I do not know how far back this story goes. When I was about six, my mother bought me couple of paintbrushes, and a box of watercolour tablets. The first thrill of this possession came from discovering colour names like ‘Ice Blue’, ‘Prussian Blue’ – the two I still remember.
I never had any pretensions about painting. One of my cousins painted with demonstrated results. Once he painted some stamps on an envelope and mailed it. The postal department delivered it to the addressee, an unsuspecting uncle. I do not know whether my cousin had also affixed regular stamps. May have, but, that is not germane to the story. What matters is that I loved to emulate him. Thus, the paint box may have presented me with an opportunity to emulate his flair for saving on postage.
I only painted leaves and flowers, though; and an occasional pig, which I had picked up from some illustrated children’s book. I believe the outline of a pig is the simplest for any child to draw. My pigs came out quite well, with the hallmark snout and curled pigtail. I could eventually paint more complex themes, like pigs sniffing flowers, not sure whether to eat them. My attempts to paint other animate or inanimate subjects had grotesque outcome. In painting landscapes, sadly, I poured too much watery paint, making the paper soak through and warp. The result – an intended flat grassland looked like rolling grounds, and clear skies seemed to have puffy, patchy blue clouds!
Soon all the paint tablets were beginning to resemble messy brown pigs, as I was in too much hurry to clean the paintbrush between different colours. This handicapped me to only paint brown pigs. However, mother still sensed the great potential in me. Making bold, she bought me a box of ‘Guitar’ watercolour tubes, made in Japan. Again, I learned some new colour names like ‘Yellow Ochre’. For palette, I had to make do with a saucer. That meant, on the days I painted, there was one saucer less for the teacups. This addition to my painting ‘armoire’ did not improve the quality of my work, not did it induce me to try new subjects. It is good that I did not pursue my limited talent for long. Sometime my youngest sister usurped my paints and brushes.
I would not have painted again, but I happened to get married. Ours was an arranged marriage. We had not met before the wedding. I must have belonged to that rare set of lucky bachelors to whom marriage presents an opportunity to discover the hidden artistic self. Firstly, it forced me to spend the evenings at home, rather than with my usual friends. Secondly, some unforeseen urge propelled me to show off to my incurious wife, to let her know me better. I began tinkering with various crafts. I tried carpentry, not just because I needed a kitchen table. I tried sewing on a machine, purchased because our odd size chair cushions needed covers. Then, the bare walls stared, all eyes on me. It made me think of painting something for the walls. Initially, I hesitated, remembering my modest success with painting pigs and flowers. Soon I gathered enough courage to think of trying oil painting. One day, I saw the reproduction of a folk-art painting of some Hindu deities in a newspaper that looked easy to copy. I made my decision, and went and bought some oil painting stuff, and drawing paper.
First, I reproduced the outline sketch, and then started filling it up with colour, much like kindergarten children do. My wife offered to lend me a hand, which I could not decline, deliberating over the fact that she would be alone with the painting during my office hours. Between us, in a couple of weeks, the painting was ready. I bought some cardboard and wooden framing material. Over a weekend, I pasted the drawing on the board, framed it, and hung it on the wall. Our small living room looked good with it.
Some months later, we moved house. Nagappa, the person who let the property, worked in my factory. Dark and podgy, with bloodshot bulging eyes, he was a man of few words. When he spoke, his dark protruding lips parted, revealing a set of gleaming white teeth framed by the redness of the inside of the lips. He spoke only Kannada, the local language of Bangalore that I had not mastered in spite of several years of stay. Anyway, I met him only once a month to pay the rent. Otherwise, we seldom spoke.
About my age, Nagappa lived with an older woman and several boys in their teens and twenties, in a large double-storied house with green frosted glass windows. These, with their mute translucence, remained perennially shut. A single entrance at the front seldom opened. Movements mostly took place by a side door, going round the house. They had one house at the back, rented by a young Anglo-Indian couple with a baby; this house across the street, which I shared with several other tenants; and a few more, in the neighbourhood.
Gradually, we came to know a bit about the family from our neighbours. The woman was the widow of Nagappa’s elder brother, and the boys were her children. The brother had died long back, and Nagappa had never married, presumably to take care of his sister-in-law and her children. We rarely saw the family members together. Yet, I could sense that Nagappa abided by his sister-in-law, and his nephews held him in great respect. The eldest, Jairam, a thin amiably curious fellow, got quite friendly with me. To my dismay, I found that he had little say in the property. His younger brother, Ramesh, a most reticent fellow, was the one to ask for any maintenance or alteration work. The youngest, a sullen boy, ran a teashop. We hardly saw the woman, generally addressed as ‘Amma’. She, a diminutive woman with a parched face, very pale pupils and a slight squint, usually remained indoors. On the rare occasion we met her, she let a thin shy smile of recognition hover in her quivering lips. She spoke only Kannada, but she spoke rarely. In fact, except Jairam, the whole family was very reticent, even among themselves. The Anglo-Indian girl, who shared an afternoon stroll with my wife, told her that Amma was very stern and wrathful. However, we never came across her wrath, and believed her to be just reserved, but kind.
We moved to this house a few months before my wife was to give birth to our first and only child. Shortly, she returned to her parents’ care for delivering the baby. I spent the evenings making the house ready for them. I hung the painting in the living room. When my daughter was a few months old, I brought her home, but her stay in Bangalore was short. A year and a few months later, we moved to Jamshedpur, the city where my father lived. He was reluctant to leave the city after working in the steel plant of the Tatas, from which he was going to retire in a year. I got a job in the steel plant.
As we were going to move in with my parents, we disposed of all our furniture, and just kept our clothes and sundry small stuff. Still, I was going to travel with nine packing cases, suitcases and bags, and on the day we left, I had to throw away some things, without noticing particularly what they were. I had already informed Nagappa. As we were loading our luggage on a van, Ramesh and Jairam came over to check the house. They stood, silently eyeing the empty rooms. When we finished, Ramesh locked up the house. As we shook hands, I saw at a distance, Amma watching us motionless, shielding her eyes with a palm from the strong sun of the afternoon.
I had booked a coupé on the train, which the nine items of luggage nearly filled up. Looking at them, I hoped I had all I needed immediately, and no more.
I do not remember when we noticed that the painting was missing. Settling in Jamshedpur was quite harrowing and long drawn. We missed Bangalore, and the privacy of just us with our daughter. It must have been a long time before we remembered the painting. By then memory had become too grey to recollect whether we had packed it or not. I fished out the notebook in which I had made a list of all the items to be packed. I could not find the painting in the list.
After ten years, we visited Bangalore to meet our friends. We took our daughter to show her the old house of her infancy. Nagappa’s house still looked the same, shut out to the outside world. We could not see anyone of them around, and left without meeting them.
After a gap of another fourteen years, we visited Bangalore again. This time we pressed their doorbell. Amma – still much the same petite woman with a squint – opened the door. She stood dumbstruck for a moment. Then she smiled. Realizing the young girl with us to be our daughter, she gushed forth in Kannada that I could barely make out. Vaguely, I gathered that Amma was remembering our baby of one year who never cried, and so the neighbours complained that they never knew we had a baby. Recollecting herself, Amma invited us in, and led us through a bare hall into a small semi-dark room with some sofa. She seated us, sent for Jairam, and then went to fetch coffee. In the little light that came in through the frosted glass of one window, I surveyed the room. It was bare except for the sofa. Amma came in with coffee. Sitting next to my wife and daughter, she started talking animatedly. I sat opposite. In between explaining Amma’s queries to my daughter and wife, my eyes strayed aimlessly.
Suddenly, high above where she sat, I saw it hanging – the painting! Its dulled-with-time sight assailed my heart, where a fresh and bright image still lay buried; and, my throat choked, seeing it after twenty-four long years. Silently, I pointed to it, and my wife and daughter looked up. My daughter asked me, incredulously, “Oh! Is that the painting you had lost?” Amma followed our eyes, and then looking back at us, she smiled. Jairam, who had just come in, saw us looking at the painting. He replied, “Yes. That is your painting. You had left it, so we kept it.”
How simply he put it!
We finished coffee, amidst small talk, and then bid goodbye to Amma. Jairam came out, and walked down the road with us. Through his curiosity about us, I asked him how they had found the painting. He said that though on the day we left they had not noticed it, they had seen it on the wall when going to let the house again. I asked him if they would let us have it back. He shook his head and said, “You have to ask Nagappa. But, I do not think Amma will part with it. She is very fond of it. She thinks it is the picture of some deity, and it reminds her of you.” He told us that meeting Nagappa would not be possible as he was busy elsewhere with some work.
Four years back – three years after our previous visit – taking my last vacation before retirement, my wife and I revisited them. Amma looked much the same. Jairam had grey hair and looked ill. Nagappa was not there. The painting still hung in its place near the ceiling in that semi-dark room, looking even more obscure in the green filtered light through the frosted glass windows.
We did the best that we could do under the circumstances. I asked Amma for her leave to take a picture of the painting. That is all we have of it now – a fuzzy snapshot of a twenty-seven years old painting, reminding us of one particular stream of time accidentally diverted from us to trickle by somewhere else.
Indroneer / 19 May 2014