Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Mahatma Gandhi Road, a drab thoroughfare liberally laden with potholes and open-mouthed drains and housing a line of trees tumescent in the middle along its sides, trotted down its usual narrow serpentine course till it reached the little triangular park on its left with its bottle-green coloured low iron gate. A fruit monger with his rotting apples, sick oranges, and strands of fresh green semi-transparent grapes piled on a circular wicker basket sat listening to vintage Hindi songs next to the park gate. He was gently swaying to the sound of the music issued by his little gadget that stuck to his right ear. The yellow luminescence of the street light enlivened his brown bald spot illuminating it with sheen. The iron gate of the park with its chipping paint revealed its flaccid ferrous interior to the passing street, which perused it for a bit, thought better, and moved on deciding to leave ugliness behind.
At the intersection tricolored traffic lights mounted on slender iron poles greeted the street with their hazy blinking gaze. A passerby’s wrath had caused the glass shielding the red stoplight to smash. Still unrepaired, shards of scarlet colored light emanated from behind its shattered exterior. A digital down counting clock fitted underneath the green signal revealing the wait-time as 192 seconds gently continued to lose time. The street crossed the intersection; turned left, continued running for a few hundred meters, adopted a sobriquet, and became Rajiv Gandhi Road.
A few steps down this road, a little to its left, a squarish, single-roomed establishment loomed in obscurity. From inside the semi-dark interior of this room bouts of laughter seasoned with tinkling of glass issued forth. If one went closer to the open leaf of the door and peeped in, one could see through the haze of tobacco-smoke, men sitting in cathartically relaxed pose at the carom table. Next to this little chamber, named Rajiv Gandhi Sporting Club, the statue of the man that gave both the street and the club their names stood on a pedestal with marble poise. Under the moonless night the expression of obdurate pride that played on the face of this alabaster man in the morning had turned into listless gloom. It was as if the statue with one upraised arm directed toward the heavens was imploring in unspoken words to be uplifted and transported elsewhere. A dog howled piteously and from inside one of the houses in the street the hollow reverberation of a steel chair dragged across a cemented floor could be heard.
From the upper-story window of the two-storied house standing opposite to the club and the statue, the anonymous tip of a cigarette glowed like the single infinitesimal orange eye of some night-insect. The man behind the light was hidden in the velvety darkness enveloping the sky, the street, and the houses nestling in it. A clock somewhere tinkled the midnight hour; a television set switched off cutting midway a shrill female voice and thunderclaps of forced laughter embedded in the show.
Presently, the man at the window moved away from his post and went back into the entrails of his damp, dark, desolate room. The house where he lived was a modest brick-structure in line with the other houses that flank the street. Vermillion sickles, hammers and stars adorned with slogans in big bold font stretched athwart the white painted outer walls of the house. A marble plaque embedded in the right side of the outer wall above a latch less, moldy letterbox carried the inscription Anandabhavan. One of the leaves of the door stood open, and the gloomy interior of the house lit by the hazy shimmer of a five watt bulb stared with an unwelcoming dusty gaze. Crossing the threshold and following the footsteps left behind on the dust laden entrance area by someone’s shoes and climbing up the first flight of stairs, turning left at the landing and climbing up the next flight of stairs, one found oneself confronting a closed door with bangle-shaped knockers sticky with sweat and dirt descending from its middle. In this rented room our smoker had been living for the past five years.
We now see him sitting on a wooden stool with a newly-lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his skin-peeling mouth. A lump the size of a pigeon’s egg swelled under the epidermis in his forehead area forming a lumpy lid-less, pupil-less, sight-less third eye. His skin was pale and yellowish, his back and arms smooth like the waxed skin of a woman. He had a pair of fine poetic eyes with a perpetual inebriated look about them. Frown lines formed a strange patina on his face and made him look older than his actual age. A huge virgin canvas mounted on an artist’s stand stood before him with the eager eyes of a bride. The man’s right hand with long black fingernails toyed with a size 12 painting brush. On another stool next to him standing transfixed were a palette neatly washed, a box of oil paint and a small bottle of turpentine. The man sighed a bit and stared across the room and sighed again.
The glimmer of a lamp suspended from the ceiling illuminated the room. On a table underneath the lamp, a number of canvasses of various shapes defiled by flicks of black paint rested in sepulchral peace. Standing next to this pile was a coffee cup at the base of which a coagulating mixture of oil paint, coffee-dregs and tobacco leaves coated the threads of the paintbrushes shoved upside down in it. A dish of lentils and rice buzzing with flies stared upward under the spotlight of the lamp. In another corner of the room, a bed mounted on bricks and adorned with crumpled unwashed sheets and shed cloths stared with the hopeless abandonment at the refugee now sitting on the rickety stool near the window.
A fly buzzed near his ear and he absently mindedly flicked his hand. The cigarette dangling from his mouth fell on his naked thigh causing the skin to sizzle and burning a few strands of his hair. The man shot up from his perch, rubbed the spot, and began to pace up and down his room. He was breathing intermittent heavy breaths. He momentarily stopped in the middle of the room to stare at the table. The smell of rotting food nauseated him and he quickly moved away. Then he sat on his bed with his hands cupping his hair-heavy head. Presently, he looked up, his sleep-laden eyes alive with inspiration. He walked right across the room to where the painted portrait of a man with a red-bearded face, sunken cheeks and back-brushed red hair against a swirling ice-blue background was nailed to the paint-crumbling damp wall. Underneath the painting a label had the following inscription: VINCENT VAN GOGH; ‘Self Portrait: Saint-Rémy’, 1889 (oil on canvas).
The man studied the painting, which he had painstakingly acquired from a friend in Paris. It was a neatly done replica of the real self-picture that Van Gogh painted shortly after he had left the St. Remy asylum in 1889. Said to be one of the most intense self-portraits in the history of art, the painting depicted the careworn man adorned in a vivid shade of blue. Against the roiling commotion of the azure background done up in confusing swirls gathering energy as they ripple through his raiment and hair, we face the hollow eyes of a depressed individual from whom life had unkindly extricated the last vestige of hope and left him fighting a solitary, lopsided battle with the demons dwelling in his head. The psychological tension that the painting emanated made our artist’s already cold features even colder. He touched the cool glass of the picture frame with one finger, sighed, and moved away. Having walked a few steps down the room, he suddenly stopped in the middle of his stride, turned back, his eyes glistening, a frown on his face and came back toward the portrait. Stopping before it shortly, he went to an inbuilt bookshelf and brought down a heavy, dusty art manual and a thick book containing pictures of famous paintings of the world. He hastily leafed through the pages of the latter. Subsequently, he stopped; a smile added color to his face. The picture of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night stared at him from the papyrus.
The inmates of the ‘City of Joy’, her beggars, her rag pickers, her famished street dogs, her friendless widows all except her insomniacs slept soundly in the small hours of that moonless night. The insomniacs, barring one, that is, weaved endless dreams and generally whiled away pre-dawn hours doing nothing. The one aberrant insomniac in question was our artist who sat at his canvas, his right hand holding a paintbrush daubed in indigo. His left hand held a palette and in it royal blue, indigo, lemon yellow, white and black featured. The brush glided its way athwart the canvas forming a night sky swirling with undulating clouds. Against the background of the moonless and starless night outside, our artist was engaged in the craft of stellifaction—the act of making stars, charged with self-luminescence. A yellow-ochre crescent moon caged in a lemon yellow halo set the sky in slow, silent motion.
Stuck in his creative zone, the hand that painted the picture moved on like some mechanical apparatus unrelated to its original human owner. Sleep-drenched eyes red and moist with inspiration carefully scrutinized the print on the book from time to time and moved on. The virgin canvas was ravished by blue; blue adorned her sinews, her canvas skin. Blue, majestic blue caused life to burgeon once again in that drab room redolent of sweat, fear, depression and torpor. For once, blue was an iconoclast breaking, destroying establishments built of boredom and creative block. It was blue that brought the season of deluge; it was blue that set the sky ablaze with color after what seemed an eternal eclipse.
The artist sat motionless from pre-dawn to dusk giving birth to the Starry Night on his canvas. Outside the window a homely sun greeted the city and bade it adieu. The cleaning lady came, knocked, and went away. The milkman banged on the door and left too. And all this while, our artist continued to paint with the deft hands of a maestro. Under the curves of rolling hills, a sleepy little town had materialized on his canvas. The sharp, pointed spire of a church forming the central point of the town stared like a cursing forefinger of a witch toward the blue sky. Its pointed tip towering abaft the other modest buildings created a jarring note in that abode of painted beatitude. A sense of isolation rippled through the church spire and gathered more force in a dark structure that appeared on the left of the painting. The magnificent structure like the tufted mass of done-up hair reflected the curving lines of the sky and added depth to the painting. Our artist deftly crafted this structure; and amused by its effect, painted a little golden star at its base: that was his improvisation in an otherwise perfect world of stars and nights.
Mr. Rudraneel Dey who worked at the Kolkata Art Gallery, was a tall, fat, middle-aged man with an apish face, a small nose, thick lips and a pair of droopy eyes. Sitting at his lavishly furnished office with an ivory pen stand on the table, a pair of large Raja Ravi Verma paintings in gilded frames on the wall and several antique knickknacks pleasantly organized in little wooden tables at various points in the room, the man licked close the last of the exhibition invites and thought about the painting he had received that morning by speed post. As a rule, Mr. Dey and the other officials working at the Kolkata Art Gallery, affiliated with the art college in town, and a proud venue showcasing new talents in the world of art, were strictly against accepting any reproduction. “Reproductions never show the real talent of an artist, and we strictly decline exhibiting any. An artist must paint something new; he must add new colors to the creative pool and not merely drink from it,” he was quoted saying in an interview with a local newspaper.
Today his solemn resolution, however, was held at bay by the painting he had received in the morning. The sight of it had made him start; so creatively alive was the painting, so psychologically accurate was its aspect that Mr. Dey was forced to hold his judgment in abeyance for the time being. A letter of recommendation that accompanied the painting was written by one of Mr. Dey’s friends, an art connoisseur who has died in a plane crash a few years ago, made the situation more equivocal for him.
“What should we do?” he asked his colleague, Mr. Kalyan Ghosh.
“I think we should put it up; it’s a fine work, beyond a doubt,” replied Mr. Ghosh looking up from the painting and putting on his glasses that he had taken off while scrutinizing the canvas. “Makes you think it’s the original, marvelous job indeed,” he said in a hollow, unbelieving tone. “Do you know the artist? Who is he?”
“Some Vijay Varun Guha,” said Mr. Dey reading the From address printed in the manila envelope.
“Never heard of him; new artist, I suppose. Must be terribly talented though,” said Mr Ghosh looking once again at the canvas carrying the replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “I think we should put it up; I definitely think we should,” Mr. Ghosh said resolutely.
“But what about our reputation, Ghosh? People know we don’t exhibit replicas,” said Mr. Dey in an undecided tone.
“I know, I know,” said Mr. Ghosh, “but this is an exception. You must consider it this time. You must see that the artist is highly talented.”
“I see that, but have you considered the other artists? What if they now all decide to send us replicas instead of original work?”
“Then we shall have to decline their work one by one,” said Mr. Ghosh with a twinkle. “I think you are worrying too much, Rudra. Go ahead and talk to Nitin, and let’s put this up. I am sure nobody will object; and if they do, I will see to it.”
“I don’t know what the press will say! They are sure to cover this exhibition? Remember what they called us last time?”
“Not us, but you,” said Mr. Ghosh with a smile. “So what they called you a prude and a snob? You must learn not to take what the media say seriously, Rudra. This is a fine piece of work; look at the colors, so vivid, so original. I must say that we have exhibited original paintings more lackluster than this replica. I think we should give it a shot. Better find a place for it among the nudes and the abstracts,” Mr. Ghosh said with a chuckle.
Mr. Dey sighed and said, “Well, all right. I will go and talk to Nitin and find a place for it.”
“We must have a feature on the artist though. I will talk to Akash and the boys and get that going. Did he send a bio?”
“No,” said Mr. Dey. “I hope this isn’t a fluke.”
“I don’t care if it is,” said Mr. Ghosh. “He should have sent a bio though. I suppose he didn’t think we’ll accept him.”
“I guess so,” said Mr. Dey. He hadn’t shown the letter of recommendation that came with the painting to his colleague. The few formal lines written on it did nothing to recommend the new artist, and so, considering the letter as a token of remembrance of his dead friend, he had locked it up among his other souvenirs.
“Look at the awful mess you’ve made,” said Malati, the fat, sweaty, cleaning lady as she removed the plate of rotten lentils and rice with one hand while covering her mouth her nostrils with the other. “Animals,” she said angrily walking back into the room and eyeing the massive dump that the artist called his room, “not humans live like this. How can you stay inside this room? It stinks. I don’t think a single cleaning can do anything to this room. “Mind you,” she continued, “you cannot blame me for this. I come every day and you never open up. I have a good mind to stop working for you,” she said looking up from the floor-level where she had squatted to pick up cigarette butts littered throughout the room and empty ant-infested and dusty tea cups stored under the bed.
Vijay Varun Guha, the artist who painted the replica of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night was standing by the window smoking a thoughtful cigarette. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and told the cleaning lady to stop talking and hasten with her work. This caused the woman to complain some more; but the artist was in no mind to listen to the gibberish of a cleaning woman. His mind was at present engaged in more fruitful thoughts like what he would say to the people from the gallery, how he would describe himself, and his art. He was debating if he should talk to them about the initial unsuccessful years following art school training; his stint at an advertising agency he quit for good, and his love for Van Gogh, whom he considered his agnatic muse.
“And, you are starting to look like him too,” Malati was saying.
“What,” Vijay Varun said, catching half of the sentence the cleaning lady had vigorously voiced.
“I said you’re starting to look like that crazed man whose picture you have on the wall,” Malati said pointing at the portrait of Van Gogh that hung slightly crooked from the wall, “What a ghastly face he has; I don’t understand why you have it on the wall, it makes the room more gloomy.”
“I certainly don’t look like him,” Vijay Varun said taking the cigarette out of his mouth.
“Oh, yes, you do,” said the cleaning lady, “I may not be intelligent but I have excellent eyes, so my husband says. You certainly look like that horrible looking man in blue,” she said more vigorously than before and without waiting for a reply left the room carrying a pail of water and a mop.
Vijay Varun sighed and discarded the cigarette end into an ashtray Malati had kept on the table. The room certainly looked cleaner and fresher. He walked to the little shaving mirror that hung on the wall next to the bed. A face with protruding cheek bones and a pigeon-egg like lump on the forehead stared at him. The unshaved stubble on his face was tainted at spots with brown and red specks from the colors he had been using in his last painting. He looked closer, the sight of a familiar face greeted him: it was his own face, with touches too hard to ignore of the face that hung incarcerated in a frame at another wall. The pair of tired, contemplative eyes, the frown lines, the bushy eyebrows, the beaky nose, all resting on his face pointed unmistakably at the features of another crystallized in oil and paint in 1889.
Vijay Varun’s heart began to pound inside his frail chest. He wondered if what he saw inside the mirror— his own reflection, that is— was in some way influenced by his long, depressive days at bed during which he often went without food. With sudden surprise as he read his face, he noticed how the pallor of his skin made his face seem deader than living and brimming with blood and life. He pulled down his lower eye-lids and inspected the interior of his eyes one by one: their fleshy insides were faint-pink suggesting that some otherworldly force, some pain, some emotion, he knew not what, had extracted over time from Vijay Varun Guha’s body most of the blood he had once possessed.
“They are here for the interview,” Malati said with a raised voice from outside the door and Vijay Varun forgetting his worries, happily went out to greet the harbingers of success.
Mr. Rudraneel Dey’s worries about exhibiting the replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in his gallery vanished when he heard the rave reviews of the painting put forward by the press and the guests attending the exhibition where it was featured.
“The Kolkata Art Gallery had included in their last exhibition the most glorious replica of Starry Night that had ever come across the art world in India,” wrote The Daily Statesman, a highbrow newspaper in their Sunday Supplement. A well-known art critic commenting on the painting said in a television interview: “The beauty of the painting is startling; the depth of sorrow and solitude that the original painting evokes is so fabulously replicated by Vijay Varun Guha that one wonders if one is not seeing the original and not the replica.” A guest who came to see the exhibition wrote the following comment on the visitor’s book: “Vijay Varun Guha’s Starry Night is visual poetry.” All this assured Rudraneel Dey and his colleagues that art, in any form, at the hand of a genius effloriates like a brilliant flower that always, always dazzles the eye.
On the final day of the exhibition when Vijay Varun Guha was asked a million questions by the eager press, the answers to which he had long prepared in his head, the artist felt, for the first time in his life, and after what had seemed an agonizingly long wait, the bitter-sweet taste of success. The press photographed him standing next to his painting and explaining his method to a burgeoning artist, or giving autographs to fans with a glow of satisfaction in his sunken, dark face.
One Sunday morning two months after his sweeping success at the Kolkata Art Gallery exhibition, Vijay Varun Guha read over a cup of tea a feature about him in a national magazine. With a proud chuckle he looked at his picture that graced the front cover of the magazine and read the witty line heading the feature: “Thou Art, Man!”
Over time Vijay Varun had been commissioned by at least fifty art connoisseurs from different parts of India to paint Starry Night for them. The feature commented on that as well on the fact that Vijay Varun had recently received a commission to paint the replica of Van Gogh’s masterpiece for an international art collector in Paris too. The writer of the feature then wondered if the artist “who unmistakably looked like Van Gogh could go on painting Starry Night for the rest of his life.”
This paragraph bearing the above query disturbed Vijay Varun a great deal. He didn’t like the idea of looking like the depressed Van Gogh. Disturbed, he got up from his chair. His once dull, drab room now repainted and decorated with expensive furnishing and furniture had none of its original untidiness. The walls were now painted white and on one of them hung the print of the self-portrait of Van Gogh and on another hung one of the several replicas of Starry Night that Vijay Varun had made in recent times. Another half-finished painting nestled snugly on the table under the full-blown light of the sun that came streaming in through the open window.
It was a warm day but Vijay Varun felt cold. He wondered why people got the idea that he looked like Van Gogh. He went to the mirror and examined his clean shaven face. No, the initial resemblance with the portrait that had caught his eyes a few months back had vanished. May be, he thought, it was something the feature mentioned matter-of-factly and that the writer didn’t mean anything when she wrote that he looked like the painter whose original he copied.
The telephone rang and Vijay Varun picked it up. It was the collector who commissioned the latest Starry Night he had been painting enquiring if he should come in the evening to see it and take if it were finished. The artist assured him that it would be finished by mid-afternoon and he could come and get it in the evening.
The man, a young, lanky fellow with a horse like face and beady eyes, came early in the evening and after exchanging a few words with the artist and congratulating him for his success, he caught sight of the portrait of Van Gogh on the wall.
“By Jove,” he said, “what a great portrait. I never saw this self-portrait of Van Gogh before. It certainly is one of the rare one’s; how did you get it? It’s not the real one I hope.”
“Oh, no, no; it’s a replica. A friend gave it to me,” said Vijay Varun neatly giving the touch-ups to his new Starry Night painting. “The poor fellow died in a plane crash when he was returning to Paris after giving me this painting.”
“You know what,” said the man in a thrilled tone, still gazing at the painting, “you look…”
“A lot like him, right?” Vijay Varun said without looking up from his canvas.
“Yes, I mean, it’s just like your face, complete in all details except that lump on your forehead. Must be uncanny looking like the man whose painting you copy,” he said looking at Vijay Varun.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Vijay Varun said with a forced smile listening to the quickening beat of his heart. “You must go now,” he presently said to the visitor, “and be careful with the painting; it’s not quite dry yet.”
The visitor paid the artist his fees, thanked him, and inspecting the artist’s face in utter amazement for some time, left.
The artist shut the door and rushed to Van Gogh’s portrait and carefully brought it down. He then went to the bathroom and switched on all the light bulbs as well as the tube light and looked into the mirror. A cold shiver ran down his spine. He observed with utter amazement that his hair and beard had started to turn red, not the natural red, but the vivid burgundy of Van Gogh’s face in his portrait. He noticed how a couple of lines descended from underneath his left eye, just like the ones on Van Gogh’s face in the picture. Vijay Varun felt nauseated and putting the painting on the toilet seat washed his face time and again scrubbing it with soap so as to erase all traces of the other’s face his visage bore.
As the artist toweled his face he felt relieved. He tried to convince himself that it was all a trick of the mind and then his eyes fell on the picture atop the toilet seat. An unmistakable smile had manifested in that tightlipped mouth of the portrait, and that same smile, Vijay Varun noticed in the mirror, was playing on his face too. It cannot be, it cannot be, he said to himself seeing the smile now widening in the painting and on his reflection in the mirror simultaneously, spontaneously, unbeknownst to him, unforced by him. Vijay Varun gave a loud cry and lost balance. The soapy floor made him slip and he fell with a thud on the wet bathroom floor and fainted.
The doctors at the nursing home where Vijay Varun was taken told the lanky young man who admitted him therein that the artist had barely a month to live. “I am afraid we can’t help him,” said the doctor with a grim resolution, “his brain is infested with cancer. I am sorry to say that it’s stage 4.”
“Can’t he have chemo or something?” asked the young man.
“Nothing will help him at this stage, I am afraid; I will give him sedatives and pain killers to ease the discomfort. Are you any relation?”
“No, I am just an acquaintance. Actually, I came to collect a painting he was doing for me. You must have heard of him, the Starry Night man?”
“Oh yes,” said the doctor looking at the fragile, skeletal frame of the man lying on the bed. “He does look like Van Gogh. I went in for art training a few years before I joined med school.” The doctor added.
“I told him as much this evening when I came to collect the painting. I think mine will be the last replica of the Starry Night that will be made by him. What a pity! You know, I thought he looked funny when I saw him last; glad I left my wallet in the apartment and went back to fetch it. He was lying on the floor of the adjoining bathroom with a portrait of Van Gogh next to him. Must have had a nasty fall.”
“Do you know if he has any family or relations?” asked the doctor.
“No idea. I must leave now, I have some people coming over to see the painting in an hour,” said the young man. He then shook the doctor’s hand and turned to leave.
“Oh, by the way, doctor,” the man stopped and went back to the physician still standing near the entrance of the cabin where they kept Vijay Varun, “here’s the portrait of Van Gogh I found next to him.” The doctor raised his eyebrows.
“I think he likes it,” the young man said handing the damp photo frame holding the 8/10 picture of Van Gogh and left.
Twice during his month long stay during most of which Vijay Varun was in a comatose state, he woke up and muttered something. The nurse attending to him the first time didn’t understand what the patient was saying and called the doctor. The doctor too failed to understand the broken Dutch the man was speaking and thought he was asking for the photograph of Van Gogh his eyes rested on. He handed him the picture and felt better. Vijay Varun, however, recoiled and lost consciousness once again. The second time he awoke and spoke, the nurse, an intelligent young girl, put two and two together and gave the artist a notepad and a couple of blue children’s crayons she had and left. When she came back she found, to her surprise, that the pages of the notepad have been painted with blue swirls and big, ugly yellow dots. She extracted the notepad from the soft-clutch of the artist’s left hand. She found him lying unconscious still grabbing hold in his right hand the blue crayon the nurse had handed him and with which he had made the curious blue waves.
As she was inspecting the blue waves, an attendant beckoned the nurse to attend to another emergency patient in the neighboring cabin, and hurriedly she left the room stopping just once to throw away the notepad with blue swirls in a bin among discarded syringes, blood-stained cotton swabs, broken vials and tissue paper.
Vijay Varun Guha died on the Tuesday following the day he last muttered his few muffled words and had painted blue waves on paper. Death, however, never came to our artist on the wings of a starry night. It was underneath the brilliant sunshine of a starless day that he breathed his last.
Barnali Saha is a creative writer from Gurgaon, India. She enjoys writing short stories, articles and travelogues. Her works have been published in several newspapers and magazines in India and in several e-magazines in the USA (e.g., The Tribune, Woman’s Era, Muse India, The Statesman, The Indian Express, Mused -Bella Online Literary Review, The Smoking Poet, Fiction at Work, Parabaas, Palki,E-Fiction India, etc). One of her short stories has also been featured in “A Rainbow Feast”, an anthology of new Asian short stories published by Marshal Cavendish, Singapore. Apart from writing, she is interested in painting and photography.Author’s Blog/Website: http://barnalisahabanerjee.blogspot.in/
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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