The enlarged photograph hangs low on the opposite wall.
She is sitting at the edge of her sepia chair, sipping at her cup of cappuccino which she finds expensive and doesn’t like much. The doorman sweats and bows outside the glass door. She can hear the behind-the-counter bustle of aproned men and women running this air-conditioned sanctuary. It is her social obligation to keep up the pretence of expecting someone, her part of the social contract. She obliges by throwing another perfunctory glance at her watch. After all, solitary idleness is not indulged even in the liberal society that is celebrated in T.V. commercials every day.
She moves back in her chair, adjusts herself comfortably against the ochre cushion and looks up at the wall again. It is perfect, the photograph. It celebrates the only redemptive moment possible in an otherwise dastardly everyday existence: four friends sharing an afternoon and a riveting conversation over coffee. The burgundy wall is completely bare but for this photograph. She looks up at the ceiling, then down at the pages of the book she is pretending to read, pages no. 48 and 49. She drinks from her cup and glances back up at the wall. If only, she could see this and nothing else; the perfection of the framed photograph so meticulously showcased for her benefit and for others like her. She too could have her share of transient salvation (“is there any other kind?”) which brings so many pilgrims under the holy tabernacle of the shopping mall.
She drinks from her cup. Screwing her eyes like a detached medical examiner, she takes in the photograph again. Four friends? Two of the ‘friends’ are Caucasians, reinforcing the ‘norm’; the other two, a black guy and an Asian girl with small eyes. The girl’s eyes, she notices not for the first time, are just wide enough so as not to offend the West’s parameters of beauty. The black guy is an Afro-American consolatory black. African darkness mediated by American light; the new and improved denizens of the globalized world!
It is a perfect frame indeed, as her college professor would say. It selects—and what’s more important—excludes just the right ingredients to manufacture a sparkly rat-trap selling urban fantasies. A bright sunny background, an urban coffee house setting, just like the one she is sitting in right now, designer clothes, good-looking friends and coffee dreams. She imagines the set being put together for the photo shoot (the table cloth, the vase, the flowers), ‘friends’ being profiled from four different parts of the city, their clothes being finalized, and so on. She even hears the photo shoot director mumbling, “…not too distracting. The focus should be on people and coffee, not on clothes.”
The doorman has let in a couple. They take the adjoining table. She weans her eyes away from the photograph. She opens the dog-eared page in her book and stares at the printed word ‘pavement’ for a long time without registering it. Fiddling with the sugar sachets on her saucer, she notices the patterns on the wooden floor below for the first time in months. If only she too could dismiss the photograph. Informed dismissal, she chuckles inwardly. It is false anyway, all of it. Yet, yet she finds her eyes drawn to the wall again. The friends are smiling. The black guy has just leaned in and quipped. She wonders what he said.
A group of friends have just entered. She half expects them to remove their shoes at the door and pay obeisance to the marvel on the wall. It’s been months that she has been coming here, every week, sometimes days on end. She sits in that chair for hours, trying to deconstruct the photo shoot step-by-step, focusing on the artificiality of the end product. She has, after all, spent five college years in ripping apart texts until nothing remained but a pastiche of propagandist projections.
Yet those smiles, that glint in the eyes. How can that … that be made up? She looks long and hard at the four friends. They look happy. Maybe they were. There. Then. They were happy once. Someone was happy once. Those immobile silhouettes, frozen in time and space, reach out to her across layers of skepticism, shards of disillusionment and years of existence, daring her to be happy. Here. Now.
The title of a book she hasn’t read suddenly flashes before her eyes — Selling Emotions: Advertising. She grits her teeth. She feels betrayed by the photograph and the four friends. Her world, the world outside is going to pieces, yet the photograph remains immune, their smiles and their jokes, perfect. The wars, the paranoia, the cacophony outside; the incessant buzzing, the deafening humdrum, the ennui-stricken days; the desperate cries for meaning, purpose, food; they do not reach those ears, those magazine-perfect ears.
Hot tears appear and scald the corners of her eyes. She raises the huge cup (“one cappuccino, large please”) to her lips and holds it there for a while. Another couple has entered the oasis, walking in hand in hand. She downs the remaining drink in two big gulps. Her throat burns and mercifully distracts her senses. Her hands shake. She picks up her book, grabs her bag and heads towards the exit.
The doorman holds the glass door open and bows to her. She smiles. Of course, she will return tomorrow. And buy an hour of Barista happiness for Rupees ___ only*. (*Plus taxes)