In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Anushka Jasraj’s ‘Drawing Lessons’ is the winning entry for Asia.
My husband has a mole on his left eyelid that looks like smudged kajal. Moles signify different things depending on the body part. I have one above my belly button, and I’m told it’s a sign of fertility, but this has proven untrue. A mole on or around the eyes could mean domestic trouble or bad luck with finances, my astrologer Mr Nayar informs me. He wants a photograph of my husband’s mole, since my husband works all day, and could not accompany me for this consultation.
The astrologer wants me to return home for the photograph, but just leaving the house takes reserves of energy that I struggle to find. Even this simple outing to Nayar’s Destiny Bazaar – a ten-minute taxi from my house, and five flights of stairs – has exhausted me. I ask him for a piece of paper and a pencil, and I draw a picture of my husband’s eye from memory. I’ve been taking drawing lessons from a woman named Flora. She comes to my house on Mondays and Wednesdays, and for the past five weeks we have been drawing bowls of fruit: mangos, apples, coconuts, lychees. Soon, I hope, she will teach me figure composition.
Nayar traces his finger along the drawing, as if the texture of the paper might reveal something. He wears large gold-plated rings on both thumbs, and his fingernails have the sheen of a recent manicure. As he starts talking about the connection between the face and the planet Saturn, my eyes wander to a painting on the opposite wall. Shades of teal and turquoise in a diamond shape at the center, surrounded by yellow and orange blotches, inside a mute bronze frame.
All colours are hurt spectacles, I think, and say aloud without intention.
Nayar looks at me, You lost your spectacles?
Gertrude Stein, I mumble. Suddenly the conversation feels like a crossword puzzle where the clues are wrongly numbered. I hand him five hundred rupees, and leave without taking the notes he has written about rituals I need to perform.
I have a master’s in English Literature from St Xavier’s College, and mine is a love marriage, which means visiting astrologers is not something I have always done. Pascal’s wager, I tell my sister, when she expresses her disapproval. She calls every day at four p.m., and we talk for an hour, and then I spend an hour in the kitchen, supervising the maid as she prepares our dinner. Mustard leaves, spinach leaves and radish leaves, sautéed with garlic and green chillies. I can handle this, she says in Marathi, go practice your drawing.
It is Monday. I wait for Flora with anticipation. The rest of the day is blurred, boring and without texture. The Pomeranian, whom we have named Igor, announces Flora’s arrival by barking before the doorbell rings. Igor stops barking when I open the door, and sniffs around Flora’s small feet as she takes off her blue chappals.
She carries a large sketchbook and a box of charcoal pencils in a backpack meant for schoolchildren. It looks out of place slung across her shoulder, next to the carefully braided silver hair, and even more so when she places it on the floor next to her, in this house bereft of children.
We sit next to each other at the dining table, and I tell her I want to try portraiture. She seems pleased that I am taking initiative. Something simple first, she says. She sketches an oval on my sheet of paper, and shows me the basic shape of a face. Try to draw me, she says. Don’t get stuck on any one part. Keep your hand loose. Don’t look down at the page too much.
We move our chairs so we are facing each other, and she looks at me with a mixture of encouragement and acceptance. She is offering herself up to the brutality of my inexperienced hand. I start with the mouth: her lips are thin. There are wrinkles deepening around her eyes. I pause, and she asks to see the drawing.
You’ve made me look young, she laughs, and touches my cheek. Don’t be afraid to draw my old age. Try shading. Move the pencil in the same direction, but apply more pressure to express darkness.
I want her to draw me, but it’s an intimacy I will not allow myself. I am afraid of the feelings it might evoke. We end early because I am tired. She looks over the drawings, and says, Your lines remind me of Kokoschka.
Flora types the name into her phone and shows me portraits by Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian expressionist. Our heads almost touching, we look at the pictures together. I breathe in the scent of her talcum powder.
Before leaving, Flora asks to be paid. I bring out my checkbook and ask for her full name.
Flora is a catholic name, I say.
She shrugs, then smiles. I was born in Chembur only, back when it was a refugee camp in 1950. I’ve lived here since then.
I ask whether she has any children.
One daughter. Married a few years ago. She doesn’t elaborate, and something in her demeanor stiffens. For a moment I catch a glimpse of another Flora: a woman who has tried, and failed at motherhood.
I’m thinking about Gertrude Stein again, and how Karun memorized lines from her books to impress me. He calls, and I don’t answer the phone because I already know he won’t be coming home for dinner. My phone trills to announce a text message: Why aren’t you picking up? Getting a drink with co-workers. Will be late. Love.
I met Karun at a party hosted by our mutual friend who was intent on setting us up for reasons as yet unknown to me. The friend later claimed she had an intuition that Karun and I would make an alchemical match.
What does that mean? I once asked, suspecting we had been pushed together as a social experiment.
Just, you know, I could tell something transformative would happen, she said.
Karun was training to be an architect, and I was a graduate student hoarding notebooks filled with bad poetry. He smoked, and I didn’t like the smell of it. My perfume made him sneeze, and I didn’t understand his humour, which involved riddles and violent knock-knock jokes. The person I was back then, a stranger to myself now, agreed to a date, and then five more, before we slept together. What got to me was his attentiveness to everything around him. The world opened up when I was with him. He was always pointing out things: a strange-looking bird, a surreal street sign, a man selling kites and flutes, the beauty of a building I walked past every day. After a year of marriage I realized Karun’s outward-looking nature was also an evasion: he remained hidden from me.
It is five in the morning when Karun gets into bed. If I ask, he’ll say: I came home at one but I was watching television in the living room. I know this to be untrue because I was in the living room till four a.m., watching re-runs of the news.
A question I know the answer to is also a question harbouring an accusation. I play out the fight in my head, realize it would end with me placating him, and without any words having passed between us, I don’t ask the question. Instead, I find myself being nicer to Karun at breakfast – placing a kiss on his neck, which he doesn’t acknowledge. In this way, our marriage is two separate marriages. The one inside my head, filled with words and passion, and the one I confront in Karun’s presence.
As a child, I was afraid of confrontation, and would start reciting the national anthem when anyone asked me a question I found abrasive. This habit got me into a different kind of trouble when I turned thirteen: I was sent to the school mental health counsellor. She asked me a series of yes or no questions, to which I kept saying maybe, and then told me to stop reciting the national anthem when I wasn’t supposed to.
When my sister calls at our usual time, I explain to her that I’m in two marriages with one person.
That makes you sound like a schizoid, darling, she says.
I change the topic, and ask about her son, who attends a small liberal arts college in North America, and was recently arrested for drug possession. She usually speaks of Akash with a competitive edge to her tone, but today she sounds tired. We found a better lawyer, she says. But he might get deported.
It might be nice to have him back, I say.
I’m sure this makes you happy, she sighs. I couldn’t keep even one son in check.
You know that’s not true, Tarini. At least you have a son. I had a strange dream the other night. I was speaking to a child over the telephone. It was an old rotary phone. The child was crying, and wanted directions to my house because she was lost. I couldn’t give her directions because she didn’t know where she was. I kept asking her questions, but it made her cry more. It was very distressing.
Are you still considering a second round of fertility treatment?
No, I don’t know. Karun is worried about the expense. And please don’t offer me your money. I don’t want to argue about this again.
Tarini doesn’t push the matter. We are both too tired for our usual fights. She tells me about the new television show her husband has been making her watch. It’s based on the myth of Hanuman, and all the Hindu gods have modern superpowers. Damn annoying. I think he wants to have a second child just so he can keep watching these cartoons. I have to go now, she says. I’m making a casserole.
I have always been envious of my sister’s name, and never understood why my parents gave her the sweet, normal, Indian name, while I was called Moira. It’s from a book, my mother had said, when I asked.
I don’t know. A good book. Ask your father.
I don’t remember, my father said.
It made me furious that someone else’s faulty memory was to blame for my sense of incompleteness. But now I know: Moira means destiny.
On Monday, Flora arrives earlier than usual, and asks if I want to take a walk before we begin the lesson. It is thirty-five degrees and cloudless outside, but before I can respond, she confesses: Your husband called me yesterday because he’s worried about you and he asked me to get you to go out. He said you’ve been more cheerful since we started the drawing class. He thinks I’m a good influence. I’m sorry. He asked me not to tell you. He’s just concerned, but it felt so underhanded to not tell you that.
My throat closes up, and I feel hurt. For a moment my thoughts drift, and I place a hand on my neck and ask her if it’s too warm. Should I turn up the fan? I say.
Are you upset with me? she asks, with unexpected tenderness. It is a very hot day. We don’t have to walk. Look. She grabs my wrist and presses my hand to her left breast, then she brings my hand to her right breast. It feels different, she states. I am too stunned to respond, but her gesture isn’t sexual.
They feel different, I say, parroting her words and her tone.
She tells me about her breast cancer, and how she had a full mastectomy of her left breast. At my age it didn’t seem necessary to get a reconstruction. But sometimes you almost miss being viewed as a sexual object. Why am I telling you all this? I know you and your husband have been trying for a child. I know what it’s like to feel betrayed by your body.
You don’t know my situation, I say, surprised by the coldness in my voice.
Flora doesn’t say anything for a while, but arranges the drawing materials on the table, and talks about colour theory and aura. Let the object tell you what colour it wants to be, she says. We work in silence, making watercolour paintings of a small copper mug.
Goethe: Objects are often seen by sick persons in variegated colours. Boyle relates an instance of a lady, who, after a fall by which an eye was bruised, saw all objects, but especially white objects, glittering in colours, even to an intolerable degree.
At dinner, Karun asks about my day, but I don’t mention Flora, or the fact that I know he spoke with her about my condition. He tells me about a new client who calls for a meeting every few days because she keeps changing her mind about the house. One day she wants all wood and bamboo, then next day she watches some movie, and wants marble-topped everything. Another late night tomorrow.
That’s fine, I say. Tomorrow I was thinking of going out for dinner with the girls. Tina wants to try the new Chinese place.
My husband’s mole glows magenta. Very good, he says, with the authority of a doctor examining an X-ray.
The girls are my friends from college: Tina, Urmila and Yogita. I haven’t spoken to any of them in months, and I have no intention of doing so. Tina is pregnant with her second child, Urmila’s first daughter started school recently, and with Yogita’s children I’ve lost count.
They appear in my dreams, perhaps because I’ve told this lie, and made them my unwitting accomplices. Tina keeps telling me her bladder wants to burst, and the other two are squeezing my breasts. They think I would have a good career as a wet nurse. They leave and Flora arrives. She undresses because she has agreed to let me draw her, but I am overcome with lust, and ask if I can kiss her. I explore her body with my hands, and tell her I want to paint her in orange and gold. I kiss her neck, and lick the scar on the left side of her torso. Amazon women cut off their breast so they can be better warriors, she tells me, and suddenly I am afraid: not of her, but of my passion for her.
I write a note to Flora. I spend an hour trying to get the wording right. Am I unable to continue the lessons, or am I simply no longer in need of them? Do I send her my warmest wishes, or my sincerest regards? In the end I write that I am terminating the lessons because I would like to invest more time in other parts of my life. I send the maid to Flora’s house to deliver the note, along with some money. After she leaves, I berate myself for choosing the most blatant lie. I am unsure whether it is an act of cruelty, or a cry for help.
I try reading a book about how nutrition affects thyroid and fertility, but my mind wanders, and I play a game of Would You Rather. I already know all the answers. Be betrayed by my own body or my husband’s body? Lose an appendage or lose my marriage? Suffer or tell the truth about my desires? Die at the age of fifty or never experience childbirth?
The maid returns with the money. Flora ma’am said no need, the maid tells me, in a combination of broken English and Marathi. She hands me the money, along with a book, which Flora has sent for me. Doctrine of Colours by Goethe. I pore over the book, searching for a note, an underlined sentence, a dog-eared page, but there is no sign of a message from her.
When my sister calls in the evening, I do not mention any of this. It’s not that Tarini is homophobic, but I am embarrassed to admit having discovered new aspects of my sexuality at this age. I can already predict her reaction: Focus on making children instead of unmaking your marriage, she will say, with uninhibited pompousness.
The days move slowly with nothing to look forward to. I visit the astrologer, but he has nothing new to tell me. The future looks the same as it did two weeks ago. I finish reading Flora’s book, and call her one evening, hoping she will forgive me.
What is there to forgive, she says in a neutral tone, though I don’t believe her.
Can we start classes next week?
Why not, she says.
It’s June, and the rain clouds have arrived. I ask if she wants to take a walk after our class.
Why not, she repeats.
I read to her from the book. A passage from a section about colours and their shadows.
Yes, she says. We could even go to the Hanging Gardens and collect flowers.
I close my eyes, and the image of her from my dream appears. Goethe calls these extraordinary affections of the retina.
Image © Elné