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Friday, 24 April 2015

THE LAST PORTRAIT. Part 2

Calcutta, 1972

From the vantage point of the low doorway leading to the backyard, two enormous tress that rose up the overgrown lawn, seem to bend inwards towards each other against the radiant spring sky, as if leaning into a handshake. Branches of one tree escaping into the canopy of other. The breeze pampering their leaves and sunshine reflected upon the margins in a sparkling twinkle, as if the branches were but bejeweled arms of newly wed women.

Rukshar is stretched out on the grass, her face striped by the shadows of embracing branches overhead. A headband is flattened across her forehead, holding her short hair in place, down her shoulders. She wears a yellow frock with broad, circular prints of flowers all over it. Her bare legs crossed one above another, rest hidden in the high grasses, warmed by the drift of daylight through the leaves. She is trying to memorize a poetry, perhaps, the book propped on her chest and all the while a butterfly is fleeting across her face. Her eyes the color of wet sand; dusty gold, washed by the awe of blue as her thinly cuts lips move in a murmur beneath her breath.  

          Together, we saw the clouds build their mansion,
          Then the heaven lit its rooms with his purple thunder,
The wind blew the curtains and rang wind chimes in their heart;
          Their happiness, that day, echoed the whole sky.
          And then, we don’t know why they cried,
          And then, we don’t know where the laughter dissolved,
          Only the earth below was flooded with their pain.

“Repeat after me.” She says. “And then we don’t know why they cried,”
“Hello, are you listening? Say the next line. Say with me. I will be able to learn it quickly then.”

But he doesn’t. He is quiet and sitting up against the trunk of the lemon tree. His knees drawn close towards his chest, his foot submerged in the grass as he draws into the white sheet of paper on his lap, a trait, people say he derived from his father, Amitav Roy, a renowned artist.

“You are so dumb. You can’t even remember a line.” Rukshar snaps, rolling her eyes at him, her expressions visibly bland behind lines of shadows crisscrossing her round, pink face and gets back to her task of memorizing the poem, leaving Satyajeet alone and silent against the lemon tree, lost in his world of sketch and crayons.

That was how their friendship began Рon a bright spring day, beneath the canopies of handshaking trees, stretched across an untamed grass bed and the sun warming their limbs, coloring their round cheeks with a shade of rose pink. That is how every relation begins. With friendship. A clich̩d startup bond, one may say, before our heart gets to the steering of our destiny and lends the clich̩, an edge of the unconventional. Our mind, perhaps, is the bed to a hibernating clay artist. It starts with balls of clay being pressed over the fragile frame of our feelings, in the name of friendship, the same way idols of god and goddesses are churned out. Then with the first layer, once the artist is wide awake, he starts adding one coat after another, strengthening it, drying under the sun of time, all the while graduating the bond to a whole new level, before draping it with vivid colors of imagination and establishing us as gods and goddesses of our own emotions. And with it every god thereafter, secretly, admiringly, wishes to reside in the prayers of his endearing goddess and the whole world soon becomes their devotee, as they bask in the pouring petals of love.

Three years passed since then and their love for each other only deepened. Satyajeet was mere eighteen, absorbing the ruggedness of the world at the gateway to adulthood. Rukhshar was even younger, fifteen something. Yet they understood and reflected to each other’s love like people having spent a lifetime together did and still fell short of a divine completion that true togetherness makes one feel. They were birds who never flew out of the nest and still could tell with precision the vastness of the sky that soared above the world.

It was on Rukshar’s birthday that year, that Satyajeet took to pin his whole life beside her, even when long back, in the idle corners of their young hearts, they were a family feasting together at the glamorous buffet of love. They sat upon a heap of sand and faced the color spilled 5 PM sky as the sun sank into the bosom of holy Ganga and the water gushed in its tide with the trailing red rippling across it surface, soundlessly lapping against the shore. The wind was strong and faded out the humdrum of the city, blowing past their ears in a gently music, stuffing their nostrils with the lingering scent of wet sand and wild flowers that grew in reeds along the bank. Apart from his life that she already owned, Satyajeet as a token of gift on her birthday had given her the painting he drew three years back, sitting against the bark of the lemon tree, that bright spring morning. He had drawn her in it. Rukshar, flat against the ground, the poetry book propped against her chest, her eyes awash with attention, thin blades of grass caught in her hair.

“Why you didn’t show this to me all this while?”

“Because I couldn’t afford to miss the amusement your face is now lit up with.”

She lowered her eyes and averting her gaze to the silently meandering Ganga, felt in her heart the celebration noises of her life making a complete circle. A circle that took three years of time to roll around a long proposed center of epiphany. A center where she feels she could stand barefoot, with Satyajeet and watch the world gyrate around them, lending to each of their mutual choice and desires. A center to which every happiness of the world will be at an arm’s distance from her and standing where she could derive the mighty strength to battle all the grief that life was packed inevitable with. It was the center which she now recognizes, under his loving stare, to be the patch of green that will last beyond all the famines of life, with the tributary of love that flowed from his eyes and irrigated her soil, every single time he raised his deep eyes to her face and she felt all the more possessed, all the more reaping, all the more loved.

Satyajeet had draped his arms around her and pulled her close, as their heads dipped on each other. The whole of Calcutta then gleamed with a fluidic shine in their eyes, the dark sky dotted with the winking stars and buildings and hutments and everything, reflecting over the water in long, still lines and with the wind pouring sand and grit into their faces, they had closed their eyes as their lips froze in a kiss of forever.

A week later, as Satyajeet woke up from his sleep one morning, he couldn’t find his mother. He had ran up the stairs and pushed through the doors of every single rooms in their house, only to emerge sad. It was when he was descending down the stairs to the foyer that he spotted his father, leaving through the door, his demeanor hurried.

“Dad, have you seen mom?”
“Oh! She has gone to meet your grandparents. Will be back in a few days.” He replied almost immediately, like an answer learnt by heart and have left through the door, striding down the kerb in long steps.

Satyajeet felt sad at heart. He couldn’t believe his mother went to meet his grandparents without him. He sat down at one corner and wept silently, wiping his cheeks with the heel of his palm. And all of a sudden with Riya at her singing classes, he felt extremely lonely in that big house. He shuddered with fear every time he heard the sniff of his own crying breath, trapped between the walls of a painfully empty place. He stood up and slipped out of the house. Running down the pavement, he crossed the road and went to the other side where queue of vendors sat out in the sun selling their goods. He kept running, his face devoid of colors and eyes terrorized, as if a monster was behind him and stopped till he couldn’t run anymore. His chest throbbing for air and the more he looked into the scorching distance for a familiar face, the more he regretted doing so. He kept looking for his father through the brawl of the occupied lane and at last dejected, his throat pleading for water and air, his body sodden with sweat, that he walked over and sat on the marble stairs of a mosque at the end of the road. In the rare quiet moments of the premises, he heard the hissing voice of someone behind. He had turned over his shoulders to get a view of the cool, quiet insides of the mosque, where light from all corners reflected from inscribed pillars studded with gemstones and fell upon a few faces before his eyes. The moment fetched him like a drill switched to life, cutting through the walls of his heart. The ground shifted beneath his feet and the lane ahead, narrowed in his eyes to a coarse hem rope and kept tightening around his throat till he couldn’t breathe anymore. Till he felt he died.

A rancid taste of hatred rose up his throat, swinging him back to the present as he remembered the last painting of his father, Riya told him about. He left the courtyard the very moment. His gut a stinking sewer of shame, betrayal and scowl that he ran up the stairs to his father’s room, the light of the night slowly receding from his sweat stained back as he leapt and turned at the head of the stairwell. He had then ransacked through a pile of paintings, before unclipping one from the frame and throwing it in disgust. He took a scissor and started chopping the painting in pieces, all the while murmuring, “Why dad? Why you did this?” before the sheet was reduced to a fist full of pieces scattered all across the table. A cold wind blew through the ajar window, turning the pieces on their spine as he remembers Rukshar’s call in the morning. About the half-truth he is yet to know. About how his life could still have its share of redemption. About how the betrayal he carried in his heart for all these years, could still be reduced and if not obliterated all together. He believed her then, he believes her know, as he perfectly collects all the pieces and puts in a plastic bag. His eyes melting down his face with years of agony and a glimmer of choice that could probably set everything right. Probably.

He clings to the choice with his heart around it as sets up to meet Rukshar in Peshawar. He sets up for his share of truth his life now tortured him to reverberate with.

*****


2001.
Peshawar, Pakistan.

This was one of those rare moments when he felt thankful for having a US citizenship; you can get the visa to any land on this planet without much of a hassle. The world somehow considers the US people trustworthy. He remembers signing the embassy form, citing ‘Personal reasons’ for the trip while it was his life, his very existence that dangled from the cliff.

He took a cab from the airport, passing onto the chauffer in a piece of paper, the address Rukshar had told him over the phone. It was the setting of winter and the wide sky that leaned over chains of mountains, was dull grey. Blocks of clouds shifted over the peaks in the breeze, revealing small villages along the slope shrouded in a curtain of mist. The roads were only partly clear and the traffic slowed down to the trundle of pedestrians. Men had long beards, some dark and some red. They wore long silk kurtas and moccasins, their heads covered in embroidered Taqiyah caps of several colors, resembling the traditional Islamic culture. Women were mostly in burqa, their faces screened by a thin clothing tied to the back of their heads. Peshawar was supposedly the oldest city in Pakistan, over 3000 years, as we made our way through the aisle of tall, sagging buildings that leaned over the unwinding roads, their shadows flickering on the asphalt.

He leans his head back on the seat, the ache of winter wind slapping across his face that he closes his eyes and imagines Rukhshar’s frame after 28 years long. He remembers her shoulder length hair pressed beneath a headband and assumes it must be longer, more denser now, romantically gliding on her back as she walked. The images of her golden brown eyes, the contours rimmed with black like monsoon clouds steepening at the horizon, fills him with pleasure. Her slender arms that had tangled with his on the sand dune that evening when they first kissed and became each other’s forever. He feels drifting away from the present in her comfort, knowing that she is just few miles away, beautiful as ever. Sleep dims his vision and he rests back, sleeping, breathing in sedately the sweet taste of her lips in his chest.

*****

An hour or so later he is seated at the waiting area of a house in the locality of Habotabad in Peshawar, sipping clear water from the edge of a crystal glass. The ceiling is low and surrounding packed with closely standing houses, their walls painted in bright colors as he observes so many faces, at different windows, encompassed in their daily lives and smiles at the irony of people defining various thing, such as a pin or an ant crawling along the wall, to be the smallest existing thing in the world when it is the very roll and turn of human beings day to day life that is the tiniest. Just a few square feet of areas, few kilometers of land and thousands of life silently prospered and struggled in the shoes of their own mediocrities. Cooking smell drifted from the window in the backdrop of conversing voices and somewhere in a small second of waiting in that compact community, he saw Rukshar emerge through the door in a pistachio green pathan suit and approach him. Her face adorning the silent expression of a thirsty traveler who just gulped water. Revived. Relieved. Escorted from a torment that was getting unbearable.

She sits across him in straight back wooden chair and it was then that Satyajeet, for the first time in twenty eight years, felt the void that surfaced every single moment of his life till then, find a healing. She looks down at him and the gaze was but the tilt of sunlight over a sleeping garden, suddenly erupting with a cocktail of fragrances. Streaks of grey visible in the tight wound of her hair through the translucent veil that draped her head. Their lips were quiet while their hearts became the meeting of oceans, boisterous and roaring, swelled with enormous strength and energy. Their silent gazes pierces their bodies and touched their soul, sucking at their pains that never went away and tormented them each night with treacherous virtues. They swallowed each other’s pains, their souls feeding the other with morsels of desire and their hearts clinked like fine glassware in an evening party and they drank the champagne that flowed. In those silent moments, over everything that was yet to come, they began one with each other, like how the evening fused with the night in the sky and patiently waited for a dawn.

“I promised to complete you and I won’t move away from it.” She said.

“My completion is no different from yours, Rukshar.” He paused. “We are divers of ocean with a common oxygen tank.”

And Rukshar leans in from her chair, smiling, touching the top of his palm with her long, pointer fingers and the very gesture had Satyajeet travelling back into the tunnel of time. To the bright afternoon on the steps of the mosque. To the day, he felt he died.

*****
“Your mother didn’t went to see your grandparents, she went to stay with them and never return. I hope you realize that by now. For years she lived in a lie, ignorant of everything and selflessly loved your father to the core. Their marriage of twenty five years was her being sucked into the delusionary pool of love while she worked her days with her eyes closed to the truth. It was less of love and more of being forgiving. I believe she knew it beforehand but waited, hoping he would confess himself of his guilt and then they could pull it off from there. But one day she ran out of being patient and being hopeful and she parted ways.”

Satyajeet was quiet, apprehension bursting in his eyes.

“Your father fell in love with an Iranian woman during his days in the art college. She was an outspoken, qualified and an extremely good looking woman. Her eyes had the glitter of a hundred diamonds placed in the path of light. Her face so radiant that every colorless object in the cosmos seem to envy her. Her body, a sculpture of flesh and bones, where beauty stood and bowed in praise. But they couldn’t marry each other as families raised cultural barriers and she wasn’t the one who would elope to embark a journey that is a dream for every woman. Eventually, things halted at its place and your father, pressed upon by his family, got married to woman from his community. But then, do you think love is such an easily stoppable force?? It flourished beyond the realms of his so-called marriage, in his heart and soul, in the themes of his painting, all the while hurting him with a conscious guilt he couldn’t part ways with.”

It was as if the room had fallen off some invisible orbits and swayed in the outer space. He struggled to hold his mind and the hatred that he had subdued the other night while chopping his father’s last painting, was kicking hard in his stomach now. It was as if he was losing his ways over himself. It was as if every bit of light was being consumed by an inevitable darkness around him and he drifted and drifted farther away to the dark, uncommunicable corners of the infinite space that Rukshar’s words had started to form around him.

“It was all planned Satya. Only we were the ignorant victims. When your mother fed you, I was silently growing in my mother’s womb unaware that I will take birth as the outcome of a disowned love. Months after my birth, one day while I cried in her lap, hungry, she sat quiet with me and unlike other days, did not raise me to her breasts. I snatched. I stabbed. I yelled. Yet, she sat quiet. Staring down at me. A gentle smile on her full lips, until soon I saw a stream of foam trickle from the corner of her lips and the smile faded from her blue face.”

“She drunk poison, I later came to know. She couldn’t bear it anymore and how I wish I would have sucked at her tits that day. At least, I wouldn’t have been the prisoner of this deserted life today.” She breathed deep before resuming.

“We were seen by someone that evening at the bank of the river and your father made a hard choice before it got too late. Everyone knew about his affair with the Iranian lady but no one spoke much about it, all thanks to his dignified position in the society. A celebrated artist. Who would have believed such stuff? And before things got out of hand and his son, Satyajeet, would have blotted his face with stain of shame by starting a relationship with his illegitimate daughter, he sorted things out. The day your mother went away, I was lured into the nearby mosque and made to put on a wedding veil. I was still to figure out what was waiting for me. And it all came cleared before my eyes, like the fog receding from the landscape at the touch of sunshine when I saw your father walk into the mosque and pick up the holy Quran.”

Satyajeet bit on his lips hard, drinking his own blood as she continued to speak. Agony unraveled in the cadence of her voice and her eyes screamed into the never receding darkness of the past.

“I closed my eyes for a moment and tears spilled on the mirror before my face. When I opened, it was in the mirror beneath the veil that I had seen the crooked smile of Nawaz, the guy who called for prayers in the very mosque, the guy who had lured me there and made me put on the veil and with whom I will be married to for the rest of my life with the utterance of the last word of the verse from the Quran and had let go, for one last time, for forever, my life, my choices, my desires and my happiness, dwindling away into the woods of conspiracy, lamenting for a bite of justice.”

“In this very life of mine, that began with breach of loyalty and was finally locked up by cruel conspiracy, somewhere in between you happened and I couldn’t summon death altogether. Yes, Satyajeet, you fell in love with your illegitimate sister.”

*****

A musky evening fell across the skies of Peshawar and they say sat there silent. Their fates entwined. Their hearts weeping.

“You are coming with me. No matter what. You are just coming with me.”

“But….Nawaz…” she spoke. Her voice a feeble murmur.

“I will deal with him…”

And just then, Nawaz, a short, stout man emerged into the balcony where they sat together. He wore a linen kurta with visible streaks of grey hair spilling over the buttons at his chest. His face had the complexion of soil and round, bloated eyes sat hunched below his bushy brows as he walked up and sat across Satyajeet.

“I want to take Rukshar with me…” He was straight into business. The cut on his lips, stained with dried blood and hands closed tightly across his chest.

A loud ironic laugh then rang in the air, “You must be kidding…”

“I am going to take Rukshar with me. Is that clear?” Satyajeet repeated. His eyes narrowed and evoking hatred.

Nawaz leans in, his face suddenly stifled with determination, a weary crudeness propped up his tight lips.

“Do you even wish to get out of this place alive?” He spoke narrowing his eyes that inspired terror and sliding his hand inside the pockets of his kurta pulled out a 9mm pistol and placed right upon the crystal saucer that lay at the center of the table.

“Just leave, else….” He paused, leaning back into the chair and a cruel smile then cut across his tanned face.

A quivering calm packed with hatred, grief and terror was just starting to freeze in the long balcony that Satyajeet had kicked at the table, sending it pushing against Nawaz’s chest, the saucer crashing to the ground with a shatter as he leaned and picked up the gun.
He had pulled the muzzle back, loading the bullets back into the chamber and aimed it at Nawaz from a feet’s distance.

“You are such a bastard. I wish your mom would have kept her legs closed.”

The succeeding moment he saw the darkened Peshawar skyline against a flash of spark in his eyes. A thundering roar rocked the place, slowly reducing to vibrating din beneath the low ceiling balcony. Birds blew out of the turret and fluttered away into the rise sky. A plume of smoke departing up from the muzzle and Rukshar sat across the floor, frozen.

                                           To be continued...

                                    Author - Sobhan Pramanik


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