It was quite unusual for monsoons to hit Kolkata so early in the month of May. It had been raining incessantly for two days. Vishvesh Babu opened the window of his room and looked out. Electricity in the town had been shut down for the fear of any accidental short circuit and it was impossible for anyone to commute to his workplace in this rain. He could see children playing in the rain on their house’s rooftops. Women were busy preparing breakfasts for the family and men were mostly idling around in the balconies. Gopal babu living in the house infront of his was busy trying to read a Bengali magazine in the flickering light of the candle. Vishvesh found the sight of Ram moving the magazine along the candle‘s flameendearing. He took a pen from a nearby shelf and drew a quick sketch of it. He was in a mood to paint but Gopal’s theatrics could not hold his attention for much long. His attention was thwarted to a figure moving shabbily on the otherwise desolated street. From what he could make out, she was picking the rags and piling them in her bag. He ran down the flight of stairs and walked upto the woman. Her hair was tied back in a bun and she had covered her face with the end of her sari. Seeing the tall man walk upto her, she stopped moving and crouched down in fear. Vishvesh could sense the fear in her.
“Dont be afraid. I am not going to harm you. I am a painter. Can you come with me to my house for an hour? I think you will make a good model for me?”
She nodded in agreement and followed him as he went ahead of her, walking briskly trying to avoid anyone noticing them together. The girl walked in total submission as if she had no choice to do otherwise. She was not used to disobeying people from the higher caste. Vishwesh ran up the stairs with the woman following him as fast as she could with her heavy bag.
They reached his apartment and went inside. The room was in a very disoriented state. Save for a few paintings that were framed and hung on the wall, everything that a painter would need were scattered on the cupboards, floor and the only chair that the room had.
“Can you make us both some tea?”, Vishwesh asked the woman as she was still looking around the room.
She had her face covered with the sari and just nodded and waited for further instructions from the man.
“You will find all that you need next to the stove.”, Viswesh pointed to one corner of the room. She had to walk in the direction pointed by him to finally see the stove hidden beneath a pile of papers and colour bottles. She gathered all the paraphernalia required for the tea and lit the stove. Vishwesh took off his kurta and wiped himself with a towel. He put a towel atop his head and shook it vigorously. His mannerism exuded impatience. He turned around and said, “I will do the rest. You need to dry your hair and sari”. He handed the towel to her and moved her away from the stove.
She was not sure if she should use the same towel. Her body stank badly of garbage and sewage. She kept the towel on a nearby stool and wiped her hair and face with her own wet sari. Her hair was disheveled and thin and her face scarred with recently cured chicken pox. Vishvesh poured the tea into a cup covered with a sieve. She had only made enough tea for one person. He did not bother to ask. He understood.
“Sit on this chair. Dont be intimidated by anything. Just calm down.”
She sat in an awkward stance looking sideways. Vishwesh walked upto her and loosened her shoulders and made her pose looking right in the front. He walked back to the canvas and started painting.
“This place was not always like this. My wife used to keep this place tidy till some time back. She left me recently and went back to her house. Do you have a family?”, Vishwesh tried talking to her.
“Just one daughter.”, she spoke hesitatingly and softly.
“What about her father?”, Vishwesh found referring to her husband this way more pleasing to his ears. It effaced the man’s association from the woman in a way. She looked down in silence. For the first time that day she did not feel scared offending the Sahib.
“I’m sorry. I dont mean to intrude too much. I was just curious. You can chose to not answer if you wish.”, Vishwesh assured her.
“He left me after I got chicken pox. He said I was possessed by demons but I know he left me for another girl because he didnt find me beautiful anymore.”
“I dont think I would have been able to take that. Thankfully my wife did not leave me for anyone else. She said she was tired of living with me.”
“Rich women are always complaining!”
Vishvesh broke out in a peal of laughter over her innocent and shallow statement. The woman smiled a little. All the talking had eased her a little and she asked him, “How much will you pay me for this?”
“I am sorry, but I dont have any money to give you. You can keep this painting if you want.”
“What am I going to do with it? I dont have a home to hang it in and no one would buy anything from a Shudra. Dont you have anything to give? My daughter has not eaten anything since yesterday.”
“I have some food with me. You could take that.”
“Thank you Sahib.”, She said and reverted back to the pose he had shown her before.
Vishvesh maneuvered his hand vigourously up and down the canvas colouring it. They sat in silence for some minutes until Vishwesh got up and walked back a few steps to take a good look at it from a distance.
“How do you like it?”, He asked her.
She got up and walked near the painting to see her image on the canvas. Vishwesh had managed to capture her face perfectly down to the minutest details but had dressed her up in resplendent white clothes. She liked that. She smiled as she observed the painting. The last time she wore anything so fancy seemed like a distant memory now. She jumped in joy seeing herself so beautifully presented and could not stop smiling.
“I wish I could show it to my daughter”, she said
“Why dont you bring her here?”, Vishwesh asked.
“I would love to Sahib. But she might be hungry and I should go back now and give her food”
“I suggest that you bring her here and we all eat together.”
“That would be too much trouble – going home, coming here and going back again”
“You dont have to leave. You both can stay here for a few days.”
“What will people say?”
“You’re a shudra. Why do you care?”
“Why would you want to associate yourself with someone like me.”
“We all have our flaws. Mine are more hideous than yours.”
“But I am ugly”
“I’m a painter. I can find beauty in the mundane.”
“What will you get from this relationship?”
Vishwesh walked a few step sideways, took out a knife kept near the stove and slashed his wrist. “You have a few minutes to save me and then we can talk about this for the rest of our lives.”, Viswesh walked towards the woman with his other hand covering his wound. And in the dim light of the sun seeping inside the room from the window, the woman for the first time since being in the room noticed around a dozen healed scars on his body.
Thankfully she knew a Doctor Sahib who lived nearby and within a few days the eccentric artist and his low caste mistress became the talk of the town.