>> Tuesday, December 13, 2011
She had an odd fascination; exclusively her own; it wasn’t really beauty, but a characteristic far more disturbing, something a man couldn’t resist. The garden was strewn with jasmine and pansies, among them bunches of Chrysanthemums, roses, marigolds, and other hues that impregnate the still violet air. A spring, flimsy and murky, seemed profusely placed in a corner to resemble the sacred Yamuna. There the nightingale sang the birth of her favorite rose while bewailing its short lived charm, the doves mourned steadily, and the peacock danced to enliven the creation. The unified melodies of birds and flowers imbued the painting amidst which Zebunissa, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter, reclined alone, on a bower of Bougainvillea, waiting and weary, bearing in her spirit, the regrets and waywardness of her heavy heart.
The apartment was small, on the fifth floor of a building, in a congested street. The painting occupied a yellowed wall of its solitary bedroom. Outside the windows the relentless concert of the city played on, the vehicles, the people, the ceaseless voices. Through the open shutters also came the fresh night air of December. Zebunissa stepped out of the canvas and peeped outside. She had often imbibed this dulcet Delhi air. Even the smoke and dust could not stifle the nip of a wild perfume akin to the bygone medieval era. She inhaled a mouthful, gazing out across the tangled cosmos of roofs and lamp-posts. She saw the headlights, she caught some stars, she saw a crescent moon, the lights from street falling in a shower of silver upon the floor, bed-posts, and a table stacked with sheets and brushes. And something inside her moved; something that had never stirred before.
After a long day, unlocking and stepping inside his living room, Kalakar, the sole occupant of that flat, turned with a dreadful spasm. A discomfort leaped within him like an animal. He sensed a presence. The chill air fanned his face. Beauty had often brushed the surface of his soul without penetrating in. He had passed them by often. He had troubled his fingers in drawing them not his brain. He did not scorn it, as an artist he glorified it on canvas, but it had not moved his life to consume his passion.
Zebunissa hastened in the other room. As she turned, warm glows melted in her eyes through tears, like stars in a lagoon. Her long hair rolled over her smooth oval forehead in dark curls, and outlining her exquisite curves, hung a long silken dress with colors of sumptuous hue and lace. She tore a piece of fabric from that rich garment, placed it on the table and stepped back into the painting. Kalakar entered the room and she stood before him, hanging on the wall, a vision from the old world, full of innate royalty, simple as an ordinary woman, at once shy and dominating, beautiful.
He faced her, peering over that immense painting, he had chanced upon in a derelict gallery, beauty beckoned, and smote between his eyes. She came headlong, with her train of stars mystery and perfumes. She was painted by an anonymous painter and since he had brought her home in an amber twilight, he had kept smiling. She was his masterpiece, whoever he was. An enchanting muse. Kalakar wished to claim her. The lonely table in the corner was heaped with sheets of his disjointed efforts. Consequently he had abandoned the hope of capturing her perfect delicacy. In the faint light, she looked flawless, real. So much so, that he had convinced himself she wasn’t painted, but sported those colors as a shelter against the approach of undesirables. He had no words to express that new sensation. His eyes lingered on her figure. He dropped his gaze with a sigh and saw the mysterious fabric on the table. He started. He understood.
If he could not comprehend her reason, he did not fail to appreciate that token of her presence. He held the fabric between his fingers, caressed the softness and perceived her thoughtful brow contradicting by that touch and his own soul drowning in the twin wells of her wide apart, entrapping, limpid eyes.
He hadn’t bothered to think about women’s legs more than the legs of the wooden stretchers that held his canvas. He had sketched many legs but none were as exquisite as those that peeked out from the flimsy material he grasped in his hand. It is the unpredictable that occurs, the kind of instances which we could never guess doing, engaging, or feeling. We fight against fancies but there blows a brazen wind from nowhere, similar to the impulse which had moved Zebunissa’s pre-historic garment and our life is like a kaleidoscope suddenly disturbed and it displays a novel pattern.
So it continued. Days months rolled by till Zebunissa was left with only a piece of clothing which barely covered her archaic modesty. And it paused. He had known that women had whims, his models had suffered from theirs. Devoted, they would sit for hours, patiently evolving under his brush. And then complainingly they disappeared without a promise. It had annoyed him then but it aroused him now. The awareness was like freshly savored wine, crimson, peachy, steaming through his veins, climbing to his head. However, his patience wore off.
“my love.. you give no more sign? “ he implored and tore his hair ..
But Zebunissa snugly composed in her own position could examine the darkness in his soul, taking a delight in observing the immeasurable pleasure she could impart with a little gesture. She did not marvel at her apparent power. All women relish the sway they possess over the mortals who submit to their altar of vanity.
It is a common understanding that we are less miserable when we have companions to share our tragedy. This is a natural human craving. Wretched ones are instinctively drawn toward gloomy persons. Sight of happiness is injurious in this mood but two dejected souls are like frail branches of a tree braving a storm, they mutually support each other.
So Kalakar sought out his friend of distress Ranganath. They had labored together in the mad world of art. They were talented but that one masterpiece which could win the approval of callous critics was still elusive in their armor. Ranganath had risen temporarily from his narcotic created chimera and was hot upon the scent of a new puzzle. The puzzle was whiskey. He was ruddy, the veins on his forehead were swollen, visible like cords. The whiskey on his table was strong and burned through his eyes. He greeted Kalakar with a toast, fondled his bottle, and exclaimed,
“I have heard people describe whiskey as unromantic! I am sure I can paint my masterpiece under the influence of one! Let us have a drink, it may not be effective tonight but this bottle is simply charming”
Kalakar was in no mood to gauge the whiskey’s potency. He gulped enough drinks to unbury his love for a woman buried centuries ago. The queer narrative ended and Ranganath broke forth into a devilish laugh.
“A mummy dropping her cerements? Haha.. get yourself laid by a living one... ”
“you do not believe me.. ! come along” screamed Kalakar.
Her still eyes were blatant, the red lips seemed pouted scornfully, and she was looking askance. She had the look of a woman upon whom a rare grace had fallen. Divested of the royal robe, her external appearance dazzled with spiritual dominance and splendor. To the coarse male nature the depth of female passion and caprice remains an enigma. Woman-like Zebunissa had teased her beau. That very night she had decided to reward Kalakar’s patience by tearing off a chunk of garment under her throat. The two men stood gaping in wonder mingled with admiration, at the sight of Zebunissa’s imperial bosom, which met them, when they rushed into Kalakar’s apartment. She seemed furious. Ranganath broke the voluminous silence.
“Why.. this semi-nude.. ? She is only covered waist down! She may not be Zebunissa after all..”
“Shoot me Ranga but she was covered from head to toes when I bought her. She is offended because you are here.. I can sense..” he ejaculated dejectedly.
Kalakar longed to live the supernatural life of one who is captive of a secret passion. He was wiser than before and made no further attempt of parading his treasure. That exotic elixir, flower of happiness which enchanted in the dark, scorned him in the secluded recesses of his heart, how did he know that the prying heat of another’s eye might not shrink and burn her grand petals? He could not risk repeating that mistake.
Tardily the days lingered on. Jewels and moonlight, scent and incense, the tinkling of her anklets, Zebunissa clung to his mind though she remained unmoved in her painting. Her bare bosom mocked him. It was a bleak, forsaken world that engulfed him, a world of shadows, clinging fog that trailed along in his dingy apartment, a frowning humanity, terribly depressing. But there was a reverent spot on the wall, where hope was still clear, despite the growing impatience, love glowed there, so he walked, keeping his eyes on her.
He gently removed the painting from the wall and tenderly secured it on stretcher bars. He could sniff the haunting fragrance of painted flowers, their iridescent hues and melody of birds that conveyed deep shafts of brightness to pierce his sorrow, making Zebunissa even more mysterious. She had never loved! Locked in a harem, surrounded with beauty, she had pined for one soul who could claim her virgin heart. Just like Kalakar. She had reached out to him with her pre-historic youth and Kalkar had sullied her trust by bringing in an intruder. Could she forgive him?
He did not require a fresh canvas. The hopeless passion ran like a corrupting poison through his combustible system. To the impassive world it was nothing more than sheer moonshine, winter madness. That night he painted his masterpiece; another leafy bower, in the very same painting, just beside her. His own figure seated on it, facing Zebunissa. A masterpiece within masterpiece. It was a scene of riotous amorphousness, exotic poison, gurgling, simmering, scintillating, distorting, and menacingly bubbling, in cosmic and vague chiaroscuro.
After the last stroke of his brush, weary from labor, he dropped on his bed, dreaming deathless dreams of long-dead artists, their muses, their romances. There were splashes of colors, soft music of rustling garments and voices that called him from the depth of their soul. Night intoxicated, her haunting shadows infested his heart. He never woke up. On the wall, Zebunissa smiled in her canvas. She tossed her lustrous hair in guileless coquetry gamboling with beguiling grace and there the Kalakar embraced her.