In the early days, the Madras Snake Park was the regular hangout for a variety of Western hippies, engineering students from nearby institutions, and animal-crazy kids from the city. One fixture for a few months in 1972 was a man who had introduced himself as Nat Finkelstein, an animal dealer. After sometime, he admitted that he was facing drug smuggling charges. Rom remembered reading the newspaper reports several months earlier.
Nat had been trying to send two sloth bear cubs to California when the Madras Customs was tipped off that he was actually smuggling drugs. They confiscated the shipment at the airport, shoved the young bears into the records room, and tore the wooden cage apart looking for the contraband. Within the walls and floor boards encased in polyurethane were cakes of hashish.
Meanwhile, the scared and frustrated bears went to work like a maelstrom, ripping and chewing on every file in the room.
Although I had heard this story several times, I never failed to laugh with glee. How often had I day-dreamt of revenge on the bureaucracy!
Nat spent nine months in jail before getting out on bail, and this was when he started visiting the Snake Park, much to Rom's discomfort. “In the middle of the public area, Nat would roll up these huge hashish cigars, and there was nothing I could do to dissuade him,” he complained.
And then, one fine day, just as suddenly as he had appeared, Nat jumped bail and vanished, never to be seen again. Even now, decades later, Rom's relief is palpable.
“Tell me more, tell me more,” I begged, ever the story-junkie. Nat lived in an air-conditioned apartment, as his pet, a huge Tibetan mastiff, ‘Face' couldn't tolerate the Madras weather. Face was immensely protective of Nat and Jill's child, and wouldn't let any strangers approach.
One night, as I sat uninspired facing the computer trying to write, out of the blue I remembered Nat and his paper-destroying bears. Curious to know where this character had washed up, I googled him, just for distraction. There were several pages of links to a well-known celebrity photographer. But Rom said, the Nat he knew wasn't a photographer, never carried a camera. There was no one else of the same name; it was as if the Nat Finkelstein had vanished into thin air like Rumpelstiltskin. I tried googling animal dealer, hashish smuggler, India. Nothing; blank.
Thoroughly distracted, I started reading about the photographer Nat Finkelstein. He had been Andy Warhol's “court photographer” for three years, and his images of the artist and his groupies were arresting. The picture that really caught my attention was one of Andy standing with Bob Dylan in profile with a silk screen portrait print of Elvis Presley in the background: an iconic image of the meeting of the biggest icons of pop and counter-culture of the 1960s. Other photographs included the rock band The Velvet Underground, the artists Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and the poet Allen Ginsberg.
And then, a quote caught my eye — “I used to sell Ella Fitzgerald and Errol Garner weed.” Could this be the Nat Finkelstein I was hunting for? Rom drawled: “Naaaa. None of this adds up. If he was a photographer, he would have told me. He knew I listened to Bob Dylan a lot…no…you're wasting your time.” People just cannot resist bragging about their connections with celebs, so Rom was probably right.
I shuffled through the web pages again, and found a picture of the photographer. “Is this him?” I asked, dragging Rom back from the movie he was watching. “He's too old. Show me one of him about 30 years younger.”
I strummed the web again like a spider checking if her prey had been caught. Photographers spend their lifetimes taking other people's pictures. I wasn't getting anywhere, and perhaps, I was just wasting my time.
(The author can be reached at email@example.com)