‘THE DUBLIN STUDIO PORTRAIT’ by Ram Govardhan

Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

The garrulous, accomplished mariner that he was, Joe Farquhar seldom spoke after Fiona, his wife, passed away. His gift of gab disappeared, turned taciturn and, for over fifteen summers now, he just took in and, no matter what, never returned. Indeed, of late, he detested perceiving any voice or noise. But, even at seventy-six, lamentably, every nick, niggle and natter was still within his earshot. He deeply desired to lose his auditory faculty and turn deaf altogether. However, his sense of hearing seemed to improve with each passing year. He snugly sealed every crack and crevice of his bedroom rendering it thoroughly sound-conditioned. Nevertheless, in the middle of eerie nights, Fiona’s last words repeatedly rang in his ears: “Be wary of your Indian daughters-in-law.”

Great grandson of a thoroughbred Irishman from Dublin, Joe was half Irish, but, except in his own eyes, every bit of him called attention to its Indianness. The year Mountbatten, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, oversaw the independence of India and Pakistan, Joe resolved to wed an Irishwoman to ensure more of Irishry in his offspring. Later that year, soon after joining an ocean-going liner, he spent two years in Dublin and married Fiona, a pure-bred Irishwoman. But just two generations of interracial marriages had diluted virtually everything about their, as Indians referred, Anglo-Indianness excepting their surname and, to an extent, tint of eyes. While all three of his sons had Indo-Irish eyes—the fusion of brown plus green gave birth to a nameless shade—Ralph, his great-grandson, had the greenest eyes among all his descendants. None of Joe’s sons were dependable but Ralph’s Irish eyes instilled optimism that, unlike his parents, Ralph would preserve the antiques and the studio portrait after his end.

Two days ahead of the sixteenth anniversary of Fiona’s death, his sons, daughters-in-law and their sons and daughters-in-law, were engrossed in a heated discussion in the drawing room about rebuilding the crumbling Dublin Villa, the only solid sign of Jose’s chaste Irishry. In the hallway, Joe was dusting his cherished antiques, artefacts and the studio portrait, which had been sketched in a Dublin studio on the day of his marriage fifty years ago. There were so many antiques and artefacts that it took him days to be through with them. The drudgery consumed a day just to dust and another or two to shine. This was Joe’s unfailing monthly routine. Despite reminders about his allergy and asthma, he would never be at peace until he had buffed and brushed them all new. While shining them, he overarched his back so much, like a bow in full swing, that he looked hunchbacked. “I never bring the piece close to my eyes; I always take my eyes close to it,” he would explain whenever inquisitive Ralph asked. Ralph liked this answer so much that he often asked the same question again. Though he was, Joe never exhibited his irritation; he just repeated every word, “I never bring the piece close to my eyes; I always take my eyes close to it.” Half of all the antiques were acquired, spread over a century, by his grandfathers. The other half were his own acquisitions, collected during his voyages across the globe, over thirty years, as captain of a Bermuda-based liner. And a few were Fiona’s passionate pan-India assortment. His attempts to count and number them all went down the pan; he either forgot after counting five hundred or gave up half way, blaming distraction by Ralph. But he was always emphatic that there must be “Over six hundred in all.” Joe intuitively believed that if there was anyone who would care for the antiques after him, it was Ralph.

“Grandpa…hurry up! They are talking of selling this house…hurry up,” Ralph called out. Joe was unperturbed; without answering, he carried on his business. Nothing had harried Joe for the last fifteen years and now, as long as the precious pieces were undisturbed, nothing was capable of distressing him. Looking at a cool Joe, obviously disheartened that his words had made no perceptible impact, Ralph scooted back accelerating an imaginary bike to the living room where the row was about to be wrapped up. Grasping that his grandson had been offended, Joe set aside a couple of unbreakable artefacts and waved Ralph to drive back. Ralph loved playing with the brilliantly tinted pieces, but given the brittleness of antiques and artefacts, Joe never let Ralph handle them. But today, peculiarly, Joe was inviting; the boy could hardly believe this gesture. But this was one rare break to feel some of the most fascinating, vivid pieces. Ralph’s joy knew no bounds; he rode his fanciful bike, this time in reverse gear, back to hallway gasping.

Joe’s sons and their wives, after hours of animated deliberations, almost concluded that Dublin Villa, seeping, crumbling and dilapidated, deserved to be razed and rebuilt. One of them spread out a globally celebrated structural design magazine that featured some of the most aesthetically and functionally stunning private buildings. Another emphasized that tearing down and reconstruction was not only too expensive but also too time consuming. “And, more to the point, where would we reside until rebuilding is over?” asked Grace, Joe’s eldest daughter-in-law and virtual matriarch since Fiona’s demise. And then the deliberation, which appeared to have been all but clinched, began heating up all over again. Such frenzied spats had been commonplace for over three monsoons now but the unmistakable distinctions, lately, were the tiffs that grew bitter and the palpable rush to concur. “Let us not deliberate anymore, we have done it at length for years…let us come to a conclusion,” hollered Alasdair, Joe’s eldest son. “Don’t yell…your father’s range of audibility is too extensive to take it for granted,” cautioned Grace. Minutes later, the issue was collectively thrashed out: put Dublin Villa up for sale.

Within days, even before broker-dealers were notified, the bitter bickering, which typically foments on the day of the patriarch’s death, began: who will share how much of the proceeds? It did not pain Joe that his progeny were brazenly wrangling even as he was alive. Or do they consider him as good as dead? Or was his life on the line? He could not tell but kept quiet as was his wont. If this sort of squabbling were to have occurred twenty years ago, despite Fiona’s pleas to the contrary, he would have whipped them black and blue or might have ordered them to “push off” en masse. But, ever since Fiona’s death, nothing mattered to him except the upkeep of antiques and artefacts. In fifteen years, the only question he had repetitively asked, through Sunday prayers, was about Fiona’s untimely death. No other question was worthy of asking, and not responding became his instinctive reaction.

Dublin Villa was just a few years older than Joe. Despite my own irreversible afflictions, he often wondered, if I can go on, why is this manor unliveable? Of course, the two storeys, added recently, stressed the masonry of the ground floor but, spending great amounts, Joe had erected stone buttresses. Or, like with all things old, outworn and infirm, once the sale is consummated, will they abandon him as well? Joe knelt and prayed to Him, “Thank goodness, now I realise why Fiona was plucked years ago. She would have poisoned herself seeing her sons squabbling over bricks and mortar.”

As a true seafarer of great ability, most pirates dreaded the sight of his liner’s topmast. Joe would forge at full sail towards the buccaneers despite noticing their retreat. He would pull away just ahead of a flotilla rendering them terrified. And, many a time, in the melee, freebooters were crippled beyond recognition. A great linguist, his loquaciousness endeared him to numerous ship-carpenters, ship-chandlers and ship-boys. Today, no one would believe that Joe was so enterprising, garrulous on seas, on shores and ashore. He would cure ship-fevers with his unique potions concocted by extracting oils from different species of dry fishes. He was chiefly known for the panache with which he maneuvered ocean-going ships through some of the narrowest of canals. Many a ship had disappeared over the waters of Bermuda triangle but, despite hundreds of trips, he always steered his liner triumphantly.

Alasdair had been pestering him on disposal of Dublin Villa for over five years now. And Grace engineered her best efforts to persuade him that times had changed, that people craved modern houses and, most significantly, that his grandchildren were ashamed of living in such an old, wet and crumbling house. “My wife cannot bring her friends over to something that is in ruins,” Daley, Joe’s youngest, thirty-five-year-old son had lamented. “It is utterly foolish to live in a house and neighbourhood that comes across as black and white memories,” Alasdair had rued.

Dublin Villa’s façade was exceptionally artistic and its eighteenth-century Irish architectural opulence oozed out of every inch and corner. The mansion housed broad and long hallways and innumerable courtyards with beamed cathedral ceilings. Finely crafted, intricately carved Natal Mahogany doors and ethereally coloured glass windows were timeless, standalone works of art. In grandeur, style and size, the mansion was nothing short of an imposing state building. While Joe’s father was alive, the whole of Dublin Villa was brilliantly illuminated in the evenings, turning the house into an even more grandiose monument. In one corner of the majestic central hall, there was a grand East Indian rosewood Steinway piano that had never been used since it was acquired by Joe forty years ago. Abutting the porch, an eighteenth-century, ten-foot cast-iron canon stood majestically. In a rare display of loyalty by an inanimate object, it pretended it could still catapult the stone ball that sat on its mouth anytime Joe wished. But, despite little Ralph’s several impassioned pleas, Joe never wished. On one of the inner courtyard walls, neatly adorned were many sparkling pieces of World War II memorabilia that his father had collected. Among many other prized pieces, Ralph liked the copper pageantry trumpets from Asia Minor, hand grenades, copper coins from Britannia, lemonade bottles from France and fine bejewelled daggers, unsheathed swords and bronze breastplates from Greece. Also displayed were exquisite knick knacks from all over the world—wood and clay toys and a set of copper-cut dinner plates that Joe had collected. And a unique, timeless Japanese Emakimono narrative scroll given by Fiona’s mother and passionately preserved since their marriage.

Mounted, alongside some plush pieces of millinery and keepsakes from Milan, were Joe’s greatest grandfather Daley Farquhar’s dazzling country-made rifles, which still smelled gamy, used during the Second Polygar War in 1802 Anno Domini. The ceiling and the other side of the wall boasted gargantuan ornate murals, painted by graffitists of yore, in brilliant colours giving it an old world charm, feel and ornate décor characteristic of that era. A rare, time-worn vattezhuttu Tamil copper scroll and parchment were accorded the pride of place among all the artefacts. But, among all of them, the most precious possession that Joe woke up to every morning was the black and white studio portrait; lanky Joe and petite, bashful Fiona in bridal ensemble.

Despite all the majesty, unmanageable problems were all too glaring. For over three years now, Grace had been highlighting them: old-world plaster peeled off, seeping rainwater diluted the colours of murals, several edges turned blunt and looked like open wounds. Simple spells of drizzle made every inner wall wet and the eternal moisture rusted iron lattices beyond salvation. And, as each wall was about two feet deep, they stayed dripping, irritating the inhabitants and guests alike for weeks. Pellitory plants jutted out of damp walls and, the deep-rooted neem tree, which snaked into many of the walls, was growing thick and fast threatening to bring the whole mansion down, any day.

In keeping with his vow of silence, Joe signed on the dotted line without uttering a word, unaware of the money involved. Nor did any of his sons or Grace bothered to apprise him of the details. The Dublin Villa changed hands and the proceeds were apportioned in due proportion. Since Joe wished to live with Alasdair; two quarters went to Alasdair, one each to the other two. Alasdair and Grace were not surprised that Joe did not say a thing about the whole dealing.

Conducted by Grace, Joe entered the mansion Alasdair acquired in the exurb of Madras where well-heeled denizens lived in palatial surroundings. “The manor is too big, too luxurious and too posh a locality for Alasdair to afford,” reflected Joe but did not utter a word. “The two shares Alasdair got would have been quite inadequate even to make the down payment for this large a mansion and, more importantly, how could he manage something so regal?” Joe asked himself. Despite strong qualms about his son’s finances, Joe made two requests: name the manor New Dublin Villa and allow his antiques and artefacts to take the best of walls. “Of course…papa,” Joe was stumped by Grace’s instant nod.

The packers and movers descended and stuffed the most precious furniture carefully into compact boxes. Joe was pleasantly surprised to see the movers stowing the pieces so watchfully. While each and every antique and artefact was untangled from rusty nails, Joe wrapped them in shredded paper, in haystacks and deposited them carefully into “this side up” corrugated boxes. The moment all the walls were stripped bare, Joe stared at the grainy holes and twisted nails as if he was gazing at a Michelangelo painting in a gallery.

The corrugated boxes, the rosewood chairs, the sofas and the rest were all loaded into the lorry. The brass flower vase, his father’s canvas and the Dublin studio portrait were neatly placed into suitcases and stacked. At last, all his artefacts were properly packed and the rickety truck lumbered along. Joe looked fixedly at the wobbly truck until it became too tiny to be seen.

The house was weirdly empty now. Joe paced the rooms, hallways and courtyards, up and down, down and up. And, the most nostalgic rooms of all, his bedroom of fifty years that Fiona brooked no one’s entry into. “Fiona…you are fortunate to have left this world not knowing that it is changing hands,” said Joe looking at the murals on the ceiling that she loved so much. Ralph saw tears rolling down Joe’s suspended cheeks. Hearing Grace’s footsteps, Joe quickly wiped them away. It was time to leave Dublin Villa for good and for all.

While was on his way to the New Dublin Villa, Joe began mulling over which antiques and artefacts would go on which wall, “The largest and heaviest would go to hallways…other small ones would go to the study…and our Dublin studio portrait will go to my room.”

When Joe entered the palatial manor, it was fully furnished with plush furniture that seemed imported. Having wondered at his son’s ability to pay for this large a mansion, his means of affording this expensive furniture were unfathomable. Joe felt like asking about it, but having almost forgotten about posing questions at all, he could only raise the issue after an hour. “Grace…Grace…tell me how has all this come about? I mean the source of money to afford this big a mansion in this genteel neighbourhood.” Having asked, Joe regretted it right away. “We bought it second-hand,” she replied nonchalantly. “But it looks brand new.” “The world has changed papa…everything is plastered, polished, tinkered to make it look new,” said Grace. Having uttered more words than he had done in fifteen years, Joe promptly turned mum. This time, Grace was dumbfounded that Joe turned abruptly quiet on such significant stuff.

Joe waited for the antiques, artefacts and furniture for weeks. Having got used to rising to glimpse the studio portrait for over sixteen years now, Joe dreaded waking up. Neither was he sleeping. Whole nights of tossing and turning impelled him into slumber in the wee hours. Within days, an unexpected turn of events unfolded: Joe refused food, turned too weak and exacerbated his asthma.

A month after entering New Dublin Villa, Joe breathed his last in his bedroom, unaware of what had happened to his antiques, artefacts and the studio portrait. Or that is what Joe’s sons, daughters-in-law assumed. They never came to know that, a week earlier, a day before Joe started spurning food, Ralph had told Joe that every one of the six hundred antiques, artefacts, including the Dublin studio portrait, had gone under the hammer accruing millions, each of his sons receiving their fair shares.

***

Author’s Bio: Ram Govardhan’s first novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. His short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Muse India, Asia Writes, Open Road Review, Cerebration, Spark and several other Asian and African literary journals. He somehow survives the deadly humidity of Chennai, India. Email: ram.govardhan@ymail.com

This story was first published in Asiancha- http://www.asiancha.com/issue/13/ramgovardhan/

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

 

 

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