Smile, please

Monday, September 23, 2013
By: 
Fatima Sehbai

headshot of Fatima Sehbai
Fatima Sehbai

A preview of the work of Fatima Sehbai, a participant in the 2013 Writers Victoria mentorship program for writers from non-English speaking backgrounds.

“TruthFoto was famous all over Punjab. People travelled from Meerut and Ludhiana and even Muree Hill station to get their photo taken here. It was a tiny shop in inner city near the Lahore Gate. Wedged between a watchmaker’s shop and a spice store, it had no prominent features – people just knew that it was a ten minutes walking distance from lorry-adda. All people saw when they arrived was a plain-looking front door and a dust-covered doorbell. There was a small wooden bench at the front with a sign that read, “Please leave children here.”

People who had gone in and gotten their “truth” photo taken had all kinds of advice:

“Make sure you wear flat shoes ladies, the bonnet is slippery.”

“It’s a good idea to have something sweet before you get your photo taken. Truth can be bitter.”

“DO NOT insist on meeting the photographer. All such requests are denied.” Often, couples would stroll around the shops, getting watches fixed, buying bags of coriander seeds and finger staining lumps of turmeric before finally walking into TruthFoto. When they arrived, their hair would be dusty, smelling faintly of spices, followed by the loud whirring of whispering watches. These watches ticked apprehensively in their hearts, always afraid of what could be revealed in the photo.

No one has ever met the photographer. He is always hidden under the black cloth, face-to-face with the camera lens. His assistant, a nimble young man, is the only one who has heard the photographer’s voice on rare occasions – once at the time he got hired and now, once a month, when the paint supplies would run out.

Nimble Thimble does all the talking, takes care of all transactions and pretty much runs the show. When the clients get curious and insist upon seeing the photographer, they are courteously shown the door. The assistant assures them that he too has never seen the photographer and the “magic” only works this way. “Madam ji, if you see him then your photo will stay a negative! The truth will not get developed.” Some customers don’t insist, some laugh it off and joke about the phantom photographer.

“Why? Does he have a fat hairy mole on his chin?”

Or:

“Is he a midget?”

“So the real reason why children are not allowed inside is…?” followed by a mean snicker.

“Oye Thimble- does your boss have two heads?”

“I bet there is NO photographer, it’s just a camera trick, a cheap marketing gimmick.”

Agile husbands often lurch towards the black cloth and quickly rip it off, but no one ever finds the photographer behind the camera".

About Fatima

After working on her story with WV mentor Maria Tumarkin, 'Smile Please' was published in an edition of 'Meanjin'.