I write every day in response to a writing prompt, and I have a collection of them for the current year. Also, and I must emphasize this, I write in longhand, using a fountain pen. I have a small collection of such pens. Anyway, one prompt encouraged me to write an alternative autobiography. So, while writing this, I realized that this sort of writing prompts you to ask: ‘what if?’. However, I also encourage you to ask, “now what?”
While I understand that some of this can be self-indulgent, the exercise is excellent, because it helps, sometimes, to clear the cobwebs in your brain. So, having written all this, let’s start.
What if my life followed a different, and I was brave enough to follow my dreams earlier? What if I had the clarity to realize what I wanted to do in life? We can ask ourselves these questions and, ever since I read Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, I have asked myself these questions from time to time.
Travel to the Past with me
Travel back in time with me, and picture me as a young, twenty-three-year-old metallurgical engineer. After my bout with jaundice, I gained weight and became very rotund. When my bossed put me in the steel plant, they also put me in the general shift (I started shift work a few months later) and worked six days a week. We’d party on Saturday nights and spend Sundays in a groggy haze. You could name Sunday as “The Day of Groggy Rest”.
There are moments in life when your life takes a different trajectory, and it just requires something to give you a hard kick on your behind.
I used to live in company given quarters and, while it was not good, it gave us security. The chance of us being kicked out on to the street was minimal. A young person stayed with us, a freeloader from Kerala. On the one hand, he was a complete wastrel, and on the other, he was a good-natured chap, so no one kicked him out.
One night, however, he vomited all over me and, when I looked down at my puke-stained clothes, I asked myself if I had spent five years of my life in one of India’s top engineering colleges only to have a complete slacker vomit all over me. Life owed something better, and I owed life something better.
The problem that now faced me square in the face was what to do on Sundays. I love reading, but couldn’t afford books on my pittance of a salary. Sundays now became the “Day of Empty Rest”, and a day full of tedium. Two prostitutes (sisters) lived on my floor, and another prostitute lived two floors above me. Now that I stopped sleeping through my Sundays, I noticed all three of them gazing at me with considerable interest. My ego demanded that I view this as an expression of lust for my personal self, but realism punctured that self-made myth. They only wanted my money.
Forcing Myself Into Photography
When I decided to do something productive, I examined my family members to hunt for clues. My father, while a bit of a rake in his younger days, had become a hard-working Army man, one who received the highest award possible for a non-combat officer. During my childhood, living in Kenton, Harrow, he used to crawl into our bed on Sunday mornings and tell us a story. I didn’t realize he was an excellent storyteller, neither did I comprehend that storytelling is an art form.
For me, drawing, painting, sketching, sculpting, etc., were art forms, and my mother and sisters excelled at this. Compared with them, I possessed the artistic skills of a block of wood. Undeterred by this discovery, I took up photography.
In those days, camera manufacturers did not have offices and shops in India. Unless you were rich enough to travel overseas, you trooped down to South Bombay, to the Fort and Fountain areas, and buy a camera from the chaps sitting on the pavement. These chaps sold smuggled goods, and we didn’t get a warranty.
My Beloved Olympus
First, I bought a photography magazine, and the authors recommended Leica cameras. The price almost sent me into a cardiac shock, so I settled on the Olympus OM-2n, which the authors praised. When I found one, I my next cardiac event followed At half my annual salary, what else can you expect?
I convinced the ‘footpath retailer’ to hold on to the camera for me, after paying a small deposit, until I arranged the funds. Next, I convinced my father to shell up the funds and, a month later, was back at my friend’s spot on the pavement.
True to his word, he held the camera for me. This brings me to a slight tangential detour. In those days, a word given in honor represented a promise to be kept. Things have changed since then, and honor seems to be a word we use in a warped context.
I bought the camera and own it till this day. It is an Olympus OM-2n, with a 50 mm F1.4 lens. This is a fabulous configuration. I’d like to bore you all with the story of how I went into street photography, shot black & white, and learned how to care for the camera. But maybe I will keep that for another day.
But what if the young wastrel had not puked all over me? What would my life have been?
When I learned how to make acceptable images, I told my father I wanted to become a photographer. Without cursing me for wasting five years of my life studying to be an engineer, he found me a position as the apprentice to an established photographer. At that moment, panic coursed through me like the waves in a stormy sea. I would have to leave the security of my company flat and become a paying guest in some horrible place in Bombay.
So, like an ungrateful cretin, I cursed my father for his efforts, and turned my back on a career in photography. Years passed, and the corporate world finally tired of my rebellious and independent nature and booted me out.
My backside and ego hurt for many years, and I explored business consultancy. Yet, my heart kept pulling me back into photography and storytelling (shades of my father!).
In the end, I refused to accept the truth that, with each passing day, I was becoming outdated and irrelevant. Sometimes, we must be like the snake to live. We must molt, shed our old skins, and find life and purpose anew.
When I started on my photography journey, without realizing it, my Sundays became enjoyable. Not only did I have something to look forward to, I found meaning in life. Yes, I lost the way, but now, I am molting. As I shed the old skin, I unshackle from old, rusty chains.
Now is the time to ask—what if? What if I had taken my fate into my hands and become an apprentice? Would I have become a successful commercial photographer? Would I have lost my soul in the maze of technique and money-making? It’s good to make money, but it is also good to nourish the soul. Would I have walked the tightrope of artistic vision and commerce?
Commercial Break! Images from Envato.