By Vasundhara Singh
Image source: Unsplash (portugueseactivity)
Part I: The Painter
Decadent skies overhead, an encompassing envelope, white fluff dancing about, the silent blue swaying towards an unknown shore. I spot a copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath and a moment later, I am snatching away at the pages. I am not as reserved with it as I otherwise would be in a bookshop because these shelves carry second-hand, tea-stained, worn-out copies of poetry books from 1950s-1980s America. Most of these I’ve read in college but Plath has always been distant. And even now, her pensive words scatter away and I decide to place it back. But I don’t, at least not immediately.
There is a photograph on the scraping wood. I am a recent college graduate and anything that gives off a scent of nostalgia, I breathe in. I leave behind Plath and take the photo instead.
As I walk down the staircase and enter Princess street, I encounter a heavenly array of stark white buildings with sloping roofs housing cafes with rose tinted aesthetics and bottomless pancakes and loud yellow two-storied structures with arched windows and geometric metal doors next to tiny tattoo parlours and elephant print harem pants.
I stand under the shade of a sloping roof in front of a music shop selling every instrument known to man.
This is an old one with some white spots and brown edges. It has colour. A woman in denim overalls and a brown shirt stands atop a rather risky wooden stool painting a mural-in-progress on a wide white wall. The painter is holding a large flat brush in her right hand and is dwarfed by the half-painted face of a girl wearing a half-painted flower wreath. The other half has been outlined by a black chalk. The woman is petite with a braid and smiles at the camera giving off a sense of naive belonging. A belonging so intense, I can feel it too.
I turn the photo to examine the empty white behind it. I examine it for any kind of identification, clue, signature or message. I carry it with me all the way to my hostel, aptly named ‘The lost hostel.’
The outside is painted in a dull mustard and the doors and windows in an untamed red. I chose a non-sharing room as I want no one to witness the melting away of my soul as I enter my seventeenth day of writer’s block. My story has decided to be stubborn, to move ahead on its own accord.
But today, I am accompanied by another story. The one I am holding in my left hand.
It could be the story of an accomplished artist. She must’ve been twenty or twenty one in this photo. She must’ve been extremely sure of what she wants from life, all or nothing. She must’ve rejected numerous unworthy suitors and decided art is her only companion. Her hours would’ve been spent in front of a canvas with fingers dipped in paint and a sweaty forehead. She would’ve strolled along the cobbled pathways and sat on the beach watching the Arabian Sea ebb and flow and waited for inspiration to strike. And without doubt, it would. Her feet would slip into her slippers and run home to her canvas and within seconds, her fingers would be dipped in paint.
She did paint and then one day, quit. Her family would’ve said painting is not a career. And she would’ve strolled along the cobbled pathways and sat on the beach but only to avoid returning back home where her canvas had been put away and the paints gifted to a child in the neighbourhood. She would eventually forget all about this painting and the feeling of adrenaline pumping into her veins as the paint dabs onto a blank canvas creating everything and nothing, all at the same time.
I am trailing my fingers over the weathered surface and I feel scratches, tiny yet present. I place the photo under the fluorescent light of the lamp and move closer to it and eventually bury my face in it. The scratches are numerous and sharp on close notice and appear in formal capital on the top left just as the white wall cuts off and the clear sky shows itself. I run my fingers over it and pen down the words I decipher from mere touch,
No, this word isn’t right. Though, I know the year, 1972. A year far removed from my knowledge. I trace the scratched words again and write,
Still isn’t right. But now it reminds me of something, someplace. I type these very letters into the search engine and there it is:
Part II: The Mural
The bus leaves me at the Fort Kochi Bus stand and I wait a beat before pulling out the decades old photo from the front pocket of my backpack. I taste dust on the tip of my tongue as a rickshaw driver persuades me to choose him. As the ride begins, he asks me if I would like to visit the Mattancherry Palace first and I don’t blame him for presuming my destination. With my backpack and umbrella, I am the archetypal tourist. I say,
“No, I don’t. Is there a place here with murals?”
“Of course, there is. You will love each one of them.”
“Yes. But if I showed you a particular one, could you take me to it?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
I place the photo next to his face and with his hands on the controls, he turns his head sideways for a few seconds to glance at it and says,
“No ma’am, I don’t think I have ever seen this one. But I am sure it’s there, somewhere.”
The concrete road starts with big and medium sized spice shops giving off a strong and inescapable scent. Women in long skirts and stiff sarees sit at the shops, nodding and smiling at the passers-by. There are smaller shops selling precious stones and wooden toys and loose kurtas. A parade of awestruck foreigners crosses me every few minutes, each holding a bottle of water and performing sincere Namaste’s.
The aching afternoon heat will arrive soon and I fasten my pace. A minute or two later I am surrounded by murals on either side and some are as large as the walls they’re painted on. I study the photo once more before commencing the walk. A woman painting a girl’s face with black hair and a vibrant flower wreath. I won’t forget that.
A cat with flowers for spots jumps out from one side of a green building opposite a painted portrait of actor Mammotty accompanied by some Malayalam text I can’t read. These successively get larger in size and more confessional. They are poetic musings of passionate souls, inspired by nature and loneliness and revolution.
One simply yet boldly states in black paint ‘Freedom’ and another, ‘Woman.’ I stare at some longer than others. Like the one with metallic gray figures holding hands or that one with innumerable scissors painted in a never ending spiral. When I reach the end of the street and supposedly, the last mural: cracked lips on a black wall. I look at the photo and shrug. After all, this was so long ago. Every year they paint new and complete murals.
This woman, whoever she is or was could’ve been a tourist. She could’ve left the mural incomplete. She could’ve painted over it out of frustration. Just as I do with my incomplete stories, tearing them into shreds and dumping it in a bin, any bin, as long as I never have to be reminded of it again.
She must’ve gone back from wherever she came from. She must’ve been overjoyed to have left behind a half-nose with a half-smile in a foreign land, overjoyed to never again be reminded of its incompleteness.
The wall continues with a sharp turn to the right after the last mural and I lean on its edge. I look to my right but the wall is empty. However, this is not the same wall, it’s shorter in height and is separated in the center by a metal door and a wooden board with the engraving: Kutty residence.
I walk along it and on the other side of the metal door, I finally see it.
I back away and place the photo in front of my face beside the complete mural. The side of her face I had known so far is the same except the colours have faded but the other side, the one that kept me wondering, has a large dark brown wrinkled spot spread over the cheek. It doesn’t look like a mistake but I wonder why she painted it.
The wreath has white carnations, red tulips, pink bougainvillea and a yellow rose on either side. The hair is shoulder length with calm beach waves. The eyes are slender and the sharp nose precedes a full pink lip. It’s all there, in front of me. It exists and still breathes in some corner of this world we both share. Maybe, the woman living in this house had painted it or it was painted here by someone else. Someone I will only meet in the stories I tell myself.
I’ve come so far and the sun encourages me to find shelter. I ring the bell right beneath the wooden board and wait with the photograph as the mural’s eyes judge my naive sense of belonging.
An uneven coarse voice of a man calls out from behind the door.
“Who is it?”
“Um…My name is Vasundhara and I am from Delhi.”
“Have we met before?”
“No sir. I have something, a photo that I think belongs to someone living in this house.”
He opens the door but doesn’t invite me in.
I part with it and he starts to examine it just as I did a day ago. He is wearing a cotton blue shirt and grey pants and even though he has a belly, he doesn’t look old enough to forget the life that he has lived.
He looks up at me and says,
“Wait a second, I don’t have my glasses,” he turns to the side and shouts in a weak voice, “Hey! Listen, please bring my glasses. They’re kept on the table.”
He looks back at me and smiles. I hear footsteps coming from inside. He lowers his head and asks,
“You said you’re from Delhi?”
As the footsteps get closer, he stretches his arm to the side and a woman walks in carrying his glasses.
And. There she is.
She isn’t twenty or twenty one anymore but her form is petite and those eyes still wide with wonder and those thin lips stretched to a comforting smile. She looks surprised to see me but says, “Hello.”
Her head turns to look at the photo her husband is holding and there is a dark brown wrinkled spot sitting on her cheek. A smile escapes my courteous pretensions.
The husband looks at me and then, at his wife.
“Look, that’s you. Outside, painting the girl.”
“That’s right. I had forgotten all about this photo. Where did you find it?”