“Visitor no 201!” The stocky man wobbled into loud laughter. Chet disliked him at once.
“I am the art correspondent of New India Times.” Chet slammed the door of his old Fiat without thinking and winced immediately, “My editor wants me–I mean, I have come to do a feature on the Malabar Painting.”
“Very good, very good,” the man beamed. He inspected the visiting card Chet held out, “Welcome to the Kesavdas Gallery, Mr. Chetan Gandhi. Our gallery has wonderful paintings. Very wonderful.”
Chet unslung his Canon Camera (a hand-me-down from his older brother) and looked around with distaste. Huge iron gates were flung back against a dirty white wall, leading into a so-called garden. A few clumps of grass sprouted from the red soil, intermixed with lantana and other weeds. A white building sat in the center of the garden, one of those old European-style houses with paint peeling off its walls.
The man had started walking into the garden, his garlicky body odor wafting unpleasantly back in the afternoon breeze.
The injustice of the situation overwhelmed Chet again. If the science reporter had not been on vacation, he would never have had to take this assignment. He was an art journalist, for God’s sake. Not that this was science, it was nothing but silly superstition. But that idiotic Metro Editor¼
The Metro Editor had been firm. “I want you to do a feature on the Malabar painting,” he had said, staring at Chet through those bloodshot eyes. “The Painting of Death.”
The Malabar painting was a ‘marketplace scene’ that belonged to the Ram Bania Collection. Three years ago, Bania, a self-made millionaire and art collector, had switched from buying famous paintings to collecting pictures by unknown artists instead. The Malabar painting was one of those pictures. At the moment it was perhaps the most famous painting in the country, but for a very odd reason–it was believed to cause death.
Chet had been appalled. He, with his degree in Fine Arts from the prestigious University of Delhi, being assigned to this Malabar painting, this freak-show. He had tried to protest. But the editor had focused those intimidating eyes on him and his courage had failed. One day, he thought, when he was a famous journalist instead of an entry-level reporter, he would tell the editor what he thought of him. But now he had no choice but to compromise.
And so here he was.
He followed the man up a straggly path that wound its way around a fountain–the only thing that seemed to be in good condition–before stopping at the verandah steps. Someone had converted the verandah into a room and a sign hanging over the door said ‘Office’. They stepped inside.
“Sit down, have some tea,” the man waved Chet to a bright orange sofa.
“Actually, I’m in a hurry,” Chet replied curtly. “I have a meeting at three.”
“Plenty of time, plenty of time,” the man said, his genial expression unchanged. He did not glance at the clock on the table, a hideous green thing in the shape of a peacock. It showed one-thirty. “So you are writing an article on the Malabar? You will not believe, but I myself was there when it happened. You have heard the story?”
“Yes,” Chet said at once. He had heard the story many times and had no wish to hear it again from this silly bore.
But the man would not be deterred, “Six months back Ram Uncle,” he stressed the ‘Uncle’, “threw a small party to show his paintings. He only invited his near and dear ones, his sister Jaya, his brother-in-law Dinesh, his childhood friend Ghorpad and me. You see, he was very close to me, even though I came from humble beginnings.”
Chet remembered that Kesavdas was the son of a distant ‘poor’ cousin.
“We were all appreciating the paintings,” Kesavdas continued, “when Dinesh said something like ‘what a scary face this old man has’. He was looking at the Malabar painting, so all of us went over there. But, Mr. Chetan, there was no old man in the painting.
“Naturally, I thought that he was making fools of us, because to tell you frankly, he thought too much of himself. But he had started to scream like a woman, he was pointing to an empty space on the painting and shouting ‘here,here’.
“At last Ram Uncle told him to stop behaving like an idiot. It worked. Dinesh stopped screaming. For one minute he stared at Ram Uncle, then he turned to Jaya and told her that he was not feeling well and wanted to go home.”
He swallowed, “Two days later, Dinesh died.”
Chet said sharply, “Can we see the Malabar painting now?”
“Of course, of course,” the man gave him an oily smile, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. He pulled out a bunch of keys from a drawer.
“This way, Mr. Chet, this way.” He moved towards a half open door next to the sofa, talking all the time.
“Ram Uncle started collecting paintings at a very young age,” he explained, “Hussain, Menon, he bought them all. He had great taste, great taste.” A pause. “Do you know, he used to tell me that I was the only one in his family who appreciated the True Art?”
Chet snorted. In the beginning, Ram Bania had done nothing but buy paintings of “name artists”, hardly a qualification for great taste.
The man pushed upon the door and Chet followed him into a room with beige walls.
“Anyway, after some time, he realized that something was missing in his collection. In his life.” Another pause. “He realized that he was giving his money away to only rich artists who did not even need that money. Instead he would buy the paintings of poor artists with true talent. So he became a patron of the arts. A great man. We youngsters can learn something from him.” He nodded at Chet who raised his eyebrows. The man had to be at least twenty years older than him, probably in his forties.
“So Ram Uncle bought many paintings by unknown artists. He discovered many many talents. And you can see all of them here!” He threw open a second door with a voila gesture.
The room reeked of Dettol; someone had cleaned it recently. Bland pictures of smiling women and pretty landscapes hung on the walls. That is the problem with our country, no creativity, Chet thought.
“Is the Malabar painting here?” He asked.
“No, we don’t keep it here. Most people don’t want to see the Malabar painting. Especially after Ragini’s death. One death, still okay. Two deaths, people become afraid. Have you heard about Ragini? I myself was there–”
“Where did Bania find the Malabar painting?”
“Who knows?” the man sighed. “But as soon as he saw the painting, he knew that he must have it. Then–”
“Who is the artist?”
“No one knows.” the man sighed again. “Even I don’t know. But let me tell you about Ragini–”
“I know about her.” Chet snapped.
The Ragini Jayaram incident had taken place two months after Dinesh’s death. Ragini Jayaram was a minor celebrity, an actress who had started out in soap operas and ended up in soap advertisements. Bania had invited her to one of his family dinners. At some point the guests had been subjected to a display of his collection. That was when Ragini saw the old man. As before, she was the only one. Five days later, she fell ill and died.
The man was heading into another room. Chet could see a long row of portraits on the wall. The closest one showed the goddess Durga killing the demon Mahishasura. He stopped and said, “I’d like to see the Malabar now.”
The man turned around, stumped for a moment. Then he oily-grinned again, “Of course, of course.”
He walked past Chet in the direction from which they had come, the sleeve of his safari suit making a small whoosh sound.
He pushed open a small door on the right wall and switched on the light. A thin white corridor yawned ahead.
“This way,” The man said.
Chet felt an odd reluctance. He shook his head and entered the corridor. The door shut behind them, almost as if it were sealing them in.
They walked down the narrow passage. Above their heads, the fluorescent light gleamed, casting grotesque images on the floor. Chet could hear nothing of the outside world now–the pom-pom of the honking auto rickshaws, the shouts of the children, everything had disappeared. The only sound came from the echo of their footsteps on the floor. Thak Thak Thak. He realized that the other had stopped talking and glanced to his right. To his surprise, the man was sweating. It unnerved Chet.
He shook his head again. He was letting the place get to him. He had to think of other things, his article. He forced his thoughts back to Ragini Jayaram’s death. That had been the takeoff point, the point when the legend of the Malabar painting had erupted. All of a sudden everyone had wanted to see the Painting of Death. Ram Bania had scoffed at the rumors and announced that it would not be displayed to the public anymore.
Perhaps the whole thing would have ended there had Ram Bania not died two days later. Several people claimed that his last words were ‘the old man’, but the story was never confirmed. Soon after that, his sister, the sole heir to the Bania property announced that she would be giving away his entire collection.
More rumors. The final version said that the ‘name paintings’ had gone to a rich collector and the Unknown Artists Collection had gone to the distant relative Kesavdas.
The furor had almost died when Kesavdas thrust himself firmly into the limelight. He announced that he would be opening an ‘Art Gallery’ to display the collection, including the Malabar painting. The gallery opened a week later and turned into hot news. Stories about the painting were everywhere, from national TV to regional newspapers. And Chet’s Metro Editor had decided to join the circus.
The man halted. The corridor had ended in a dark wooden door. He turned to Chet and asked,
“Are you sure that you want to go in?”
“Yes,” Chet said too loudly.
The man thrust his keys into the lock. Chet noticed that his hand was trembling.
The door opened into blackness.
Chet stepped forward. He squirmed as the man reached around his shoulder to turn on a dim light. God, didn’t the fellow have any concept of personal space?
The door swung shut behind them. Now there’s no escape, Chet thought, a sudden shiver running down his shoulders.
The room seemed bare except for an ornamental wooden screen, the folding kind that segregates living room and dining room, especially in Moslem houses.
“Where is it?”
The man pointed to the other side of the partition.
“It’s there,” he said. “You can go and see it if you want. I will stay here.”
I can go back even now, Chet thought and then—angrily–stop being silly. You are an educated, intelligent man, and not some superstitious moron who hasn’t even passed his Matric.
He walked to the other side.
The plaque read: Market Scene II. Alkyd on Canvas.
Chet lifted his head.
Oh my God, he thought in shock, it is beautiful.
It resembled nothing Chet had ever seen. The sky was blue and the trees were green, but they were a strange high key blue and green that did not exist except in dreams. And yet–yet it captured the energy of the market in some indefinable way. He could feel the heat, the noise, the clash of human wills.
And the people! The figures seemed almost alive, as if some magician had waved a wand and frozen them in time, so that everyone was suspended in what they were doing, captured in half-motion, waiting for the magician to wave his wand again–the haggling woman, the laughing girl and the old man with the queer face.
The old man.
“What’s the matter?” Kesavdas said from behind.
“I see the old man.” Chet’s voice sounded far away.
“What?” Kesavdas hurried towards him in quick small steps. “Where?” His eyes searched the picture blankly.
“I want to get out of here,” Chet’s hands felt cold.
“Yes, of course, you don’t look well.”
He felt Kesavdas grip his arm, steering him away. He remembered nothing of the walk back to the office until Kesavdas handed him something hot in a green cup.
“Special Ayurvedic tea,” he said. “You will feel better.”
Chet gulped down the strong bitter liquid, sensation returning to his body slowly, painfully, as if he had been out in the cold for a long time. At last he put his cup down and stood by the door.
A cheerful breeze blew on his cheeks. To his left, the sun shone down on the fountain, creating thousands of sparkling rivulets. So bright, so normal.
It all seemed ridiculous now.
Because it had been ridiculous. No, not it, he. He had behaved like an idiot. He had humiliated himself before this pompous low-class man.
He spun around and picked up his camera, “I’ll leave now.”
“So soon? Sit down, have some more tea. Don’t be always rushing from here to there. Enjoy life. You educated people are always in hurry. Myself, I have only studied until 8th or 9th, but I have seen the ways of the world–”
But Chet was striding down the path. The man followed, still talking, “So you will write good article? Will you send me one free copy of your newspaper?”
Chet ignored him. He got into the car and pulled out without waiting for the engine to warm up, causing Kesavdas to jump back hastily. The Fiat zoomed away. Kesavdas clucked his tongue and made his way back inside.
Chet’s green tea cup perched on the table. Kesavdas picked it up and sniffed.
He had been afraid that it contained too much of the drug, but Chet hadn’t noticed. In a few hours it would begin to work, as always. If Chet was driving, then he would lose control of the car. He might have an accident. That would be something new. If not, the drug would kill him anyway, like it had killed Dinesh and Ragini.
Smiling, he strolled towards the plastic bag that he kept in the corner for trash. An accident. He imagined the green fiat tumbling down a cliff, with Chet trapped inside, screaming like a baby. That ought to wipe the arrogant sneer right off his face. All these stupid people, thinking they were too good for him, just because he was not so educated, because he came from humble beginnings. That Dinesh, what he had he been after all? A third-class man who had tricked Bania’s sister into marrying him. And Ragini, just a cheap starlet. And now this disrespectful young pup. And in the end, he had fooled them all, hadn’t he?
For a moment he paused, wondering about the puzzling matter of the old man in the painting. He himself had never seen the old man. Was it like the color blindness test, the one they had made him do in school? He frowned, trying to remember the test, but it had been too long ago.
Anyway, what did it matter? He shrugged and dropped the cup into the bag.