The phone rang for more than eight counts and just when she was about to hang up, Nandini heard a sharp click and then a male voice spoke with a slight drawl –“ yes?” The question somehow threw her off guard or was it that slight drawl?
She gulped and said hurriedly “ I am Nandini. Are you still looking for the model you advertised for in yesterday’s paper? I would like to work for you.”
There was a short pause, the voice drawled again and said - “ you can come over this evening. I cannot sign you unless I see you.”
“ Sure, I will be there at five.” Nandini replied quickly and hung up.
She did not have much trouble locating the house; it was behind a quiet street and the house number was clearly imprinted on a large board, but it was the image of a bull that first attracted her attention; it was a graphic design of the animal preparing to jump off from the edge of a peak; an action that no one could afford to ignore.
Nandini knocked on the mahogany door and waited. Five minutes passed; still there was no sign of any movement on the other side. She knocked again. She decided to wait only a few minutes more. And then she heard a sharp clang and the door opened. She could not see the face at first; it was in the shadows hidden more by the darkness of the room than by the thickness of the tapestry that was hanging at the door. Light and shadow wrestled with each other. As she pulled aside the curtain she drew back her breath; a strange kind of strength exuded from every contour of the face. She knew at once that it would be difficult to say no to this man.
The man introduced himself - “ I am Shantanu. I hope you did not have much difficulty in finding this place” He smiled and she noticed that his teeth were fine and even just like his fingernails.
She walked into the room and sat down on a low chair. It was a small untidy room; tubes of paint and brushes were lying here and there and a large white canvas was on an easel in one corner. The man walked towards it with slow measured steps, turned and said -“ I want you to help me fill up this space.” It was a dramatic statement than a request. She did not know what she was supposed to say.
He added quickly - “ let me explain. Since this will be your first job with me, I want to make you familiar with the way I work.”
Nandini thought quickly ‘ perhaps he will settle the terms and conditions. I must tell him my price now.’
He continued -“ You may have to pose with or without clothes whenever I want it, that is whenever the strokes of my brush demand it. Sometimes I draw very quickly, at others I may not draw a single line and pause in between; you must be patient with the way I work. You may have to sit for hours without moving unless I tell you to. Are you ready?”
He was a man who did not mince matters.
He picked up the brush, dabbed some colours on it and concentrated on the sweeping motion of his hand; he was at that moment at the mercy of his hand. It amazed her how quickly other colours emerged out of his brush; she could feel their sheer weight as they filled the white surface with impressions that he alone seemed to know then. They carried some awareness of his past and at the same time they had a continuity that linked them with his present. Shantanu seemed to have by then entered inside a capsule of colours, he saw colours and nothing else whatsoever. At one point the colours wanted to remain unmixed and alone and then after a little coaxing from his brush they merged, happy to be part of one another at last. They were his then and now. Or so she thought. He began to smooth out some unnecessary edges, she could see a face emerging from them. The eyes were missing but the lips distinctly resembled her pout. A half hour passed and still he had not asked her to move. Stiffness shook the structure of her ribcage; the whole burden of having to sit still for so long was too much for her. Tired, yes she was very tired. He should stop now.
She looked out of the window. A patch of the blue sky seemed to span towards a distance, while fragments of clouds merged and moved away from each other. Slates of blue entered the room through the skylight; she caught that colour in the prism of her eyes, she did not want it to part from her. It slowly snaked and coiled inside her, pulling softly at certain corners of her eyes. She became aware of tears gathering in them. A face arrived with that feeling, Saumyadeep’s face, vague and blurring, somewhat like that face in the canvas. Meanwhile, the street pulsed below with the hub of people hurrying across it. Every one seemed to be preoccupied with something, caught in the now of that moment though their preoccupations would not last beyond that. Another preoccupation would superimpose every thought at one point of time. She thought of her present preoccupation. She wondered how long it would last. She could call herself lucky that she had to sit still at a place while Shantanu worked with his brush adding, erasing lines and shades to paint the face of a woman. And that woman was she, Nandini. That thought made her feel good. The only thing that disturbed her was when he looked at her; he would scan every bit of her, running his eyes up and down her body; that embarrassed her too much. She then wanted to draw her clothes to cover herself, but she knew she could not do so, he had cautioned her against it. He would not allow her that. Within the first one hour, she learned to anticipate each gesture of his hand; she knew exactly when his eyes would linger upon her, that they did so for eight seconds in every ten minutes.
The cuckoo clock on the wall struck the hour - one, two, three, four, five. It was time for her to go. There was no sign that he had heard the chime. His back was turned towards her; he was busy giving a few extra touches to the painting. She was curious to see if it was she who would look back from it. She got up and moved towards him. He was adding some more colours on the palette; she could see a distinct shade of cobalt blue on it, a little darker than the color of the sky, a colour that belonged to a past. She wanted to leave quickly. She picked up her bag to go and then she heard him say- “ please wait for a few more minutes. I want you to see this.” He turned away from the canvas and then she saw the face; it was the face of a woman, but she did not look like her. Somehow that face humiliated her, not because of what she saw in it but because of the thing that she did not see. He spoke softly from behind her -“I have never painted with so much passion as I did with you by my side. It is difficult for me to explain, but let me say this much that no artist in his right senses can ignore you. These have been the most rewarding hours for me. I hope you will come a little early tomorrow.” He pulled out a wad of one hundred notes from his wallet and handed her five of them. She took them and left without saying a word.
That night she thought about what Shantanu had said to her; she realized one thing that since she sat and posed once for him, some spaces in his canvas will remain incomplete without her. But was this reassurance enough to make her return to his studio tomorrow? That question whirled inside her head for a long time.
She got up early in the morning, prepared her breakfast meal of cereal and milk. She looked out of the kitchen window and saw again a patch of blue in the sky. It shivered her; she had thought that she had erased that colour from her mind. Quickly, she made up her mind. She would go again today to sit for four hours, maybe more, it would not matter if she was disappointed with what she did not see on the canvas, what mattered now was that she would see that colour again on a palette. She had lived without it for so many months and now that she saw it again, it uncovered slowly several things that had once made her happy. She would tolerate every lingering glance of Shantanu so long she returned from his studio rediscovering a matter that was very close to her heart. That would make her go.
Or was it? She ignored that question. She knew that there was another reason that made her change her mind overnight.
At ten minutes to three, she stepped out of her house. She quickened her pace as she neared his house; she did not wish to delay her meeting with him. She knocked twice on the mahogany door and waited. There was a long silence on the other side. She did not hear the shuffle of legs. Did he go somewhere? She felt a heaviness gathering around her.
And then the door opened. His face was as before in the shadows, but today she knew exactly what she wanted to see. She walked in quickly and sat on the low chair.
Shantanu chuckled and said “ No, no, don’t sit there, today I want you to lie down on this couch. I thought of you a lot last night, how you would look on canvas with your legs drawn up close like a child who wants to escape from someone. Do you understand what I mean?” She nodded though she could not understand how she was to feel like a child, but the new setting and the possibility of lying down on the beautiful couch excited her. She sat but did not lie down. She saw from the corner of her eyes that Shantanu had mounted a new white canvas on the easel. The earlier canvas was nowhere in sight. He dabbed some colours on the brush and turned towards her. He was ready to begin. She sat still. Shantanu came towards her and placing his right hand on her shoulder gave her a gentle push; he did not wish to waste a single moment. She smiled and wondered ‘is this just a charade, how long will it last?’ Suddenly she seized his hands, a breath of French cologne were in them. She wanted to yield herself into his hands, to let something happen. And when that happened it did not surprise her; rings of desire were waiting to explode through sleight of a hand, her shoulders arched forward to anticipate each movement yet never quite disclosing fully the tumult that arose with each gasp of breath. Their eyes became fixed on each other, they became one canvas and one set of colours where a scene was portrayed only once and then it was over in just under twenty minutes, as it were, Shantanu had kept a stopwatch to remind him to get back to work quickly. Freedom was implicit in his movement as he rolled away from her. She tilted her head backward; a sigh momentarily escaped from her; it rang hollow as it travelled across a line of electric wire out side. It silenced all other noises of the street. She wanted to leave him then like that sound of sighing but before she could turn towards it, the feeling was gone.
She heard a voice instead; that was a long tired voice of Saumyadeep, veiled and echoing through the dark alley of a past. That drunken howl had stupefied her several times, it had taken away her sleep several nights and her pillow had looked then hollow, blanketed with the fear of a doubt, what would she do if he lefther? That question would race through her shaking the roots of her hair. The smell of a lilac flower in a vase that stood in a corner table would bring about a random smile to her lips. A bunch of those flowers tinged with blue in the edges always told her that Saumyadeep was back with her.
She heard a sound. She opened her eyes; Shantanu was making some rapid strokes with his fingers on the face of the woman on the canvas; they were as quick as his lovemaking. After a while he spoke with his back to her- “ please place your right hand over your face and turn to the left. I can see a new perspective on your face.” Would a tress of her hair or a sigh become the shadow of night on his canvas?
She did as he said, and as her hand stretched over her face she felt tightness in her right breast, the seams of her blouse ate into her flesh. She lay that way unable to see his face; she only heard the sound of a brush sweeping across the canvas filling up some spaces. Meanwhile she was aware of some unfilled spaces expanding inside her ribcage and wondered which colour would help to fill them. Blue perhaps? She heard him hum; threads of an old song were then perhaps leading him towards something he had found in her.
The cuckoo clock struck the hour seven; it was time for her to go. She made no effort to leave. A smell of turpentine circled around her. She would not be able to survive without it; that was as much a part of him as the smell of French cologne in his hands.
He pulled out a wad of hundred rupee notes and handed her eight of them. She took them a little reluctantly, she would have been glad if he had not paid her money. She left quickly. She did not look into his eyes. She could not; they had singed her already.
That night sleep would not come to her; Shantanu followed her almost everywhere until she could bear no more. She got up and stood before the mirror. She noticed a pale smear of ochre colour near her throat. She ran a finger over it; a rainbow of myriad colours and some shadows flickered and coursed through her, as it were, he was near her again. His breath was upon her face and neck. She pulled her shawl around her to cover herself from that. And just then the telephone rang; it was a shrill cry that cringed her back to her present. She picked up the receiver on the second ring wondering who could be calling her at that late hour. Shantanu’s voice crackled across the line - “ sorry I called so late. The matter is urgent. I need to finish the next two paintings by Friday and that leaves me with two more working days with you. Can you come at two, tomorrow afternoon? I want to wind up and catch the early morning flight to Paris on Saturday.” The news startled her. She did not know that he was going to Paris. She paused and then replied – “yes, I will be there.” She heard him heave a sigh as he said -“ thank you, I knew I could count on you. I will pay you for the extra hours.” And then he hung up.
She was at the studio precisely at quarter to two. She looked above her, a few stray clouds were gathering in the northern sky; they seemed to cover the azure sky with a patch of darkness. The thought urged her to quicken her pace. She pulled out the blue chiffon sari from her hand- bag and felt its soft feathery texture. This should be enough to make him forget about going to Paris. She was sure of it. Shantanu was not just drawn by her face; he felt for the texture of the clothes she wore. She had sensed it the previous evening when he took care not to undress her when he made love to her on that couch. She was learning very fast, how the artist in Shantanu worked with his oeuvres; lovemaking and the way he handled his brush were similar things.
The mahogany door was wide open. She went in quickly. He saw her and gestured with his hands; she went and stood near a wall.
He said “ hold back your head, think that you are in the middle of hearing something funny. I want to capture the face of woman when she is seized by a joy. Do you know it is the best mood to capture on canvas?”
Nandini thought for a while and asked him - “ And what about disappointment? Don’t you want to draw about that?”
He shook his head and replied “ no, no, let me leave that for the others. I want to feature only positive feelings. Please take your position against this wall. And don’t forget to smile, it makes you look very charming, do you know that?”
His words reached her across the room suddenly giving her not much time to savour them, though it took him more than a few minutes to execute that mood of happiness on his canvas. And yet she was not happy. Instead she wanted to scream and say – ‘I don’t want you to leave me. Will you stay back because of me?’
Suddenly she left the room and returned a few minutes later wearing the blue chiffon sari. She sat down on a chair and waited for him to see how beautiful she looked in blue. Shantanu was then busy giving some finishing touches to a face on the canvas that was smiling in an enigmatic way. A few minutes passed and then he said to her in a rather brusque manner “we have to finish this painting quickly before it gets dark. The theme will be joy of motherhood. Just sit back and pretend that you are holding a child in your lap. I want to recreate the work of a master. Have you heard of Michaelangelo’s pieta?” She shook her head, feeling a little stupid in that flimsy sari. This was not what a mother would wear while she held her baby. Shantanu was standing before a blank canvas; very soon he would fill that space with the face of a mother, the mark of a joy on it. And wearing that blue sari just then seemed too ridiculous. But there was no time to change that. She hoped that Shantanu would not guess why she was wearing it. In less than an hour, at the end of the whole endeavour, he stood back from the canvas and nodded. She could see that he approved it. He then placed all the canvases against a wall, like a series of postures of a woman but that the woman was she Nandini, it was not apparent anywhere, instead she could see a distinct smirk on one face very clearly. Nandini saw a painting of an ordered house, a woman stood before it holding a bunch of tulips – it was a stasis of goodwill pointing towards the possibility of a new arrival while her own palms would always remain penniless, unearned, only desire had once closed round her in an instant making her into one whorl of one tulip flower. Nandini could see the figure of a man in the dim interiors of that house; he seemed to be looking for something; it was like a maze, at some places it resembled the inside of a woman’s ear, perhaps he was looking for the foundation of his feelings in their shadows. There were a few unfilled spaces between the mesh of lines. She wanted to coil around those lines, feel their lashings of malice against her skin like that shattered chapter of her history, full of hieroglyphs of pain, their wounds were still reflected in the shell of her soul. The wreck had occurred quickly without much noise or disturbances, she had surrendered quietly to all that. Silence had answered her cry of pain. And since then only the azure sky disturbed her now and then, she would wake up in the middle of the night when some fabulous shadows flayed at her dreams. Time wound together all those happenings into a kind of ball, which she had hurled away from her surrounding or so she had believed.
She heard him saying – “ are you alright?” She was aware that she was gasping; it caused stiffening in her ribcage once again. This time she did not blame Shantanu for this discomfort, she had asked for it. Suddenly she was aware that Shantanu’s eyes were on her and yet they were not looking at her, he seemed to be thinking of someone while he hurried about inside the room getting his material ready. He said to her quickly – “There is a change of plan. I’ll have to leave tonight at 8. I will carry on with the other two paintings after I return from Paris. So let me hand over the money I owe you.” She was not listening; she looked at those canvases for the last time. No, she was not in them. She picked up her bag and walked towards the door. And just then the telephone rang. Shantanu spoke into the mouthpiece “I should be reaching Paris by tomorrow evening.” There was a short pause, he nodded smiling and said – “yes, yes, the paintings are ready and of course the woman in my canvas is Amrita. I want to open my first exhibition in Paris and call it Amrita. Please tell Amrita that I am going to see her as soon as I arrive in Paris.” He hung up, whistled and went inside. She would not look at the canvases - her rendezvous with them was over. They would soon hang on the walls of a large gallery in Paris, art critics and art lovers would stand before them, each one would click their tongues trying to understand the mysteries behind those visual graphics assuming that they were the different perspectives of a woman named Amrita. Only she, Nandini would remain privy to the whole history of emotions, settings and rituals of a hurried lovemaking that had gone into their making. Nandini felt something leave her just then emptying her insides thoroughly; the shade of blue also seemed to retreat back into the fold of the clouds outside. She walked out of the room, looked at the night sky, a blue moon was waltzing merrily across it, how, she will never find that out.
( published in Chandrabhaga Sep 2004)