Family Photo, story by Aneeta Sundararaj

        "When I speak of home, I speak of the place where -- in default of a better -- those I love are gathered together;…"

              Charles Dickens
              Nicholas Nickleby

In 1979, my family posed for a photograph which was taken by Mr. Chia. Being the official photographer for the Kedah Sultan and his family, Mr. Chia had very little spare time and, therefore, this session was very precious to my mother. The photograph Mr. Chia took that hot afternoon in November became the benchmark for all family portraits taken of my family. Not one photograph taken after that, be it by Mr. Chia or any other photographer, equalled this one.

In that picture of 1979, my family is small in number. Save for my mother who is seated, we’re all standing straight. This photo is really magnificent in its simplicity. The dark clue background is off-set by the brightly coloured clothes we’re all wearing and indeed, our smiles portray a happy and complete family. My mother had the photograph laminated and framed in one of the ugliest frames I’ve ever seen. It’s huge, ornate and does not in any way fit in aesthetically with the photograph, let alone the wooden furniture in our living room. Nevertheless, this family photograph had pride of place on the western wall above our fake mantelpiece. “My wonderful family,” my mother would say each time she walked past this photograph.

True, a family portrait is not something to get unduly excited about. This one is but a record of a non-descript middle class family in Malaysian suburbia. However, it remains a fact that there is no other like it. Since 1979, my mother has tried unsuccessfully to improve on that masterpiece with no success whatsoever.

Today, I feel some sense of guilt as I recall how my mother wanted nothing more than another family photograph every year since 1979. We never made it easy on her – it was either my brother and me sticking up our fingers behind Asha’s head in 1982, or Ashok pinching my arm in 1983 or, a personal favourite, everyone scrunching up their nose because Daddy passed gas a moment before the family photograph was taken in 1990. From 1979 on, no picture that contained the whole family came out well. We got many good pictures of individuals, groups of two or three but, any more than four and snapshot of a moment was ruined.

When my sister got married in 1995, we were excited because it seemed that we had managed to take that perfect photograph. It was five days before the day of the wedding and my mother arranged to have the photographer come to the house. Indeed, by then, we had three additions to the family, my sister-in-law, my sister’s husband-to-be and my mother’s first grandson. Everyone behaved themselves and the photographer, Mr Chia’s son, Junior Chia, too was elated. Junior Chia was being allowed to take these pictures as part of his apprenticeship with Mr. Chia. As a precaution, our Uncle Ram used his newly acquired digital camera and snapped some pictures too. After the photo shoot and Uncle Ram had hooked up his digital camera to the computer, we all hovered around the computer screen to look at the photos. The pictures were all terribly blurry but our faces could be made out. While everyone was secretly harbouring the same thought that Uncle Ram was probably suffering from the onset of Parkinson Disease, my mother was elated as this was some small measure of confirmation that the pictures Junior Chia took of the family would come out perfect.

I was summoned to the house from my flat in town when the package from the Chia’s containing the photographs finally arrived. The wedding pictures were stunning, but there were none of the ones Junior Chia took. My mother, ready to confront Mr. Chia, strode into the study to make the phone call. Five minutes later, she returned to the kitchen, her lips quivering as tears started to roll down her cheeks. In a flat voice, she looked at my father and said, “Junior’s two year old son opened the camera and the negative was exposed to the sunlight. We lost the pictures of the family taken on the eve of the wedding.” Not a word was uttered by anyone and Mother just walked into our living room and stared at the 1979 photo for close to fifteen minutes. At the end of that visit, I vowed I would do all I can to help her get another perfect picture.


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