As in the novel The Legends of Khasak, the youth addressed the old man as ‘the father of the artist’. Okay, let that be the title of this story.
The old man was resting in the canvas chair with his legs stretched out. The youth told him: “I am Anish. The researcher who is here with your prior permission.”
“My memory’s faded,” the old man complained. “I’m approaching a hundred years. How many times has this brain received anesthesia? Where all has this body been cut and slashed? Yet one lives on. . .”
On the wall, under a glass case, decked with a sandalwood garland, the artist smiled on.
He is not to be strained unduly – at the most one hour – remember with what difficulty you got the permission – and so on – Anish remembered his guide’s words as he switched on the tape recorder. He got his paper and pen ready. To begin with, he decided on a routine question:
“Tell me Uncle, was madam Aparna an ordinary child? At what age did she begin sketching?”
On the wall in a frame was one of Aparna’s famous pictures: Mahalakshmi. The picture that had raised much controversy; of Mahalakshmi seated on the red lotus, holding in her lap a Jesus Christ bleeding copiously from wounds inflicted on the cross.
Through remembrances, forgetfulness, semi consciousness, the journey moved on like the crawl of a tortoise. By the time they had waded through Aparna’s childhood and reached her youth, Anish had collected for himself, the birth secret of several of her pictures.
The thesis is certain to create a commotion; so far, nobody had been able to collect so much of original details about Aparna Menon, he mused.
“My best friend is my father”, Aparna had said in a BBC interview. “I have even told father about my first love affair. Kindly consider my Indian background to figure out the unnaturalness of this”.
“One who worships you; and one whom you worship – do not marry either,” I told her. The old man was talking into the tape recorder.“Is it not the way of the world that adoration is short -lived? She obeyed me and became the wife of Mr. Menon whom I chose for her. That is what went wrong.”
“I have heard,” said Anish, “about the tempestuous love affair between the artist and her worshipper.”
“The worshipper was as old as I,” said the old man. “’Mahalakshmi’ was painted during those days. If you look carefully at Jesus Christ, you will see the likeness of Mathews.”
O Lord! Anish sat stunned: the picture had been lauded for its secularism, its religious conviviality, its depiction of the soul of independent India . . ., the picture that racist activists had burnt to war cries at exhibitions!
The famous picture, titled ‘Love’, must also have been born then. Anish made a note on his paper. A black cupid and a white hunter aiming missiles at one another on a battlefield where two fierce creatures pirouetted in a terrifying dance. The picture was given the English title: ‘Cupid Declares War.’
Seeing Anish engaged in writing, the old man stopped talking. It is when he raised his head from the writing that Anish saw Menon step on to the veranda. His grey haired chest which he tried to cover by wrapping a towel, struck a discordant note with his black-dyed head.
“Mr. Menon?” Anish respectfully got off his seat, “I’m Anish, Fine Arts . . .”
“I gathered that much,” he wiped his armpits with the towel.
The odour that pervaded thoroughly disgusted Anish. The odour that rose from his own armpits was the foreign, sweet scent of ‘Poison.’ Poor Aparna! to have composed her world famous pictures suffering this pungent smell from Menon’s armpits! Had it been the intoxicating smell of Brute, of Poison, . . . maybe…
“Uncle has gotten old” said Menon. “Short of memory too; says things from an unstable mind. Do not believe it all.”
“I know”, Anish said.
The old man curled and shrunk in trepidation.
“Aparna’s death was a great shock for Uncle. She sat talking to him before going to bed. The next he saw her was as a corpse in the hospital . . . Since then, Uncle has lost his memory.”
“I know. I have heard so,” said Anish.
“You researchers may thrive on such things. That’s why we don’t welcome journalists. When one of them published dirty rubbish, we took him to court. Don’t forget that.”
“No,” said a respectful, supplicant Anish. One could bow and scrape to anybody, to see results.
“You were allowed on the recommendation of worthy people. Limit the conversation to just her pictures. No need to assay on her life.”
“Okay,” said yours most faithfully, Anish.
As Menon said no more, Anish turned to the old man: “Uncle, tell me the circumstances that led to madam Aparna’s painting ‘Garnica and India?’”
Although several interpretations were given, it was one of those pictures Anish could not quite come to grips with. On a battle strewn field, a uniformed soldier with a thick moustache leans back on his gun
and sits very much like the young woman in Raja Ravi Varma’s painting titled ‘Rapture’. His open shirtfront reveals a full feminine breast at which an engaging cherub in the style of Ravi Varma suckles elixir. The rest seemed like an imitation Picasso.
“She had painted that after her trip to Lebanon.” As the old man racked his memory, Anish noted the scorn that spread over Menon’s face. Before he could pick up those shredded strands of remembrances the door of the house opposite opened and a middle aged matron came out with two cups of buttermilk. She gave the larger cup to Menon, and the smaller, decorative one to Anish.
“It is salted. Uncle should not have it – blood pressure will increase,” she said.
“If it’s sugar that is added, it will increase the sugar,” said the old
“I’ll bring some unsalted rice water.” The old man gestured in distaste.
“That sort is enough for a drink.” Menon said as he left his empty
cup on the parapet and went in: “You drank all you wanted in your time.”
The matron gave a bowl of rice water to the old man, picked up the empty cups and returned to her house.
“Aparna’s aunt’s daughter”, the old man clarified in a lowered
“Menon is there in the daytime and she is here at night; a public
Anish looked inwards in terror. If Menon heard it, the researcher’s quest would have to end there.
The old man took a mouthful of the unsalted rice water, struggled to swallow it, then spat it out.
“Makes good sense to reject food and welcome death,” he muttered, “our ancestors were not wrong in laying it down.”
“Oh, father of one who established that much of the proverbial sayings are wrong!”, Anish controlled his amusement. He then skilfully steered the old man into the colourful geneses of paintings. Did he not need to collect material of thunderous impact?
In between, the matron came again: “It’s time for Uncle to have his wheat meal.”
“I’ll stop,” Anish turned off the tape recorder. “That will do. I already have more data than I expected.”
“You can have five more minutes. Let me go get the meal,” and she left. But Anish did not start the instrument.
“The youngest ever to earn the respect of the nation was your daughter, Uncle,” he idly remarked, as he put away his notes, pen and instrument into a bag.
“Yes, her death came the day after she returned from accepting the award. I believe she developed chest pain at night. The funeral was at the expense of the nation. What crowds . . . the Army . . . the National Flag . . .”
“Weren’t you proud, Uncle?”
“Over my daughter’s funeral?” The old eyes became hard.
From behind the framed glass, adorned with a garland of large sandalwood beads, Aparna Menon said: “That’s enough, Anish. You got whatever there was to be had. Now leave my poor father alone.”
Anish got up, “Uncle, thank you so much for giving me all these details. I will make particular mention of you in the Acknowledgements to my thesis. After I get my Ph.D and the thesis becomes a book, your name will be in it too.”
Like a God dispensing boons, benevolent Anish graciously stood
“I won’t be there to see it all, son. The white coach will come – if
not today, tomorrow. . .The pity is that the brain does not fade out. How much of anesthesia has it taken? Yet it does not give up. If the brain were dead, it would be bliss. No need to hear the barbs. No need to see sour faces. No need to know anything.”
Anish hurried down to the front yard.
The guide had forewarned that a researcher should not immerse himself into the subject to the point of personal involvement. It will obstruct impartial assessment. Maintain a distance to everything . . . “See you Uncle.”
But the old man paid no heed to the leave taking and continued to mutter:
“. . . or should escape completely. Like Aparna. . . arteries on the wrist slashed . . . paint a red picture that nobody knows . . .”
Anish came to a startled halt. Suddenly the old man’s entire body came alive in a tremor. He looked around as if he had committed a terrifying crime.
As Anish started walking, the old man held his hands to his breast and cried out in fear:”Don’t you write it son – don’t ever write it . . .”
Anish walked away in real haste.
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Chitrakaariyude Acchan”.
Chandramatiyude Kadhakal. Kottayam: DC, 2009).
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.