8 Mar 2019 – They are a perfect pair. They complement each other and are a study in contrast: she flaunts her white hair, he dyes it black; she means business at all hours, he loves to chat with his customers; she laughs spontaneously and loud, he is all languid smile and twinkling eyes; she wears bright kurtis, he is clad in sober shirts.
Sakhisona mashi and Swapan mesho. I have known them for almost 40 years now. Mashi was a younger colleague of my mother’s in a Montessori school named ‘East Point’ in our neighbourhood, way back in the late 1970’s. That was a short phase in my mother’s life (some years after she had left her permanent lecturer’s job in Bengali Literature in a distant college), but she bonded with many women there. Some yellowing photographs of a long-ago picnic bear testimony to that time. Of the several young women from the school who frequented our home, there were two whom I liked the most – Sakhi mashi and Sraboni mashi. Sraboni mashi visited us the most – always full of gifts and joyful chatter. She was lost to us soon after, however, but Sakhi mashi remained a part of our lives.
Sakhi mashi was a stunner: glowing fair-skin, bob-hair, beautiful face, contagious smile. Coupled with a distinctly un-feminine voice! My earliest memory of her is of a vision in white – mashi in a sleeveless white top and black skirt, with skin-leggings, camera hanging from her neck. She illuminated the room with her sheer presence. I had never seen any Bengali woman of my acquaintance dress like that. Or look like that. I was immediately smitten. Another source of attraction was the Nazia and Zoheb Hasan records that she played in her home on Sundays. The small rented ground-floor apartment in a two-storey house that she and her husband lived in faced one part of our housing complex, such that I could talk to her across our apartment’s small balcony. I would often go over to their place, and once stayed the whole day till a party in the evening (for her anniversary, I think) got over.
I remember being told she had been to Japan. Which was a surprise. I had heard people going to the US and the UK, but I had never heard of anyone going to Japan. That made her even more exotic to me. That aura was only lost when I first visited her on a Sunday and saw her dressed in a nighty, dusting her bedroom with a quick casual efficiency while humming ‘Disco Deewane’.
That efficiency is what she has always brought to her work at THE NEW FOTOLAB as well. If you are ever in Kankurgchi, you cannot miss it. From the crossing, if you are going towards Bengal Chemical, the shop will be to your right. That is the place where it has been always been ever since 1978 – when Swapan mesho set it up, even as he worked reluctantly as a Reserve Bank employee.
I admire couples like mashi and mesho who share a common passion. In their case, however, it is not just something that they indulge in only on holidays or on vacations when they let their hair down. It is also their profession, their bread and butter.
Their profession – and professionalism – has benefitted all of us locals. For no matter where one lives, all will agree, it is always great to have a photo studio near one which can deftly cater to all manner of emergencies, personal/ professional/ medical. I’ve always gone there with urgent needs. Can’t remember doing anything that was not urgent. I also can’t remember anything in my life that FOTOLAB has not been a part of: from the Exams in my student life to job applications in my career (for all of which I needed passport photos), from my wedding to my mother’s funeral.
The last time I met them together, true to their personalities – Sakhi mashi got my photos done while carrying on a conversation with me and looking to other customers, while mesho tried to bribe me for a longer adda with tea and samosa. “Ektu bosh na” (Do sit for a while), he entreated. I had no time. I never do. He was mock-hurt. “Next time”, I promised. Let’s see when I can keep it.
There. That was it. My intended post. In 730 words flat. After writing it (in late December ’18), I went to talk to mashi (early in January ’19). I had written things entirely from memory and went to just cross-check certain facts that I wasn’t entirely sure of before I posted the piece. I however came away with not just fact-checks, but a totally different perspective. For in the 45 minutes of our conversation unfolded a life that I had never known in all the 40 years of our acquaintance.
First, the fact-check: my very first memory of her turned out to be incorrect. The camera could not have hung from her neck, Mashi told me, when I first saw her as a young single woman teaching in ‘East Point’. Because she came to photography a little later in life, after her marriage. And it was never – and is still not, she emphasized – her passion. It was/is “just work”. That was news!
She never had any passion as such, she told me, just a zest for work. Her life was actually defined by her father’s early death when she was in high school. With a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Bethune College, she could have easily continued with her studies, but didn’t – because she needed to earn. And she was very practical and pragmatic in her approach as to how to do it: she embraced new opportunities that came her way, worked hard, and made the best of them before moving on to the next. So that in three short years, she had quite a varied experience. Starting with ‘East Point’, where she worked part-time, she quickly moved on to a better-paying Kindergarten (‘National’). While there, she did a Secretarial course in the afternoons from ‘Martin & Burns’ which landed her a job at ‘Johnson & Johnson’ soon after. She had actually not completed the secretarial course, but she had learnt the basics well – had good speed for both typing and shorthand; and being fluent in English and confident in personality, she did well in the GD as well. So the job was hers. There was also another she had applied for – a desk job at Air India, but she was already married by then. And AI didn’t want married women on their rolls because of the odd working hours that were involved.
As mashi recounted her early years, the prevailing prejudices against the working women of her generation in the corporate sector became clear: Anglos and ‘non-Bengalis’ were preferred for secretarial positions, single women for airlines. While she didn’t make much of these prejudices, she was soon to confront a major one when she started working in THE NEW FOTOLAB. Everybody objected to her “sitting” in a shop – from her mother and elder brother to her father and mother-in-law. Bengali women from respectable families didn’t do such things, she was told. But her husband was on her side. In fact., it was because of him, for him, that she was doing this. It was he who wanted her in the shop. And he had his way, especially since he had already done something wilder – sent his wife to Japan! All in the service of photography, of course.
Sakhi mashi told me the Japan story in short. But by now I was eager to know mesho’s version as well – not just about Japan, but his side of the THE NEW FOTOLAB story. He was out of town that day, so I went to the shop a second time (a few weeks later) to talk to him.
He was the one who was passionate about photography. His father wanted him to have a stable job, which working at the Reserve Bank of India secured for him; but the photography bug just wouldn’t go. So he went for a Diploma course, then taught in the evenings at the Dum Dum Motijhil College (affiliated to Calcutta University), where he came under the tutelage of none other than the legendary Benu Sen. From the very beginning, he loved doing portraits, and got the opportunity to exhibit his work a couple of times. His work was appreciated, alright, but he couldn’t sell any of it. In fact, he spent money trying to promote those exhibitions. That was when he was advised to open a studio of his own, to do his work professionally and to be able to earn from it. He promptly took that advice, borrowed money from his father, and opened THE NEW FOTOLAB in 1978. He married Sakhi mashi two years later.
Soon after their marriage, he got a rare chance: he was selected by ‘Minolta’ to get a 6-month photography training in Japan, but RBI didn’t allow him leave (even when he was willing to go without pay) because, it was argued, the training wouldn’t value-add to his banking job. Mesho couldn’t afford to leave his job, so he asked ‘Minolta’ if his wife could go instead. She will have to prove her credentials, was the response. Mashi was willing to give up her job at ‘Johnson & Johnson’ to go to Japan, but she had absolutely no idea about photography. Hence, as always, she just did the needful: quickly learnt the ropes in a crash course and earned herself the traineeship on behalf of her husband. Mesho’s father told him: “Your wife will never come back.” But she did! And helped him set up a complete colour studio in 1984.
It has been going strong ever since. The studio has evolved in tandem with all the changes in the world of photography – from black and white to colour photography to videography (late 80s/90s) to the digital revolution (2000 onwards), with mobile-phone cameras giving their business the toughest challenge since 2010.
But the technical aspects apart, mashi-mesho’s journey as a couple took a new turn in 1996 when mesho gave up his Reserve Bank job. There was a major reason for it: that year, THE NEW FOTOLAB got involved with the work of the Election Commission (under T.N. Seshan) – they did Electoral Roll Preparation, Voter ID Cards; in fact, they were the only agency in Kolkata to have a complete set-up to do this work. They first worked for the Government of West Bengal (Hoogly district), and then also for the Governments of Assam and Tripura. It was impossible for Sakhi mashi to handle it all alone. That’s when mesho joined her.
Ever since, they have been in their shop together – every working day of their lives, from morning to night.
On my way back from THE NEW FOTOLAB the evening I talked to mesho, I suddenly remembered a small detail – a photograph that used to be placed on the refrigerator in the living room of the small apartment that I’d frequented as a child. It was of them as a newly-wed couple: laughing into the camera, they had arms around each other’s neck in a gesture more of comradeship than youthful romance. No coy bride and protective groom there. Just partners. Their relationship has remained that way for 40 years!