The Masterpiece

I always wonder if the view of any city these days is similar from a rooftop. The way the cities are getting decked up with concrete jungles, there won’t be any difference soon. You will find a tall hotel in the locality surrounded by similar but not so tall apartments, and rarely in some corner, you may find a single storey independent house, that too in a dilapidated condition. You will find the same cars toiling the same roads with the same urgency that they wouldn’t mind crushing someone under their cars just to get past him. On top of that, you have the malls, the branded ones where you find everything from a needle to a refrigerator and in every city they look the same. I am someone who had stayed in every metro city of India for at least a month but now, if someone leaves me in the middle of any city and ask me to find which city I am in, I won’t be able to find it.

Why? It’s because the monuments or identities that differentiated a city from the other, had somewhere vanished behind the big banner advertisement hoardings that covered the new buildings. It’s because an old Spencer Plaza somewhere stood behind a new Express Avenue, or a SelectCity Walk overshadowed a Sarojini Nagar Market, or a Salt Lake commanded more attendance than a New Market. Somewhere in the run for globalization, we lost our own flavours and essence. And now, when I look at my city to find its identity and get it on my canvas, I fail. I don’t find it as a Leopold Café is competing with numerous KFCs or a Nirula’s is fighting to stand out among abundant McDonalds. I long to find a Shreelather among many ‘Metro’s.

Yes! You guessed it right. I am an artist and I have been painting for the last two years perched on this same corner of the roof overlooking the city. I have painted the city in its various colours. I have painted it on days of Ramadan when it turned outrageously green and on days of Diwali when it shone like a star. I have coloured my canvas red on Christmas and colourful on Holi. And the most interesting thing about the whole change in colours is that it repeated itself every year and I waited with the confidence of acquaintance that what colour would emerge in the hue of the city on those particular days.

But now I can’t guess it anymore. The places I had looked up to from the rooftop had suddenly vanished and they had given way to tall buildings with numerous colours which I can no longer differentiate. They all look the same on all the days, the whole year and I stand here like a fool waiting for the colours to change with the season so that I can get them splashing on my painting but they don’t change. And, you know what… I haven’t painted my masterpiece yet.

The unique thing about painting is that it’s still and it’s mute. You have to have that acumen in you to understand it and get its intensity. The way a writer has the liberty to write down the emotions, empathies, actions and dialogues in a scene, a painter doesn’t have that liberty. He can try his best to get it in his art but he will never be sure if the emotion or the mental state of the subject of his painting ever percolates the minds of its viewers. It’s a tough art form; you have to be blessed by the Almighty to be able to paint.

But do you know what is more disheartening? It’s that you have the expertise in the art but you do not have the time to make it big. God has written the story of my life with a cheap pen which either broke its nib or it ran out of ink. I don’t know how but the thing I dreaded my whole life made its way into my lungs somehow and now it is collapsing slowly each day. I don’t know how it got in there, I mean I have never touched a cigarette in my life, haven’t worked in a hazardous industry and I have lived in a pristine atmosphere. There was least possibility for me to die of lung cancer but life is indeed unpredictable. Now I have been reduced to such a pathetic state that even walking could make me die. Now they carry me every morning up to this rooftop at this corner, ‘my corner’, make me sit on this boring wheelchair with the oxygen cylinder connected to my nose with this annoying pipe and I try to paint my masterpiece every day.

You must be wondering who are ‘they’. They are my wife Disha, her mother and her sister. I live with them. I moved here about two years ago. Before that my wife and I stayed at Kolkata and, mother-in-law and sister-in-law stayed here.

Disha and I met in college and we clicked in an instant. I was in Mechanicals and she was a student of computer science. She got into college through some special quota for the poor. A student organization took care of her course fee with the only criteria that she had to clear every paper of a semester in that semester itself. She was bright and she knew she could do it even if her heart was somewhere in English literature. We got attracted to each other because of our love for creation and in those four years of our college together, we knew we were made for each other.

After college, she joined a software firm but I didn’t. I pursued my passion for painting. Though I wasn’t making any money, I had the satisfaction that I was chasing my dream and I was ready to endure the struggles that I was about to encounter. Disha supported me with finances and I also had a decent amount of money my parents left for me after their death in a car accident. It was in those days of sound economic capacity that we decided to get married.

Disha was the only earning source of her family. She had to send a good part of her salary for them. Things were smooth at first but soon my father’s coffer started to diminish and the quantum of my income had not yet overshadowed my expenditure. It wasn’t very long when I had to solely depend on Disha for my survival. But I kept on fighting and kept on pursuing my passion.

Disha was also supportive and never once during that period I felt guilty of not contributing anything towards our expenses. She would take care of everything, even my toiletries. I just kept on drawing, painting and practising.

Then, one day, it clicked. It was an exhibition at The Artist’s Guild, an art gallery for the likes of us. It was an open exhibition and every member artist was given space for five of his paintings. All my painting sold at the quoted price and there were some who were asking for more. Those were all a scene of some corner, area or building of Kolkata and soon I was branded ‘the Architect’.

It started to become better and better each day. There were invitations, exhibitions, auctions, and people sought my paintings to be hung in their homes. I thought that things were getting better and success was just around the corner when one day it all vanished in no time. I still remember; it was a Saturday. Disha walked in with a drooping face. She looked pathetic, her hair dishevelled, her face worn out of makeup and her eyeliner had made a trail of tears on her cheeks. I was aghast. When I went to her and held her close, she broke down. It was about an hour before she gained her composure back and said, “They sacked me and blacklisted me on NASSCOM. It was just that I tried to access facebook by hacking the company firewall. I know I should not have done it but it was just a bet… Everything is finished… my career, my life ….everything.”

I said, “It’s okay dear, I am earning now, we will find some way.”

She said, “I know but it’s not a constant flow. Some months you may earn a lot but the other months you may not earn even a single penny. If by any means you don’t earn for three continuous months, we will not be able to afford this place.”

I asked, “What do you want to do then?”

“I want to go back home.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes! I am.”

Then for the next five days, she told me how she wouldn’t get a job again in the IT sector, how her life had been ruined, how I would be able to paint there as well, how she would start a catering business, how we would again have a beautiful life and how finally we would move out of Kolkata. The sixth day, we were on our way to her home town.

Though I was apprehensive about the whole issue, the moment I saw this corner of the rooftop, I knew, I wanted to be here. The view here was mesmerizing then, when the Clock Tower at the Central Square posed itself for my canvas with grace and the M G Road with its ever bustling crowd gave me changing scenarios every time I looked at it. The Victorian styled City Hospital round the corner had been another subject of my numerous paintings. And even after moving here, my paintings sold with the same enthusiasm. I had them couriered to my clients and they kept coming back for more. It was then the second time I thought that things were getting better. I shouldn’t have had that thought again.

It was again a Saturday. I was walking up to my corner when suddenly I felt short of breath. It was a sinking feeling, as if the earth would gulp me down. I tried hard to be in my senses but, I didn’t know when, I passed out on the floor. When I got my senses back, I found myself in the ICU with a whole lot of tubes and wires connected to me. They said there was some infection in my lungs that needed to be treated. But, as the days progressed, as the reports started coming in and as the doctor’s face started turning gloomier each day, I knew it was bad. I knew that either it had to be cancer or there was some bloody hole in the lungs.  It turned out to be the former.

However, there was a ray of hope when the doctor informed my family that there was this girl called Hazel Grace Lancaster, somewhere in USA, suffering from the same disease. A drug called Phalanxifor had miraculously worked for her which had though not cured her completely but had stopped the spreading of the cells further. It was not a full proof cure and it had till then, only worked for Hazel Grace. My doctor wanted to try that once on me.

It was about a month before the medicine reached us from the States and I was injected with it the same day. Half of our savings was diminished in the whole process but it didn’t work for me. I was heartbroken but Disha was broken more. She couldn’t bear to see me dying. And after all the fiasco of Phalanxifor, my doctor could only tell me, “You have, at maximum, six months.”

I was discharged the next day with lifelong oxygen support, heaps of medicines and this wheelchair. Since then, every morning, they bring me up here and I try to paint my masterpiece. Though God has given me very less time, he has also given me a gift. Now I can draw portraits well. I wasn’t that well with portraits before. I thought over my masterpiece a lot and finally, I decided that I want to paint Disha so well on a canvas that it manages to be remembered as the world remembers Leonardo Da Vinci’s Monalisa.

The catering business wasn’t doing too well. Hence, Disha had joined a local company here which has not registered itself under NASSCOM. But, the pay is very less. Though I don’t care about the pay but the job has started keeping her so busy that she doesn’t have any time to pose for me. And I don’t want to waste the last few drops of creativity left in me in drawing some normal painting again.

Things have been spruced up since morning today. Shruti, Disha’s sister is all decked up. Even their mother is wearing a cleaner white saree. But Disha is in a plain churidar. She held me and cried for a long time when she came to give me my morning tea. She usually cries but not that much. I felt as if I had died and she was crying over my dead body. When I said it to her, she smacked me on my arm and cried more. It has always been hard to control her.

When I asked Shruti later about the cause of such fanfare, she blushed and said, “We have a special guest today and if everything goes well, we might have a wedding soon.”

I feel good. At least someone would be there to uphold the family after I am gone. It is really necessary that a man stays in the house. Though I was a man for namesake but still I was a pillar of support. Now Shruti’s man will be the man of the house.

Oh! There he comes, a gentleman I must say but the moustache is making him look old. Let me talk to him.

“Hello!”

“Hello! I am Naresh. You must be Praveen, Disha’s husband.”

“Yes. Welcome. Did they offer you tea or anything?”

“No. I mean I came directly to meet you. It seems they want you to approve of me first. The tea will come in soon I suppose.”

“Hey! It’s nothing like that. But may I ask you some questions?”

“Sure.”

“What do you do Naresh?”

“I am a Sub-inspector of police posted in M.G Road Police Station.”

“How much do you earn?”

“Decent enough to keep them happy and satisfied, I guess.”

“Quite impressive. Did you guys meet before?”

“Yes! She came for police verification a few days back. It was love at first sight for me. When I met her again to propose to her, she asked me if I had enough courage to come and ask her hand at home. So, here I am asking for her hand.”

“Okay. She might have got the money lending license. She said you have given a good report. Thank you.”

“Oh! I didn’t know it was for money lending license. The application was transferred from our head office.”

“Hmm…do you know I am dying? It’s just a matter of a few more months.”

“Yes, she said. But you have to be at the wedding if it happens.”

“Of course it will happen. There is no way I am rejecting you. I am just glad that now I have someone to whom I can transfer the burden of being the man of the house, that too to a healthy well-earning man.”

“Thank you. I love her a lot and I promise you I will keep her, her sister and her mother happy always.”

“I know you will. And I suggest you get married as soon as you can. Because if by any means I die, you will have to wait for a whole year to get married.”

“You will stay till our marriage and even beyond that, I know.”

“Thank you Naresh. Can you ask Shruti to come up when you go downstairs? I have to ask her something before I say yes.”

“Sure Praveen. It was nice talking to you. And though you may think otherwise but I so wish that you get well soon.”

“That’s not a good thing to tell to a dying man but I know you meant it in a nice way. Thank you Naresh. See you soon.”

He is gone. A nice fellow I must say, to support a dwindling family…if Shruti approves of him, I will give my nod as well.

Here comes Shruti.

“You didn’t tell me that you got the money lending license? I am really impressed by your choice. Now if you are willing to marry him, I don’t have any problem. You have my approval.”

She is quiet. I don’t think she likes him. Maybe, she has a boyfriend. Did I do a mistake by approving the man? Oh my God! What have I done?

Finally, she says with moist eyes, “He wasn’t here for me. It was Didi’s police verification for the new job.”

A tear rolls down my cheek when I smile at Shruti and approve of the marriage. I wasn’t expecting this, not at all, never…but if that could save my family from its dire straits, I have to gleefully approve the match. Disha shouldn’t feel guilty at all, but I know her, she is dying away in guilt. I have to console her.

But I will ask God two wishes before I die. One…I lose the urge to paint a masterpiece. And second…I die before the marriage.
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Nilutpal Gohain

Nilutpal Gohain is a bureaucrat with the Government of Assam. He started his literary journey recently after his quest for bread and butter. Many of his short stories and poems have been published in literary journals such as Muse India, Spillwords, Setu, The Hans India etc.
Nilutpal Gohain

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