I had a picture taken the other day. For posterity I suppose, which is a nice way of saying that thirty years from now, at least I’ll have proof that I wasn’t always old and ugly. Right.
I went into the studio and sat down, and the photographer came in and started arranging the lights with the aluminum foil umbrellas attached to them. I waited patiently for him to adjust everything, to put up the right background (grey), to give me confusing directions about which way to face (forward. No, not that forward, left and forward. Yes, no, more to the right. But forward.) When everything was finally ready, and the muscles in my neck had atrophied from holding my head still for so long, the photographer ducked behind the camera and said, Ready?
I took this as my cue and I smiled. And he stood up again. “Mun band karo!” he said, “Shut your mouth!”
“Shut my mouth?” I said as I ruined the pose I had been holding. “Why do I have to shut my mouth?”
“No teeth!” he said gruffly, and he re-ordered my head into position and then ducked behind the camera.
“Ready?” he asked. “One, two, three…”
I tried to spring my teeth on him at the last minute, but he stood up again angrily and said, “No teeth!”
“Why?” I pleaded, “What’s wrong with my teeth?”
Great. Of all the photographers in Islamabad I get to find the photo-Nazi. I finally acquiesced, and started wondering whether this was his way of telling me there was something intrinsically unphotogenic about my teeth. The pictures were taken, I left the studio. End of round one.
Fast-forward to a few days later when I go to pick the photos up. The man at the counter (who is not the photographer) very happily hands me the photos and smiles expectantly at me as I open the envelope.
“I hope you like your pictures, Baji!” he says. “We did a lot of hard work on them!”
“Hard work?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, leaning over the counter and whispering sympathetically, “To remove all of your spots.”
Oh boy. They erased all of my freckles. All six million of them that are scattered over the bridge of my nose and cheeks. I haven’t a clue as to how they managed that. He was right, it must have been very hard work indeed!
I go to get a haircut at the beauty parlor and the woman cutting my hair touches my face and says gently, so as not to embarrass me, “You know, you need a deep-cleaning facial. You have very bad skin.”
“Yes, for 300 rupees we could get rid of all those spots…”
There we go again. People talking about my spots. I get relatives asking me whether I’ve ever tried to have my skin “cured,” acquaintances asking me whether or not I’ve thought about micro-derm abrasion or some other crazy plastic surgery where they scrub the first layer of your skin off and you wear a mask for four weeks while it grows back.
Actually I have thought about it, but mostly in horror and aversion. And plus, where I come from, freckles are cute, dammit! Freckle-faced kids have been a mainstay of cultural American adorability since the beginning of time. I’m trying to instill this idea (read: brainwash with propaganda) into the new crop of Pakistanis that my cousins are breeding. Whenever one of the nieces or nephews gathers the courage to come and point at my nose and ask me why it’s covered in all those spots, I tell them that freckles are absolutely the best looking thing a kid can have. That in America, when they want to make a kid look cute, the paint him with freckles. That women go to plastic surgeons to have them permanently tattooed into their skin, and that at least four wars in the world have broken out on account of the fact that some people had less freckles than other people. And they tried to take the other people’s freckles. I tell them that freckles sell for over a thousand rupees a kilo and when I’m done, I’m going to sell mine and get rich.
Then we both nod solemnly.