It was not planned--- his walking into a sit-in and remaining there for two hours there till the cops arrived and the media filmed the encounter and made him overnight, a sensation, an unlikely hero, champion.
The planned part was just a short visit to the local museum by a daughter living in a distant New York.
“Go there dad. You will find some interesting stuff there.” She had texted. “Stuff that is living link to the past, our past.”
He went there---part of a journey in reverse, trying to collect some bits of personal history.
“You will find paintings by mom there---in the “local brushes” section---along with few other eminent names. It is a small arts museum and easy to find in the town. The only one there but worth the visit,” she had told her in a subsequent video- call.
He was not yet decided.
“Go dad. Please! You will find her speaking through her water colours and portraits, so much admired now.”
That was typical Mitta. His---their---only daughter, now living the American Dream, with her young family and connecting weekly with him for updates.
“OK.” He had agreed.
“Spend time with her there. Do not rush, please,” She had insisted.
He also wanted to do that only---after so long, although six months are not that long.
Reaching the small museum was not that easy.
The taxi driver stopped many places and finally delivered the grey-haired, tall passenger at the gates of the three-storied building, at the end of a road being widened, in a neighbourhood being razed and developed at furious pace. Machines hummed everywhere. Cranes worked. Workers shouted.
The building was a contrast.
The place was quiet---you could hear the birds singing in the clear summer-morning breeze. The landscaped garden lent it an ethereal touch---like a Gogh painting that hung on the wall of his drawing-room.
He climbed a flight of stairs and was greeted by a pleasant voice, “Welcome, sir.”
He looked up and was momentarily taken aback---she resembled like Mitta, the young, fresh-faced receptionist, at the circular desk in a bare room, lit up by a streaming sun from the open windows. A money plant stood in a brass vase in a corner. A neat place!
“Thanks,” he said recovering swiftly.
“Can I help?” She asked. And smiled. He looked closer. Mitta was replaced by another face, ordinary but friendly and kind.
“Oh! Thanks. I am here from Delhi.”
“Looking for the works of my wife that are displayed here, I am informed.”
“Great! What is her name, Sir?”
She beamed and replied: “Yes. We have her here, our very special. Second floor, down the corridor, last hall.”
“Thanks.” He said.
“You are lucky.”
“She is a local celeb here, with women and students being her loyal fans.”
“Is she coming too?”
He said nothing.
But she immediately understood and said softly, “Sorry! It just slipped out. I remember the details… You are on a personal pilgrimage here?”
He nodded. Choking up by the close proximity of her “presence”.
“She was a visionary,” said the receptionist. “The town is proud of her works, depicting the entire grammar of womanhood in a middle-class home and town, in stark imagery. Of imprisoned in unseen cages---and flights on the broken wings. I learnt a lot from her lively paintings.”
First time, the stockbroker stood still there.
“Yes. The power of painting! She was an exceptional female painter. Lot of girls here are inspired by her example and art.”
“The local college has the only department of painting and drawing. The girls are in big numbers. They often come to study her canvases. Learn from her paintings.”
“Ghaziabad city is proud of her. Recently a foreign crew did a small documentary on her works here by talking to professors and experts and students. They were from some American TV channel.”
He was speechless. “What?”
“Yes, Sir,” she gushed, the acolyte. “We have the full collection. She had donated that to her home town, the greatest gift!”
“This alone will fetch thousands of rupees, each of the 100 canvases displayed.”
His eyes clouded. He began moving to the second floor.
“Take your time, Sir.”
“We call her the Liberator.”
“Is it?” He sounded incredulous.
“Yes. Please see her most iconic painting the Bird-woman. You will understand.”
Totally moved, he turned his back and went up, ready to meet his new wife out there in the public gaze.
The Bird-woman was a reveal.
A woman, chained right side, turned into a huge bird left side---ready to fly into a sky menaced by a hawk circling in the background, the corner of the foreground littered with bleeding doves!
He watched for an hour this painting---and was mesmerized by the subtle colours and light strokes executed delicately by a pair of hands “soaked in washing powder, spices and pickles,” as self-description of a home-maker-cum- artist.
The face carried a strong resemblance to his own Anamika Singh.
His eyes dimmed.
“You never let me know!” He exclaimed softly in the deserted hall. “My wife of three decades! Never told me about your passion? All hidden up in the attic. Then, shipped out to your hometown. I got glimpses of your works only. You were so dismissive of these. Look! What you have achieved now? A town full of admirers of your art!”
Tears flowed down the sunken cheeks. He looked at the bird-woman---and suddenly, it moved and blinked.
Or, so he thought.
He sat and drank in the heritage of a woman painter, no longer an obscure name.
Then, he heard: “Sir! Please leave!”
He spun around and saw the burly security.
“Why? Are you closing?”
“The notice says the museum closes at 7 in the evening…”
“Then, why this hurry?”
The security said, “There is some problem. Cops on the way. We are closing all the rooms. Please hurry up…and leave.”
After saying a quick good-bye, Mr. Singh went down to the ground-floor reception---and joined the sit-in there---by a unique force of circumstance.
This is the how of it.
“Why this sit-in?” He asked the receptionist, in tear now.
“Because the owners of this only museum in the town want to close it down,” interjected a college-going male protestor, part of a young crowd sitting peacefully on the floor with placards and a single message: No to the Sale of the Museum!
“Why the sale?” Mr. Singh was again incredulous.
“They say the museum is of no use to the town. Visitors no longer visit the place. The town is not interested in art and artists. It is a big burden on them,” briefed the student protestor, hints of a moustache on the upper lip.
“The owners have called the cops. They are on their way but we will not budge. We have called up the media outlets. Let them eject us. It is democratic and peaceful protest by the young artists.” It was a female protestor talking to the sympathetic inquirer in that reception area, while the excavators hummed in the distance.
“Are you from the media?” She asked.
“Oh! He is the husband of our Liberator!” said the receptionist.
A delightful howl went up and the college crowd chanted, “Here is our leader, the voice of the Liberator!”
Before he could get over the initial confusion---and a sudden reverse in fortune---he had become part of the small sit-in and was recorded consoling girls aspiring to be painters in a commercial town.
When, finally the media circus arrived in vans, mini-vans and scooters, he had become the real face of the sit-in, explaining his position, in clear English: “I am a spontaneous protestor.”
They liked the clipped accent, bald pate, summer suit---and profile--- of a retired MNC vice president and respected broker of Delhi, dapper in his late 50s.
“Your reason to join this sit-in?” Somebody asked in a barking voice from the teeming crowd of sound-bite hunters.
“Because the owners of this museum want to sell this historic place to the promoters who want to convert this goldmine into a world-class mall-cum-entertainment arcade, the biggest in the country. And…”
“And I will not let that happen, at any cost. We will not let that happen. I will see to that. I have got few good friends in high places,” Mr. Suraj Singh said in a booming voice, eyes and voice firm.
“Your objection, could you please elaborate?” Somebody asked from the circus, thrusting the mike into a determined face.
“Simple. If you sell the museum and get it demolished for the mall-arcade thing, the town will die a slow death. A part of humanity will die with it. The museum shall never die.”
“Yeah! If not protected, it will boomerang on us.”
“Hmm. Once I thought art never mattered…”
“Not even your wife’s?”
“Why this sudden change now?”
“After spending time here and talking to these young folks, I realized, how crucial art is to their well being. Art that gave them a voice and wings. It changed them completely in a bleak landscape. That is why the museum was named the Soul by my wife, one of the early investors and founders. If you sell it to the new-age promoters, that soul will die too. So says the curse.”
“Are you real sure?” asked a hard-boiled red-eyed male reporter.
The broker smiled. “Yes, very certain. There is a curse below the name of the museum, on the plaque. Go and see it there for yourself.”
They ran down and shouted, “Yes, it is here: Destroy it and be destroyed in turn.”
The cameras flashed and chaos followed.
Soon the siren could be heard in the background.
Then the cops arrived on the scene…