If I hadn’t met Mr. Sukhdevlal Chaddha that day, it would have been the same boring Sunday for me.
“I love the city, because this was where it all began,” said Mr. Chaddha as he stirred the sugar of his tea.
Mr. Sukhdevlal Chaddha, retired as a Senior Photographer from The Statesman, 5 years back. Now, a 65-year-old man, Mr. Chaddha is a relaxed personality and whiles away the time chit chatting about politics with some of his colleagues and friends from Press Club; quite opposite to his role as a full fleged media person, who started his career with one of the most acclaimed newspapers of India (at one point of time), when he had to keep running from one end of the city to the other and travel across the length and breadth of the country to cover events, accidents, agitations; interview people, politicians and celebrities.
Perhaps, the only journalistic touch that was still left in him was a deep green jacket which he used to wear at the Coffee House everyday, and where I had a candid conversation with him on a boring Sunday afternoon that ultimately turned out to be the best Sunday of my life.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, as I was having my mutton dosa at The Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place, a man in his late 60s was scribbling something in an A4 sheet size paper. He had a full face white beard trimmed neatly; few strands of hair stood gently on his head and formed a central alliance, giving it the shape of a Mohawk like Bechkham. A circular rimmed glass sat unsteadily just above his nose as he was constantly moving his head trying to focus his attention on a piece of writing. He wore a turquoise blue T-shirt and a deep green jacket on it with a number of pockets on each side (the one which most of the journalists wear).
That day, Mr Chadhha, devoid of any companion, sat alone at the Coffee House. He seemed to be in a state of delirium. Once he would write something, cut it, look outside through the window panes rewrite the thing, cut it again and the process would go on. This went on for a couple of seconds and finally Mr.Chaddha wrote a line. He opened his rimmed glasses, kept it over the table and gulped down the glass of water at one go, as if celebrating his triumph over the small success.
I sat just opposite to Mr. Chaddha’s table and observed him while relishing my mutton dosa. Till now, he was just a stranger to me until a strong breeze blew in and created a ruckus inside the room blowing away the tissue paper which was kept carefully beneath the newspaper along with a bunch of photographs, kept in an envelope. The photographs were scattered all over the floor. They were pale and lifeless, almost on the brink of extinction. With time, they had lost their glow just like an old wedding ring in the hands of an aged woman which might not have the same significance, but do tell many tales of her life. Who would have thought that they would stand the test of time and would travel to an unknown land to find a new identity of their own?
One glimpse over the photographs and I was sure about them. They drew me so closer, that I wanted to grab them, but then a possessive hand approached.
“46 years of togetherness. Still going strong beta. It’s ok. Let me take care of them,” said Mr. Chaddha with an animated smile.
“Sukhdevlal Chaddha, retired senior journalist from The Statesman,” said Mr. Chaddha in a confident tone nodding his head as I helped him to pick up his paper and pen.
“A collection of unknown photographs from an unknown photographer” was written in cursive handwriting with an underline below on the paper as I ran a quick glance over it.
“Hi Sir! Pradipna Lodh,” I said as I observed him entering the photographs one by one inside the white envelope.
“Umm…Can I?” as I pointed my finger towards the chair looking for an opportunity to have a sit besides Mr.Chadda, with a welcoming tone he said, “Sure, sure…”
“So what brings you to this place?” said Mr. Chaddha as he enquired over his rimmed glasses with a journalistic tone.
With widened eyes on the photographs, I said, “It’s them!”
Mr.Chaddha turned his head back to a group of youngsters, looked at me with raised eyebrows “They?”
I replied nervously, “Nnnn….Noo….Sir! Umm….I was just saying that from where did you get them….these photographs?”
“What you got to do with them?” Mr Chaddha placed his left hand over the photographs in a way as if he was protecting a timid animal from being attacked, as he replied to my question sceptically.
“I have a close connection with them Sir!”
Mr. Chaddha opened his rimmed glasses, kept them on the table and looked straight at my eyes. Bringing his head closer to me, he said, “How?”
“They belong to my grandfather Mr.Chittaranjan Bose and I have seen them during my growing up years.”
“See young boy, anybody in this room can claim these pictures of their father, grandfather or any other person. So please don’t play these emotional games with me. You got better things to do. Just go and enjoy life yaar!”
“Next time I see you here, you are going behind the bars.” said Mr. Chaddha with a disgruntled look.
“Sir, all I know is that they were lost 46 years ago and you cannot snatch away my most treasured memory from me.”
After this, we looked at each other for 30 seconds. Not a drop in the eyelids. Even in the middle of candid conversations, sounds of vehicles outside and the noise of ceiling fans, there was an eerie silence between us which was only interfered with two deep breaths caught in a whirlpool of dichotomy. There were no signs of consensus from either sides.
“Come again what was the name of your grandfather?,” said Mr. Chaddha blinking his eyelid and breaking the silence, as he rigorously started inspecting the back of each photograph.
“Chittaranjan, Chittaranjan Bose,” repeating the first name twice I made sure that he made no mistake.
He found the initials C.R. written with a blue ink which had become blurred over the years. He then took out his phone and brought it closer to his eyes. After scrolling up and down for a second, he then dialled a number and placed it on his right ear.
“Haanji Mr.Bhowmick, How are you sirji? It’s been a long time since we had a conversation……haanji…..haanji… I am doing good…ok..tell me….do you remember about the photographs you gave me way back in 1972?…..hmmm…hmmm…yes..those black and white one’s?”
“Do you remember the name of the gentleman?”
The errie silence made an early return as Mr. Chaddha disconnected the phone with a regretful “hmmm” and kept mum for a few seconds.
Mr. Chaddha kept the phone on the table with utter disappointment. Putting his right hand over the mouth, he ran his fingers through the white beard raising his eyebrows. With a mortified gait, he looked at the photographs. The possessiveness with which he had lived with them for 46 years was shattered in a matter of few minutes, but somewhere he realised that at that moment it would be foolish for him to react in such a way.
Regaining his lost state of mind, Mr. Chaddha said in a rather emotional tone,taking the white envelope on his right hand “Do you know why I love this city? because this was where it all started and this is where it is ending”
“I didn’t understand Sir?”
Mr. Chaddha raised his hand and made a gesture to the waiter as he ordered two cups of tea (this was the second round of tea for him). Then, with a soft tone, he started, “My son forgive me for my eccentric behaviour…..I…”
“But how did all this happen sir?” I interfered him in the middle.
“I know.. I know.. I’ll tell you from the beginning.
Mr. Chaddha started, “The year was 1971, I joined The Statesman as a junior assistant photographer. The Bangladesh Liberation War was the hottest topic that year for all the national tabloids. The Editor-in-Chief of The Statesman announced that any journalist irrespective of his designation who would be successful in bringing photos of The Liberation War would be given handsome perks that included a Television set and a BSNL landline connection.”
“The situation was so tensile and sensitive at the war zone that hardly any journalist would dare to go for a live reporting. Infact, foreign media channels like the BBC was the only news channel which did a live reporting from there. There were news of journalists being killed on newspaper, radio and television every other day and with these stories doing the rounds, there was hardly any journalist who dared to do reporting in Bangladesh.
In the whole office, it was only I, who had given my nod to the Editor-in-Chief for this challenging task, but my mom didn’t allow me to go there at the last moment and I had to face the music from the Editor-in-Chief.”
The tea arrived. Taking his first sip, Mr Chaddha continued, “I was really angry with my mother’s decision. Those days, there was no internet, hence you couldn’t even take pictures from the internet, but then something totally unexpected happened.”
With a curious tone,I asked Mr. Chaddha, “What?”
“One fine morning, my Dad got a call from one of my uncle’s friend who used to stay at Agartala. His name was Kantilal Bhowmick, a businessman, Mr. Bhowmick used to run a garments’ shop.”
Taking another sip of tea, Mr. Chadhha continued, “ Mr. Bhowmick was very tensed as he was speaking over the phone. He pleaded to my Dad that only he could save his life at that moment. My Dad started panicking over the phone as he was constantly shouting Police?…What happened?…How will I help you…?, I was getting ready to leave for office and overheard their conversation.”
“I took the receiver from my Dad’s hand and spoke with Mr. Bhowmick. Inhaling deeply, Mr. Bhowmick said that he was in big trouble as Police was searching for him. I asked him what exactly happened? With a gloomy tone, he said that few days back he took pictures of the ongoing Bangladesh Liberation War from a photographer named Chittaranjan Bose and sold it to a local newspaper in lieu of some money. Some of them were published and few of them were still lying with him. With Mr. Bose’s good contacts in the local state media, he came to know who was the person behind this and immediately filed an FIR against Mr. Bhowmick.”
“Unfortunately, only a day after filing the FIR, Mr. Bose passed away suffering from a massive cardiac arrest, but the search for arresting the culprit was still on and here I had the perfect chance to save him, so I said that why doesn’t he give me those pictures as the Editor-in-Chief of The Statesman at Delhi, Mr. Rama had really some good contacts with the MLAs of Agartala who could, not only amicably solve the case but could also prevent Mr. Bhowmick from getting arrested.”
“Hearing this, Mr. Bhowmick heaved a sigh of relief and did exactly what I told him. That day I went to the office, had a clandestine meeting with Mr. Rama. He gave his nod to my proposition of giving instructions to Mr. Bhowmick, to immediately send those pictures through courier. On the other hand, Mr. Rama spoke with the MLA of Agartala about this matter and the case against Mr. Bhowmick was closed within two days.”
“We received the courier within seven days. There were 50 photographs, out of them we had used 30. The rest of the 20 for some reason weren’t used. I got a promotion and a perk. However, those 20 pictures remained with me.”
“Since that day, I used to see those pictures every day and wonder it takes real courage to go in such a sensitive war zone and take photographs risking your life. Each of the picture has a story to tell you see. I didn’t knew the man in person who took it, but hats off to him for the heroic attempt and triumph.”
“Years and days passed by, but I couldn’t understand what to do with these photographs.Only a few days back I came up with the idea of publishing them in my own book.”
Mr. Chaddha pushed the sheet of paper infront of me with the words written “A collection of unknown photographs from an unknown photographer.” He then took back the paper, crumbled it and threw outside the window.
With a gentle smile he said, “They now belong to you my son and you have to keep your most prized possession and preserve them for yourself and for your future generations.”
The lost photographs found a new identity in the lap of capital and thats’s why I love the city soo much.