Drawing Lessons

Very good, he says, with the authority of a doctor examining an X-ray. The future looks the same as it did two weeks ago. Be betrayed by my own body or my husband’s body? He calls, and I don’t answer the phone because I already know he won’t be coming home for dinner. Am I unable to continue the lessons, or am I simply no longer in need of them? As he starts talking about the connection between the face and the planet Saturn, my eyes wander to a painting on the opposite wall. At least you have a son. We end early because I am tired. I don’t remember, my father said. For a moment I catch a glimpse of another Flora: a woman who has tried, and failed at motherhood. But sometimes you almost miss being viewed as a sexual object. She calls every day at four p.m., and we talk for an hour, and then I spend an hour in the kitchen, supervising the maid as she prepares our dinner. Let the object tell you what colour it wants to be, she says.  
The days move slowly with nothing to look forward to. And please don’t offer me your money. He thinks I’m a good influence. In partnership with the   Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. One day she wants all wood and bamboo, then next day she watches some movie, and wants marble-topped everything. Die at the age of fifty or never experience childbirth?  
As a child, I was afraid of confrontation, and would start reciting the national anthem when anyone asked me a question I found abrasive. I hand him five hundred rupees, and leave without taking the notes he has written about rituals I need to perform. It feels different, she states. Try shading. I haven’t spoken to any of them in months, and I have no intention of doing so. A mole on or around the eyes could mean domestic trouble or bad luck with finances, my astrologer Mr Nayar informs me. That’s fine, I say. I once asked, suspecting we had been pushed together as a social experiment. Don’t get stuck on any one part. I’ve been taking drawing lessons from a woman named Flora. I am too stunned to respond, but her gesture isn’t sexual. A good book. I had a strange dream the other night. She doesn’t elaborate, and something in her demeanor stiffens. I’m sorry. I bring out my checkbook and ask for her full name. I’ve lived here since then. Our heads almost touching, we look at the pictures together. Flora ma’am said no need, the maid tells me, in a combination of broken English and Marathi. She tells me about the new television show her husband has been making her watch.  
Image © Elné
  Suddenly the conversation feels like a crossword puzzle where the clues are wrongly numbered. Getting a drink with co-workers. She tells me about her breast cancer, and how she had a full mastectomy of her left breast.  
At dinner, Karun asks about my day, but I don’t mention Flora, or the fact that I know he spoke with her about my condition. She carries a large sketchbook and a box of charcoal pencils in a backpack meant for schoolchildren. I pause, and she asks to see the drawing. I’m making a casserole. He asked me not to tell you. They appear in my dreams, perhaps because I’ve told this lie, and made them my unwitting accomplices. Are you still considering a second round of fertility treatment? Soon, I hope, she will teach me figure composition. Karun is worried about the expense. She sketches an oval on my sheet of paper, and shows me the basic shape of a face. I ask him for a piece of paper and a pencil, and I draw a picture of my husband’s eye from memory. Ask your father. I can already predict her reaction: Focus on making children instead of unmaking your marriage, she will say, with uninhibited pompousness. You know that’s not true, Tarini. All colours are hurt spectacles, I think, and say aloud without intention. I finish reading Flora’s book, and call her one evening, hoping she will forgive me. I want her to draw me, but it’s an intimacy I will not allow myself. I ask whether she has any children. Yes, she says. I know you and your husband have been trying for a child. Flora types the name into her phone and shows me portraits by Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian expressionist. Flora is a catholic name, I say. A question I know the answer to is also a question harbouring an accusation. Flora doesn’t say anything for a while, but arranges the drawing materials on the table, and talks about colour theory and aura. She asked me a series of yes or no questions, to which I kept saying maybe, and then told me to stop reciting the national anthem when I wasn’t supposed to. I spend an hour trying to get the wording right. Doctrine of Colours by Goethe. What is there to forgive, she says in a neutral tone, though I don’t believe her. What got to me was his attentiveness to everything around him. Pascal’s wager, I tell my sister, when she expresses her disapproval. I know this to be untrue because I was in the living room till four a.m., watching re-runs of the news. I close my eyes, and the image of her from my dream appears. Will be late. Anushka Jasraj’s ‘Drawing Lessons’ is the winning entry for Asia. When my sister calls in the evening, I do not mention any of this. They feel different, I say, parroting her words and her tone. We are both too tired for our usual fights.  
On Monday, Flora arrives earlier than usual, and asks if I want to take a walk before we begin the lesson. I already know all the answers. I don’t know. It looks out of place slung across her shoulder, next to the carefully braided silver hair, and even more so when she places it on the floor next to her, in this house bereft of children. She looks over the drawings, and says, Your lines remind me of Kokoschka. I kept asking her questions, but it made her cry more.  
It is five in the morning when Karun gets into bed. Tina is pregnant with her second child, Urmila’s first daughter started school recently, and with Yogita’s children I’ve lost count. The astrologer wants me to return home for the photograph, but just leaving the house takes reserves of energy that I struggle to find.  
I’m thinking about Gertrude Stein again, and how Karun memorized lines from her books to impress me. The child was crying, and wanted directions to my house because she was lost. Igor stops barking when I open the door, and sniffs around Flora’s small feet as she takes off her blue chappals. It’s not that Tarini is homophobic, but I am embarrassed to admit having discovered new aspects of my sexuality at this age. He said you’ve been more cheerful since we started the drawing class. That makes you sound like a schizoid, darling, she says. I know what it’s like to feel betrayed by your body. She seems pleased that I am taking initiative.  
It is Monday. The person I was back then, a stranger to myself now, agreed to a date, and then five more, before we slept together. I can handle this, she says in Marathi, go practice your drawing. I kiss her neck, and lick the scar on the left side of her torso. Boyle relates an instance of a lady, who, after a fall by which an eye was bruised, saw all objects, but especially white objects, glittering in colours, even to an intolerable degree. He’s just concerned, but it felt so underhanded to not tell you that. The Pomeranian, whom we have named Igor, announces Flora’s arrival by barking before the doorbell rings. Gertrude Stein, I mumble. She hands me the money, along with a book, which Flora has sent for me. She nods. She usually speaks of Akash with a competitive edge to her tone, but today she sounds tired. They leave and Flora arrives. Are you upset with me? I don’t want to argue about this again. I couldn’t give her directions because she didn’t know where she was. The girls are my friends from college: Tina, Urmila and Yogita. But he might get deported. Tina keeps telling me her bladder wants to burst, and the other two are squeezing my breasts. We don’t have to walk. Something simple first, she says. I was born in Chembur only, back when it was a refugee camp in 1950. We sit next to each other at the dining table, and I tell her I want to try portraiture. He was always pointing out things: a strange-looking bird, a surreal street sign, a man selling kites and flutes, the beauty of a building I walked past every day. We work in silence, making watercolour paintings of a small copper mug. I ask if she wants to take a walk after our class.  
My husband has a mole on his left eyelid that looks like smudged kajal. You don’t know my situation, I say, surprised by the coldness in my voice. Love. I have one above my belly button, and I’m told it’s a sign of fertility, but this has proven untrue. I was speaking to a child over the telephone. She comes to my house on Mondays and Wednesdays, and for the past five weeks we have been drawing bowls of fruit: mangos, apples, coconuts, lychees. She is offering herself up to the brutality of my inexperienced hand. It’s from a book, my mother had said, when I asked. In the end I write that I am terminating the lessons because I would like to invest more time in other parts of my life. After she leaves, I berate myself for choosing the most blatant lie. Tarini doesn’t push the matter. She grabs my wrist and presses my hand to her left breast, then she brings my hand to her right breast. Instead, I find myself being nicer to Karun at breakfast – placing a kiss on his neck, which he doesn’t acknowledge. I wait for Flora with anticipation.  
When my sister calls at our usual time, I explain to her that I’m in two marriages with one person. The rest of the day is blurred, boring and without texture. I am unsure whether it is an act of cruelty, or a cry for help. Tomorrow I was thinking of going out for dinner with the girls. I try reading a book about how nutrition affects thyroid and fertility, but my mind wanders, and I play a game of Would You Rather. We could even go to the Hanging Gardens and collect flowers. Do I send her my warmest wishes, or my sincerest regards? They think I would have a good career as a wet nurse. If I ask, he’ll say: I came home at one but I was watching television in the living room. Can we start classes next week? In this way, our marriage is two separate marriages. Karun was training to be an architect, and I was a graduate student hoarding notebooks filled with bad poetry. What book? I think he wants to have a second child just so he can keep watching these cartoons. It might be nice to have him back, I say. Keep your hand loose. No, I don’t know. Should I turn up the fan? My phone trills to announce a text message: Why aren’t you picking up? I send the maid to Flora’s house to deliver the note, along with some money. I couldn’t keep even one son in check. Mustard leaves, spinach leaves and radish leaves, sautéed with garlic and green chillies. Shades of teal and turquoise in a diamond shape at the center, surrounded by yellow and orange blotches, inside a mute bronze frame. I’m sure this makes you happy, she sighs. It’s based on the myth of Hanuman, and all the Hindu gods have modern superpowers. It made me furious that someone else’s faulty memory was to blame for my sense of incompleteness. I say. It was very distressing. Sindhi? Just, you know, I could tell something transformative would happen, she said.  
I write a note to Flora. she asks, with unexpected tenderness. Suffer or tell the truth about my desires? Why not, she repeats. There are wrinkles deepening around her eyes. I met Karun at a party hosted by our mutual friend who was intent on setting us up for reasons as yet unknown to me. Nayar looks at me, You lost your spectacles? He tells me about a new client who calls for a meeting every few days because she keeps changing her mind about the house. Another late night tomorrow. I explore her body with my hands, and tell her I want to paint her in orange and gold. This habit got me into a different kind of trouble when I turned thirteen: I was sent to the school mental health counsellor. But now I know: Moira means destiny. For a moment my thoughts drift, and I place a hand on my neck and ask her if it’s too warm. It was an old rotary phone. He wears large gold-plated rings on both thumbs, and his fingernails have the sheen of a recent manicure. I have always been envious of my sister’s name, and never understood why my parents gave her the sweet, normal, Indian name, while I was called Moira. She undresses because she has agreed to let me draw her, but I am overcome with lust, and ask if I can kiss her. Don’t be afraid to draw my old age. I am afraid of the feelings it might evoke. Why not, she says. What does that mean? Lose an appendage or lose my marriage? One daughter. I start with the mouth: her lips are thin. It is thirty-five degrees and cloudless outside, but before I can respond, she confesses: Your husband called me yesterday because he’s worried about you and he asked me to get you to go out. Nayar traces his finger along the drawing, as if the texture of the paper might reveal something. I pore over the book, searching for a note, an underlined sentence, a dog-eared page, but there is no sign of a message from her. He smoked, and I didn’t like the smell of it. It is a very hot day. A passage from a section about colours and their shadows. I visit the astrologer, but he has nothing new to tell me. The friend later claimed she had an intuition that Karun and I would make an alchemical match. Damn annoying. Why am I telling you all this? My perfume made him sneeze, and I didn’t understand his humour, which involved riddles and violent knock-knock jokes. Try to draw me, she says. I have to go now, she says. He wants a photograph of my husband’s mole, since my husband works all day, and could not accompany me for this consultation. I change the topic, and ask about her son, who attends a small liberal arts college in North America, and was recently arrested for drug possession. Moles signify different things depending on the body part. You’ve made me look young, she laughs, and touches my cheek. Amazon women cut off their breast so they can be better warriors, she tells me, and suddenly I am afraid: not of her, but of my passion for her. My throat closes up, and I feel hurt.  
I have a master’s in English Literature from St Xavier’s College, and mine is a love marriage, which means visiting astrologers is not something I have always done. I read to her from the book.  
Goethe: Objects are often seen by sick persons in variegated colours. I play out the fight in my head, realize it would end with me placating him, and without any words having passed between us, I don’t ask the question. The one inside my head, filled with words and passion, and the one I confront in Karun’s presence. Tina wants to try the new Chinese place. I breathe in the scent of her talcum powder. The maid returns with the money. We move our chairs so we are facing each other, and she looks at me with a mixture of encouragement and acceptance. Before leaving, Flora asks to be paid. She shrugs, then smiles. At my age it didn’t seem necessary to get a reconstruction. Married a few years ago. Flora B-H-A-V-N-A-N-I. Even this simple outing to Nayar’s Destiny Bazaar – a ten-minute taxi from my house, and five flights of stairs – has exhausted me. Move the pencil in the same direction, but apply more pressure to express darkness. Goethe calls these extraordinary affections of the retina. My husband’s mole glows magenta. The world opened up when I was with him. It’s June, and the rain clouds have arrived. We found a better lawyer, she says. Don’t look down at the page too much. After a year of marriage I realized Karun’s outward-looking nature was also an evasion: he remained hidden from me. Look.