Dev stood still for a whole 10 minutes in front of the gate to the Trivandrum museum and zoo complex, unable to decide where to go next.
It was a pleasant evening- the sun being not so hot and acool wind blowing. This made him think he should go for a walk. But in fact, that wasn’t entirely the reason he stepped out of home in the first place.
The thing was, he was feeling frustrated. Terribly so. He hasn’t painted anything in five whole days- which is about 18 years in dog years as far as he was concerned.
When he was starting out as a painter, many of his seniors told him that once you passed a certain age, your passion for painting ebbed and you would no more feel uncomfortable when days have gone by without you having painted anything. At 39 years of age, he was finding that the age limit that his seniors once alluded to hasn’t come to pass yet for him.
It wasn’t that he lacked ideas/ inspiration to paint. On the contrary, as an artist who has relied on his painting to take care of his material needs(at least as much as he could) all his adult life, he has long developed a knack for coming up with ideas with or without the assistance of inspiration. But to be honest, even staying inspired was no big deal for him anymore, especially given how he didn’t have much else in life other than painting to distract him. The last of his friends had turned him away when he went and asked for a loan a couple of weeks ago- he was down on the rent to his apartment by two months and his landlord wasn’t the most amicable person in existence.
Dev was also someone who decided early on in his life to never have a family of his own and instead dedicate his life to art- a move he never once regretted(well, except for the odd times when his eyes fell on a passing couple on the street with a kid. He has a weakness for kids). The lack of family meant that colours, and the subjects that he painted were the closest thing he had to one.
And when one is devoid of all such distractions, one is in a constant flux of inspiration- finding it in everything- in the clouds in the sky(which Dev would gaze out of his window for hours on end in a lazy afternoon), the flowers in a park, the chatter of people in a restaurant, the roar of the lion in the zoo(though a grown up, Dev was still fascinated by the zoo), the roar of the ocean waves(he knew a couple of people living near the Shanghumukham beach who might take him to the ocean in the boat for a fee) and just about anything and everything.
No, inspiration wasn’t his problem.
The problem that Dev faced was the same one which millions around the world faced- lack of enough money. In Dev’s case, literally all he had left was the loose change in his back pocket-which amounted to some fifteen rupees.
“But that doesn’t mean I could just stand here like an electric pole!” Dev muttered. He didn’t realize that spoke out loud until he saw a few people around him raising their heads.
Not that he cared one way or the other.
Muttering some more, he proceeded towards the only place he went to these days: the University College Hostel.
When Dev used to be a student at the Govt. Arts College two decades ago, it was at the University college hostel where he stayed. He has a lot of great memories about the place- ranging from holding impromptu ‘comedy skits’ in the corridors with his friends to having his first LSD experience(at the end of which he found himself outside the hostel, near the Palayam Connemara market, but that’s another tale).
But it wasn’t to soak in the memories that he visited the place. At least, not anymore.
Dev has had a few successful exhibitions as an artist, but all of them were long in his past. He has been what the media and society at large liked to term as a ‘struggling artist’- for a long time now. Too long a time for comfort.
In the meantime, his bank balance has depleted to the point of being non-existent and the fat and muscle content of his body too have abated. Whether you’re aware of it or not, when such crucial factors retreat from one’s life, things like memories of hostel life tend to mean less. Sometimes, the sound of your tummy rumbling, angrily(and sometimes pathetically) asking for food could drown out the sounds of laughter you recollect from memory.
No, it wasn’t for the memories that he went to the hostel.
Even as he walked towards the hostel, Dev kept thinking how nice it would have been if he had some place other than the hostel to go to. Someplace preferably further than this. His apartment was in Nanthancode and the distance from home to the hostel was just over two kilometers.
Dev hasn’t had lunch and his breakfast constituted just a boiled egg and a glass of lime juice(the latter was bitter. The lemon was two days old). This meant he wouldn’t have been able to walk for long distances in his weak condition. But still, no harm in wishing, right?
Upon reaching the hostel, he found the gate wide open. It was a welcome sign, he thought.
He entered the compound and took a seat on a low wall to diagonally beneath a big tree, the canopy of which provided shade during hot days.
This evening wasn’t hot but still Dev felt grateful for the tree branches for providing the extra-cool. He watched the colours in the sky arching above the Chnadrashekhar Nair stadium on the opposite side of the road. It was beautiful to watch the hues changing from blue to dark blue, with the interleaving spectrum lying in the golden end. It was as though nature was experimenting with colours, throwing a left hook by adding reddish hues into a predominantly blue tint. No matter how many times he watched the display, he couldn’t help but smile.
Directly outside the wall, on the sidewalk by the road was a makeshift dhaba, one run by an elderly man who sold piping hot tea and vadas. Presently, Dev heard the sound of a young man asking in an authoritative tone for “one tea and two vadas!” The young man’s stern voice sounded downright aspirational to Dev in his pitiful condition.
The smell of the doughnut shaped vadas being fried in oil wafted up and Dev cursed the scientific principle by which such smell could travel easily through the air, to penetrate the nostrils of such hungry souls as Dev who sat scratching his balls on a wall nearby, making him salivate and his throat to itch.
He felt the coins in his backpocket, grinding between his ass and the concrete of the wall.
He was tempted to buy a tea and vada(or at least a tea). However, the comfortable thoughts of smoking beedis in his backyard in the night made him restrain. Smoking, watching the moon in the sky has of late become one of his favourite activities, right next to waking up in the morning and going right back to sleep after realizing how he didn’t have anything to do today.
“It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?”
The voice came from his left and sure enough, even as he turned to look, a young man- not more than 20 years old, in a T shirt and shorts was climbing on to the wall, getting himself as comfortable as he could on the small width.
Dev assumed that the young guy was talking about the colours in the sky. At last, someone with an artistic heart!
But no sooner had he thought about it than the guy gestured with his eyes towards the roadside dhaba where the elderly man was busy making vadas.
“Oh, that, yes!” said Dev, giving a sheepish smile. He turned his head away, he didn’t want to be reminded of the vadas right now.
“One of the things I love about Trivamndrum is the number of such street vendors of food!” the guy was saying. “You cannot help but fall in love with it. I myself am from Vithura. Not that there aren’t street vendors out there, but not as many as you find here!”
Dev nodded half-heartedly. He would have left it at that had he not seen the dude pull a cigarette from out of a pack and light it, clamping it between his lips and taking deep satisfactory drags.
“Do you have a cigarette to spare?” Dev asked.
“Sure!” the young dude said cheerfully, offering him a cigarette. It was a Gold Filter. Dev couldn’t remember when was the last time he had one of those.
The dude lit the cigarette for him. Dev was amazed at his compassion. Yes, compassion, that was the word, he thought. For this wasn’t the first time that he asked a stranger for a cigarette. But it was the first time in a long time that someone has given him one in response.
And to think that it was such a young person! Dev’s eyes almost filled with tears. Like the majority of adults, Dev too was skeptical of the new generation . They were always absorbed in themselves, taking selfies and scrolling through mindless chatter when they could be doing a whole lot of good things with their time-like, like, well…like making art!
But this dude was different, he decided, taking a drag from the cigarette.
“Thanks!” Dev said once again.
The dude nodded casually as though saying it’s no big deal, asked where Dev was from.
They got into a conversation.
Dev was delighted to learn that the dude was a final year art student- that too studying in the same college where he was an alma mater(not that many people among his faculty and once-class mates would be proud of it).
Their conversation deepened(in more ways than one) once Dev learned that he was talking with a fellow artist. In fact, he was so excited with the cigarette and the chance for a conversation that it became the lengthiest he has spoken with anyone in a long time. After a while, Dev even forgot that they just met. He began telling the dude how hard it was sometimes to be an artist in this world that doesn’t appreciate artists.
“Frustrated with being unable to make a breakthrough, I thought I would join as a faculty in an arts college,” Dev was saying with evident pain in his voice. “But to my dismay, I found that to get to there, what you need more than skill in painting is connections, which I certainly didn’t have. So, I did the next best thing: I joined a private music and arts institute that taught kids piano and painting on the weekends. Sadly enough, that too didn’t work out as I planned. They kept defaulting on pay and the pay on offer was measly to begin with. By the third month, I was fed up and I quit.”
Then began an extended period of borrowing money from friends and utilizing most of the money to buy painting utilities, organize exhibitions by paying out of his own pocket etc. And when his paintings still didn’t sell, the cycle repeated, over and over until no one would lend him money anymore.
But such a poor experience hasn’t diminished his spirit or his belief in painting to take care of his material needs. The way he saw it, this was but a temporary glitch- though the lack of success has been plaguing his career for at least 8 years now.
He didn’t mention any of these details to the young dude. Such details, he thought were just too personal to be told to someone whom he met just half an hour ago- even if that someone gave him his first proper cigarette in a long time.
Instead, he concluded with a weary sigh, saying, “It’s tough being an artist!”
The young dude nodded. Though his head was lowered, he gave every indication that he was listening closely to what the older man said. More importantly, the expression on his face indicated that he empathized – a fact which didn’t miss Dev’s attention, and one which pushed the new generation up by a few points on his ‘Most likeable personalities list’ (though he felt one more cigarette wouldn’t be such a bad idea).
After a few brief moments of silence, the young dude said, “Yes, I imagine that the life of an artist would he hard. Just think about Van Gogh, right? Such a great artist and people just treated him like a dog! Even Caravaggio for that matter. Yes, his was a violent personality, but still…Yes, life as an artist is always hard..” It looked to Dev as though the young chap was slipping into a vortex of gloom and he admonished himself for doing that to the chap who gave him a Gold Filter cigarette.
But the young dude’s face lit up soon after. He looked at Dev and smiled. “I have something that might alleviate the pain of an artist though. At least for one evening.” The dude’s smile deepened.
Yes!, thought Dev,the young man is going to buy him a drink!
Dev was no alcoholic but whenever he drank, he loved it. He thought of alcohol’s ability to make everything- and literally everything feel better to be nothing short of miraculous.
But as it turned out, what the young dude offered was far better than alcohol.
Dev was amazed at the casual manner in which the dude handed him the pill.
Sure, by this time the sun has set and dark has descended on god’s earth. But that didn’t mean that such things as street lights didn’t exist. And in the light of the nearest light post- which stood right next to the street food vendor’s, Dev observed the pill- a white oval capsule that looked just like a regular capsule- the kind which you may get for fever or an upset stomach.
But the dude assured him that it was nothing of the sort. “You would be in paradise for a few hours!” he was assured.
Wondering if the dude was a part time drug peddler, he said, “I don’t have any money.”
“I know that,” the dude said. He, it turned out, had a knack for saying such things without giving offence to the other person. “Just take it. Consider it a gift- from one artist to another!”
That did it for Dev. He couldn’t remember when was the last time someone acknowledged him as an artist. It was all he could do to keep the tears which threatened to pop out and ruin the scene.
Silently, he took the pill, and following the dude’s direction, popped it in his mouth right then and there. “It will dissolve in your tongue. So, you don’t need water or anything like that,” the dude said. “Isn’t that amazing!”
Dev said that it was indeed amazing, though he was yet to feel the effects of the drug. He watched as the dude popped a pill into his own mouth.
Some ten minutes later, the effects kicked in.
It kicked in for both of them at around the same time. Ten minutes after that, seeing how Dev’s uncontrollable giggling was making people around to look at him with raised eyebrows(‘What right has a grown man to be giggling like that! It’s the exclusive domain of teenaged girls!’ they seem to be asking), the dude took him to the hostel where they rested on the verandah.
Well, rested might be too fine a word, for Dev was still giggling and found it really hard to keep his ass planted on the ground. He kept getting up and sitting down and getting up again, muttering behind the cupped palm of a hand, ‘What a world! What a wonderful world!’
It wasn’t much later before he began planting kisses on the dude’s face. “Thank you, my dear boy! You are an angel! A god-send! You make everything grand and wonderful!” He kept repeting such things whenever he came up for air from the incessant kisses that he planted on his face. The kisses were planted on the dude’s forehead, cheeks, chin and one even on his lips.
Fearing that he was being attacked by a sex-crazed homosexual maniac, the dude ran away, making a lame excuse about having to go meet someone soon.
Not that Dev heard the excuse. He was too preoccupied with the terrific flow of happiness that made a whole interstate highway of joy inside his body to bother about such things as the person who gave him the pill running away.
He has certainly enjoyed the dude’s company. But even his running away from him- like a deer from a lion wasn’t enough to bring down the highest elation he has ever known in his life. In fact, as he walked out of the hostel gate, his strides confident, he was sure that nothing- and absolutely nothing could get his spirits down. Ever again.
He whistled all the way back to his home. He didn’t feel even marginally tired once he reached home- forget the fact that almost 12 hours have passed since his last proper meal. In fact, he was brimming with energy.
Water is made of hydrogen and water with a excellent masseur thrown into the mix-this was one of the first thoughts that occurred to Dev once he got back home.
Usually, after coming back from a walk, it was his habit to take a bath more or less immediately. Particularly true if the evening has been hot.
This evening wasn’t hot but he certainly felt like taking a shower. In fact, what with the overwhelmingly high tide of happiness that he was riding, he felt positive that taking a bath would be the height of experiences of this evening that has already given him so much, which has already made him feel like a god.
“The drops of cool water sliding down the surface of my skin would be like a thousand masseurs giving me the most soothing massage you could ever envision in the entire universe!” he said aloud as he took off his clothes and walked into the bathroom.
The bathroom, as could be expected in a single bedroom apartment wasn’t exactly large. It was a space in which if two people stood side by side with their arms extended to either side, the tips of their fingers would touch the two walls.
But for some reason, the space didn’t feel all that confining to Dev on this particular night. In fact, it felt like he has entered the bath space of a hotel’s royal suite.
And when he opened the shower and the water hit his body, the sensation was so brilliant that he literally uttered “Oh, heaven!Oh, heaven!”
The house behind Dev’s belonged to an old Christian couple. They usually watched a Christian channel on the television together once the sun went down and everything became so much darker inside and out.
They heard Dev uttering loudly “Heaven!” – a sound that floated out of his bathroom door with the efficacy of a thief entering a door left open. And the moment they heard it coincided with a goateed priest with a thin smile on his face, saying on the screen that “Heaven shall be yours, all you have to do is believe!”
Both the husband and the wife were in their eighties and had seen their fair share of troubles and tribulations. In fact, in their life they had seen more of these than anything else, which led them both to question the existence of god on multiple occasions. Of course, they have never told this openly to anyone, not even to each other, putting on a brave face for Christianity’s sake.
So, when a disembodied voice came at what they would in hindsight take to be the most pivotal moment in the religious show, they took it as validation for the existence of god. “God has finally spoken to us!” they said simultaneously. They looked at each other and shed tears of joy.
They tried to get down on their knees in front of the television and pray, as a way of showing their thanks. But age had rendered their knees less than what they used to be once. Far less. So they gave up on that attempt and said Hallelujah! repeatedly, sitting on the sofa.
Dev meanwhile, lathered his entire body with soap, which felt like a delightfully child-like activity . He stayed in the shower a full half an hour uttering such things as “Oh, what a wonderful world!” and “Heaven on earth!” and “Water is the best thing that nature created since the dinosaurs!”. The last thing didn’t make much sense but uttering such nonsensical things was one of the side effects of taking the pill.
He stepped out of the bathroom, dripping water throughout the path he took from the bathroom door to his bedroom where he found a towel draped on the headrest of the bed. While drying himself with the towel, he felt that the birds on the towel- the towel had the images to two giant parrots printed on it-were kissing him.
Of course, in real life, if parrots were to kiss you, regardless of how romantic a notion that is, it would still be a painful experience. Particularly true if the parrots were as overgrown as the ones depicted in Dev’s towel. But in the imaginary scenario that Dev’s mind conjured up, the sensation of the kisses was nothing short of extra-ordinary.
To put things in perspective, if the sensation were a movie, it would have earned such reviews as “Incredible!” and “A staggering triumph!” And if it were a painting, critics would have said such things as “A generational leap in modern art!” and “The world has never seen anything like this before!”
It was when he gazed at the parrots- they were looking at each other, a somewhat bored expression on both their faces- when Dev imagined how wonderful it would be to be painting when he felt this high! ‘Why, that would be even better than getting the service of a thousand water droplet masseurs!’, he thought.
In fact, it would be so heavenly that he would have to redefine the concept of heaven itself!
Hurriedly getting dressed in a T-shirt(with a couple of age-related holes in it) and an old pair of fading shorts, he began frantically looking for a canvas to paint . No one in their right mind would paint in the night, that too under the artificial light of a fluorescent lamp. But he didn’t care about such conventions at this moment. All Dev wanted was to get immersed in the world of colours.
But no matter how much he looked, or where he looked- including under the bed and behind the wooden almara, he was unable to find a canvas. Eventually, he remembered why this was so- because he hasn’t brought one in a long time for lack of funds!
The realization struck like a spear plunging into his heart.
But the disheartenment didn’t last long. After all, he was still high. And he soon began looking for the best alternative-which was a sketch pad he knew was lying around in the room somewhere.
He had to wade through quite a bit of laundry and junk to get to it, but he finally found the object he was looking for lying on the floor between the bed and the wall with the window. It was dusty as hell and most of the pages were filled. And of these filled pages, almost all of them contained sketches of sunflowers.
Like Van Gogh, he too went through a sunflower phase, and also like the Dutch master, he too didn’t meet much success when he presented them to the discerning public. Maybe like the dead master, his sunflowers too might find success one day posthumously, and the paintings may hang in such super-reputed galleries like the Louvre or the MoMA.
But Dev had no interest in posthumous reputation. All he wanted was money during his lifetime.
But right this moment, what he wanted more than anything else was the satisfaction of doing work.
So, finding a blank page between studies of two sunflowers, he began to draw furiously. Some five minutes into the effort, he realized that it wasn’t working.
The glorious sensation that he was looking for was simply not manifesting. In fact, the more he drew, the more frustrated he became. And he knew the reason why: he needed a bigger…canvas.
Grunting, he threw the sketch book to the ground. It slid back to the space between the bed and the wall where Dev found it before, as though the book knew its way back home.
Rising with frustration, Dev began walking to and fro. But even as he was feeling the incessant itch of frustration gnawing within his heart, there was also the rhythm of elation which the pill has gifted. This was the sole reason why he didn’t get out of the house and went up to the terrace where he would stand under the sky and gaze at the stars-which was what he usually did in such situations.
Instead, he toed and froed inside the 8 by 6 feet bedroom and thought about where he could borrow some money from. He thought of one friend and acquaintance after another. Along with every face that popped in his mind also came a reason that made borrowing from that person impractical. More often than not, this reason was the same: he has already borrowed money from that person and has yet to give them the money back. On rare occasions, the reason was different- maybe he didn’t have any means to get in touch with the person, not knowing his number or address. Or the person in question was dead.
With each rendering of such reasons, Dev grew steadily frustrated, and he began shaking his head furiously.
It was while he was doing so that his eyes fell on the canvas. Or what could be used as a canvas.
The wall opposite to the bed was painted yellow and was devoid of a window or a cupboard or a shelf or anything of that sort. There was just a round thick iron nail that was hammered in to it at the height of an average man. Dev sometimes hung a piece of cloth, or the parrot towel on it. But he was sure that the nail was not that big a deal in relation to what he intended to do. Notwithstanding the nail, the wall had enough blank space on it for him to paint to his mind’s content.
Without losing time, he amassed the paints and associated utilities required for such a feat. And in the five minutes or so that took him to do that, an idea came to him as to what to paint. Or at least, the style he could adopt.
At first, he had thought that he would paint an abstraction of a scene that you might see in a beautiful garden- with flowers and birds and bees that buzzed around. He even thought of writing in the word ‘Buzzzzzz’ alongside a bumblebee so that the whole thing would have a pop culture feel.
But then, it occurred to him that, this being a wall he could paint something in the style of ancient cave paintings. For one thing, his bedroom was somewhat cave-like in that the air circulation was low- only two windows and the light too would be minimal if not for the fluorescent bulb.
He couldn’t help but smile at the thought of how funny it would be to paint in that ancient style some contemporary subjects.
And so Dev began his latest project- one that he knew he would have incredible fun doing, and one which made him stop and laugh even as he was painting.
The subjects he rendered on the wall included such contemporary motifs, like: people standing at the queue at a check-out counter in the supermarket, a man putting on a condom while a woman lied with legs spread in front of him, a bunch of people- or rather their heads visible as silhouettes against a giant screen in a theater, a family of four in a motorbike, schoolchildren in an over-crowded auto rickshaw, Superman flying towards a burning skyscraper with a worried expression on his face, a young dude chatting on a cell phone with a blank look in his eyes as he walks towards the edge of a canyon, a police patrol jeep parked on the side of the highway with one of the cops taking a leak at a bush nearby, a bride and groom in a Christian wedding, lollipops, Shah Rukh Khan dancing alone in the rain and a bowl of bananas.
It took him more than two hours to finish the work, though he used only a single coating of pale brown paint to do it.
Once he was done, he felt exhausted, so much so that he didn’t even bother washing the residual paint on his hands, knowing fully well that the next morning, it would be so much harder to clear his hands of the paint.
But he didn’t care. He was just too exhausted to move. So he simply plunged back into his bed.
His heart hammered like a machine gun with hormonal imbalance. Even though that made breathing itself a chore of sorts, he didn’t mind. In fact, he smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time he has felt this elated at a work.
Lying on the bed, beholding his latest work with a glint in his eyes, he thought how wonderful it looked. He acknowledged that part of the reason for feeling so great about the cave painting might be the pill. But he also felt that there was something more to this. In fact, the more he beheld his recent creation, the more assured he felt that this was his masterpiece.
The cave painting would be to Dev what Guernica was to Picasso(minus the political links) and the Mona Lisa to Da Vinci.
It would bring him money and glory-which meant a few villas in France and Vienna and international stardom.
He felt his heart beating even faster at the thought of partaking in orgies with super-models and Hollywood actresses. He found the palms of his hand sweating at the idea of flying to his island-home in Hawaii.
He would have liked to remain awake imagining more such delightful scenarios. But it was late- much later than when he usually went to sleep(which was late to begin with).
Despite his wishes to stay awake and imagine waxed butts belonging to super-models, Dev found himself slipping into a dark, deep sleep.
The world is a funny place- many people say so.
Even more number of people say this: life is funny.
In the latter instance, more often than not, what they mean by ‘funny’ is ‘ironic.’ Irony, even the tragic variety, could make one smile.
In the case of Dev, the funny thing was that just when he thought that he has created a masterpiece that could finally bring him the material joys he has been denied for a very long time, life decided that he has been given enough of a run. It was as though life put him on the earth precisely so that he could produce a tongue-in-cheek version of a cave painting. Now that it was done, he could rest in peace forever.
Those who knew Dev closely during his life would have found this sad. For they knew only too well the different phases that Dev went through in search of success.
There was the time when Dev thought that maybe he needed to get more relevant in his subjects. MNybe the lack of relatable subjects was what was stopping people from buying his paintings, he had thought. So, foregoing his notion of painting clouds and rain and such, he began depicting such things as smart phones and laptops in his works. In one of them, he even included the Apple logo, which he felt would help sell the painting for a large sum. The painting did sell but not for a large sum. Not nearly so.
Seeing how relevancy was not the issue, he then switched to abstracts. Mostly inspired by such painters as Kandinsky and Picasso. This meant that this new phase saw him painting one rectangle after the other, sometimes one within another.
And the audience also saw in them nothing but rectangles. Which was still fine. But the audience apparently wondered why they should invest money in Dev’s rectangles which were boring compared to other rectangles that they could obtain from shops- like smart phone sand flat screen televisions.
Cursing Kandinsky, Dev moved on and tried out different things like cubism, modernism, realism, hyper-realism, comic-pastiche and various other styles and modes before failure in each of them forced him to resort to his original style, and the one which was always closest to his heart- naturalism. That was when the sunflower phase started and his funds began to take a serious dip.
Those who have been following Dev’s career would have been sad to see the artist dying just when he has created something magical after going through these many artistic iterations. But there weren’t many- in fact, there was not even a single person who ever followed Dev’s career(unless you counted Dev himself).
But the absence of such people in Dev’s life didn’t mean that Dev’s death wasn’t tragic. Ironic even, considering the fact that the same object that presented him the greatest elation he has ever known in his life was the cause of death.
For the pill the young art student presented to Dev was not just potent, it was also spurious- one of the many that flooded the Kerala market in the aftermath of the hard liquor ban. The tiny state of Kerala was not as evolved a drug market as, say San Francisco or Amsterdam. This meant that the consumers were still not equipped to discern spurious drugs from the good ones- not until it was too late.
Some two kilometers from where Dev lied dead, the young chap who took a pill with him also shuddered to his death in his hostel room. His room mate, a Post Grad literature student, did hear Dev grunting in his sleep but he just thought that he was having a nightmare.
Not that he could have done anything meaningful even if he had known what exactly was going on. For the chemicals in the drug- aside from making you feel like heaven’s closer to you than the earth, also makes the blood in your veins coagulate at different points. It’s only a matter of time before the blockage this causes leads to a rupture and the heart to stop.
Given such a situation, the best the literature student could have done, had he known that his room-mate was dying was hold his hand and recite one of Allan Poe’s poems.
Both the art student and Dev died at around the same time- a fate that some people think in association with a deep love that exists between two people.
But of course, in this instance nothing of the sort existed. One could say that both of the dead did love deeply- but it wasn’t each other, it was a love for getting a high-whether it be from art or pill.
Dev’s landlord was an elderly man with a head of curly gray hair and a thick moustache.
He was 57 years old and he wore a pair of round brown spectacles even though there was nothing wrong with his eyesight. He brought the glasses when he brought a computer last year- his first. And someone suggested that he buy a pair of anti-glare glasses. His 53 year old, when she saw her husband wearing glasses for the first time thought that he looked smart in it, and bemoaned the fact that they had never thought of buying him a pair when he was younger-when they used to go out a lot.
Since he got his wife’s vote of confidence, the landlord wore the pair of glasses almost always, whether he was looking at a computer screen or not.
He had the glasses on when he came down to Dev’s apartment on the very next morning after Dev’s death. Of course, he didn’t at this point know that his tenant of two years was dead, or he would have freaked out right then and there-he was owed three months’ rent.
The landlord lived just two doors away from Dev, in a two storied house which he built more than thirty years ago.
In the intervening years he has built three smaller apartments in different places in Trivandrum-one of which was where Dev lived. They were all rented out, the money from which helped him and his wife to live in relative comfort. They rarely went out as they thought the television and the internet have made going out a moot point. All their children were married off and they didn’t have any distractions to take their attention away from whatever entertainment was on in one screen or the other.
In other words, the landlord led a rather contended life. The only disgruntlement he had, you might say was regarding his tenant who kept defaulting on his rent.
The landlord was usually astute when it came to choosing his tenants. When Dev first came to him looking for a place to stay, he was a little apprehensive about the fact that the man was a professional painter. The landlord wasn’t acquainted with the world of painting. In fact, it was practically hearsay for him. And the idea of a grown man making a living painting pictures like children had struck him as a tad silly.
But then, he has seen enough television to know that the arts are kind of a cool thing, and artists, if not to be revered, should be at least given a space to live, as long as they made the rent payment on time.
And he hasn’t regretted his decision, until Jason began defaulting on the rent, that is.
Yesterday was the deadline the tenant himself gave him to make the payment. “I would bring you the three months’ worth of rent together. I promise!” The artist’s words, spoken a couple of weeks ago still rang in his ears with an undeniable clarit. (It was as though there was a recording device in his ear which absorbed the words and played it back to him in Dolby Atmos-a technology that was also embedded in the television in his home).
It was just past seven in the morning. When he stepped out of his home, his wife said that it might be too early-that the tenant might still be asleep. He told her that he didn’t want to give Dev the time to get out of home and get away.
So, here he was, at Dev’s doorstep, feeling somewhat angry. He would have liked to feel even angrier. The problem was that he has just come out of sleep himself and parts of his brain were still only in the process of whirring awake. It was just too hard to work up a lot of anger when the brain wasn’t fully awake.
Hoping that the anger he currently felt would be enough to speak in a tone that stung the tenant, the landlord knocked on the door. There was a calling bell switch but the landlord knew it to be defunct for a long time.
After a couple of times knocking on the door, he called out the tenant’s name. “Dev, oh, Dev!” He was gladdened by the fact that his voice sounded stern, none of the sleepiness he still felt evident in it. But he wasn’t all that pleased by the fact that even after repeatedly knocking and calling his name, Dev didn’t come open the door.
“Dev, I know you are in there!” he said, “I saw you last night coming back here. You were whistling and looked the happiest in a long time. In fact, I have never seen you happier! I know that only one thing could make a person as happy as that. In fact, two things- one is if a beautiful girl has agreed to your proposal for marriage, and another is if you have come by some cash. It could be either in your case, but if I were asked, I would say it was the latter. So, what do you say, are you ready to spare some of that cash and we can negate the defaulted rents?”
The landlord said most of this in a jovial tone, to communicate the fact that most of the things that he said- like happiness coming with a girl accepting your hand was a half-joke. It was only when he added the last bit-about negating the rent payments that he let his tone switch to his typical authoritarian mode.
He knew Dev to be a man with a humour sense.
But even his humorous tone didn’t help. The door remained shut and there came no sound from within to suggest that Dev was walking towards the door.
Cursing the painter under his breath, the landlord was about to retreat. That was when he saw the open windows to the bedroom. The bedroom was more or less adjacent to the front door- the entire apartment was that tiny. And from where he stood on the porch, he could see that the two windows were open.
Being not uncultured, the landlord knew as well as the next person that it’s impolite to peer into another person’s bedroom. But Dev hasn’t paid his rent for three weeks and so, he reasoned, the house was not technically Dev’s in any legal sense for the time being. He- the landlord, the actual owner of the house had more claim on it than Dev.
But even so, before he shuffled towards the window, he looked around to see if any of the neighbors happened to be watching his movements- houses were divided by mere inches in the neighborhood and many people in the neighborhood, his wife including, found observing their neighbors a pleasurable pastime for some reason.
To his relief, the landlord found that no one was observing him. Maybe because an old man’s movements were not all that fun to watch, or maybe simply because it was early and people were yet to wake up.
Coming to the window, before pushing the curtain aside, the landlord mock-coughed, hoping that the sound would wake Dev up-assuming he was still asleep. All said and done, he was still feeling a bit uncomfortable about peering into his tenant’s bedroom. But when he repeated coughing failed to produce any desirable result, the sense of shame fell off him like the old skin of a snake and he pushed aside the curtain on the window.
Now, the landlord has lived long enough on the earth to have seen dead bodies before- both his parents died in his own home and so did a pet dog-an Alsatian which he once owned. But none of those dead bodies had the expression he now saw on Dev’s face.
The man’s lips were drooped at one end while at the other they were tilted upwards. His eyes were wide open in an expression of either an amused delight or shock. It was as though in his final moments, Dev was undecided as to whether he should laugh or cry.
Once the initial shock of seeing the dead body passed, the landlord began looking at the areas around the bed. He was looking for prospective objects that one might use to commit suicide- maybe a bottle or poison or maybe a knife with which he might have slashed his wrist. There was no blood to be seen anywhere except for a trickle that has come out of his nostril and which seemed to have dried. Also, there was no bottle to be seen except for the few bottles of paints that were haphazardly arranged on the floor by the bed.
Notwithstanding the absence of any potential objects of death, the landlord felt sure that it was a suicide. The logical leap from ‘a man who couldn’t even afford the rent for a single bedroom apartment’ to ‘a man on the fringe of doing himself in’ was not that big to make.
But when the old man’s eyes fell on the wall- or more precisely, the painting on the wall, he gasped. He involuntarily called out Dev’s name, as though wishing to bring the dead man awake and ask him, ‘Dev, what in the name of the devil have you done to my wall!’
He walked back to his own home and without offering any explanation to his wife, took the key to Dev’s apartment and walked out again.
The first thing he noticed after entering Dev’s apartment was how dusty everything was. Not just the floor, but the plastic chairs and the coffee table and the show case-which was largely empty-were all smeared with dust, as evenly as though the painter had smeared a coating himself over the objects.
The landlord felt frustrated at being incapable to vent his frustration at the house being so dusty at the tenant. There was no point arguing with a dead body over such points.
Upon entering the dead man’s bedroom, the first thing the landlord did was look around the room-within the wooden alamara and underneath the pillow among other places for possible wads of cash which the dead man may have sequestered before passing on to the after-life: possibly with a note that said ‘To my dear landlord, take this money. Sorry for all the trouble.’
But alas, nothing of that sort was found! And when he found dirty underwear inside a drawer in the almara, he gave up looking.
The emergency contact number that Dev had given the landlord when he took up the apartment belonged to a cousin of. The landlord has had never the occasion to call the number and so had a bit of talking to do on the phone to establish who he was and what he was calling about.
The cousin, it turned out was a 40 plus year old man who was getting ready to go to the Secretariat where he worked as a senior clerk, when the call came.
The landlord heard a distinct sigh from the other end when he told that someone would have to make the funeral arrangements. For a second, he thought that the cousin may say that he wasn’t interested- the man sounded that disinterested about the whole affair.
But after a theatrical sigh, the man said he would be coming soon.
The ‘soon’ turned out to be some two hours later, which the landlord felt was too long a time to cover the distance from Pulimoodu which was where Dev’s cousin brother lived. But the man explained to the landlord that before coming over he has made the arrangements with the government crematorium in Jagathy- the Shantikavadam.
“It looks like he has had a heart attack,” the cousin said soon as he saw Dev’s body. He closed Dev’s eyes and re-arranged the body to assume the posture expected of a dead body-which was stiff.
When the landlord made the suggestion that maybe they should have a doctor or a coroner examine the body to ascertain the cause of death(he still thought it might be suicide) the cousin waved the idea away, saying they “shouldn’t take on undue hassles where it’s not necessary.”
The landlord, not a stickler for details, didn’t push it any further.
By the time the ambulance from the Shantikavadam arrived, the body was given a good bath and was wrapped in a plain white clothing- the standard attire in which most Hindu bodies entered the after-life.
The whole thing was over faster than the landlord thought would be possible.
Indeed, he found himself back home in time for lunch. Dev’s cousin brother also came back with him from the crematorium. After having lunch at the landlord’s home-upon the latter’s insistence, he went to Dev’s home.
The landlord requested him to clear Dev’s clothes and other belongings. The cousin brother took a few of his clothes- the ones with the least number of holes in them. “I have a servant at home who might benefit from these,” he explained.
The only other item of Dev’s which he took from the house was an oil painting that he found under the bed. It was laden with dust. It was a painting of a sunflower and possessed a simple beauty the kind of which only the picture of a flower could possess.
“I reckon the wife would like to have this hanging from the wall.” A smile bloomed on the cousin’s face as he said this, the first time that the landlord saw him looking anything other than irritated at the idea of making funeral arrangements for a cousin he evidently wasn’t close with.
The sudden burst of smile on the man’s face apparently made the landlord look surprised, for seeing the latter’s expression, the cousin added, “We used to be very close when we were young. We were both painters in the family, both of us aspired to become professional painters. Sometimes he came over to my home and we would paint together-those were amazing times…” The wistfulness in his voice was something that the landlord hadn’t expected. “But then, when we became older and it came time for us to choose our college degree courses, he was the one who still went on to pursue his dream while I became more pragmatic and chose commerce.”
“Good thing!” the landlord said immediately. He hoped that such a proclamation would endear him to the cousin brother. He immediately began making allusions to the fact that Dev hasn’t paid the last three months’ rent. When it became embarrassingly clear what the landlord was driving at, the cousin turned towards him and spoke in a soft yet steady tone.
“That’s not something I cannot help you with. Once he saw that I ran away from my dreams to what he considered as a life of mundane existence, Dev grew apart from me. From thereon, whenever we met, it was at a social occasion- a wedding in the family or something. And then too, we spoke very little with each other.”
“And yet, it was your contact number that he gave to reach out in case of emergency,” the landlord made a last desperate attempt to make the man see the righteousness in paying the rent that his cousin defaulted.
“Who else’s would he have given?” the cousin said pragmatically. “Both his parents are dead and he doesn’t have any siblings.”
The landlord nodded, even as he thought of something else to say which might change the cousin’s mind. Drawing blanks, he sighed and accepted the fate that the last few months of Dev’s residence on the earth was his due to pay to the cosmos, for some reason.
Thanking the landlord for all that he has done for Dev(which wasn’t much but no one would know that now, would they?) the cousin was to exit the house when turning around, his eyes fell on the wall behind him.
“My God, was this here all this time!” the exclamation was followed by a short amused laughter.
‘Of course it was here all this time! What else did you expect- that I hired someone to vandalize my own wall while your cousin was getting burned in the incinerator, to commemorate his passing?’ That’s what the landlord felt like saying but seeing how nothing useful- like the defaulted rent-would come out of such a statement, he settled for a simple, “Yes.”
The cousin, without taking his eyes from the wall laughed again- the note of amusement unmistakable this time. “I have never seen anything like it,” he muttered.
“Neither have I.” If the cousin registered the note of sarcasm in the landlord’s words, he didn’t let it show. Instead he kept on gazing at the painting, taking in the distinct elements, and when his eyes fell on the picture of the man putting a condom to cover his erect penis, he burst out laughing, as if he just saw a young boy’s delightfully mischievous prank-which was more or less what it was.
“It wasn’t here when I came over a couple of weeks ago,” the landlord was saying. “So I think it might be the last painting your cousin ever did.”
He was hoping that the cousin would appreciate Dev using the wall for a canvas and pay at least the going rate for a canvas these days.
The cousin didn’t give a sign of doing anything like that. Instead, he took out his phone from his pocket and clicked a few photographs.
Later that night, he would post the pictures on his Facebook account with the tag #Mycousinslastwork.
No one would expect a photo album of paintings done in the way of cave paintings by a clerk in the Secretariat who has just under 40 followers on Facebook to go viral. But stranger things happen in this world.
Dev’s cousin was quite fascinated by this development. Initially, he even read through all the comments that he received about the paintings from strangers. But when the number of comments became too much and he found that he couldn’t possibly read them all, unless he didn’t wish to retain his job, he gave up on that endeavor.
Nonetheless, he was glad for Dev. He hoped that the painter’s soul would be joyful knowing how much people appreciated his work (Though it did look to the cousin as though most of the people who commented, commented about that particular depiction of the man putting on condom, making him question whether it was the quality of the art or just the amusement factor which made people like the picture).
Following the piece going viral, local media houses covered the story which made the pictures even more popular. The media people reached out to Dev’s cousin, asking him all sorts of questions. “Who the hell was Dev?” “What the hell kind of a person was he?” “Did he have a wife?” “Did he have a lot of fans?” Of course, the questions weren’t necessarily phrased in the manner mentioned here, but the gist remains the same.
Dev’s cousin wasn’t someone you might call as a born celebrity. In fact, the man was quite shy and reserved who liked to keep things about himself and his family as private as possible. But when the media spotlight fell on him (for about 20 minutes of his life) he felt that he has been missing out a lot.
He imagined how different a life his would have been had he (like Dev) pursued his dream and (unlike Dev) became successful in the endeavor during his lifetime. He could then have enjoyed this revered attention from the media which would have made his life all the more interesting. Later that night, after the media people had left, lying on his bed, he even thought that the life of a man who isn’t a celebrity is akin to a dog without a bone. A dog may have many other things in its life- including great grooming service and boneless meat to eat frequently, and the most delectable biscuits to drool over.
But if it’s lacking a bone, it’s lacking a crucial aspect in its life.
But the next morning, when it was time for him to go to work, he’s forgotten all about it and began to think about nothing but how to take care of the next thing that has to be taken care of in life, like any normal working person.
The media also interviewed Dev’s landlord. They visited the house where the artist used to live. They took the photographs of the painting on the wall, tut-tutted sadly when the landlord informed them that he intended to paint over the painting the next day, as though what they would miss in the process was a national treasure.
Dev’s landlord, unlike Dev’s cousin, wasn’t all that taken in by the few minutes of attention that he received from the media. The way he saw it, media or no media, the fact was that he still hasn’t received the rent that was due him from Dev. So, what difference did it make if the photo of him and his wife sitting side by side on a sofa would be printed on the page of a newspaper or a website?
But the landlord was certainly amused the next day when he found people coming to his home, asking if they could see the dead artist’s home. The media people had printed the address of where Dev used to live in the news pages.
At first, the landlord thought that it was an isolated event, but by 11:30 in the morning, more than a dozen people were assembled at his front yard, all of them there to see the famous cave painting with their own eyes.
The landlord was on the phone, talking to a young painter he knew(not the artistic kind but the more functional kind who paints houses and stuff). The painter had told him that he would come down to paint over the cave painting by 11. It was past eleven and still he hasn’t come down. “You are going to come, aren’t you?” the landlord asked him. The house painter assured him that he would- he was caught in traffic, so he get delayed. The landlord assumed that the bit about the traffic was probably a lie, but he let it go.
When he got off the phone, he heard a murmur spreading through the people who were waiting outside.
He had told them that the house where Dev lived was a private apartment and so they couldn’t enter and watch the painting, so they should please leave. He was surprised to learn that they were still in his front yard. Perhaps, the stern voice in which he spoke to them wasn’t stern enough?
He walked out to the porch, ready to ask them once again to please leave when he discovered the reason for the murmuring from the crowd.
A foreigner had come. A white woman to be precise. A young white woman with flawless skin and whose attire revealed more than just a teaser for that said skin.
She smiled at the landlord. The landlord could well see that the woman would be only as old(or young) as his daughter. Maybe younger. But still, there was something in that beautiful smile which sent a shiver down his spine. Right then, he knew that he was going to have sex with his wife later that night, their first sex in God only knew how long.
The white woman stated the purpose of her visit. The landlord wasn’t surprised to learn what it was. He made a quick mental calculation. “The entry fee to the artist’s home is Rs.500 for foreign nationals and Rs.100 for Indians.” He said it as though the fee was something he has decided long ago, foreseeing that people would be queuing up to see the cave painting.
Seeing how readily the white woman handed him a 500 rupee note, he wondered if he should have charged 1000 rupees. The Indians looked disgruntled though about parting with the hundred rupees, especially given how the landlord had earlier told them that they should all leave without making the incorrigible demand to get into a private residence to see a painting on the wall which its creator obviously didn’t want anyone to see(Otherwise, why would be paint it in the wall of his home?” )
He led the people to the house, opened the front door and let them in, turning on all the lights as though he just ushered them into a museum.
He was delighted to see that more people were coming. And they kept coming- people from different walks of life- teachers, electricians, accountants, lawyers, graphic designers, more graphic designers, writers, students, more students, veterinarians, doctors, news people, government employees, politicians. There was even an ‘Aquarium attendant’ who visited that day. After viewing the painting, he – a short man with a stout frame asked the landlord about Dev-what kind of a person he was and how long had he lived there, that sort of things. The landlord was happy to answer- after all, the man did pay him entry fee. That was when the landlord asked him what he did for a living. Until the man told him, the landlord wasn’t even aware that there existed a job called ‘Aquarium attendant.’
Come night, when the landlord was walking back towards his home after having closed the house(which in his mind had become Dev’s Museum) he was laughing inside.
He made a decent sum that day, and if things kept on like this, he knew it would only be a matter of a few days before he would be able to recover the lost rent payments.
The next morning, early in the day arrived the dude who was supposed to paint over the painting. “I am sorry, sir. I couldn’t come yesterday. I was caught up in an urgent work..” he explained sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. He was scrawny and tall. You would be excused if the angularity of his face puts in your mind thoughts of a geometric box.
He stood outside the gate while apologizing to the landlord.
The landlord, to his surprise didn’t appear angry. In fact, the elderly man was smiling, saying, “It’s not at all a problem. In fact, I would say that we should do it another day..” He added with a wave of his hand.
“Oh, sir, I am sorry that I couldn’t come yesterday. What I said is the truth- there was some urgent work yesterday..” the painter said again, a note of forced earnestness in his voice.
The landlord waved his hand again, as though warding off imaginary flies. “It’s alright. I have to go somewhere today. So, we will do it another day.”
“Oh.” That was all the painter could say to that.
Dev’s museum attracted a more or less steady flow of visitors in the subsequent days. The landlord had a maid clean up the apartment, so it was no more dusty. He asked her to be especially careful when she cleaned the painting on the wall. “We don’t want to kill the goose that lay the golden eggs!” he exclaimed.
The maid- an illiterate elderly woman wasn’t sure what the landlord was talking about. She looked at the curious looking painting on the wall, seeing if a goose was depicted there. Although she did find one, she also saw a depiction of a man with an erect penis and thought that was funny
The landlord has long crossed the point when he has earned the lost rent payments by way of entry fee to the Dev museum. But he kept at it- for hey, who wouldn’t like to earn some cash doing nothing? Especially when he could earn more money this way than by giving the house on rent.
Sure, the museum didn’t attract anymore as many visitors as it once did but still it was good traffic, the landlord felt.
The intelligentsia and art critics had many theories on why Dev’s cave painting(it was now officially called so) became such a hit among people. Many cultural critics pointed out(rightly) how Dev’s cave painting was probably the first time in the history of painting in the subcontinent that an artist’s work was being appreciated by the common man in such a scale.
The reason for this, they speculated was that more and more people were realizing how barbarous modern life was. And the parallelism between people living inside homes in urban centers and ancient men living inside caves struck a chord with the modern man.
The landlord would see bearded men and women with spectacles discuss such matters in a television studio. For the most part he wouldn’t understand what they spoke about. But he was nonetheless glad that they were talking about Dev’s work on a public platform. The more they kept the artwork in public discourse, the more money he could make.
With such delightful thoughts in his mind, the landlord would go to sleep in the nights.
But all good things must come to an end, they say. Though the people called ‘they’ are by no means always right, unfortunately for the landlord, they did turn out to be right with regard to Dev’s museum.
For one morning, when the landlord went to the museum/apartment with the maid (since the ‘museum’opened, she cleaned the place every morning) he found the front door open. Dismissing the errant notion that he might have left the door open after he left last night, he entered the house and went straight to the room with the painting on the wall.
He gasped seeing what the vandal had done.
From top to bottom and left to right on the wall, the vandal had graffitied the word ‘It’s shit!’ over and over again. The graffiti was in brown colour making the landlord wonder for one ghastly moment if the vandal had actually used excreta to get his point across. But the lack of smell and closer inspection revealed that it was just good old paint.
‘Thank god for small miracles!’ thought the landlord, even though he was utterly flabbergasted by what he saw. Who would do something like this?
He soon had the answer as he saw a piece of paper at the foot of the wall, with a can of paint keeping it in place.
Bending slowly (he had backache) the landlord picked the paper up and read its contents. It was a note left by the vandal. “As a professional painter, I am ashamed by the work of Mr. Dev,” it said. “Painting is a powerful tool which should be progressive and nourishing to the society. And reverting to a cave painting style is hardly progressive. I have been watching with disgust the proceedings surrounding Mr.Dev’s cave painting ever since it began getting featured in the media. I thought that someone- one of the erudite members among painters would come out and say what I believe many feel- that this cave painting is a sham. But no one did, and there was only so long that I could wait until the injustice of it all compelled me to do something.’ The printed letter was signed in the name of “Artist” though the landlord could see nothing much artistic about the scribblings the vandal had left behind on the wall.
With the aid of the maid, the landlord made a concoction which the maid swore would remove even the toughest of stains- involving vinegar, lemon and other things. But when he applied it with the tip of a towel on the wall, he found that along with the vandal’s handiwork, the original painting under it also began to peel.
So, giving up the idea of cleaning up the vandal’s act, the landlord left the house, but not before pasting a notice on the wall outside that said “Museum closed until further notice.”
On the following days, the landlord found his spirit sinking. So much so that, one night he didn’t even feel like having food.
It wasn’t just the fact that he was no more making money from the museum (though that was the biggest reason he felt so sad). The thing was, what with showing people around the museum(which basically involved pointing them to the room with the cave painting or the bathroom for those who so desired) and answering questions of visitors and collecting money from them and everything, the landlord was feeling a little bit more alive, he felt like a participant in the goings on in the world for once.
And now, that phase was over. That too, abruptly.
“Maybe it was for the best,” his wife said seeing how glum he looked. He sat with his shoulders drooped, staring at the floor at the porch. “You know, we are old. And we would benefit from a quiet life,” she continued. “All those people coming and going, and you being away all the time…You leave home in the morning, leaving me on my own, and you would be back only by night, after the museum is closed. Some days, you didn’t even have lunch. Do you know how worried I was about you?”
The landlord didn’t tell her that part of the attraction of the museum was that he could spend the day away from her, among strangers. After more than 30 years of marriage, one might imagine that one would know that the spouse may want to spend some time apart, but apparently, that’s not how it worked. The landlord nodded, knowing not what else to do.
Letting out a long sigh, he decided that it’s time he put out an ad looking for the next lodger. But before that he needed to get that wall painted over. No lodger would like to have a room with a wall full of ‘It’s shit!’ written over it.
The very next morning the landlord called the scrawny painter to come and paint the wall. The latter said he was busy for the next few days, away at a work site. He would come paint the wall the first day after he was back. The landlord asked him if he could arrange another painter. The painter said he didn’t know another other painter-which sounded extremely suspect to the landlord.
After getting off the phone, the landlord thought about getting some other painter. He was sure that he could procure one with the aid of one of the neighbors. But that’s when the calling bell rang.
He opened the door to find media people. They had come to find out what’s up with the “Museum closed until further notice” sign. “I got a reliable source who said he saw the sign with his own eyes,” an interviewer- a lady with a round red bindi on her forehead which looked like a miniature sun said.
Realizing that this might be the last chance for him to make money out of the late Dev, the landlord said, “I would like to show you something. But I reckon since I am under no obligation to do so, it might as well be worth my time…You understand?,” he added when none of the media people let on that they knew what he was talking about.
Eventually, when they realized that their collective gaze on his face wouldn’t make the old man budge, the media people relented. They agreed upon a price(the negotiation took a whole fifteen minutes) after which he led them to the late artist’s apartment. The media people filmed the wall, took a lot of snaps=- one of them even took a selfie standing in front of the vandalized art work.
The landlord explained that he was going to get the wall painted over in one of the coming days. “I am an old man,” he said, as though this wasn’t self-explanatory. “And it would be asking too much of me to defend Dev’s artwork from vandals- it’s such dark times that we live in,” he added, as though someone just asked him to defend Dev’s artwork.
The media people nodded understandably. There were three of them- from two different television channels, and they all seemed to understand the plight of the poor old man. The landlord found it amusing that people from two competing businesses found a common ground on anything.
After the media people left, the landlord had a sumptuous breakfast. He had the lock changed on the other apartment’s front door. He asked the locksmith whether he knew any painters. The latter shook his head no.
The landlord said that didn’t matter. In another half an hour, he was back in his home, in his bed, lying asleep, snoring loudly- since the museum was no more, he didn’t have anything to do and so followed the lead of boredom into sleep.
The next day, at around 11 in the morning, four people- three men and a woman came to the landlord’s home. The landlord was sitting in the porch reading the day’s newspaper when they pushed open the gate and entered.
The four of them had an artistic air about them- a sort of lethargy mixed with weariness with an underlining of beatification: one WTF expression if ever there was. In the few weeks that the Dev museum was functional, the landlord has had many an occasion to interact with visiting artists, and no matter from which part of the country, or even the world they came from, one thing he found common in all of them was this WTF. In fact, the more he interacted with artists, the more it seemed to the landlord that artists- and that included writers, were the people who understood the least about what’s going on in the world.
He remembered the time his second daughter attracted a proposal from an artist once.
They came this close to arranging the marriage. In hindsight, the landlord was glad that it didn’t happen- he certainly didn’t wish his daughter to be married off to a person with very tenuous link to reality, which was what an artist was.
“The museum is closed. I am sorry,” the landlord said to the visitors in English, seeing how the woman among them was white.
“We know that,” said one of the men with a smile. The kind of self-satisfied smile which the landlord has seen on an artist’s face. The kind of smile which said, ‘I know things better than you but now, what can I do but indulge you in your ignorance!’
The man who spoke to the landlord was dark skinned and wore a pair of round glasses. His beard, which flowed down past his chin looked so unkempt that it gave the appearance of being ready to mutiny his body. His attire was a long brown jubba and a pair of blue denim- in other words, the classic artist.
“We actually came because we would like to discuss with you about the possibility of restoring Dev’s painting,” the man continued. Seeing the look on the landlord’s face, he said, “Yes, we know that the artwork has been vandalized. But we…oh, I forgot, what a fool I am!”
‘Of course, you are,’ thought the landlord, though he kept the thought to himself.
“I forgot to introduce ourselves,” the man said. He then went on and introduced each of them, speaking each name so slowly it made him sound like a sloth and made the landlord look retarded. The woman was Norwegian and her name didn’t make any sense at all to the landlord, even though the man said it in the slowest drawl.
It sounded just like an amalgamation of sounds that were not meant to be put next to each other- mmghrdaborgdfmrkha! Or at least, that’s how it sounded like to the landlord.
Not that he particularly cared. Even the names of the three men-which were all proper Malayalam names, like Sarath and Chandrashekhar, he forgot five minutes later.
The details that stuck with him were three: one, the four of them were from different art organizations- both governmental and private. Two, they were at his home because they wanted to see if they could apply their expertise to restoring Dev’s artwork. Three, the man who said all these things had teeth the colour of dung, making the landlord reaffirm his idea that all artists were addicted to tobacco, among other things.
Dev’s museum reopened to the public just five days after the contingent of four people arrived at the landlord’s home.
The landlord was as surprised by this development as anyone.
If he were to be candid, he never believed that the four arty people would be able to restore a grime encrusted vessel to its pristine condition, let alone an artwork that has been heavily vandalized. But the landlord- like any sensible grown up didn’t get candid unless it was absolutely necessary. So he thanked the four “with all my heart.”
Prior to the opening, the landlord hired a security guard to man the museum in the nights. The sturdy looking young man started his duty the night before the opening day.
The opening day brought in more number of people than the landlord had hoped for- for some reason, the news of the artwork getting vandalized and subsequently getting restored made the work seem even more precious in the public’s eyes.
But the landlord didn’t raise the entry fee- not even for foreign nationals. He found this a very gentlemanly act on his own part.
At about noon on the opening day, the painter- the one who was supposed to paint over Dev’s painting arrived on his scooter. “I just got back from a work in Kochi this morning! Soon as I reached home, I had breakfast and took a bath and immediately left so that I could come here. I know how you wanted to get that painting job done!” the man said all this in a single breath, making him pant like a dog as he stopped to catch his breath.
The landlord patiently told him that they would do the painting some other day.
The painter’s eyes widened, a look of surprise mixed with sadness in them. The landlord felt that he was over-doing it. But, what with a higher number of people turning up for the museum e-opening he was in a generous mood. So, he gave the painter a few hundreds for taking the effort to come down. This considerably brightened the painter’s face. “I must now get back home and get some sleep,” he said.
The landlord knew it was said to remind him that not only had he come all the way down from his home more than 4 kilometers away to the landlord’s place, he also came at the expense of much needed sleep.
But the landlord was determined not to pay him for his lack of sleep.
“I would call you when we need to paint it over,” he said. And as the painter hopped on to his scooter, he added, “You said you ate breakfast and then took a bath before leaving home earlier this morning. Don’t do that. One must always take a bath before having food- that’s the godly sequence!” the landlord grinned.
The painter nodded his thanks and moved away, riding the scooter up the small bylane, wondering what in the name of god a “godly sequence” meant.
The joy of re-opening the museum lasted but just two days for the landlord.
For on the second night since the re-opening, the vandal attacked again. A letter was found at the scene of crime this time as well. It said that the perpetrator was not the same as the previous time. The landlord thought that that was bullshit- there was just one loony person and he just wanted to give the impression that he wasn’t alone in his madness.
But loony though he may be, he was certainly efficient. This the landlord surmised from the CCTV footage.
Before the re-opening the landlord had installed one CCTV camera at the front of the house. He found it a reasonable investment to have just one camera and not any more. He had to do a lot of thinking to decide whether he should install it out front or in the room with the painting. What eventually decided him to opt for the outside was the fact that the camera covered a wide berth-encompassing the width of street in front of the house that stretched up to his own house two doosr away. So, if any nefarious agent were to walk around in the night outside his home, the camera would capture that too.
The camera footage showed a lean and sprightly man, clad all in black, wearing a black nylon mask, jumping over the wall near the gate. Red digits at the bottom right hand side of the screen showed the time as 12:31 AM.
The security guard had just a minute ago gone to the bathroom outside the house to take a leak.
The intruder stood behind a pillar on the porch, waiting for the security guard to return. And once he did, he pounced on the man with a piece of cloth which was presumably soaked in chloroform. The landlord, despite himself, was impressed by the clean efficiency with which the intruder moved out from behind the pillar and pressed the white cloth to the security guard’s nose.(The guard was yawning at that point, so there was a good chance that some of the chemical fumes got into his mouth as well). The movement was so swift that in just four seconds the security guard lied unconscious on the ground, sprawled like an eagle struck by an arrow.
“And this guy is young!” the landlord muttered as he watched the scene on his cell phone. His wife too gasped.
She commented how the intruder moved swiftly given how he had a backpack. The landlord thought that was a stupid comment given that the backpack was evidently not a sack of cement. They watched as the intruder brought out of the backpack utilities with which he could pry open the door, which he did in under ten seconds.
The vandalism was, if anything worse than the last time- in addition to words like ‘Shit” and “It sucks!” there were also random images scrawled over the painting- like a person puking and another person pissing. Rather limited in imagination but still very effective when it came to ruining the original painting.
The landlord decided that this time he should shut down Dev’s museum for good.
He released to the media pictures of the latest vandalism- by this point, he was tech savvy enough to do that. He also mentioned that he was going to shut the Dev museum.
As he expected there was a bit of an outcry. But no one actually came forward with help- by providing the money for restoring the painting or to for improved security for the building.
After a couple of weeks, the hue and cry died down. People seemed to have forgotten all about Dev. A recent scandal about a money laundering expose involving senior members of the government helped take people’s minds off such silly things as art.
The landlord called the painter. “Are you sure you want to do it this time?” the painter asked. The landlord said he was. “Are you sure about it?” the painter said. The landlord said ‘of course.’
“Okay, I would be down there later in the day,” said the painter.
He came down the next day. It took him just an hour to cover Dev’s masterpiece for good.
Once the cave painting was painted over, it was like a major psychological breakthrough for the landlord. He found that the instance helped him put things in the past and move on-. And he moved fast, by putting an ad in the newspapers the very next day, seeking a lodger for the apartment.
He thought he would mention in the ad that the apartment was where the legendary cave painter, Dev used to live-maybe he could get some extra rent leaning on the celebrity that Dev enjoyed post death. But at the last moment, he retracted, thinking how such a move might attract some other artist to take up the apartment. And by experience he knew that an artist lodger could be pressed for funds at any time. No, he didn’t want to take that risk.
The very day the ad appeared on the newspaper, the landlord started receiving calls.
Prospective lodgers included a teacher who has just joined an institution in Trivandrum(he found the rent too high), a tailor who said he would need the place for just two months as he was down in the city for some business(something about the man’s voice struck the landlord as extremely fishy) and a young couple who were ready to move in to their first independent home(the landlord suspected that the young couple were actually not married- or at least not married to each other). The person whom the landlord eventually settled on was a young man in his early twenties who worked as a software developer in a company in Technopark.
The young man could have settled somewhere closer to Technopark which was in Kazhakoottam. But then, he was someone who loved to read(so much so that he even had a book themed backcover for his iphone). He has been to Nanthancode before to visit a friend once and was quite surprised by the quaint silence that enveloped the place. The silence was largely due to the lack of many commercial establishments in the area and also because it wasn’t a bus-route: at least not the part where the apartment to let was in.
So, when he saw the ad, he answered , came to check it out and loved the tranquil environs which would be the ideal setting for him to read in the evenings(and the mornings and whenever he could get time to read). Bargaining with the landlord, he settled on just 500 rupees lesser than the asking rate.
The landlord found this okay since he has put a 1000 rupee margin on the asking rate to begin with. He asked, just out of curiosity whether he wouldn’t find the commute to and work a bit tedious? Why didn’t he look for a place closer to work?
“I have a bike. So, it won’t be a problem,” said the young man. He refrained from adding the real reason- the tranquil atmosphere he wanted for binge reading.
Somehow, the landlord didn’t strike him as someone who appreciated the arts.