The class photograph

Pinned to the desk he’s writing on, in his nephew’s room, is a frame with a fourth-grade class photograph from the boy’s school last year. It isn’t a single photograph, but individual passport-size images of all students, and of their class teacher, set to a common black background. There are sixteen students in all, seven girls, nine boys. The students are handsomely dressed, and each one is smiling at the camera. In their formal shirts and dresses there is also a hint of adulthood, he thinks, a glimpse of how these nine-year-olds will perhaps turn out ten, fifteen years from now: this is what draws him to these images again and again. He looks at the faces as though he’s staring at the future. They are the future, he tells himself. How will they turn out? The confident smile of Luke, the relaxed charm of Robert, Shruti’s gaiety, Sandra’s shyness: what sort of individuals will they grow up to be? What will they do? How different will their lives be? What sort of a world will they inherit and enter? How will they shape it? How much can one glean from their photographs?

He begins to imagine their futures. Gabriel, wearing a tie, looks to him like a future Wall Street banker; Christine, head tilted and on the verge of laughter, will end up as an actress; Khalid, bespectacled and studious looking, is a writer no doubt. His nephew brings him down to earth. Khalid, the boy tells him, is the class bully; Christine hardly speaks to anyone; and Gabriel is interested only in sports.

Concealed beneath his keen interest in these portraits is the desire to become one of them. To be a nine-year-old again. He believes this is a sign of age: in his twenties he never wished he was in school again. And with age comes weariness. What he thinks of most when he sees the photograph is the cyclical nature of things. These new faces are just another iteration in life’s eternal cycle. The same lives will be lived all over again. Some will be labelled high-achievers, others will be called also-rans; some will improve lives of others, some others will make life difficult; some will be mere consumers, others will strive to conserve; some will make money, others will make music; some will read, others will write; some will even end up thinking, like he does, that there isn’t any point at all in life. These smiling faces will go through it all once more: youth, work, achievements, failures, friends, sex, love, marriage, children, unfaithfulness, divorce, re-marriage, old-age, death. And they will do this as if it were all happening the first time: the pervasive illusion necessary to give human life meaning. He places himself beyond all this, as though observing the madness and beauty of existence from a distance, but this understanding offers him no solace: his tiredness does not leave him. It does not make him depressed either. His everyday interactions are easy, normal, and sometimes fun. But when he pauses to reflect over where all this is heading, or the point of it all, he faces a blank. Perhaps the point is simply that: to go through it all over again.

The frame, he thinks, holds his own class photograph, thirty years old.


Someone invented boredom,
Disney got rid of it.
His claim to fame is
your destination.
Long queues.
Short rides.
Shows where people talk
and animals act.
Eating stuff
and drinking stuff.
Visiting restrooms.
Buying stuff.
“Stroller parking.”
Benches made of recycled milk cans.
Animals made of Lego blocks.
Boat rides through rubber jungles.
Tour guides with scripted jokes.
No tobacco.
No alcohol.
People, people, everywhere.
(Only the cleaners are invisible.)
People pleased to serve you:
How’s it going today?
It’s their job,
but never mind.
You are one among thousands,
but never mind.
“The happiest place on earth
just got happier.”

US Diary

1. Frankfurt – Newark

After security at the Frankfurt airport, in an Italian restaurant with a fine selection on the menu, the American family seated nearby ordered burgers and coke. We also overheard bits of their conversation. (This was easy: they were loud.) At one point the father, a bald man with a wrestler’s physique, looked at a TV on the wall displaying news of Obama’s visit to Germany and said, “History will judge Obama as one of our worst presidents, just you wait and watch.” His son, a lanky teenager sitting opposite, began to protest, but was promptly put down. Biting into his large hamburger, the father said, “The burger’s good, don’t ya think?”

Near the gate came further intimations. The ladies restroom my wife entered had only a single cabin, which was locked. As she exited a large white woman standing nearby spoke: “I’ve been waiting outside, excuse me!” No one could have known this before entering the restroom, but my wife was too stunned to respond. Then, another woman sitting a little away came up and said, “I’ve been waiting too!” This woman’s accent also was American, and (my wife concluded) so was her attitude. In the moments of emotion that follow an unpleasant social encounter, my wife and I agreed that people of that country seem to carry a sense of entitlement wherever they go. Displaying this inside the US was bad manners; outside, it was comical. My wife wondered if we would visit the US if her parents were not living in the country. Probably not, I said.

Not a propitious beginning to a three week vacation in the US. But things only got better from here.

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