“Shall we seal the deal then?” Rajeev Singhal asked, pushing the contract towards me.
“On one condition,” I said.
He seemed confused--what more could I possibly want? The remuneration couldn’t be an issue. I was promised a hefty pay cheque by the agency. They had been desperate to have me working on their project. After all, there was hardly any photographer who could deliver the excellence that was expected of me.
“Well, I have always believed and practiced free style photography,” I started. “I decide on the concept, context, content of my assignments. This means I will be sharing the pictures with you only after the entire shoot is complete.”
Singhal looked at me with astonishment. He clearly didn’t like surprises.
“Look, Rajeev,” I said a little sternly. “If you want me to give you my best, you will have to trust me enough to allow me to work on my terms.”
My brilliant record in photography made sure no one objected to my method of working. Singhal’s frown soon changed into an appreciative smile.
“Akhil, I know you are the best in your field. But I hope you realize what a huge responsibility this is,” he said. “Mr. Harish Mittal is a very important client. If he ends up satisfied with our campaign, it could earn us a contract of a lifetime. We need to represent ‘Brillianze’ in the best possible way. Run a model hunt, select a fresh face---someone as glamorous and graceful as the range of diamond jewellery. Impress us with your creativity. Dazzle us with your talent.”
I stifled a laugh. His position as head of the advertising agency had made Singhal’s tongue slick and his language flowery. I knew he was not exaggerating, though. The Mittals demanded nothing short of perfection. The campaign was going to occupy the largest billboard in the city. All the major malls, stadiums, and office buildings were going to sport banners promoting the ‘Brillianze’ range of jewellery. As if that was not enough to attract attention, they now wanted to rope in a golden girl from Lord Indra’s palace.
“We cannot afford to lose this contract, Akhil. You got to find that face, and fast,” Singhal kept reiterating. I decided to take his leave before his panic changed to paranoia.
One foot already out of the door, I felt a strange combination of anxiety and enthusiasm.
The search for transcendent beauty was about to begin…
I logged into my Facebook account and found 57 new friend requests. I accepted them all. One couldn’t afford to put on airs in this industry. Pretty faces often come with dreams of turning into overnight superstars, and most would consider Akhil Karyekar as their ticket to Bollywood. I found myself scanning the profile pictures of all the new requests. My subconscious mind had already started model hunting.
“Fresh face needed for ‘Brillianze jewellery’ ad campaign. Those interested, please inbox me for further details.”
Even as I hit the ‘Publish’ option, something told me that this was going to be a waste of time. This was too common, too routine, too mainstream for reaching out to exceptional beauty. Something told me that if I was supposed to find her, it would surely be in some unconventional way. Perhaps she would be waiting at the bus stop, her dupatta billowing in the breeze, or maybe I’d see her dancing in the rain with a bunch of school children, or perhaps at the temple---a luminous face in a group of hymn chanting devotees. Or maybe, I would just be walking down the road, and BAM! She’d be standing before me by an act of serendipity.
I chided myself for watching too much TV. That was probably where all these ideas were coming from. Then again, maybe it was the thrill of the chase that excited me. Finding her on Facebook would be too easy, and Akhil Karyekar didn’t go for easy.
However, desperate times called for desperate measures. I copy pasted the same message on Twitter and a few other social networks. If I was going to digitalize my search I might as well go all the way, I thought. With a follower count that exceeded 4.3 M, it was no surprise to see my inbox instantly filled up with pictures and requests of wannabe models vying for the slot. After all, who could resist a Harish Mittal campaign? Of course, the cherry on the cake was that Akhil Karyekar was doing the photo shoot.
I gloated for a while. In fifteen years of experience, I had managed to earn a status for myself. I had become the magic man of the advertising world, the illusionist who could charm the world by accentuating beauty, the one who chose the best angles, the most flattering poses, and eventually came up with an exquisite portfolio---the Akhil touch, they’d call it.
Attraction is a weird phenomenon. It does not follow any laws. It is a strong pull towards that one person who manages to stand out in a thousand faces like a beacon of positive energy throwing everything else in soft focus. It is that one smile which can warm the frozen cockles of the heart and promise to stay as a permanent fixture in the little box of sepia memories. I experienced that kind of ambiguous clarity today.
I was walking down Fatehabad Road with my faithful street companion, my Nikon SLR, slung in my neck. The street was bustling with activity and people. All of a sudden, the delicate scent of fresh jasmine flowers assailed my senses. I closed my eyes and breathed in the fragrance when suddenly I heard the tinkling sound of anklets coming from somewhere near. Mesmerized by the confluence of scent and sound, I stayed with my eyes closed for a few seconds, only until I realized that it had started getting faint…distant. Frantically, I opened my eyes eager to latch on to the source. That was when I saw her walking away with a swing in her step. She was already a couple of feet ahead---a petite frame with dark flowing tresses cascading down her slender back. With a free hand, she pulled the yellow dupatta that was covering her head a little further down her face.
I was now walking almost at pace with her. I cursed the swarm of people moving between us that did not allow me to walk any closer to her. From where I was, I could see only half of her lovely visage. But the serenity she emitted was evident even from that distance. The dupatta that protected her delicate skin from the harsh Delhi summer could hide part of her face but not her beauty. As I tried to catch as much as I could perceive behind those defences, the photographer in me was tempted to plead her for a front profile. Maybe she was the one at which my search would end.
One glimpse of her partially revealed face had transformed me into a Renaissance artist, a Sufi poet, a timeless captive of limitless imagination. My eyes had perceived an incomplete beauty---a hint of what seemed like sharp aquiline features, a patrician nose, hazel eyes, and porcelain skin-- and my mind had taken it upon itself to complete the picture. I cursed the yellow cotton scarf that hindered my sight from witnessing the real extent of her splendour. But then again, it was not her fault. An irresistible pulchritude like hers was meant to be protected from the perverted glances of men and jealous glares from women. It was sacrilege to have a rare gem like her walk the crowded streets, subjected to dust and grime and a million ogling strangers like me. Maybe she was aware of all this. She ignored the gazes that fell upon her while she walked looking straight ahead.
However, there was one particular thing that struck me most about her---on her right arm, was tattooed an alluring blue butterfly. The contrast of dark ink on fair skin was striking---it added to her appeal. I winced as I imagined how a delicate skin like hers must have borne the pain of a tattoo needle.
“Never underestimate the strength of a woman,” I reminded myself.
“Girls!” I sighed in exasperation. They do not mind their arms being exposed to pins and needles in order to look pretty. But a small blemish on their face and they’d go all paranoid about it, applying sun blocks with the highest available SPF, or covering the face with a dupatta or scarf like my pretty butterfly-girl.”
I gasped. Did I just call her mine? It wasn’t like me at all to do that. I laughed at the sense of possessiveness I had started feeling for this nameless stranger.
I must have been either smiling or dreaming because I felt a ghost of a smile appear on her lips before she disappeared in the fleeting crowd. I had lost her, my butterfly-girl, and I had no hopes of ever seeing her again.
“Where are we meeting her?” I asked Sandeep, my childhood buddy. Our busy lives kept us from meeting up often.
It had been a week since I saw my butterfly-girl. However, not a day had passed without her crossing my mind. Every time I saw an online portfolio or catalogues of modelling agencies, my thoughts spiralled towards her. Singhal was driving me crazy---he thought I was not putting in enough effort in the search.
Sandeep wanted me to meet his lady love. I was only too happy for him. He told me he had been seeing Megha for six weeks now. I cursed him for not having told me earlier.
The coffee place was a surprise. I had expected us to stop at some highbrow café. But I should have known. Sandeep had never been the ostentatious kind.
As we chose a table and waited for Megha, a sense of foreboding haunted me. I looked around the place. Everyone here seemed to be fighting a tough battle. As I saw the staff giving individual attention to every table, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. This café was fairly new. I had never been here before. I tried hard not to stare.
“There she comes,” said Sandeep.
I frowned. Megha was fifteen minutes late. I was just about to look up from my cell phone when a familiar scent hit the olfactory centres in my brain, the fragrance of jasmine flowers, the fragrance I associated with someone I was pining to encounter once again. My butterfly-girl was my best friend’s fiancee?? No, no. She couldn’t be….
I shut my eyes tight hoping my suspicion wasn’t true. But the tinkle of anklets did not allow me to stay in that reverie for too long. Slowly, I raised my head preparing for the confrontation.
“Hi, Akhil. It’s so good to meet you,”
A stylish woman sporting a short summer dress and a pixie haircut was standing in front of me, extending her hand. I heaved a sigh of relief as I shook hands with Megha.
All of a sudden, the air was filled with the freshness of jasmine blooms once again. The familiar tinkling sound drowned out Sandeep’s voice. From the blush on Megha’s face, I guessed that he was giving me a spin trip around his girl’s achievements. But I was not listening. My eyes were desperately searching for someone. I didn’t know what exactly I was looking for. It’s tough to spot someone you have hardly got a clear picture of. But I knew if luck had brought me this far, then it would surely find her for me.
My eyes were scanning every corner of the café when suddenly a voice interrupted my chain of thoughts.
“Sir, your order, please,”
What I saw left me open mouthed. I could not get my startled gaze off her. When she finally looked in my direction, I quickly averted her gaze. I wanted to believe that there could be other women wearing jasmine flowers. I wanted to convince my racing heart that I was mistaken about the cascading tumble of hair, the sweet jingle of the anklets. This could not be her. This just could not be her.
The tattoo on her right arm shyly peeped at me from beneath the sleeve of the T-shirt she was wearing, the blue butterfly on white skin. I felt my eyes tearing up as I realized this was indeed her---my butterfly-girl.
She scurried away after taking our order.
“You alright?” Megha asked. She had sensed my discomfort.
“Y…yes. I’m okay,”
“This is Akhil’s first time at Sheroes Cafe, Megha,” Sandeep explained in an almost apologetic tone. “I guess it’s natural to get a little overwhelmed.”
“I guess that is what happens when you live in a predictable microcosm of beauty. Your definitions begin to change,” she shrugged.
“Megha had suggested this place for our first date,” Sandeep told me. “She comes here often.”
One of the Sheroes waved at Megha from behind the counter. Megha waved back at her. I realized they went back a long way. Megha was a social worker and worked for the emancipation of women. It was quite likely that she’d offered the acid attack victims whatever support she could in setting up the café. It was a brave initiative, and I was embarrassed for not having known about it earlier.
The butterfly-girl walked up to our table with our order. This time, she did not look at me. She smiled at Megha and went away.
“What…what’s her story?” I asked.
“You mean, Sargam?” Megha tone turned sombre. “She was fifteen when her father wanted to get her married. Sargam would not relent. She wanted to study further.”
“Her father, did he do that to her?”
“No. Her life is more complicated than that. Sargam was in love with a boy named Alok who was two years her senior. When she refused to marry the man her father wanted her to marry, the jealous suitor decided to teach her a lesson. And guess who he paid off to do the job...Alok.”
“The guy she loved did that to her?” I almost choked.
“Yes, but that girl is a fighter. That attack left her blind in one eye. The left part of her face is totally destroyed. But the acid couldn’t burn down her spirit.”
After a moment’s silence, she said, “She was a beautiful girl, you know. One can guess from her face …”
Then lowering her eyes, she softly whispered, “…or from whatever is left of it.”
I was touched. Sargam had shown great courage in the face of such adversity. I now perceived our brief encounter that day in a different light---the yellow dupatta, the stares from passer-by’s, everything made new sense. Perhaps the butterfly tattoo was a symbol signifying short yet eventful life capable of drastic transformation, a reminder of the strength and inner peace. I was ashamed of myself. Life as a photographer had made me perceive beauty in a predictable filter, in just one angle….the superficial angle. There was so much more to beauty than just a pretty face.
“Sargam, can we talk for a minute?” I asked.
She turned to look at me. She was smiling, the same smile I had fallen in love with the other day. But today I saw more. The unveiled details created a sharp contrast, much sharper than the dark tattoo on fair skin. While the right half reflected every photographer’s dream, the other half was scarred so heavily that all you that was left was a blob of distorted muscle. I trembled with rage at the man who had been so inhuman.
“I heard your story from Megha,” I started.
“No Sir. What you have heard is not just my story, but the story of every acid attack victim in India,” she said, a sad smile on her lips. “But our story does not end with the attack. It begins with it.” I thought I saw a tear roll down her left cheek, but I could not bear to trace it in the ruins of her face.
“Sir, you must be surrounded by pretty faces all the time. But I ask you, of what importance is a beauty that can be ruined by a few drops of caustic acid? How permanent can such a perception be? And if our definition of beauty is so fickle, why do we try so hard to immortalize it?”
I stayed silent absorbing every word she said. My search had finally ended.
The much awaited day was here. It was time for the final presentation.
“The surprise better be good,” Singhal whispered in a tone that sounded more like a treat to me.
I sported my most confident look. The entire creative and marketing team were present. Mr. and Mrs. Mittal were also attending.
“Good afternoon, friends,” I started. “Rajeev here must be surely having something against me to set me up on this almost impossible task. As all of you are aware, I have spent sleepless nights in search of that face of Brillianze, who seemed to elude me even in my dreams.” This invited giggles from all the team members.
“However, the problem was I was searching in all the wrong places. “
I smiled and turned on the OHP, bringing a photograph into focus. The audience let out a collective gasp. It was clearly not what they had been expecting. There, on the screen, was a magnified, high-resolution front profile picture of Sargam’s face, all natural; no make-up, no filters. I could feel Singhal’s eyes burn a hole in my neck. The photograph was creating quite a stir among those seated. I continued.
“This is Sargam. She is an acid attack victim.” If someone dropped a pin in the room, it’d be heard.
“But that is not what defines her. What defines her is her caring nature. She is a doting daughter to a man who, in a way, is responsible for the state she is in. What defines her is her courage to walk down the same street where she was once attacked by the very love she had trusted. Her faith in life and God, her positivity, and most importantly, her ability to smile after all that happened…despite all that happened---that is what defines her. In a situation where optimism seems bleak for most of us, Sargam is fighting for herself and for those like her. She wants to live a life of respect, where people treat her as not an object of pity but as an example of bravery. She wants to dream. She wants to hope. She wants to love. She wants to fly, and no power in the world can stop her from doing that. And that my friends, is the kind of beauty we are looking for. Because it is the face of courage that reflects true brilliance,” I paused to think of my butterfly-girl.
“…because inside every woman lies a Shero!” I concluded with the tagline I’d thought was most appropriate.
The lights went on. Mr. and Mrs. Mittal, the proprietors of Brillianze jewellery were the first to applaud. Singhal caught their cue and started clapping like a monkey.
I looked at Sargam’s smiling photograph on the screen. It took me back to the day when I discussed the campaign with her when I’d asked her if she would really be okay with the publicity it would draw.
“I am not the one who splashed the acid, Sir. Why then should I be the one hiding?”
Her brave words resonated in my ears, and I joined in the applause for my butterfly-girl. The search had ended. But the journey had only begun.