Earlier this year (2013) on a wintry February morning when I was taking a walk
around the lake at Hauz Khas village I came across a girl sitting on a stone bench and
crying. I wondered who she was, and why she was crying so profusely but being the
timid type, and not having the courage to go to her and talk, I walked on. When I
reached the same spot on my second round she was still sitting there and sobbing: this
time I decided to go to her and ask. Hello, I am sorry… but do you need any help?
She looked up, sucked in the tears at the corners of her mouth, wiped her cheeks, and
drawing her lips in shook her head. A shy girl, a rare species; my courage came back.
I sat next to her. But I saw you crying? What is wrong? Do you want to go home?
Where is your house? This time she looked up right into my eyes, her big eyes full of
questions and doubts. Ah, I am Ankur Betageri, I am a writer and photographer, I
introduced myself. Please tell me if I can be of any help. I… she started but turned her
face away and burst into tears again. Ah, women and their need for drama! I thought.
But they do make this world an interesting place; the world needs women, and their
tears, and everything else. I waited in silence for her to speak. But when she didn’t
speak, I asked: Do you want to take a walk? We can buy some water at the corner;
that might do you some good. She looked at me, opened her rather fancy jhola and
took out a blue water-bottle whispering, I have water. Good… good. I said. You
should have some; that will help. She took a few gulps from the bottle and held out
the bottle to me. That was a surprising gesture; I liked the kindness and openness of it,
but said: No, thanks. Now she looked like she was ready to talk.
She said she was Shazia Karzai and that she was from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Oh you look very Indian, I said. But you also look very Afghani. She smiled. Good! I thought. I can make a woman smile, someone who was just crying. She told me that she was the daughter of an Afghani diplomat, and though she was born in Kandahar she did her schooling in different cities of Europe and went to college in London. About six years ago while she was at college she and her family had to attend the wedding of a close relative and went home. She was nineteen then. Two days into their visit the world turned upside down in Afghanistan. The Taliban came to power, and immediately her father was sacked and all the freedoms and privileges of a liberal and progressive society were withdrawn. Two weeks after the change of government two Talibani leaders came to her house and forced her father to offer her as bride to one of the senior Talibani Generals; her father and the entire family would lose their lives if they did not consent to the marriage voluntarily. Her father who had brought her up with so much love and affection had to offer her, with tears in his eyes, to General Mohammad Uzman, to be his third wife. Life in the General’s house was hell; the very sight of the fiery and bearded General made her faint on the day of the nikah. When he came to her room that night she was gripped by a weeping-spell so bad that she fell unconscious and a doctor had to be called to revive her. The doctor advised the General to stay away from her for a few days and slowly win her love with little acts of kindness and gifts. But this was never to happen. The very sight of the General gave her a panic attack. Her fear and hatred and disgust for the General were so great that even he began to lose patience. After trying everything in his book for three weeks he swore to Allah that if she didn’t accept him as her lawful husband by the Friday of the fourth week he would have her beheaded and conveyed this message to her through a servant. Shazia feared for her life but she also knew that she would never be able to accept the General as her husband. She prayed to all the Gods she knew and wept and thought through the night. There was only one way out. If she could somehow escape the fortress of his house and reach the French Embassy she could plan something with her friend and French Consul Madeline Malabou and find a way to get out of the country. She thought for a long, long time. The General would never allow her to go out for any reason, and any talk of Embassy or friend would make him all the more suspicious. He shouldn’t even know that she was thinking of such a possibility or else he would bar all possible ways of leaving the country. Oh what could she do? She thought again, thinking of the different ways she could get past the boundary walls of the house without being noticed. There was no way, she had almost concluded, when out of the morning window she saw a humongous can of camel milk being carried into the house by two hefty servants. She ran out of the room and followed the servants; they took the can to the kitchen, emptied it into a huge aluminium vat and then carried the can back and placed it in the truck. Shazia was quite thin and it was possible for her to squeeze herself inside that huge can. As soon as the servants, one of whom was a driver, got into the truck, she looked around, made sure no one was looking, and got into the truck. It was not hard to open the lid of the can, nor was it difficult to get inside it. She did not close the lid though, but held it at the mouth of the can leaving a small opening for the air. The truck left the gate without any alarm, and after ten minutes of breathless waiting as the truck slowed down and seemed to come to a temporary halt she opened the lid and leapt out of the can. The truck was at the Alzabeer Road traffic signal, quite far, but not very far, from Suboha Avenue where the French Embassy was situated. She jumped out of the truck, made her way through the surprised drivers at the signal and the bystanders, and ran to the nearest bus stop. Thankfully she was in her burkha and she covered her face, and though she knew no one could see her, the five minutes of wait at the bus stop nearly killed her, and it was only when she got into the bus to Suboha Avenue that she let out a sigh of relief. Once in the bus she texted Madeline on Whatsapp asking her to receive her at the gate so that she could enter the Embassy without the security-check and the flashing of the I-card. Madeline, who knew of her unfortunate circumstances, immediately responded with: OK. I will be at the gate. When she reached the French Embassy Madeline was standing at the entrance, in her sky-blue skirt and striped shirt, with a half-smile of deep concern on her painted lips. She put her arms around Shazia’s shoulder and took her inside. The next day she was dressed as a poor cabin crew, given a French name (Mathilda Meillassoux) and a French passport and flown to Antibes on the first Air France flight. Madeline’s brother Thierry picked her up at Antibes, and in order not to raise any suspicion, immediately flew with her to Leonessa in Italy. Once in Leonessa, Thierry called Madeline and asked her to send a messenger to Mr Karzai’s place to inform him about Shazia’s escape from the General’s house and her exiting the country safely. He deliberately withheld information on their current location as he didn’t want to take any risks with KHAD, the Afghani intelligence agency and the Talibani Secret Police who could be snooping around. And of course he was calling Shazia, Mathilda, and referring to Mr Karzai as Mr Meillassoux. The messenger could not reach Mr Karzai’s place as the General’s men had already taken over the place, but the messenger managed to inform Mr Karzai’s trusted cook about the safe exit of Shazia into Europe, but he also learnt from the cook that Mr Karzai was being tortured by the General’s men for information on Shazia and that his life was under threat. But neither Thierry not Madeline could do anything for Mr Karzai now, and Thierry felt there was no point in telling Shazia about the sad condition of Mr Karzai. Thierry used his contacts in Leonessa and managed to get Shazia a job at the public library there, and left for Paris. Life in Leonessa was not easy for Shazia, it was very hard for her to communicate with the local Italians with her English, and as she was officially Mathilda Meillassoux and understood to be a French woman, the few people at the Library who knew French grew suspicious on learning that she couldn’t even speak elementary French. The suspicion and gossip was getting on to Shazia’s nerves, and when she came across Sharko Gualazzini, an Italian photographer who showed some interest in her at a local café, she introduced herself as Preeti, an Indian documentary filmmaker who was travelling under a false French passport in order to observe and secretly record the rising Neo fascist and Neo Nazi cults in Italy. The Carabinieri which had been keeping an eye on her movements had got suspicious of her activities and had frozen her bank account as well as her credit cards, she told Sharko. She told him that there was imminent threat of her being arrested and she was desperate to get back to India. She had already couriered the secret video recordings of the fascist cults to her studio in Delhi and she had to get there and edit the documentary as soon as possible. She learnt that Sharko was also travelling to India and she wanted him to take her with him, as Mrs Gualazzini. But Sharko thought this was too much; he liked her and was willing to help her but he said he didn’t want to get into any trouble by marrying her. I never asked you to marry me, Shazia retorted immediately, I only want to travel as an Italian and pretending to be Mrs Gualazzini would give me better cover. But being Mrs Gualazzini wasn’t the only way of being an Italian; important thing was an Italian passport and Thierry would be able to secure her one. She had to choose a name, one that was both Italian and Indian, for the passport, and she decided to call herself Preeti Leonessa: Preeti from Leonessa. Sharko spoke good English and had travelled to India several times, so Shazia alias Mathilda alias Preeti, had no problem with him and could rely on him in India. And as soon as she received her Italian passport she gave him the French passport and asked him to burn it. And as the passport crackled and curled in the fire she wept remembering all the gossip and whispering behind the back about a supposed French woman not being able to speak a word of French. Now you are an Italian woman who cannot speak Italian, said Sharko, as if reading her mind. Teach me! She said. Her wild impetuosity made Sharko laugh. Tu sei pazza, completamente pazza! He said and hugged her. Even when they were on the flight to India Sharko’s mind was full of plans; he always wanted to work with moving images, and now that he had a documentary filmmaker by his side he thought of realizing his plans of making a documentary film for Rai Television on honor killings that he had heard so much about. He immediately took his ipad from the backpack and without even asking Preeti sent an email to his producer friend in Rai asking him whether he could commission a documentary film on honor killings in India which he was going to direct with an young Indian director named Preeti. By the time they landed and were collecting the baggage at Indira Gandhi airport the producer had replied: Go ahead. Best of luck! I want to see the first cut by the end of next month. If this works out well both of us will get a new life. Sharko looked up from the email and told Preeti: You know I am going to work on a documentary on honour killings, can you be my DOP? Preeti who had never held a video camera in her life, who hadn’t shot a single minute’s worth of footage, said: Sure! Sure! That would be great! And that’s how Sharko and Preeti crisscrossed North India in the next two months, from Sonepat to Gwalior, from Jammu to Jhansi, from Delhi to Aurangabad, with Preeti fumbling with the camera but still managing to film and brag, quiet successfully, about a non-existent career in films. How could Sharko not see through Preeti? Love, as they say, is blind and Sharko had fallen in love with Preeti. Poor, poor Sharko, what did he know! By the time they had finished filming and sent the hastily edited first cut to Rai, Sharko was so totally enamoured with Preeti that he asked for her hand in marriage. If the General’s proposal had made her break into inconsolable spells of weeping, Sharko’s proposal, which she wasn’t expecting, made Preeti feel sick to the stomach. Kya? Kyaa? She tried her newly learnt Hindi on Sharko. Look, do you think I am going to be your DOP all your life? I have ambitions, political ambitions, and no one will accept an Indian woman who marries a foreigner as a politician. Sharko was confounded; he hadn’t expected such a response. What? But why would they not accept? He barely managed to whisper. Do you know Sonia Gandhi, the wife of late Rajiv Gandhi? Do you know why she couldn’t become the Prime Minister after her husband’s death? Because she is an Italian. And Indians hate Italians. That can’t be true, you are crazy! Said Sharko and covered his face with both his hands. Yes, Sharko, the great Sharko Gualazzini, who had travelled the world and been with hundreds of women, had broken down, and his shoulders shook and his chest heaved, as he sobbed inconsolably. And Preeti had broken him. She chuckled to herself quietly and marvelled at her own power. But she quickly patted him on the back and said: Get a grip on yourself Sharko. I will see when you are better, and left. But she was not to see Sharko again. He packed his bags and left for Parma the very next day, without even saying so much as a goodbye. Preeti was left all on her own in Delhi, but she was lucky in having met a Bihari lad named Poorv Rajput. Poorv Rajput was the son of a landlord, and like all sons of landlords in Bihar believed that there were only two ways of being useful to the society: either by joining the Administrative or Police Services or by joining politics. Poorv was too idle to study for the UPSC exams; though he had done his college in Delhi he was a village boy at heart, and spent his time reading the jeevnis, the biographies, of famous politicians from Bihar. But he also knew he was too lazy to pursue a career in politics, and had decided that he would be, what in Bihar is called, a ‘kingmaker’. But who would he make the king? In his three years of stay in Delhi he had found no one worthy of imparting his sure-fire strategy of gaining power which he had learnt by studying the political lives of hundreds of leaders from Bihar. People ran away from him when he opened his mouth to talk about politics, and no one in his family, not even his brother who considered his word the definitive word of God, thought his political ideas were practical. So when Poorv met the lost-looking Preeti who had, on a whim, taken up a course in Italian in JNU, he felt he had at last found his calling. Preeti was some kind of tabula rasa, a clean slate; an Indian, a Dilliwali, who could barely speak Hindi; someone who was lost and confused but also incredibly stubborn and ambitious. But how come she couldn’t speak Hindi but speak English like a native speaker? I am an Indian from Australia, Preeti explained, we shifted to India only a year ago, after the sudden passing away of my father. Ah, that explains everything, thought Poorv. And what if I can’t be a kingmaker, I will be a queenmaker, an all the more honourable and dignified calling: the upliftment of the Indian woman by the careful and systematic elevation of one woman to the highest echelons of power. The very thought made Poorv’s eyes light up. Finally Preeti had an unselfish path-shower in India, now she could get rid of that stupid Italian photographer. Three weeks after her decision to get rid of Sharko, Sharko had proposed marriage to her and on her declining had left for Parma.
The future looked bright and unbounded to Preeti. Poorv was the guy she had looked for all her life: a man without any personal ambition, a man ready to invest all his dreams and energies in her, without any selfish intent. Preeti had met her match, and was even ready to tie the knot, but just as she thought everything was going to go the way she wanted, she experienced heartbreak. Poorv who was doing his final year of Masters got really low marks in a couple of subjects, and after being reprimanded over phone by his irascible father, suddenly left for Bihar without telling anything to Preeti. The man who spoke to her day and night, the man who had vowed to stay with her all through her life, the man who dreamt for – and with – her the big dreams which made her knees tremble had left her coolly without even a phone call. She tried calling him but his phone was switched off, he had most likely changed his number. She called his friends but no one could help her with his contact details or his whereabouts. She only knew that he was in a district in Bihar called Arrah, because that’s where his house was, and she felt a deep wrench in her gut just thinking about the hopelessness of her situation.
But no matter how stupid and fickle Poorv was his dreams had made her destiny seem real for the first time; she felt at home in this destiny, in this dream of the future. She decided to become Indian officially and called up Thierry to arrange for an Indian passport. Thierry on his part only wanted his and his sister’s childhood friend to be happy and was ready to do anything in his power to make her happy. In a week’s time her Indian passport was ready, and she was asked to collect it from an official of the French Embassy in Delhi. Thierry also hired an expert to put together all her documents and papers to provide her an authentic Indian identity. This is how her new bio read: Preeti was born in Sydney, Australia, to a Rajasthani mother and a U.P. born father. Her father passed away when she was quite young and she migrated to Delhi, India with her family at the age of 12. She did her higher primary and high schooling in different cities of Europe and went to college in London where she studied botany. She came back to India and did a Master’s in Italian, and taught Italian to sustain herself.
In order not to lose track Preeti followed a strict routine and diet. She would wake up every morning at 5.45, freshen up, have a glass of milk with a couple of almonds and walnuts, and at eight go to a gym in C.P. and workout till 10. Thereafter she went to work at the college where she taught Italian, if she was to teach on that particular day, or else went to the library, to study for her PhD, for yes, she had also enrolled herself as a doctoral candidate at a university in Italy. Like a pious Indian woman she kept a vrat, and fasted on Mondays. She also regularly met Congress party officials and lobbied for a permanent AICC membership which would, in the near future, help her secure a Congress ticket for her to fight the election. She was following Poorv’s instructions to the Tee but suddenly one morning when she woke up she could no longer relate to who she was; she no longer knew or could remember who she really was. She was exhausted and felt she didn’t have the strength to go on anymore. Who am I? Who the hell am I and why am I doing what I am doing? She asked standing before the dressing mirror. Her reflection did not speak back and she didn’t know what to do. She came out of her house, started her car and had come to this lake in Hauz Khas village just to regain the peace of mind which seemed to have totally deserted her. And as soon as she sat there in the misty February morning she was once again gripped by that inconsolable weeping spell and that was when I had seen her. Ufffffffffffff! I let out a big sigh. What a story Shazia – or should I call you Preeti? Anyway, what an incredible and crazy life you have lived! Lives, I must say! But, you know, how do I know what you have told is the truth? I asked her. You can’t know it, she said simply. Because even I do not know what the truth is. There are many definitions of truth; my simple definition is, truth is what I want. For a long time I knew, or at least thought I knew, what I wanted. I no longer know it. So I am unable to tell you anything for certain, I only know that everything is uncertain, and that is the only truth I know.
The only truth you know is that everything is uncertain? How can that be? Surely, there is one identity of all these identities that you were born with? You surely know where you were born, who your parents are – surely there is an identity that was given to you, and that is apart from all the identities that you adopted?
Every identity is an adopted identity, and no, no identity is given. What is given is false, or at least it fades, withers or dies away. We become new everyday, and while we become this something new, we adopt different identities; every identity is this becoming something else, this becoming new, that is our destiny as human beings.
Who are you now?
I don’t know?
Because I don’t know what I want.
What should I call you?
Whatever you feel like.
Should I call you Preeti?
It’s OK with me.
OK, so Preeti, where do we go from here?
I don’t know. You tell me.
Do you want to go have some breakfast?
Should we go to Saravana Bhawan in C.P.?
Isn’t that very far?
But I feel like having a good South Indian breakfast and I don’t trust the restaurants here.
OK, let’s go then. Can we go in your car? I don’t feel like driving, I will come back pick up my car later.
So we walked to her car quietly. When she started driving I looked at her eyes in the rear-view mirror. Eyes which are said to be the index of the soul. They seemed impassive, also a little tired. She caught me looking at her and smiled. I smiled back. While we were near the Zoo near Pragati Maidan I noticed a burkha in the back seat and suddenly had a brainwave. I was also carrying my new Leica. Why don’t I take your pictures? I have never met an Afghani girl before.
Ah, so you are sure that I am an Afghani? She asked.
No, you also look Indian, I said. She just smiled.
So… Can I click a few pictures?
Sure, she said.
Not here in the car, I said. I want you to park the car somewhere. I want to shoot you out in the open. The light is good.
So, you really are a photographer?
Of course, why would I lie to you about something like that?
Nobody lies. One just becomes someone else. That is how it is.
I understand, I said. Yeah, you can stop here. I would like to shoot on this foot-over bridge.
OK, she said and parked the car in front of National Sports Club.
I want you to wear that, I said pointing to the burkha.
OK, she said, and sitting in the car, wore it over her dress. We walked out and climbed the rather slickly built foot-over bridge, which was also designed to be some kind of a hangout to get a good view of the Pragati Maidan area, with about three to four steel benches. I asked her to sit on one of the benches and began to shoot. Then I made her stand with Mathura Road to her back and took a few more shots. She was a very good and obliging model, alive to the moment, responsive to the instructions and aware of the significance of the subtlest of expressions and postures.
In between taking shots I asked, Isn’t taking pictures a battle against the uncertainty of life – an attempt to retain its ephemerality by carving it into the permanence of an image? Don’t you think our images seal our identity to a certain extent, to an extent we ourselves cannot deny?
I don’t think so, she said. Our identity is not our identity-card; our identity-card and our image on it grow old and outdated; we never do, we renew ourselves every day. An ideal identity card should perhaps have a small mirror in the place of a photograph, to capture the changing essence of our identity from moment to moment, but then how much of our identity can even a mirror capture, she said and became thoughtful.
Hmmm. Stay there, I said, and clicked a picture.
After taking a few more pictures in the vicinity of Dargah Matka Pir, we went to Saravana Bhawan.
You are certainly the most mysterious person I have ever met, I said tearing the masala dosa at the restaurant. I would like to take a few more pictures of you – this time without the burkha. She just smiled as if she was flattered. So after the breakfast we stopped at the DDA Park on Siri Fort Road, and I made some really good pictures of her in the damp, forest-like park. And of all the pictures that I took of her that day one photograph (which I am unable to reproduce here for reasons of privacy) with her wearing a hijab and looking up dreamily, sitting on a colonial style metal bench under a flowering bougainvillea tree with pink flowers strewn all around her, has remained with me as her most intimate and innocent identity. Who knows – she might just be a poet living through different lives!