The boat lurched in a complex rhythm, sipping softly on the water dancing gently below it. He swayed with the motion, reaching down to a pile of rope, white and thick. He looked up to see the beach they were passing and saw the nets of fishermen swirling in the air about him, women on the sand carrying baskets of fish over their heads back to their homes and their shops and children running about in white cloth chasing each other in endless lives as cops and villains. It was a sea of human activity in front of this sea of water.
It was through them she was walking, briskly weaving through the chaos around her. Her dupatta, red, flew white behind her in the sweet breeze of the coastal season. She was the odd one out on the beach-front. In that white shirt and black skirt, she could have belonged in a dance performance with clicking, shining black heeled shoes. She could have been one of many pretty young things in an art gallery in Mumbai, looking at the works with her neck cocked upwards, and her legs bent just so in the perfumed, air-conditioned environment of muted whispering and silent gasps he recognized in any part of the world. Yet, he realized, she belonged here too. There was no step made in uncertainty, as she walked across the sand alternately wet and dry, attended upon by the incoming sea water. She belonged in her smooth rhythm through chaos, the swaying of her arms with shiny bracelets glistening at the wrists. This stage was hers too.
She headed up to the end of the sands, towards the shade of the trees. He moved as if to call out to her, ask her to stop, before he caught himself and realized how silly that would seem. He didn’t even have a clue who she was!
The oarsmen broke his attention away from her, asking him if he was okay. He noticed he had been half-standing in a crouched position, on the way to getting up off his seat. He replied he was okay, stood up and turned back to the shore. But she was gone.
She likes Rimbaud. Perhaps not in the way his most ardent admirers appreciate him, but she likes him for who he can become so easily when he needs to. How he could slip into another’s mind so non-invasively and think like him or her. How he could speak through the tongue of both a prostitute and her pimp, the trials and regrets of each floating beneath the grime of their lives. How he could watch through the concerned eyes of a mother as well as the curious eyes of her infant children. She couldn’t agree with his methods – his devotion to the green fairy – but she liked what it had made of him.
It was such an odd thing to learn about her, such an abstruse fact of her life, that he knew he was hooked for more. He spoke of myths, poems and the Romantics as he knew them, exhausting the end of his passing knowledge, delighted to see how it lit a fire in her eyes. She spoke animatedly, sharing impressions worthy of a university professor, with all the enthusiasm they seemed to have lost somewhere.
Sunlight, carrying messages in the dust floating gently, washed through the open windows of the library. They sat at one of the three tables, meant for up to six people. But the place was deserted, save for a cleaning-girl dusting the shelves somewhere in the distance and an aged librarian resting his arthritic limbs at the reception counter near the door.
He had come here, to read his paper in peace, until lunch and maybe find a few books worth borrowing. It was fascinating the gems you could unearth in some village libraries. Today, he had found her.
She had been sifting through some of the shelves, a glass of tea in one hand, the same the librarian made for everyone who dropped by. They had gotten talking. He supposed it helped that he came from the same country as most of her favourite writers.
“I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like to study the great poets in the same halls they once roamed as students!”
“When you put it at that way, I guess it is quite fascinating,” he laughed with her and smiled at the candid thought.
“Some of the books here, they’re very good. But I can tell some are quite useless. The ones in which they break down the plays and the poems to help you understand what they think the writer means. I mean, where is the spirit of enquiry Tennyson advocated?”
“Frankly, I don’t know how much more different some of my own professors have been. I was singularly terrified of literature when I was in school.”
“Oh, me too. It wasn’t until a teacher made me stand up in class and read from a section of a play. I think it was the Merchant of Venice. Saying those words out aloud, enunciating like that, it pulled me into that world like nothing before had.”
He could only smile when she uttered strange secrets like that, in her unnoticing way. He knew it wasn’t something one said to every other person, and it felt good to know these things about her life maybe few others knew.
He was already waiting with the boatman the next day, when she arrived. She wore a red salwar today, the dupatta lightly embroidered in gold floating behind her as she walked gingerly across the mud on the shore. He helped her onto the boat. The boatman had agreed to take him for a long backwaters tour today, at what he supposed was a fairly reasonable fee. She had been eager to join as soon as he had told her about it yesterday. She hadn’t seen much of the backwaters yet since she’d arrived and this was a great opportunity.
That made him more curious. “So … how long have you been here?”
“Hmm. About two months now. My parents work away from home sometimes, so they left me with my relatives here for my vacations. You?”
“Well, I’m on a rather long working holiday of sorts, I suppose. Traveling and watching things, basically. I paint, see.”
“You do? You never said anything about that yesterday!”
Her hair flowed in even the gentle breeze over the streams they passed. The soft lapping of the oars lulled him to peace as she excitedly enquired about his work.
“I’m sorry, I guess we never broached that subject. Anyway, I have about three more months before I head back to London.”
“That sounds lovely. What kind of paintings do you make?”
It was so innocent and so charming of her, both at the same time, he thought to himself. So they spoke of his paintings. He told her how he saw things and how he used fading memories of places and landmarks to preserve the flying thoughts on canvas. He didn’t know which school of art he strictly fit under, although his agents were hell bent on categorising him one of these days. They spoke of more poetry, and he pushed and prodded her towards the topics she loved so much. He learned how Keats constructed his odes of pain and joyous exultations and how Rimbaud made a towering, catastrophic destruction of his. Conversation flowed easily and thoughts came out of him, raw crystals and nuggets of ideas and impressions which polished and took form in his speech. He realized he was learning about himself as much as she was. A sparkling in her eyes showed her true enthusiasm, enough fuel for him to go on till the late evening. As he bade her goodnight at the shore again later, he knew he’d given himself away as surely as anyone could have. She could guess by now, surely she could.
That night, standing in front of an empty canvas, he couldn’t have done otherwise. He painted her. Using powerful lines of charcoal he created a soft, strong character so at ease with itself it belonged to any background and to any circumstance. Slender waves of paint, intermingling colours and lines, painted a soul of complex and obvious beauty. It had to be. The canvas bore the long strides of knowledge she was intent on making, the unbridled passions of her heart reflected in the subtle patterns of chaos he wove around her. He encapsulated, in a trance himself, her past, her transient present and her future. He became possessed by her and he thought as she would, that night. He dreamed as she must dream. He fell asleep watching his finished work, even as the first rays of sunlight fell upon the fast drying canvas, a riot of colour so confusing it made perfect sense.
But only at first glance.