the street and touched the same hand onto his forehead. He looked upto the bright blue sky, closed his eyes and prayed for a good day.
He saw a neatly dressed man standing near a lamp. He was talking on his phone, rather yelling at someone. Chotu turned away to look at other people. A foreigner clicking photos with a big camera, a pregnant lady walking with little boy, a little girl eating something with a very tempting smell, her mother looking at him with her big angry eyes, an elderly couple walking slowly and panting, a man staring at the magnificent Taj.
Chotu approached the foreigner with the camera. He nudged at his pants and made a puppy face. The man set his camera on a tripod and looked through his pockets. “Sorry Buddy, no change” said the man. “It’s okay” said Chotu and ran after the elderly couple. The white man’s eyes followed the little boy’s strides.
People walking nearby Chotu turned to look at him. Their faces were shocked and amazed. Here was a little boy jumping, dancing and yelling “Dhinka Chika”. To them it was weird but for Chotu the five rupees from the man staring at the Taj meant a million. He now had the thirty needed for a photo. He danced his way to a car, as the world around him stared on.
He turned the rear-view mirror of a Tata Nano. He flipped his stained shirt, so it would appear new. He finger-combed his air, he rubbed his face, he was ready. He looked at the reflection of a boy in the mirror, he was smiling at him, showing off his teeth. Chotu looked away from the boy and quickly looked back him, he smiled again.
He looked upto the sky and called out “Dekh Maa…” Chotu paused for a moment and removed the coins from his pocket “No Hindi, English today. Mummy see your Chotu is going to get photo today. Be happy now, give aashirwaad”.
He looked at the fine reflection of himself, the thirty rupees in his hands then again at the sky “Thank you mummy, thank you”
He ran to the same photographer, who was walking around chasing other people. Chotu went upto him and yelled in Hindi, “Take this. Thirty rupees. This my first photo, it better be a good one”
The photographer counted the coins, they were dot thirty. He gestured Chotu to stand, not even looking at him.
Chotu’s face bore a smile as good as him winning a million dollar lottery. The nervous boy tried three different poses a ‘James Bond, “No, no wait”, a “Shahrukh Khan”, “No, no wait”. He had done everything right except choosing a pose.
“Just fold your hands, look at me and smile. And don’t you dare say Wait again” yelled the photographer. Chotu mechanically obeyed the orders.
Frame. Click. Flash
Chotu was anxious. His face lit up at the prospect of seeing his photo. He started jumping the moment he saw the man return with the photo. The man gave the photo and just walked off to hunt for other customers.
Before looking at the picture Chotu looked at the sky and prayed again. The smile on that face turned to a frown. He stomped his way to the photographer.
“Aye my eyes are closed in this photo. Click again”
“Go away” He did not bother looking at the boy
“What go away? This was my first photo”
“I gave you thirty rupees. Click again”
“That’s all you get in thirty rupees. You want another one gimme forty. Okay? Now get lost”
Chotu watched him brisk walk with his drippy eyes. He wiped the tears and looked at himself smiling with his eyes closed. He folded the picture and inserted it his pockets and then it struck him, “Mummy don’t you worry, tension nako. I will try again tomorrow”
Chotu nudged at the next leg that passed by him. He looked up. It was the same foreigner with the camera. The man ran his hands through the boy’s hair and gave him a twenty. Chotu said sweetest ‘thank you’ and ran off.
The man sat at a bench and scrolled through all the pictures he had clicked. The Gateway of India, a cart puller, the fishermen in their boats, the magnificent Taj hotel, the little boy dancing, the little jumping, the little boy looking at the sky and the little boy smiling for a picture.
Written by Viraj Pradhan