Darkness in the Den

Anand stood before the empty canvas mounted on his easel. White. Plain white.

He stared at it, his brush in his hand, the palette next to him, waiting to be dyed in the colours of his choice. The basement room, his den as he liked to call it, was dark. Save the sunlight streaming in from that small window high up on the wall, the golden motes dancing their way in. Anand would often lose himself in the magic of this light. But not today. Today he preferred the darkness to it.

He stared at the canvas. Why didn’t his hand move? What did he want to create? He knew he had to paint. NOW. But what? He stood still as a statue. But not expressionless. His face looked pained. A vein on his forehead throbbed, a mark of his concentration. His jaw tightened, compelling him to begin. But his hand refused to move.

After what seemed to be eternity, his eyes moved, looking at the the colours strewn beside him. Somehow, he was drawn to the red. A voice in his head told him to use the red. His eyes lit up. A face. He had to paint the face.

As if in a frenzy, he hurriedly squirted some red paint from the tube. But no, not the brush. He threw it aside and dipped his fingers in the red. With his thumb, he made his first stroke. Clean. Practised. Mastered.

Red. On the once empty white canvas.

*****
“Weird, right?”. A giggle.

Anand looked beside him at the voice. A young lady. Red skirt, white T-shirt proclaiming, “I rule”, and a purple scarf thrown carelessly across her neck.

“Sorry?”.

“I said, weird! The painting! Don’t you think so?”, she threw her head in the direction of the huge canvas suspended before them in explanation. Her big bold eyes popping out behind the huge round spectacles she wore. She was chewing on some gum.She blew a bubble and popped it.

“What’s weird?”, he asked, his interest piqued.

He took in more of her this time. The jhola with a bottle of water peeking out. The jhumkas. The curly hair flying around animatedly as she spoke. And the huge specs perched on her nose. She tended to push it up with a finger time and again. Everything about her was normal. Nondescript almost. And yet, she stood out. He couldn’t put a finger on why.

“Arre! You are one of the artsy types too kya? Just look at it yaar! Why does that woman just have a torso, that too naked? And why exactly is she floating in the air?Uff. If I could just find the artist, I would love to ask him what he intended to make. I can make no head or tail of this thing!”.

“So, I get you aren’t the artsy type. What are you doing in an art gallery then?”, Anand asked with a smirk.

“Dragged in with some friends yaar. That’s ok though, I found what I like right here”, she said, raising the glass of red wine in her hand with a wink.

“Smriti!”.

She turned around to face a couple looking at her exasperatedly. “We have been looking for you all over. Since when do you get lost in art? And to think we had to beg and plead with you to get you here!”

“No way! Just making the most of my time trying to understand abstract art”, she remarked, with air quotes. She placed the glass of wine on a tray next to her. Adjusted her specs again and looked up at Anand with a smile. “Here’s my cue. Good riddance from this place. Finally. Bye!”.

“Dream. The woman’s in a dream.”

Smriti stopped in her tracks. A pause and then she turned to look at him. “What did you say?” she asked nervously.

“The woman’s flying because it’s her dream. There’s no stopping her, she’s flying to reach the sky. There are no legs holding her back to the earth. And naked, because there’s no pretence. Her inner self is carefree. It’s a woman fulfilling her ambitions with no inhibitions.”

Her face reddened as a blush spread across it. “Oh!”. She stuttered. Her eye flitted to the name at the corner of the painting and then to the name tag that the man before her was wearing. Understanding dawned.

Anand strode to her confidently and extended his hand with a grin. “Anand. The artist”, he said, throwing his head towards the painting. “Maybe we could discuss my intentions over coffee…on the painting of course. What say?”.

“Haha, cheeky!”, she laughed. “Done!”.

They shook hands.

*****
His hand was moving faster now. Splats of paint made their way onto his white T-shirt, as if mimicking the canvas. But he carried on. Oblivious. Uncaring.
There was an urgency in his actions. The face. He had to paint it before it disappeared. Before his mind’s eye could no longer conjure it up.
But. It bothered him. Who was she??

*****
“Impressive”, she said with raised eyebrows. “I must say, you do not look like an artist, but your place sure looks like an artist’s den”.

The basement was sparse. There was a dull yellow fabric sofa in one corner. Right now though, it had been pulled out to make a bed. Clearly that’s how he always kept it. Canvasses were stacked against walls, draped with white cloths to keep the dust at bay. The tiny kitchen in the corner was minimalistic, a stove, a kettle, some cups. A bottle of tea, some coffee and sugar sachets. A bathroom in another corner completed the room. A large wooden easel stood in the center. A stand next to it was in complete disarray, filled with paints and palettes. 

He waited for her to glance at it all and then broke into a laugh. “What do you mean I do not ‘look’ like an artist? What are artists supposed to look like?”.
“You know, the kurta with jeans, unkempt beard, long hair. Breaking into philosophical gyaan every now and then. Not wearing body hugging T-shirts that show off their gym efforts and flirting with girls”, she teased.
“Ahh. So the T-shirt’s the problem. I could take it off you know” he retorted, his hand reaching for the hem.
“Noooo!!” She squealed and ran towards him in mock horror.
The den reverberated with their laughter.

*****
Anand stared at the canvas before him. An exquisite image stared back. Waves frothing at their feet. Toes curled up in the wet sand. “The Blue Horizon” he had named it. It was written there, right at the bottom, just above his signature. 
It was morning and he had just woken up. Light was streaming in, bathing the basement room in its warm glow.
He looked at his hands. They had blue on them. He must have been painting all night.
The painting indeed was impressive. He admired his work.
And yet. There was that familiar gnawing feeling within him. 
“Why the hell do I not remember making it, damn it?!”. 

There it was.

His secret. The one deep dark truth that not a single other living soul knew.
He could never remember making his paintings. 

He would intend to make one, pick up his brush. And the next thing he knew he would be standing before it.

“Is something wrong with me? This can’t be normal, right? I mean, it IS me making them. Why then can I not remember? Why do I black out? Hell, Smriti was asking me about my process of painting the other day and I froze! What do I tell her? That sometimes I just do not know what I do?!”

Anand paced the room, head in his hands. Why did this happen? He was a teenager when this had happened for the first time. Bewildered, he had woken up to a painting he remembered nothing about. He had wanted to talk to his parents about it. But before he could, his painting had received immense appreciation. People had seen talent in him. Potential. Rave reviews had flown in. And something had held him back. Fear. What if he could only paint with his subconscious mind? What if his masterpieces were a slave to his subconsciousness? What if he couldn’t paint half as well as this in a conscious state? And so he had kept quiet. Buried the secret deep. And risen in fame.

But now…now it worried him. He felt unfaithful. Dishonest. Like a thief. 

“Chill Anand, maybe you’re like a sage, you know, and painting is your meditation. Maybe you go into a trance. And how does it matter whether you remember or not? It is undoubtedly you creating these masterpieces. Let your subconscious do the magic,” he told himself.

True. His secret had never really harmed anybody. Maybe this was his process!!

“Yeah, maybe,” he shrugged and brushed the thought aside.

*****
The face was beginning to emerge on the canvas. The random strokes beginning to mingle and make sense. 

He was breathing really hard. 

“Why is this so difficult?!!”

Something in him was hurting. Something was pushing him to work faster, harder. As if his life depended on it. As if this painting meant much more than any other.

But he had no time to think. He had to do this fast. Red. All in red.

*****
He woke up with a happy heart. He could feel the weight of Smriti’s head on his shoulder. What a great way to wake up, he thought.

And then he turned to find a bruised Smriti. Beside him. 

There was a clear dark spot at the corner of her lips. And bite marks on her shoulders. Was it…could it be…No!!

She looked back at him. Disappointed. A million questions in her eyes. He got his answer.

“Oh my God, Smriti. I am so sorry. Did I do that? I am so sorry, I don’t know how…”

She smiled. Tentatively at first. Unsure of how she should react. Pityingly then. And finally understanding. Somewhat blinded with love.

“I told you it hurt, but you got…too…carried away..I wanted our first time to be gentle, Anand”.

“I know…I know…I know Smriti. I don’t know how…”, he was murmuring now in embarassment.

Smriti’s eyes softend. It hadn’t been intentional afterall. She sighed, relieved.

“Oh my God Smriti…I am such a beast!!!”

“Shhh…it’s ok Anand. Don’t be so harsh on yourself. It happens. You lost control. It’s fine. Let’s just put this aside ok? Next time let’s communicate more.”

“Smriti..I am sorry”

“Really Anand, let’s forget it. I have to leave now. Make it up to me at dinner tonight”.

Smriti dressed and left after dropping him a loving kiss.

But Anand lay there, sulking, in bed. It wasn’t just about what he had done.

He was sorry she had had to face this. It was something else too. It hadn’t truly been him.

How could he tell her?

How could he confess that he just couldn’t remember anything. It was as if it wasn’t him.

“What’s happening?” 

His harmless secret was seeping into the corners of his personal life now.

He stared at the ceiling of his basement room. Searching for answers.

*****
He paused. Needing a break.

His eyes automatically flew to the ceiling of his basement. A pattern of black and white triangles stared back. He had read in a magazine long back that patterns helped train the mind to focus. Painstakingly that day, he had painted his ceiling. Since then, it had held all his answers. 

But today there was nothing there. He whispered again, Who is she? There was no answer.

He got back to work. There wasn’t much time.

*****

Smriti was yelling at him.

She was bruised. Badly. Her cheek was red. She had been hit. Repeatedly.

She was hysterical. Crying inconsolably. She looked crushed. Yet her eyes.

Unconvinced. Disbelieving. Like there had to be another explanation.

Anand stood there, confused.”What had happened?” He rushed ahead to comfort her.

She shrank back in fear. 

And then it struck him.

It had been him. Once again.

And he couldn’t remember.

*****

He looked up at her gentle face.

“How could she forgive me? What have I become? A monster?!”

They were at a restaurant. Italian. Her favourite. The dinner had been in silence. He, in guilty silence and she, in a tired one. He had ordered a Tiramisu in the end. Tiny consolation. But maybe that would put a smile on her face. He placed his hand on hers.

She sighed and looked up. Defeated. Yet hopeful. Still. Blind love.

“Smriti I am sorry…” his lips moved, but his heart was not in it.

That night, he sat in his dark den and knew it was time to introspect.

“I sat there telling her the same things again. Lies. Does she deserve that? What do I do? How do I tell her the truth? And what is the truth? It is me afterall, isn’t it? I need to go visit a doctor.” , his heart cried.

“Don’t be mad Anand. Going to a psychiatrist? Do you know what that would do to your public image? You are a famous artist! And what difference would it make to her anyway? You may not remember, but it IS you!”, said his mind.

“So what should I do then? What should I do? I cannot keep doing this. Something is driving me to hurt her and I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. I feel like a monster.”

“Simple. Stop meeting Smriti.”

With a sinking heart, he realised his mind was right.

*****

The hair. Perfect. Should have been brown though. Like in his head.
But no. His mind didn’t let him. Had to be red. All in red.

He pursed his lips and dipped his thumb in the paint again. He had to do justice to the image. As if she were real.

Who was she?? He would think later. Right now, he had to paint.

He looked at the canvas. It was nearing the end.

*****

He had called her to his den. To end it.

He knew it was the right thing to do. He had to stop. To protect her. To forgive himself.

To push to the back of his mind forever, a truth he could not afford to divulge.

She had cried. He had cried. But he knew he could not carry on.

“No. I won’t let you, Anand. I love you! Let’s go to a counsellor. You cannot break up with me!”

“Smriti, please! Try to understand. I can’t control it. You have to leave. Please.”

“Anand. I know you love me! We can work through this. I swear we can. Just give us a chance. I am the one you are hurting, right? So if I say I want to stay, why do you care so much?”

He gaped at her. Did she not understand? He would hurt her again and again.

Was this girl crazy?

“Crazily in love with you”, he reminded himself and his heart ached.
Softened. Maybe he could do something…maybe he could save them…go to the doctor. Maybe their relationship did deserve a chance. And fame, he had got enough of it anyway. His work was all that should matter to his fans.

Smriti saw the change in his eyes. She rushed to him.

Kissed him hard. 

“I will never let you leave, Anand. I love you too much”.

He gave up. He didn’t want to fight himself anymore. His heart already felt lighter in her embrace. He drew her closer. 

Lost himself in her.

*****
There it was. The eyes, the round specs.

The laugh. Oh yes, the laugh. All in red.

He sat down in a corner. On the red oxidised floor of his basement den. Drained. 

Who was she? She was beautiful. Something told him she was important. That this painting was what he had been meant to do all along. 

He stared at the light. The little motes settling on his red-painted hands. He tried to grab them. Lost them into thin air. 

Exhausted. Why did he feel so? Like it was time to go? Like he wouldn’t want to paint again? As if there was a part of him that was compelling him to leave? He closed his eyes tight to shut out the voices in his head. 

What was that sound? Somebody banging on the door from far far away.
He couldn’t understand.
He was lost in his art.
It was beautiful. 
His best ever.

*****

They broke it open and barged in.
He had been sitting in the corner, his head between his legs.
He didn’t know why.
The sounds. Asking him to stand up. Being dragged. Some complaint against him they kept repeating. 
“Who, what?” he couldn’t understand.
“Roommates”, they said.
“Whose?”
His eyes fell on the painting.
He froze. Something wasn’t right.
“Here she is!” Somebody screamed.
The tub. In the bathroom.
Filled with water, all red.
Floating atop the surface, the face. 

Her face.

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Sharanya Misra

A software professional by day and a passionate writer by night. Sharanya loves to write on books, food, travel, feminism and life. She shares her thoughts on sites such as Women's Web, Momspresso and her personal blog www.la-dolce-vita.co.in

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