The oldest negatives I found were from 1953. For that year, there are hundreds of neatly filed negatives. Each sleeve marked with the month, in father’s neat fountain pen script. After that, from 1954-1971, everything is gone. During the war, that was the first thing to disappear. In Rajshahi, another old man mournfully talked about his lost diaries.
When father snaps family events now, the images are hopelessly plain. I mourn the loss of his possibilities. “Abba, please turn off the flash, I request for the hundredth time”. “Without flash, everything looks dark”, he replies. Meanwhile, mother insists: “Your aesthetic sense came from this side of the family. I used to draw so much, if only I had kept it up”. Later she did detailed embroideries. When we lost the old family home, everything had to be dismantled.
The Rankin Street house was sold sometime in the 1970s. A greedy city came and swallowed up entire blocks. Seven sisters each got one-seventh of the sale price, a pittance in the 1970s. Three brothers inherited the plot in Dhanmondi. These are the ways the swaps happened. My aunts are so young here. Later one became a university teacher, another worked at the World Bank. No one managed to stay in the same space.
When I stumble on that box of negatives, it was during the pathetic task of vacating the family home. The developers prevailed, all cousins united on this transaction. They told me: “You don’t have family, you won’t understand the pressure”. Inside a steel cabinet, where house documents were fastidiously stored, was a maroon box. Maybe steel was the reason ants, termites, and other hazards had not frayed the negatives. Looking at it for the longest time, I thought I had found a way into my father. He bought a camera in 1953, while in medical school. This was his first box of negatives. But it was also the only box, nothing before or after.
When I started scanning them, the first few sleeves were promise and then disappointment. So many pictures of cats: the only subject that would willingly pose. I stopped scanning. What if I scanned the whole box and it was only cats. “Cats can be quite political”, Yasmeen reminded me. After all, a cat may look at a king. When I left Dhaka, things come into sharper focus. Father may not sit still for my camera, but he likes learning new gadgets. In one week, he scanned 300 images. Now, other things started emerging. More cats, yes (she had a litter, there’s a photo of a box of mini kittens). But also, aunts, nieces, balconies, streets, rickshaws, signboards. The beach. They went to the beach…
Later, father wrote: “I am not really a professional photographer. I took pictures of what interested me at that time”.