Guwahati,

Fiction

The Painting

 When Manjulika was a tiny girl of four she cried a lot for not being one of the invitees to the glitzy wedding ceremony of her parents. She was so hurt at this exclusion that she tore away some of the photographs from the colourful marriage album stashed away not too carefully at a corner of my  vintage steel closet and threw them to a  nearby gutter. At the same time she was raring to teach a lesson to all those people who had made her mother weep so feverishly on the same fateful day. 

'Tell me who had beaten you up? I'm not going to spare them.'
She was holding one of those photographs where I was shedding copious tears at the bosom of my mother before my farewell to a new home.
'Some ruffians.'
She was boiling with rage at those perpetrators of her mother's agony.  'You should have called me then and there. I would've beaten them up thoroughly and properly. I would've asked my friends the Batman, Spiderman or Superman to help me out if required.'
But surprisingly the same daughter of mine is no longer bothered about my joys and sorrows. I understand that she has grown up, she's a seventeen-year-old beauty now with very impassive deep brown eyes and she doesn't have much space for others at this stage of bubbling youth. But there has been another episode behind this total indifference which I want to elaborate a bit here. She had suddenly ceased to be the child I had known all those years the day I slapped her for innocently defacing a painstakingly made portrait. She must have been eight or nine year old then. Till that time she would invariably be there in my studio, playing with the colours, sprinkling liberal doses on blank canvases and commenting in her own innocent incoherent ways about my finished work , 'Mama, this one is good, colourful, like the princess in the Aesop's fables......' In fact, she had always been my first art critic, unsolicited blabbering would pour forth her little mouth the moment she found me with brush, colour and canvas. 
A hard slap was enough to alter that scenario forever.  
I missed her intrusion in my world of colour for a few years and then purged it out of my mind as something really very trivial. Tapan also helped me in shedding all guilt feelings I had harboured for years together on this account, 'Your daughter has grown up. It's a good sign that she has carved out her own sphere. She can't possibly allow herself to be stagnating.......'
Actually it was Tapan who was instrumental in turning my passion with colours into a highly challenging profession. It all began with an innocuous looking art exhibition where some framed paintings or portraits here and there adorned the pallid walls of my native city's ramshackle art gallery and where a thin stream of relatives and friends trooped in to applaud my maiden venture. But Tapan saw to it that there was a big leap forward from that small step. Soon my art exhibitions found strong footholds in the strapping bastion of a privileged few in some of the metropolis in the country. Global cities like Paris, London, and Amsterdam seemed to be safely within my reach. Well, if you want to know about my contribution in this rag to riches story, I just played with the colours like an obsessed person. Oh, colours and colours and colours. I could feel life pulsating there. But Tapan ensured that whatever I created in the process of my craze for colours were packaged and marketed in the most professional manner like the structures he designed and sold as an architect.  
One day Tapan proposed that we should put Manjulika in a famous boarding school. 'Both of us are busy in our careers. But we can't afford to neglect our only child. Let us put her in the best public school in the country......'. I liked the idea. Manjulika probably was little bit upset at the initial stage when the proposal was mooted. But she didn't create any fuss and quietly went away to the school. 
Along with our rapidly bulging kitty, we went to exotic locales to unwind ourselves whenever we felt the urge to get away. However, both of us went to completely different locations. If Tapan did go to the west, I went to the east that time. If he went to the north, I landed up in the south. The idea of selecting separate locations came from Tapan, 'Look Diksha, we are creative people. Both of us need space to grow. If we confine ourselves under the same roof all the time, it would become too suffocating........'. However, during vacationing also, we never snapped our communication line. I would share my myriad experiences with Tapan and he would narrate things ceaselessly from his side. 
Whenever I got some award or recognition, Tapan would always be excited. He would hug me and exclaim, 'Oh Diksha!  I'm so proud of you!'  He would enthuse like a young lover. There would be celebratory bashes with the friends. On such occasions if Manjulika was around she would also tell in her own inimitable style about her feelings at my success. 'Mama, my class-mates are impressed to know that I'm your daughter. They ask me how it feels to be the daughter of a celebrity painter. I told them: let's change places and then see how it feels like.....'  
I couldn't make out whether she was happy or she was sad about her situation as the only child of a page3 power-couple in the country.
We bought luxurious houses in all the happening cities of the country. There was a fleet of vehicles parked in the campus of our sprawling bungalow where we had been generally staying. Tapan who got a fetish for vehicles of any kind bought a new car, a swanky sports car for Manjulika. The usually reticent girl also showed her enthusiasm for this new toy, 'Papa, this one is beautiful.' 
Currently both of us, Tapan and me, are engrossed in a dream: to own a penthouse in Dubai. Initially Tapan showed me the photograph of that apartment in an exotic building near the Burz Al Arab Hotel. Ah! What a house it was overlooking the Jumeirah beach. This was going to be sold to a potential buyer in an exorbitant sum. Somehow that dream started chasing me too. But it was simply unaffordable with the kind of money we had at the moment. 'In the next auction, my work might fetch that much. You never know......' I was trying to sound hopeful. Tapan also nodded in agreement. 
That was a rainy day. Tapan was in the Caribbean on a holiday. Manjulika had come home after her 12th board exam and gone out to visit a friend in her new car. Otherwise also she would hardly be at home whenever she came to us during vacation. I was frantically trying to paint something on a canvas. There was an avalanche of ideas striking me but a blank canvas was only staring at my perplexed face. When I almost gave up, I could hear a knock at my studio door. Who could be there at this time of the day? Laxmi, our maid, would rarely come inside the studio. Manjulika would never come since the day I slapped her for splashing the colours on my canvas.
I opened the door. There stood a lady with closely cropped hair, masculine demeanour and in completely manly attire. 
'Diksha! We have never met earlier. I'm Rukshana........'
Rukshana! Rukshana!.........Was I in some kind of reverie? Was she really at my doorstep at this moment? Any artist would faint in excitement if this elusive and grandest art connoisseur decided to bestow favour.
'Look, I'm not here to exchange pleasantries. I'm on business. A collector wants a unique piece for her private gallery. She's a billionaire.....She trusts me with my choice..... It should be unique and it should be somewhat abstract. A kind of art which is open to differing interpretations. I've seen your work and I'm impressed. But there's a hitch, she wants it immediately. Her whims....So, I'll come in a week's time. Remember, it should be unique and you'll be paid too well....'
I wanted to scream in this strange concoction of panic and excitement. The penthouse for which we used to dream so much seemed to be within our grasp. Immediately I contacted Tapan to convey the news. He was equally thrilled at this sudden turn of events. 'You slog hard Diksha. Seven days' time is not too short. I'm sure you'd rustle up something amazing.'
And now as a total fanatic, I've been working on this huge canvas since the day Rukshana made a grand entry on my doorstep. When hopes are strewn all over, great things happen in a startling fashion. I can clearly see an enigmatic art work shaping up on a blank canvas in a lightning speed to keep pace with the quandary inside. It is almost over. In my eyes, it is like a vast, chaotic city spread over an expansive terrain. Laxmi came inside yesterday and she exclaimed in horror, 'So many serpents coiling there! It's not good to draw snakes. They might come during night.......'  Laxmi made a quick exit to get away from all these live snakes. Good, in my eyes, it is a city; for Laxmi, they are horrific serpents. A perfect abstract art, open to variant interpretations as desired by that rich art buyer. I must show it to Manjulika to get her reaction. It would be fun to see her understanding of these figures there on this canvas. I miss Tapan on such occasions when I have finished a work and Tapan has been away. 
Without wasting much time, I was hurrying back to Manjulika's room. As expected, the room was closed. I was not going to let her laze around in her room when such a wonderful project had just been completed. Very gently I knocked at her door, 'Manju darling, open the door. I want to give you a surprise.........'. I could hear some sound, some strange whisperings, feet scampering away to a distance....So many low decibel noises almost making a cacophony. 'Manju, open the door.....' I have started banging at the door. There she was at the door, looking dishevelled, door was slightly ajar. I peeped inside. A faint figure was hovering in the background in that closed, dark room. I could make out clearly that the person who was trying to hide himself in the far end of the room was none other than Manjulika's new driver. A young, handsome boy of about twenty! I don't know what overpowered me at that moment. I just dragged Manju out of that room and slapped her really hard. 'You slut....' I screamed. She did not cower in fright. To my utter surprise I could see sheer defiance in her young, radiant face. Suddenly she caught hold of my hand and I found myself at the mercy of a strong, angry woman who was virtually leading me to my studio. 
'What right do you have to tell me what to do or what not to do now? Have you ever bothered to find out what do I want from life? Could you spare any time to leisurely sit with me, to listen to me or to discipline me during my growing up years? Once in the Annual Day function in the school here, I dressed up as Lord Krishna and danced to the tune of flute. There was so much applause. The entire town was there on the open playground in that evening. My parents were not there because they were great people. On coming back, I wanted to tell you and papa about this feat. But you had no time even to listen. You never found time to go to the parents-teachers' meet. You had no time to make any home-made food for my lunch. Both of you had no time for me. I hate your this studio and your all these paintings. They conspired to snatch away my mother from my life.........'
Suddenly she went inside the studio and tore away a part of the vivacious painting by forcefully putting a sharp knife lying nearby through its heart. By that one master stroke, this infuriated daughter of mine had managed to damage my new creation without leaving any scope for retrieval. But her unbounded fury was still going on like a spewing volcano. This time she caught hold of my small bottles of liquid oil painting and threw one after the other on a blank canvas that was kept in an erect position nearby. In a matter of a few seconds my otherwise cosy studio looked like a battle ground or an area devastated by a speeding hurricane. 
Manjulika was almost inconsolable. She was howling like a small baby. I wanted to hold her in my arms like I used to do when she was a toddler. But I stood there almost transfixed to the ground beneath as if I had been hypnotised by some invisible forces. 
When I reported everything to Tapan, he seemed to be worried about the painting and the fast approaching deadline set by Rukshana on her last whirlwind visit to our house. I was more concerned about Manjulika's well-being, 'She has been carrying on so much pain inside......I'm feeling terrible Tapan. We failed her as parents....' Tapan laughed his heart out as if I had narrated some funny anecdotes to him. 'Come on Diksha, don't be so paranoid. Manju is still a naive little girl, still unused to the ways of life. I'm planning to gift her a new silver coloured Mercedes Benz if Rukshana likes your painting and buys it for that rich woman. But the worst part is that the painting got damaged because of Manju's foolishness.....' There is a pause, 'Not everything is lost Diksha. You can still churn out an exotic painting, I'm sure about it. You have got that fighting spirit inside you. But you'll have to slog really very, very hard.....Not a single minute to be wasted....Just remember, we need that beautiful penthouse....... '
'Can't you stop all this Tapan?.... I'm bored to death......'
I could clearly hear a woman's shrill but powerful voice coming from somewhere nearby on the phone. Then a total silence immediately descended on the other side. 
Last few days have been terrible. I have stopped going to the studio and confined myself to my bedroom. In between whenever I looked at my image in the mirror I could see a dry, old and dejected face staring at me from the mirror. It was the perplexed face of a total stranger.
Rukshana arrived on the day she was supposed to come. 'I'm sorry Rukshana.......I couldn't.......'
She brushed me aside and headed straight to the studio. I followed her coyly bracing myself to swallow all the abuses to be hurled by this rogue lady at the moment. The studio was in a state of total disarray. I never bothered to go there after that day of holocaust and Laxmi was too scared to ask me if she could clean the mess.
Rukshana looked around the room to find her dream painting. Suddenly she surged ahead towards the corner where Manjulika had splashed the colours on a blank canvas in total fury. Rukshana shrieked in utter delight, 'That one is amazing. I know Diksha, you're going to do a marvellous job....an abstract painting with profusion of colours, that kind of thing I was looking for.....wild, moving and gripping as if a river is flowing or a hill is moving.....'
Rukshana has left. She is coming back to collect it tomorrow and make the payment. 
I must inform Tapan about this unexpected turn of events. He would be thrilled. The dream of owning the beautiful penthouse in Dubai has started taking wings again. Manjulika! She is a small girl. You never know. She might like the silver coloured Mercedes Benz we are planning to buy for her, she might like to laze around in the balcony of the penthouse and who knows in that state of that sheer excitement she might forget everything about a not-too-happy past.