Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Short Story - Malignant - 30th December 2010

The sun looked malignant. Tortured. Evil. What amazed him was that this sun was in a painting.
Oil, done on canvas. 8x6.

A tiny board placed a few inches away from the left border of the canvas said:

‘On the last day’

Oil on Canvas.


It looked pure, almost real. It spoke to him. Something in his gut moved. He hadn’t eaten that morning and his mind was taken away from the painting for a moment, to his mother’s house, to a sun-drenched kitchen. The warm, sweet, tasty aroma of waffles and coffee filled his memory. He realized that he had stopped breathing for a while. ‘Fabulous’, he thought. He took a deep breath and came in just a little closer to see the details on the sun. It was absolutely brilliant. The artist had used a single brush stroke to create that angry ball of fire. ‘Genius’ was his next thought. A smile escaped his lips.

When Amar woke up that morning, he found himself nuzzled inside a sleeping bag, in a small grey lifeless cubicle. He had spent Saturday night in the office – overseeing some last-minute artworks.
‘Shit, I need some coffee’ was the first thought that came to his head. It was almost 10 am as he stepped out into a dreary Sunday morning. April mornings in Bombay weren’t usually this grey. He worked at a design hot shop that had its office in The Great Western Building, just opposite Lion’s Gate in Southern Bombay’s Colaba district. Seeped in history, Colaba was the perfect place for a lover of colonial architecture to spend Sunday mornings like this. He stretched as he walked past the downed shutters of all the restaurants and shops that lined the street. He was on his way to a small Irani joint that served steaming hot cups of ‘chai’ – he could do without the coffee. The ‘chai’ was even better when complimented by a plate of warm buns smeared with butter.

It was the sun that caught Amar’s eye as he passed the J.J. Art Gallery. An angry, restless sun printed on a large poster that was pinned on the notice board. The text under the sun said:

“A little bit of me: A collection of paintings by Sai Tanmay”

Today only

10:00 am – 4:00pm

He couldn’t help but stare at the poster. ‘Maybe I’ll have a quick peek’, was the thought Amar had as he bounded up the stairs.

He took a step to the left of the painting and realized that the wall turned inward towards a large room that had a table, 3 chairs and 2 small stools. The room was empty but for a man who sat on the other side of the table on a large, cushioned, tall chair. The man must have been in his early forties; the hard features on his face gave away his age. His hair was long and jet black, rich looking and was swept back into a ponytail that curled from the back of his head onto his right shoulder. The man had his eyes closed. His hands were clasped in a prayer like pose just in front of his face. He was leaning back onto the chair, and even though his eyes were closed, he looked like he knew exactly what was happening around him. Amar continued to stare at his face – he was now aware that something was drawing him into the room, towards the table, towards the man. It was something that he couldn’t explain; a force that wasn’t external. He felt it deep inside his gut.

He took a step forward into the room. It was probably the only thing he’d regret for the rest of his short life.

The artist opened his eyes slowly. Amar felt the hair on his arms stand. His stomach made a small sound. He smiled – a slight stretch of the lips, like a respectful smile one would make towards an elderly. A smile that said, “I don’t know who you are, but I just want to say Hello.”

The smile was returned– that’s the first thing that attracted Amar to the man. It was an unusual, charming smile that he saw through the artist’s folded hands. The hands unclasped and the artist leaned forward and offered his well-manicured right hand to Amar..

Amar stood where he was for a split-second longer than he wanted. It was like his muscles didn’t want to move. And he was forcing them to. Little did he realize that it was his intuition, the most basic trait that animals use to survive, that was holding him back. It was this unspoken communication that could have saved Amar’s life on that Sunday morning.

His body started to move forward, his hand stretched out, he took 3 steps towards the man and said, “Amar”.

“Sai. Sai Tanmay” was the reply. They shook hands. Sai’s grip wasn’t hard, in fact it felt friendly.

“Have a seat”, said Sai as he motioned to the empty stool in front of the table.

Amar had a look at the empty stool before he sat down. Something on the stool caught his eye, but he dismissed it before he sat down.

“The sun”, said Amar. “It’s simply brilliant. I can’t seem to take my eyes off it.”

Sai smiled. “Thank you. It’s my favourite piece too”. He pushed a piece of paper toward Amar. Slightly larger than a postcard, this piece of hard card paper had a brighter version of ‘On the last day’ on one side and thumbnails of 4 other paintings on the reverse. Amar held it close to his face. He looked up at Sai for a split second and noticed him seated in his original position. The only change was his eyes - they were now open, black but tinged with a dark, almost unseen red. It was a warm gaze; one that didn’t burn.

Amar felt a hint of intimidation, but he wanted to start a conversation. He noticed “A little bit of me: A collection of paintings by Sai Tanmay” printed under the 4 thumbnails. Without looking up, he asked, “Why are you calling this collection A little bit of me”?

Sai took a deep breath and moved forward in his chair towards Amar. “To answer that, I think I’ll have to give you a short lesson in history. Centuries ago, only the most dedicated professionals - or those with money and time to spare in abundance - used oil paints.”

“Until the nineteenth century, if you wanted to develop your own oil paint, you had to mix them your own. This, of course, meant acquiring the basic pigments and then laboriously grinding them down to a powder, before mixing them with oils.” As he spoke his hands came together fluidly to form the action of a mortar and pestle.

“Incidentally, that’s why, even today, colours with names like umber, ultramarine and ochre are still used, as are terms like ‘earth colors’. They were and are still made from natural products found in the ground. It was only about 150 years ago that oil paints became available in tubes, for the first time making it feasible for the keen amateur to indulge himself or herself in this wonderful pastime.”

“Now I”, Sai took a pause here, “have always mixed my own paints. Ever since I’d started painting.”

He took a deep breath and continued. “Almost 40 years ago.”

As he let go of that deep breath, his body moved back into the chair and his hands moved gracefully to the armrests. “But this collection is special. Really special.”

Amar was now sitting with a straight back. Something inside him tensed up. He felt his teeth clench and a sick, churning feeling started to form in his stomach.

Sai leaned forward again and dropped his hands onto his lap.

“You see”, he said….”Every painting has a little bit of me in it – my spit, my urine, my feces, my hair, my blood….each one of them is me……”

“What about On the last day?” said Amar. “What does that have?”

Sai bought his hands back to his face, clasped them once more, closed his eyes and said, “My brain tumour”.