Just a Painting
Susan BlochThe painting is me.
In the main hall of the Museum of Modern Art in Mumbai, I stand in front of a yellow-and-black oil painting, in the presence of two women seated facing, but not looking at, one another. Their subdued eyes gaze into the distance at some faraway spot.
Lost in their intimacy, I step in closer, studying the perfectly blended brazen brushstrokes, waiting for a signal. One of the women seems to be watching me. I stare back without blinking, meeting her gaze, feeling the emptiness of her glance, noting the shadow across her eyes. Those eyes hold me transfixed as if they are focusing not on the outside world but on the thoughts inside her head. Undiscovered and lost dreams float across her dark pupils. I imagine myself sitting there with them, squatting on the prickly, tiger-striped straw mat, flecked with shades of bright yellow, burnt orange, and black, sharing my recurring nightmares. Extraordinary how that painting captures my melancholy. I twist my wedding ring around and around, chafing my finger, and my eyes fill with tears.
Overhead ceiling fans struggle to shift the heavy, humid summer air. The breeze ripples my floral kurta against my back reminding me that Mumbai is now my new home. My hope, after my beloved husband John’s death, was that starting a new job in India, working with new people, and living a new life would help me, as my friends suggested, “move on.” But I was wrong. Running away from places and people—friends, family, favorite coffee shops and restaurants, our London home, and my office was not the solution. My grief stalked me.
On that Sunday morning, I set out to explore Mumbai’s cultural center. Heat radiated off the sidewalk and the sun bristled on my back. Buses belched black fumes as they butted their way through pedestrians, bikes, and rickshaws. Bodies bumped into me in the overcrowded streets. This chaotic infringement, the constant noise and movement was, contrary to expectations, exactly what I needed. Intense contrasting smells of sugary bananas, sweating bodies, rose petal perfume, and public toilets reeking of ammonia reminded me that I was alive.
A hawker badgered me to buy a fresh coconut. He chopped off the top of its rounded head with a machete and stuck a straw into the water. The pure refreshing liquid moistened my parched throat. While I slurped the last drop, I noticed a banner on the side of a large domed building: Special Exhibition for Local Artists—Today Only.
Leaving the steamy sidewalk and the cacophony of honking, yelling, and bellowing car exhausts, I walked up the stairs, paid the entrance fee, and wandered into the Museum of Modern Art’s large atrium. It was quiet except for intermittent chatter, the hum of whirling fans, and shoes echoing on the marble floor. Shafts of light slanted through the windows. In the strong sunlight, dust particles danced on the whitewashed walls.
I strolled from painting to painting until I stopped, riveted, in front of the one that was before me. Stepping even closer I could almost feel the women’s arms embracing me, pulling me into their world. The artist captures the essence of the two women, gilded and streaked with a theatrical manipulation of light and shadow, and a unique understanding of the emotional impact of the fusion of two hues. Hues of light and dark layered with new textures. Hues of shimmering yellow—ghee, saffron, pineapple, turmeric, honey, mango—reaching out to remind me that I, too, had once been all those delicious shades. Hues that would always remind me of John. Before the diagnosis of terminal cancer. Before asbestos fibers sucked the life out of his lungs. Before he took his last breath. When his body stiffened, I turned sage gray. Like the herb’s leaves—slightly sour, bitter, and rough to touch. My unique warm flavor smothered. All the color in my life lost.
An aroma of vegetable samosas fills the air. Visitors shuffle past me, people murmur, and two young girls run around in circles giggling, but all I see are the confused expressions on the two women’s faces in the painting. Those two women, like me, are searching for a way out of that dark background, through the gloomy undercurrent that smothers the juxtaposed yellows—our shimmer. No longer two-dimensional and flat, these women are now my friends. I take a step forward and just in time I stop myself from reaching out to take their hands. No wonder this painting speaks to me. Without John, I’ve no idea who I am.
Never before has one work of art affected me in this way. Someone whom I’d never met had captured my hidden feelings with the sweep of a brush and a few tubes of paint. To the outside world I appear vibrant, even courageous, but deep inside me, like the black shading in the painting, my mood is heavy. This fusion of light and dark speaks to me and coaxes me closer. I long for the light hues: laughter and embraces that would push the darkness into the background, forcing my grief to lighten. Hues of John, of us, of our life, before his death the previous year. The dark shades, domineering and deathly, remind me of my sorrow.
The hubbub fades. My eyes close and I feel myself swaying. I try to steady myself by shifting my feet and focusing on the wall. I run my finger through my graying hair to see if I too, like the women in the painting, could twist my curls into a knot at the back of my neck. But mine is too short. Prickly strands poke into the palm of my hand, while their curls are lightly oiled and firmly held by a gleaming barrette at the back of their necks. My baggy, rough, dull brown cotton kurta hangs limply down below my knees. Theirs, lemon-yellow, sumptuous, soft, and silky, drape over their breasts revealing slender midriffs.
In the museum’s bright hall, I cover my mouth with the palm of my left hand and gaze at the women’s gold thong sandals, dazzling anklets, and glinting toe rings. Bangles the tint of a harvest moon adorn their arms from their wrists to their elbows. Long drop earrings glitter against their dark outline. From their lips and eyebrows, glowing brassy tones shine out from the shadows urging me to laugh again. But thick eyeliner shrouds their maudlin eyes, as if revealing signs of lethargy. My inside light, like theirs, has run out of power. Now I’m groping to find the switch.
The sun’s rays turn pale and fade while I continue to stare mesmerized at the painting’s hushed yet incandescent moodiness. The contrast of the walnut wooden frame on the white museum wall sharpens.
Someone near me whispers, “Do you like it?”
I jerk and step back.
A petite woman, wearing a jade-colored sari, looks at me and raises her eyebrows. The soft fabric lies across her forearm. Silver looped earrings frame her broad cheeks.
“It seems to speak to me,” I reply, looking down at the stone floor, unsure what to say to the stranger.
“My name is Patti Fortis. I’m the artist,” she says, stroking her shoulder-length braid. Her palm stretches out and she clasps my right hand with both of hers. For a moment I’m not sure whose hand I’m holding—hers or one of the women’s in the painting. Her sandalwood perfume wafts over me, a magic potion.
“Would you like to buy it?” she asks, bowing her head slightly. “I see you’ve been looking at it for a long time.”
That is the last thing on my mind. I have no clue where to hang it in my tiny Mumbai apartment and I’m not sure I can afford it. But I do know that John would love it. I know I have to buy it. For him. For us. I smile and nod.
“Pleased to meet you Patti. My name is Susan, and I’m not intending to buy anything. But this particular painting of yours...it’s wonderful. There is such a strong connection between me and these two women.”
My hand lies comfortably between her soft palms, and she shakes my arm up and down.
“Then it shall be yours.”
I don’t remember walking to the cash machine a few blocks away to draw rupees for my purchase, nor pressing a pile of notes into Patti’s hand. She hugs me like a sister, lifts the painting off the wall, and wraps her work of art in newspaper tied with string. The precious purchase guarded by my elbow and forearm is tucked into my armpit. I hold it high off the floor, avoiding the crowds, calling out, “Saavadhaa!” (Careful!) when a kid nearly runs into me. My flip-flops barely touch the marble floor even though I’m holding a heavy package. When I leave the museum entrance and walk down the stairs back onto the bustling sidewalk, the sun is a red ball slipping toward the horizon. The light dazes me and the muggy evening air wafts up my trouser leg. People smoking and chewing betel leaf mill around hawkers selling chutney sandwiches, a man selling slices of papaya, and another, watermelon juice from a metal cart.
A few minutes later I find myself in a tuk-tuk’s backseat, clinging onto a pole and bouncing to my new Mumbai apartment. I don’t feel the need to wave away the clouds of exhaust fumes or wipe my watery eyes. All that matters is that the painting survives the potholes and the sharp twists and turns.
There is no wall space in the apartment so the painting stands propped against my closet door. It’s the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning. Yet as I marvel at their alluring outfits, I recognize that I’m beginning to change. Changes that for now seem cosmetic. I’m hopeful that if I start with my appearance, my spirit will wiggle its way back into my crumpled soul.
A stranger in the mirror stares back at me—dark eyeliner, thick mascara, long drop earrings, and a little too much blush. Curls and waves replace the flat-ironed, layered business bob. My orange kurta embroidered with jade roses defines my waist and emphasizes my breasts.
Today, the painting hangs on a soft purple wall next to the front door of my Seattle home. Every time I unlock and lock my front door these women, my friends, remind me that I’m still not sure who I am or who I want to be. But the gold and yellow hues are brighter as if trapped in the light from the window.
That painting is still me.
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