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Mystery

I saw him standing in front of me. He was more a blurred image of himself rather than the clear, sharply defined person I know him to be. He was smiling. But smiling has many connotations. Was he smiling at me, or at himself, or at the world out there? But he was standing at some distance and I could not see him clearly as if he was standing across an imaginary river on the other side, and the early morning fog had clouded his image for me standing on this side. He looked like a water colour painting with the colours fading away. But he moved so he was not a painting which I would have loved him to be. Or, may be, he looked like a crayon sketch of himself he had hurriedly drawn on one of his many sketch books that stood piled up in one corner of his studio back in the city, now forgotten and covered with layers of dust and spider’s webs I had not bothered to clean out. His beard had neither grown nor had it been trimmed. It was just the way it was when I met him last. His curly hair had grown to fall over his shoulders, just so while the jacket he wore over his blue denim suit swung in the breeze this way and that. The surprising thing is that he seemed to be shoe less though it was difficult to find out from this distance.

They were all there - his sketch books, his easel, his box of paints and so many brushes of different shapes and sizes, those pieces of flannel, cloth pieces, pencils with differently sharpened points he worked on almost round the clock. Why I did not get this studio cleaned I really do not know. I have a fetish for cleanliness, almost like OCD. But this room, I had left untouched and had instructed my maid not to enter or try to clean it. But I did not keep it locked. I just had to push the door and it would open.

I went there sometimes, to look at the paintings queued up on the floor against the walls on all four sides and a few unfinished sketches - landscapes, portraits, Still Lifes, that no one will ever finish now. There were many charcoal sketches too, some of them were portraits he had made with me as his model when we were not married. I worked as an artist’s model under contract with the art college in the city. That is where we met. “An artist and his model” sounds like a cliché title of a soppy love story. But it was not a love story at all. I accepted his proposal without falling in love with him. For me, it was an escape route. Escape from the woman’s shelter home I was sent to when the orphanage could not hold me after I had turned 18.

Looking at that blurred figure, perhaps smiling at me, yes, smiling at me, my life began running like a  film in flashback. I was an orphan and I have no clue who brought me to the orphanage as a toddler. The caretakers kept changing from good to cruel to okay but I remained there down the years. It was a Christian Missionary Orphanage so food was not much of a problem. The problem lay in the loneliness that wrapped me from all around, like a cloak I could not get off me. I was not very good at making friends but Bina and Manju became very friendly till Bina was given away in adoption to a childless pair while Manju died of some sickness which, we learnt, was never diagnosed.

The Sisters were kind and took me in the choir group. None of us knew if I was Hindu, Christian, Muslim or belonged to any other faith and thankfully, no one bothered. I did not wear a talisman or a medallion round my neck like they show in films for some rich pair of parents to suddenly find in me their long-lost daughter. So, I trained in knitting, stitching and tailoring but when I was sent to the shelter, those kinds of jobs were wanting. Then, one day, the Superintendent summoned me and told me about this modelling job. I jumped at it and then met this man and felt that my life had turned into a “happily ever after” story.

I kept looking at him on the other side of that imaginary river but did not smile back. I was too scared to smile back. I am a woman who gets scared very easily. So, though the smiling face on the other side made me feel strange but scared me because we had ended our relationship long ago and we had never met. Why we had not met is as blurred as that blurred image of that smiling man across that river I had created in my mind.

This man and I grew into an ordinary couple because he hardly had a family to fall back on just like me. But he did grow up in a proper family so he did not experience the sense of loneliness and alienation I suffered from. He was quite normal but though he was a graduate of an arts college, he was not ambitious and did not dream of becoming a great artist one day. His parents had died in a car crash when he was 21 and though he was in trauma for some time, he outgrew his grief and came back to normal. I warmed up to him slowly, though I could not feel that “electric” shock I had heard and read about or seen in films when he touched me or kissed me or when we had sex. 

He was empathetic to my feelings and never ever tried to force himself on me. It was more like a platonic relationship than a normal husband-and-wife one though I had no idea what a “normal” husband-and-wife relationship was like. We lived in a small, two-room-hall-and-kitchen flat in a suburb of the city he had inherited from his parents, being the only child. We put it in order together, he and I, and it looked like a looked-after though not lavishly decorated home. I could only cook plain meals but he knew and taught me some of the dishes he cooked well. But, when I discovered that he was not interested in a regular income, much less about going up the vertical ladder of success, I began to get worried and anxious because I could not go back to modelling after I got married as he said it would not be the right thing to do and that he would take care of the financial responsibilities.

I looked at that man who I knew to have died five years ago or so I sometimes remembered. I felt he would come forward and speak to me but he did not. He only kept smiling, his lips turning up at the corners in a twist that could mean anything from affection to warmth to sarcasm to amused tolerance to insult to accusation. I was scared already even seeing him in front of me, at a distance, never mind the blurred image.

My orphanage upbringing had made me a timid person afraid of the dark, afraid of sleeping alone, afraid of making friends, afraid of talking loudly, afraid of everyone who held a post in the orphanage and then the shelter. So, though I was slowly growing to love him, I was a bit scared, not of him but of our relationship and about whether it would be last. I was scared of my own ability to cling on to a relationship as I was not familiar with the very term “relationship” and what it really meant. I had not once had a “relationship” in all these years till I met this crazy artist who only wanted to paint but not to exhibit or take orders or to sell his works.

I kept looking at the blurred image as if the image held me hypnotized in its grip, and I found myself rooted to the spot. I wanted to turn around and see where we were but I could not. I was afraid that the figure would disappear if I turned around to look and I did not want that to happen. But I could gauge the sky behind him, with cotton candy, wispy clouds floating against the azure blue sky. I could somehow feel the peaks of rising mountains behind where he stood, his smile a glimpse of the strange mystique that formed a part of his persona. It reminded me of my honeymoon which happens the only luxury dream holiday I ever enjoyed in my life.

That man was once my husband. We had gone to Sikkim for our honeymoon eleven years ago and every morning of the four-day trip, as I removed the curtains of our hotel room, I would be mesmerized by the morning fog veiling the mountains in the distance, and if I looked down, I could see a line of the locals carrying loads on their backs, queuing up ever so slowly towards their place of work. He would still be fast asleep, his fit body curled under the beautiful quilt the hotel provided. He took his time to wake up. I would lazily walk to the little alcove with the tea things and made myself a cup of tea. I sat myself on one of the chairs and looked out of the window at the fog-covered horizon with the sun just about peeping out from behind the fog like a shy bride waiting for the brand new husband to step into the bed chamber with the four-poster bed decorated with lots of white flowers.  

He looked so peaceful in his sleep. He spent the entire amount he had earned from three of his best paintings on this expensive honeymoon. I did not say “no” because I had never enjoyed anything like this.  The honeymoon was only for four days but they happen to have been the best four days of my life.

Suddenly, I woke up from my slumber and the dream burst into pieces like fragments of broken glass scattered all around me. That man smiling at me from the other side of the imaginary river, blurred because of the thick fog veiling the clarity of my vision was only in my dream. It was a dream I had every single night for the past five years. In one dream, I would see him waiting at the Maharaja Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to receive me when I came back from Calcutta. But I had never gone to Bombay nor had he waited for me at that station. It was only a dream I did not seem to shed off.

Another time, I found him waving at me from the window of a high-rise building on Theatre Road in Calcutta. I did not wave back because I was standing on the ground floor of the complex, waiting for a colleague to meet me. I was once again an artist’s model. When my colleague appeared round the corner, I looked up and the smiling face had disappeared as if he did not exist.

Another time, I saw his blurred but smiling image on a horse-drawn carriage near the Victoria Memorial, with a pretty woman beside him. The image of the woman was also blurred but I felt that the woman looked very much like I did. Who was she? Before I could go any closer from where I stood to find out, the dream broke. Another time, I found his blurred face smiling back at me from the front face of my daily newspaper but I could not read the headlines or the notice printed along with the picture.

Was this dream just an illusion my psyche had created out of the guilt I bore for having betrayed him? No. I had not left him for another man. I had not walked out of him or fought with him or nagged him. I had cooled off  because he was not ambitious, not career-minded, not bothered about making a living out of his creative skill and not because he was a womanizer, or because he beat me up every now and then, or because he drank, kept bad company, or had any other bad habit that might have given me cause to leave him.

He had understood that I had walked away silently from the relationship without making any noise or moving out of the home we had built together. I did not physically walk away. I did it very silently, turning my silence and my cooling off into a weapon of attack and defense at the same time, waiting for him to understand without having to spell it out in so many words. Besides, I am a coward so did not have the guts to tell him to his face that all I wanted was to be alone with my loneliness all over again. It was a loneliness that had scared me off always. It was that very loneliness that I had now begun to crave.

It took some time, but he understood. One fine day, he walked out of the home. Forever. I realized this when our next door neighbour pressed he doorbell to inform me that my husband’s body was lying on the compound of the building we were living on rent after we had sold off the flat he had inherited from his parents to make both ends meet.

I wanted to erase that glimpse of his body lying spread-eagled in a pool of blood. It was an image, not blurred but clear and sharp. The guilt I carried for having “killed” him with silence till my twisted psyche created this dream to find him alive and smiling every night afterwards.

Murder, I realise now is not like the murders we watch on television crime shows. Murder need not be gruesome and full of gore and blood like we read in newspapers and watch on the television news. Murder may not be for avenging a wrong of just for the sake of murder. Murder may not mean killing someone physically. One can kill just by silent torture, day after day and month after month without even raising an arm against the person you are killing. It takes time but the person you want to kill will realise that he/she is the target only when it is very late and there is no turning back. If the person is strong, he/she simply cuts ties and moves on. But my husband was not strong, the sudden death of his parents had perhaps traumatized him forever and he did not know and surrendered to my death wish.

Was it a death wish? How will I know? Will I walk up to the terrace and join him in the dream tonight? Or, will I move on and wrap myself with the loneliness I once hated to much? I do not know. I will, when I go to sleep tonight. Right now, I am vacillating between the reality of my having murdered him silently in cold blood and the illusion of watching a blurred image of his smiling face, swaying this way and that, pulled to either side as if I do not belong anywhere and am floating somewhere in the middle of a massive ocean of loneliness I have created myself. Was he really my husband? I do not remember. If he really was my husband, why can’t I remember his name?

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

July 30, 2020 16:59

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