The newly inaugurated Leonardo Art Gallery buzzed with cacophony of reporters and VIPs gathered to witness the hugely anticipated spectacle. After all, not every day did the Mumbai art community get to visualise something so dazzling. All eyes converged on the special portraiture adorning the central wall with the best luminary antics in the gallery. ‘Quiescent storms’ by renowned artist Padmashri F. M. Akashvani that plunged the art world into a metaphorical mystical stupor was now out on display, decades after it was first commissioned. The icing on the cake was the octogenarian legend himself would grace the occasion and explain the delay in execution and display of the painting.
The world waited for the legend to reveal the secret hidden in the photoscopic painting using charcoal, a rare marvel restricted to the artist alone.
The room plunged into silence as the enigma in question walked in, his face lit by the soft glow of the lamps above, appeared fair, covered with a thick iron-grey beard and moustache under a curved beak-like nose. His aged yet alert eyes, burned with a fierce intensity matching the vermillion cloak he wore, as he marched towards his prized painting.
All of a sudden, he froze, a couple of feet away from the painting.
“THIS IS NOT MINE…” he bellowed even as the eddying winds in the room seemed to halt in their motions suddenly. He clutched his heart as he fell and in a manner true to his name, he continued in a strangled voice “…Mine could smile… this is spirited…”
Five years later
The swish of someone hitting the earth with a vengeance ruthlessly penetrated my beauty sleep and I instantly sat up awake. In a way I was glad to be woken from a nightmare that haunted me for the last five years. Ever since that eccentric late Aakashvani made me his muse. Why can’t the world just leave me alone? I am a humble artist happy to be in my gamut of water colours as I unleash my imagination on the canvas in my studio cum bedroom. Fortunately, unlike the matchbox home in the city of dreams Mumbai, my home in the outskirts of Badlapur offers space.
My older sister hated this sleepy corner of the city that perennially received the step-motherly treatment from civic authorities. She couldn’t wait to leave the nest while yours truly at 33 loved her lair. My mom hated the place too… but she hated a lot of other things.
The extra loud clanging of utensils that doubled up as an uninvited alarm beckoned me. I was up till 3AM completing a commissioned order and sleep deprived.
The door to my room barged open and the devil incarnate AKA mom walked in.
“Goodness Lily, how many times should I remind you, waking up early is vital…” Mom held the steel ladle as she began her tirade for the day “…If you continue this habit, what will your in-laws say?”
“Moooom…” I rubbed my fatigued eyes even as her shrill voice added to the shovelling staccato coming in from the lawn where my dad a self-proclaimed landscapist took to remodelling our lawn with a vengeance.
“… I am the villain in this house. Your sister isn’t bothered to call home even once a day…”
“…Mom, didi works in a different time zone…”
“…Everyone of you works in different time zone except for me.…” She continued to harangue my sleepy grey matter. “…only Uttam understands me. I wish he was my son…”
Now that caught my ears and I woke up for real.
“What is so special about him?” I murmured.
Uttam, our in-house Ian Somerhalder, was my father’s friend’s son who was here as a ‘paying-guest’ as he completed his year-long work posting. The guy had smart talked his way into my son-yearning mother’s heart at razor speed.
I will admit though, my heart fluttered every time I saw him workout in the sun or whenever I caught looking at me, in a reverence kind of way. I am into reading paintings and am damn good at it. This one was a mere mortal.
That my traitorous heart and body reacted to a man, was something I hadn’t expected to happen in this lifetime and it scared me.
“Special…?” My mom glared bringing me out of my reverie. “…Lily, have you looked at yourself? And I am not talking about the birth mark. Look at your life… you have rejected all the three alliances that agreed…”
Oh same old same old. I was born with an extra-large black mark on my cheek and that had been the bane of my existence forever. I was by now used to stares especially from prospective grooms who were probably scared off according to my mom.
I was a fearless woman, well except for cockroaches. I shrieked at the sight of even a dead one…
“Mom, those were a bunch of dimwits just set to satisfy their curiosity if I was human. The first guy was busy with his phone once he confirmed my mark was not makeup gone wrong. The second wanted to know if my art earned anything at all… and the third wondered if I was a virgin and if I would cover my face with a scarf… disgusting mom. As if I am nothing beyond my face.”
My mom sighed and I knew I had hit a spot. Playing the victim card always worked in my favour in front of her.
“Lily dear, I have the right news for you then. Here’s an amazing alliance for you….”
“…Mom, not again…”
“…But this hairstyle of yours is great. And guess what… they have a stake in a couple of art galleries in Mumbai. Isn’t that wonderful for all this…” she waved an uninterested hand at my stuff scattered around the room.
I tried to move and my foot landed on my colour palate staining the floor and my skin with the remaining oil paint. Just what I wanted now…
My heart paced. I wouldn’t get to see Uttam anymore…? This was stupid. I couldn’t lust over a man I barely knew except that he lived in the guest room and worked someplace in the city. Straightening up walls for a living is how he described his job.
And he was younger than me by a good five years. Blasphemous!
“Mom, I think we shouldn’t rush….”
“…This alliance was in fact Uttam’s recommendation. He knows the family and speaks highly of them.” My mom smiled victoriously while I began to drown in my misery. My love story ended even before it started.
Mom turned to leave giving a schlocky took around but not before she reminded. “Get ready today evening for a meeting with Ayushman. Uttam will accompany you.”
My crush accompanying me to meet the guy whom, I was supposed to marry and has been approved by my crush.
I sat across Ayushman, the Ryan Gosling- Jonny Depp fusion who smirked as I spilled my coffee on the pristine table mat of the garden café where we met. The Sun was yet to sink into slumber yet the shadows were cast, both on me and my surrounding. It wasn’t every day that I met prospective grooms interested in me.
Thankfully, this specimen wasn’t staring at my face. I had returned back to my old hairdo in such a way that it fell on the concerned cheek. I hated it since it reminded me of the senile-dementic Aakashvani who painted me without my permission. After all I was just a lowly art student then. ‘Mystery beneath that smile’ he had said to me.
The nut-case leaked pictures though and I soon became a laughing stock in the fraternity.
“So, Sushila…” Ayushman purred my given name. How I hated it. “… what do you think about us?”
“I…um… I don’t know you.”
Mom would have thrown a fit.
“Then let’s go on a date. Let’s get to know each other. Let’s see where this takes us” his soft voice sailed through the breeze.
Right then I heard a chuckle and as Ayushman poured back into his phone, I looked around the near-empty café. Uttam in his black figure-hugging t-shirt bent over his cuppa a few tables across and tried controlling his laughter. The guy had bats’ hearing capacity. Right then he looked up and those beautiful black orbs that changed into brown when the dusky light fell on them, bored into mine. I looked away.
I agreed to accompany Ayushman over the weekend to his farmhouse in Lonavala. Surprisingly, mom agreed too. After all I wasn’t a teenager in danger.
Uttam prancing around the house and the garden only alleviated my anxiety. He hadn’t been going to work for a while now. Did he lose his job? Besides pulling my leg at every opportunity and scaring me with rubber cockroaches, he was the perfect handyman. Whenever mom lost her cool with me, he swarmed in and charmed her away.
Now that I think about it, Uttam had always been there indirectly being the fall-back person whenever I hit my lows.
I shook my head packing my overnight bag, wondering if he would miss me…
The door barged open and only two people inhabiting this residence came in without knocking and this time it wasn’t my mom.
“So, all set?” Uttam asked nonchalantly.
“Mind your own business.” I retorted, yet looked around to see if my room was in order.
“It is my business Lily dear…” Uttam mimicked mom and I hated the tone. “…Ayushman was brought on board by yours truly?”
I placed my hands on my hips and turned around while he held up his hands in mock surrender. I had tied up my hair uncaring about my exposed cheek. Without warning he picked up an unruly curl and pushed it behind my ear, while his trademark citrus scent wafted through my senses. His rough fingers touched my ear and my breath caught.
I looked up to see him close, for the first time ever since he had penetrated my hard exterior.
“Don’t worry Lily, I promise everything’s going to work out fine. Trust me, ok?” His voice was the perfect balm to my anxiety-ridden soul.
“Will you come along?” I must have lost it.
“Its your day. Have fun… I promise I will have your back.”
My throat was clogged with emotion and I only nodded. I knew I was going to reject Ayushman. Not because he wasn’t a good guy or anything of the sort. He wasn’t Uttam.
We reached Ayushman’s farm house in the afternoon after a late start. The herbage around seemed to grow wildly like there was no one to maintain it. The interior too seemed … antiquated. The walls were faded and I even saw moss gathered at some corners. The lone caretaker showed me my hurriedly made-up room. We were given a simple meal brought from a local dhaba… the kitchen apparently was being renovated.
The artist in me was itching to sketch the house. Something about the setting intrigued me. But to my disappointment, Ayushman didn’t even offer to take me on the house tour. In fact, after a while, he retired to his room citing work reasons while I was left to fend for myself and it was barely 7 PM. Putting up my phone for charging and pulling up my hair that had decided to be undisciplined, I tied a little ponytail and walked around the cul-de-sac trying to figure out the beauty underneath the layers of dust.
I reached the end of the first floor when I saw a room at the end with the door latched. None of the other rooms were shut. My curiosity got the better of me and despite the darkness I opened it. Was I hallucinating or did I just step into a dungeon? The musky room was dark except for a sliver of moonlight streaming in through a crack in the shut window. The gossamery webs covering the window eerily danced in the little breeze moving around us.
My vision got better and I saw an ornate mirror near the window. I walked closer to check the design when I almost let out a shriek watching my image. My hair had escaped the confines of the rubber band and I resembled the missing painting.
Damn you Aakashvani…
I was dauntless but right then I felt something on my foot and I didn’t need light to see what it was… I screamed my lungs out stamping my foot and moving towards the door when my eyes fell on a box… just like the one seen on pirate ships. This room was a throwback to the earlier centuries.
The artist in me right then decided on a series of paintings based on this treasure trove, minus the roaches.
I reached the box and opened the lid even as it creaked. There was a scroll inside. How disappointing…. No adventure here.
I took out and unrolled the parchment, holding it up against the only source of luminance in the room. The very next moment I dropped it in horror even as my voice froze in my throat.
It was the painting by Akashvani that was stolen five years ago.
The room was flooded with bright lights and I shielded my eyes form this luminary onslaught. Where were the switches when I wanted them?
I saw Ayushman and his father with a burly man. I held up the canvas.
“What is all this Ayushman?”
The older man walked ahead. “I was wondering how to make you discover it. Now that you have it help us decipher it. I know you are an expert and there was definitely a reason Aakashvani chose you as his muse.”
“It’s a charcoal medium embedded into water colour wash…” I began.
“… CUT THE TECHNICAL NONSENSE, WOMAN…” the man bellowed. “…I want the secret behind the painting.”
I was blank.
“You can stay back in this room and take your time to think.” The man declared and walked out.
I was suddenly woken from my brain stupor. “Wait… there are cockroaches here…” I yelled in vain.
These guys were art thieves. Why did Uttam recommend the alliance?
Betrayal stung as tears rolled down. I don’t know how long I was in the room but I heard a click and a scratch and there was someone trying to open the door for the window that was cracked. Scared out of my wits, I tried to figure out the source when I saw a hand covered with thick gloves opening the window.
Even in fear, I wondered at the confidence my abductors had on my lack of ability to jump out of the open window. That I didn’t even bother to open the window vindicated their stand.
Uttam jumped in.
I should have smacked the guy but I ran into his arms instead and the dam burst.
“Hush… Lily, you will get us busted. We have to get out of here with this painting” Uttam said patting my back. I instantly moved away wiping my cheeks not caring about my mark being seen.
I silently followed Uttam’s lead as he tied a rope around the edges of the mirror frame. Wait… did he expect me to climb down?
“Trust me Lily… this isn’t as difficult as it looks and these guys have only two gatekeepers. My men are close. I have to get you and the painting to safety first.”
His men? I handed the painting to Uttam and moved towards the window. Before I knew, I was hanging down a rope….
I found myself on the ground breathing the petrichor air. I loved Lonavala in rain…it was an artist’s paradise but tonight I shivered. Uttam held my hand and we ran towards the dense grove behind the house.
I was tired after a five minute run…talk of stamina.
Uttam halted as well and his breath came out in simple pants unlike my laboured ones.
“Who… who are you Uttam?” I asked holding my cramping midribs.
“I am Uttam Kumar, inspector with the Archaeological Society of India (ASI). My team is right at the corner. The local police too. We will be arresting the father-son duo tonight.” He spoke in a single breath.
It was my turn to stare open mouthed.
“Why did you recommend this alliance to me?” I wailed.
“Sorry Lily. But I had no other option to catch the duo, our prime suspects”. My Ian Somerhalder was all serious. This was new to me.
“I was bait” I whispered.
He held me by the shoulder. I couldn’t make out his expressions in the darkness surrounded by the collective odour of foliage both fresh and rotten.
“Listen to me carefully Lily. I selected you for many reasons but you weren’t bait. I would not do anything to jeopardise your safety. Even if I hadn’t got the painting, I would have got you out safely…”
I shrugged his hands away. Right then I heard some ruffling and footsteps. A couple of thugs emerged from the bushes. Followed by Ayushman and his father.
“For the last time, we want the painting deciphered…else be prepared to perish in the jungles of Lonavala and you would never be found.” The old man ordered.
“What is so special in the painting?” My bravery needed to be awarded.
“Lady, you seem to have forgotten Aakashvani’s speciality. He hid codes in his paintings. You were his muse then.”
“I want to know that as well…” I blurted mentally cursing the darned painter.
“ENOUGH… catch them.” The old man ordered.
My bravado was all gone and my stomach began to churn. However, I watched wide eyed as Uttam tackled the knife-wielding thugs. He was injured but managed to contain them by the time reinforcement arrived after the action was done with.
The four of them were arrested and taken away while Uttam was taken to the nearest hospital.
I stayed back with Uttam and in the wee hours of morning he was feeling better.
“This is ridiculous Uttam…” I reprimanded him. “…it was dangerous. All for this stupid painting.”
“This isn’t stupid Lily dear…” He was back to his old ways. “… This painting is worth a lot more that you think”
“But why ASI…?” I was still confused.
“Now that the sun is up and bright, why don’t you help us unravel the mystery of the painting?”
It then struck me and I took the painting from Uttam. Holding it up against the sun I saw through the parchment but there was nothing, just some jumbled lines underneath.
“Think hard Lily, Aakashvani must have given you some clue.”
Mystery beneath the smiles… I got a brainwave. I made the Lily in the painting smile by moving the canvas. Suddenly the face appeared calm. And now when I held the canvas against the sun I saw it… it was a map. Uttam saw it with a sparkle in his eyes.
“That’s it…” he cried out. “… Lily sweetheart you finally unearthed the treasure hidden by the grandfather of the current king of Gwalior. It belongs to the country and had been hidden during the British rule. While British uncovered and took away most of them there were some hidden. The grandsire had commissioned a young Aakashvani to keep the treasure map hidden in a manner that only the one who understood the painting would unravel it… He in turn had waited till he found you, Lily, the perfect muse. The grandsire had no sons and later his daughter’s son took over the reins and is the current king. He read the will and approached us. Our investigation trail led us to Aakashvani and then to you.”
The next hour the hospital was swarmed by ASI and other law enforcement officers as the painting was handed over. The reporters had a field day and I got to give bytes too.
I however was fixated on “sweetheart”. Uttam had used an endearment for me…As I stood in the corner, a warm hand engulfed mine.
“Do I need to voice it out more Lily? Will you go out with me?” Uttam whispered into my ears, soaring my heartbeats into overdrive.
“Uttam, our age difference…”
“Shhh… do you have a problem with that? Because I don’t.”
As the TV crew wound up, he hugged me closer and I finally felt at home.
Six months later
Uttam returned to Delhi right after he got out of the hospital. We were engaged a month later and were revelling over our long-distance relationship.
We were to marry next year after I finished my exhibition. It was on the history underlying the forts in the country. Uttam supported me with the research involved.
I looked up at my now favourite painting adorning my wall and thanked Aakashvani.
He had liberated me.
Image Credit – This is a painting by Prakhyat Rai and is being used with the artist’s permission
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