It was a sunny afternoon on the 30th of April and I was beginning to be angry at Tarun for being stuck in traffic and getting late for our shoot. Neither he nor I was aware that he had returned from Chattisgarh's Abhujmarh with a latent fever. As I waited for him, I reminded myself, on most shoots with Tarun, I was the one who was normally late. He arrived, smiling in his black Santro. He parked it and we walked into the tiny urban slum of Kawaria Sarai in South Delhi. We were there to take pictures of a family struggling to get their three year old daughter Neha into a public school using the Right to Education Act.
Three-year-old Neha and her mother Roma walked Tarun and me to their home as Neha's eyes shone when she saw Tarun turn up in his car. “Tarun, after we’re done, can we take Neha for a spin in your car?” I asked. The little girl loved car rides. “Haan haan, of course,” he smiled.
It was time to work. The sun had set and the one room home we were shooting in had no place in it apart from the single bed and fridge and Neha's dolls for us to stand. Tarun's brow was a furrow of concentration as he unpacked his lenses. He had, as usual; found a way. A series of very endearing family portraits followed. Roma, her husband Satpal, Neha, her baby brother and Neha’s doll all accommodated in Tarun’s wide and telling frame.
His mother turned to all of us, gathering all her strength within to say - "I want to see my son in all of you."
"Ho gaya, we're done,” Tarun said triumphantly, his grin getting wider as he held his hand out to 3 year old Neha. As we spun around the part of Delhi that leads up to the Qutab Minar, Tarun’s favourite music kept us company. “The way you ma-ake…a…me fe-eeel…” sang Michael Jackson into the Santro speakers. Neha was very happy.
On the way back to office, Tarun described where he had just returned from. Abhujmarh in Chattisgarh. That part of tribal, forgotten India that even the Indian administration was 'discovering' for the first time, along with Tarun and our colleague Tusha who went in as a team. “It is the most beautiful place on Earth. The woods are untouched, undiscovered, silently spectacular,” he said.
He mentioned only in passing how he and Tusha had to trek on foot for many hours each day, past anything remotely resembling a road or a hamlet, deep into very treacherous Maoist land. Till they ran out on all their supplies of food and water. The abiding image in his mind was of beauty.
The next day Tarun called to say he was slightly ill, could I please continue part two of my shoot with another photographer from our team?
"Slightly ill," was not at all what Tarun was. Our pictures with Neha were indeed Tarun Sehrawat's last shoot. A suppressed fever turned into a raging cerebral malaria, typhoid and jaundice. It made the 22-year-old blithe spirit fight valiantly in hospital against a coma into which he slipped in and out of. The next month and a half is a blur.
What made Tarun drink water from a nearby pond? How did his body withstand so much for so long before finally giving up? Could any of this have happened differently? Hindsight is an ugly tool and threw up uncomfortable questions for all of us – his extended Tehelka family. Can we ever know where to turn back in a story? How much is too much? What could we have done differently?
On June 15th, when Tarun's body was being wheeled out of the Medanta hospital in Gurgaon towards the cremation ground, all these questions meant nothing.
Like the person that Tarun was, holding on to beautiful images; all of us forced our fickle minds to do the same. Tusha, particularly distraught from being Tarun's companion in to Abhujmarh was quivering with pain. “Tell me stories you know about Tarun. Tell me, tell me...”
We all had our stories. Of Tarun's first brush with alcohol. Of his comic face and quiet sense of fun. And most of all, his grin. His mother turned to all of us, gathering all her strength within to say – “I want to see my son in all of you.” As we said our private farewells to the boy we all loved, we knew, that would indeed be a lot to live up to. Live with the beauty. Blot out the rest.