Manav got up with a start. He hadn’t slept much, to begin with. Those deep-set eyes had invaded his dreams.
He leaned on the bedrail and fumbled for the jug of water on the side. It was empty. Strange. He recalled having filled it up to the brim last night. Yet, there wasn’t a single drop of water in there.
With much reluctance, Manav got up from the bed and switched on the lights, the flash momentarily blinding him. The first thing that he saw was her.
The lady mocked him. He was sure of that.
What have I gotten myself into? I should never have listened to that Sethi woman in the first place.
The lady will go from his room today. He will see to it.
Manav had first encountered Mrs Sethi in an art exhibition at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre six months ago. Strangers to each other, the two bonded by virtue of being the only people to have turned up at the exhibition.
Mrs Sethi happened to be the owner of the gallery organising the exhibition.
“So, what do you do?” she asked him over lunch.
“I am a part-time artist attempting to paint my masterpiece so that I can devote myself to art full time. But the demands of a career and conventional life come in between,” he replied.
“Why, I have the perfect solution for you,” Mrs Sethi enthused with twinkling eyes. “My husband and I run a luxurious homestay at the picturesque Landsdowne, in Uttarakhand. Away from the hustle-bustle of the city, it provides the perfect getaway for artists like you to spend time with their craft, undisturbed. We host writers, filmmakers and artists all the time, and will be delighted to have you. If we like your painting, then we will host the same in our gallery as well.” Her eyes had fluttered. “After all, creativity thrives in solitude.”
They exchanged numbers after that chance meeting and kept in touch on and off. Mrs Sethi had been encouraging, insistent and persistent in those conversations. And so, one fine day, Manav took three months off from his day job, cajoled his parents into part-sponsoring his three-month sojourn and came to Landsdowne.
Manav was sure that he was a painting away from his next masterpiece. He didn’t let the fact that his father paid a gallery to display his pictures amongst the paraphernalia of other artists’ bother him. The world always takes time to recognise geniuses, and he could afford to be patient.
He had arrived a week ago in Landsdowne to a boisterous welcome from his hosts and their dog, and was pleased with what he had seen during his journey from the Kotdwara station to the homestay. The Himalayan village, replete with colossal mountains, verdant beauty and rustic charm, along with the absence of distractions from the humdrum of daily life, was a perfect companion to his artistic abilities. In fact, a few images had come to his mind already during the short expedition- a polar bear, a valley of colourful flowers, a married lady, kiwi orchards, et al. He couldn’t wait to pick his paintbrushes to give shape to his visions.
The elderly Sethis were affluent people with big stomachs and bigger hearts. They told him to feel like family till his time with them. Though Mrs Sethi, to his surprise, didn’t mask her disappointment when he had mentioned that he expected to be left alone for most of the time.
“Creativity thrives in solitude,” he reminded her with a grin.
“But loneliness can’t always be your refuge,” she rolled her eyes. “How can ideas blossom without observing people around you?” she asked before her husband hushed her up. He assured Manav of all privacy that he wanted.
He got his privacy, but it hadn’t helped. Manav hadn’t painted a single stroke on his canvas since the time of his arrival a week ago.
He looked at his accoutrements once again. The white canvas poised in the easel invited him to bring his imagination to life. The assorted Wash, Fan, Flat, Angled, Round, Liner and Filbert brushes waited for the touch of his fingers. His conscience called out to him to start his masterpiece. But he remained unmoved.
Every time he looked at the canvas, his mind went as blank as the canvas’s colour. It strayed to the picture of the lady on the wall instead.
Why did the damn lady have to be in my room in the first place? I would have made some progress by now if not for her.
He had noticed the 20 by 10 rectangular portrait the first time after opening his eyes post the afternoon siesta on his first day here. The walls of his spacious room were bare, except the solitary Madhubani painting that was in the direct line of sight from where he was lying down.
The lady in the picture was adjusting the pallu of her red saree on her head with one hand while balancing a puja thali with the other. She had deep-set eyes, a prominent red bindi on her forehead and had applied vermillion in the middle parting of her hair. A heavy gold mangalasutra adorned her neck. Her loose long hair was wet. Her cheeks had a blush of pink, and her red lips were stretched just enough to give the hint of a smile.
He sat upright on the bed, fascinated with the woman.
After a few minutes, he had got up, set up the easel beside the only table in the room and adjusted the canvas neatly therein. He arranged his assortment of pencils and brushes, the colour palette and water on the table on the side where his hand could easily reach from where he would stand to paint.
I am all set now.
He was standing with his back to the picture and turned to it for inspiration. The woman’s body posture seemed to have changed, tilted at an angle as if to have a clear view of his portrait. Her smile was broader, more encouraging.
A shiver ran through Manav’s spine.
My imagination must be running wild. Fancy to feel a chill in this sweltering heat.
He shrugged his uneasiness, picked up a brush from the table and turned towards the canvas. And stood rooted to the spot.
His mind was a blank. Try as he might, he could not conjure an image to replicate in the canvas, a first for him.
Unlike most artists, Manav didn’t rely on an outside inspiration for his drawings and didn’t imitate objects around him. His mind summoned an inspiration, and his hands gave life to it.
But at that moment, his mind failed him. He could not visualise any place, person, or thing, except the woman in the picture.
He turned around, and the lady blinked.
Disgusted with himself, he threw the brush and went to wash his face.
The woman’s gaze followed him to the bathroom door.
“How is the painting coming along?” Mrs Sethi asked him over dinner later that evening. That was the last subject on which Manav wanted to speak about.
“I am attempting to get an inspiration,” he replied.
“Oh,” she uttered, expecting more.
“Rohini, we are not artists. Creative people have their own ways which ordinary folks like you and me won’t be able to understand.” Her husband laughed to ease the awkwardness.
They ate a few bites in silence before Manav asked, “The painting that is hung on the wall in my room, did one of you paint it?”
“You liked it?” Mrs Sethi was delighted. “Neither of us are that talented. My father painted it and gave it to us as one of the wedding gifts. He is no more now; God bless his soul.”
“I see. The concept and the colour seem so contemporary and fresh. I thought it was a recent painting.” He was surprised.
“Really? But then he was such a talented man. God bless his soul.”
Manav had heard enough of God’s blessings from his hostess. If the painting had been of any sentimental value, it would have enlivened the living or dining room’s atmosphere and not hung neglected in the guest room. But he kept his opinion to himself.
“I would get up late tomorrow and start with the painting straight away. Don’t trouble yourself with my breakfast; I will see you both at lunch,” he had proclaimed, much to the disappointment of his hosts.
On the second day of his stay, Manav woke up at the first stirrings of dawn. He avoided looking at the painting, brushed, shaved, bathed and changed to his favourite orange T-shirt with white sweatpants. He sprayed liberal doses of cologne on himself and was ready to begin his painting.
A human portrait had begun to form in his mind the night before. Manav walked over to his table and picked up a brush, ready to give a shape to his concept. He looked at the canvas.
A shadow fell over the white colour as if someone was standing behind. Manav turned back, but there was no one. He turned back to the canvas, and there was the shadow again.
Is it my shadow? No, that would have only covered the canvas partly; the canvas would not have been wholly obscured like it is now.
He tried to shake off the uneasy feeling engulfing him. But his mind was in a blank state again. He could not get himself to start painting and gave up. His eyes went up to the lady on the wall.
Her lips were drawn in a scowl with a hint of anger in her eyes. She wasn’t focusing on the puja thali, but at him, as if berating him for not looking at her today.
The portrait has a life of its own.
Manav shuddered and almost fell on the table to his left.
This had become the daily ritual. Every day Manav would get up with the intent to paint but ended up staring at the lady’s myriad expressions. Sometimes she would smile; other times, she would frown. One day he even thought that she was about to guffaw; a particular evening, she looked morose. She had taken over Manav’s thoughts.
Today was the eighth morning of his arrival to Landsdowne. He had got up with a start, found no water, switched on the lights and found the lady mocking him.
You will be here no more. I will get rid of you.
“May I request you to please remove the portrait from my room?” Manav asked his hosts over lunch. He had no output, let alone a credible outcome, as yet to show for his parents’ generosity.
Mrs Sethi and her husband exchanged glances.
“I like the painting,” Manav hastily added to assuage any hurt feelings, “but it’s too distracting. The lady’s bright red clothes are perhaps too much for my staid paintbrushes.”
“What lady?” Rohini asked.
“The lady in the painting, of course,” Manav replied.
“There is no lady in the painting, young man. The picture is of scenic mountains. What are you talking about?” his hostess asked.
Manav choked on his food.
“Now, Mrs Sethi, I do not appreciate such jokes. Please come with me to the room, and I will show you what I am referring to.”
He got up without waiting for a response, his hosts in tow.
They reached his room on the first floor. Manav unlocked the door and switched on the lights.
He pointed his right hand towards the painting without looking at it. “Look for yourself, Mrs Sethi. This lady here..”
He turned towards the picture, and the words stopped midway in his throat. He gaped with his mouth open.
The portrait on the wall comprised mountains of dark brown colour. An orange ball of fire rose behind them, painting the blue springs with its hue. A huge palm tree dwarfed the far-away scenery, with some weaver birds peeping out from their nests to admire the atmosphere.
A very vivid drawing with no sign of a human anywhere in it. He was looking at it for the first time.
“That’s what I was telling you, son. There is no lady in the painting.” Rohini spoke in a benevolent manner.
Manav jerked. “You are playing a cruel joke on me,” he shouted at his hostess.
“Hold on. You can’t shout at my wife like that,” Mr Sethi intervened.
“You change the painting behind my back and think that I will fall for your nasty game. I have had enough. I don’t want your hospitality anymore. I will clear your bills today and am out of here first thing tomorrow morning. I am off to Kotdwara now to book my tickets.”
He marched out of the room before his stupefied hosts could utter any word.
“Are all creative people so eccentric?” Mrs Sethi asked her husband.
It was late evening when Manav returned to the homestay after getting a second class reserved seat to his home. He went back to his room, switched on the lights and glanced at the picture on the wall.
The lady in the picture smiled at him.
Manav wasn’t surprised. He went to bed, took off his shoes, and lay down in a comfortable position. His eyes never left the lady all this while. He could have moved out of the room that moment itself, he could have fled the village right then; at the worse, he could have spent the night at the station. But he did not. His mind was blank.
“Stare as much as you can,” he shouted in the air. “Tomorrow, I am out of here.”
The lady in the picture gave him an ‘I dare you’ sort of look.
He fell asleep looking at the portrait.
A flash of incandescent lights invaded his mind. The ray of light stretched long, and from its farthest end, he saw a figure in bright red approach him. As she came nearer, he recognised the deep-set eyes, the red bindi on forehead, the vermillion, the puja thali, heavy mangalasutra. The lady from the picture. He tried to open his eyes but couldn’t. He was still asleep.
“Who are you?” his mind asked her.
“I am your masterpiece,” the lady hissed. “You gave birth to me on the way from the station to here. When your mind conceived a married lady, I got life as your muse. Of course, only you could see me since I was in your imagination.”
Manav was petrified.
“You kept on thinking about what to draw when there I was, right inside you. Your mind was blank since I am the product of your imagination. All you had to do was to take a look at me and reproduce me in your canvas. But you didn’t. In fact, one day, you planned to draw some other human. How could you?”
“Sorry,” his mind cried out.
“It is too late now. You tried to leave without giving form to my soul. Can one ever escape one’s own mind? Very foolish you are. Now, everyone will admire me. The masterpiece.”
She laughed. It was a high-pitched cruel uproar. The cacophonous sound pierced Manav’s heart and took away his soul.
“Poor boy. He was so young.” Mrs Sethi wiped the tears from her eyes as the hospital authorities took away Manav’s body. She and her husband had forced open their guest’s door after getting no response to their repeated knocks.
Manav lay dead on his bed. “Died peacefully in his sleep,” as one of the health personnel put it.
“He must have been up the whole night. His painting has come out really well; all art galleries in the country will fight tooth and leg to display this picture. Pity that he won’t be able to enjoy the success of his art,” her husband said.
The couple’s eyes once again wandered to the painted canvas that rested on the easel beside the table. The lady in the red dress looked so vivid and full of life. All the regalia- bindi, mangalasutra, loose wet hair and puja thali- appeared to enhance her exuberance. Her deep-set eyes sparkled in glee.
“It is a Masterpiece,” Mrs Sethi declared.
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