The Old Painting – 1

“And you think it’s a fair price to pay for this curtain?”

“Well I won’t mind paying 5 rupees for this piece of Handicraft, handwoven, decorated with silk and pearls, I guess she’s just asking a fair price”
, I replied to him.

Well Edward if you say so, you are better acquainted with this place than me, (to the young girl on the shop) Well young Lady please get two for me“, saying this Bernard handed over two currency notes of 5 to Hiralal, his housekeeper at the Quarters. Leaving Hiralal at the shop for packaging, we walked ahead.

Bernard was my best friend, a childhood friend with whom I had spent all my careless, innocent days, one who knows about me more than me, one who knows my likes and dislikes, one who had a key to all my hidden closets. We both were 25 at the time, 25 years spent together, through good and bad times alike, sharing everything. He had arrived in India just a couple of weeks ago, he had decided to pursue a career in International law after his graduation in Law from Oxford, and as a learning experience he had decided to spend a few months in British India’s judicial service.

He had always been the meritorious one of the two of us. After a diploma in accounts, I had taken this clerical job and he had moved on to do higher studies in Law. Just a year ago, I got this opportunity to work in British Revenue offices in India, and more than the thrill and challenge in the work, it is the opportunity to make some ‘extra income’ that urged me to go there, and to be honest till a week before Bernard was supposed to come to India, I was doing exceptionally well, there were a lot of Seths, Zamindars and Rajvade in India at that time, and they provided ample opportunities for a Revenue assistant to tweak the documents a bit for a small share of fortune.

Anyways, coming back to that very same unfortunate evening, it was about five in the evening and the hilly region of Shimla was getting cold, the local weekly market was getting gloomy, a thin layer of fog had started to descend, as the evening turned dark before I had expected. Both of us walked ahead. In his two weeks in India, Bernard was impressed by the rich culture of the city, this was the second time I had taken him to this weekly ‘Bazaar’ and he was definitely enjoying this- small shops and stalls full of handmade stuff ranging from vessels, pots, curtains, blankets, shawls. Being a person of rich taste, he didn’t miss an opportunity to inquire the local people about the stuff. A few of them were able to communicate through broken English phrases, and for most of them , Hiralal was turning out to be the saviour. Going through the bazaar Bernard paused in front of a small street with a few people sitting on the pavement, selling paintings, we moved in. There were framed paintings in different colors, most of them were handmade ones by local artists. We moved further inside the street. It was getting narrower. The street was closed at the other end, and at the farther end there was an old shop – a Painting Shop. Bernard moved further to the shop, as I lagged behind, negotiating the price of a small handmade doll for Lily, Mr. Russel’s Daughter.
After a bit of bargain, I bought it and walked over towards Bernard and Hiralal who were inside the shop now, which to my utmost surprise was deserted.

It was an old shop, way too old with a rusty roof and cracked wooden counters. It was almost dark by now, and we were having trouble looking at the paintings.
Hello“, a hoarse voice startled us, we turned back to find an old man. Somewhere in his seventies wearing a pair of untidy grey kurta-payjama and a hand made woolen sweater. His wrinkled face had something in it that caught our attention. Bernard started the conversation.

“Hullo, Sire, you seem to have a good old collection of paintings”
The old man looked blankly at our faces and muttered something in the local language that Hiralal translated for us. From his and his shop’s condition it was evident he was not in business. The thought was further strengthened by the way he was showing us around the paintings, constantly muttering about them, which Hiralal was translating to us. But his sheer bad luck his collection was old, dusty and most of the paintings were faded with colors getting dull. I came out of the shop to lit a cigar, it was about 7.30 and cold wind was blowing, the other stall keepers were packing their stuff calling it a day, my eye caught site of two teenagers carrying over a national flag, ‘So the congress is getting its roots here too, this Gandhi certainly had some charisma.’

Hey Eddie look here.” My thoughts were broken by Bernard’s voice. I went back inside, he had scattered the heap of old paintings around himself and was holding one with a little smile, “Isn’t this nice Eddie” he was sounding like that kid who’d wished for a cookie and had got a Full Candy jar instead.

It was an old painting, with a crumpled frame, the glass on the frame itself had bid farewell years ago. He came out with the painting; the old man had lit an oil lamp by then. I took a closer look at the painting, it was on a piece of white leather, with a richly handcrafted heavy wooden frame, maybe at some time in the past, it would’ve been considered a dream possession, but as of then, it was nothing more than junk. I took the lamp from the old man to have a closer look. It was a landscape with white snow covered mountains in the distance, with a vast field interspersed with dull green grass in between, and a white horse with a hooded rider in the bottom left corner, speeding towards those dreamy mountains, and in between the mountains and the rider, there was this long, vast field stretching into miles.

It was certainly effective right at the first sight, the rider in a blue colored robe and hood, clutching the reins, speeding to some unknown destination was impressive.

“Isn’t it marvelous?” Chuckled Bernard
“Oh yes yes it is!” Though I found it good, but having been to the art galleries of Europe and having seen the rich Arts of Mughal Era in India, it was just a normal painting to me, but to keep up his enthusiasm I agreed with him.

“How much for this one Sire” he inquired the Old man, the old man took the lamp and took a closer look at the painting, maybe the poor old man had weak eyes too, he looked closely at the painting and with a deep expression of horror, snatched it out from my friend’s hands. We were astonished at his rude act.

“How dare he snatch! ” Snapped Bernard, outraged at the old man, but having been in the area for some time, I knew it better than to indulge in rash fights with local people. I gazed at Hiralal and he intervened at the right moment, he started talking aggressively to the old man in the local tongue, the old man was shaking his head aggressively in a no, and was pleading. Hiralal told us that he was saying that this one is not for sale, and he would rather sell all other paintings than this. This was just too much for Bernard, he was from a family of Bureaucrats and Navy Officers, he had his share of attitude and prejudice over Indians. An old poor Indian denying him something was too much for him, we was enraged and furious.

“How could he deny me something, I am ready to pay any price for this?”

Hiralal was still arguing with the old man.

“Sirs he’s saying that this is a painting by some painter while in solitary imprisonment, he was not a good person, this painting is bad.” Though his English was bad, still he was able to convey his thoughts.

“Oh rubbish, ask him we’ll pay double” Bernard was adamant to buy the painting. The old man was close to tears out of this argument, the lamp’s light falling on his wrinkled face was creating a gloom in itself. His eyes had that sense of helplessness, which I had witnessed only in the eyes of those to the gallows, his poverty stricken face was shaking, he was creating a pitiable picture there.

Bernard took out 10 currency notes of 5 from his designer wallet, the old man gulped. His eyes once looked at the painting, and then with a shaking hand he approached the money, he was crying now, for once I felt it was the sight of money for the poor soul, but the instant he casted that look at the painting, I knew it was something different. Bernard was now smiling, coming out a winner at a cost ten times the original value, still he had the upper hand. The old man was still muttering to Hiralal, who was trying to console him. I was confused at the proceedings there, it was getting awkward. Waving at the old man, I took off in the street after Bernard who was holding the dusted painting under his arm, Hiralal followed us. We had walked some 20 yards from that shop, when we heard a faint cry, the old man was running after us, unbalanced, he came to us and said something in very sad and pleading tone, Hiralal reassured him, said a few consoling things in his language and led him back to his shop.

On our way back to Bernard’s quarters I inquired Hiralal “What was the thing that old man just said “. With a grave face, he replied back “He said – Wish I had burned it the day I laid my hands on it. Had my granddaughter not been ill, I would’ve never sold it, not over my dead body.” This kind of irritated and freaked me a little, and I knew Hiralal understood that, we both nodded and walked ahead to match pace with Bernard, who was almost running. I left him at his quarters with his small heap of stuff from the market and declined to my place, a rented first floor house.

The next evening I was about to leave my Desk, when Bernard entered, he was in good spirit, looking handsome as usual. “Hey Eddie, you know what that painting is amazing, I just put it in my Bedroom, and the Green robes and hood of the rider are creating an amazing contrast against the White wall”

“You mean Blue robes.” I interrupted.
“No they are Green”, he replied back, I was a little startled, to my memory they were blue, but at the time I rejected it merely as an error in perception due to the lamp’s flickering light.

“Let’s go have a look at it.” He spoke with the enthusiasm of a boy.

I wrapped up the little paperwork at my desk and picked up my leather overcoat and accompanied him to his place. On our way we stopped to have tea at the much frequented small roadside place. It was there only that a sweet little voice from behind got our attention “Hello Eddie Uncle.”

It was the sweet little blue eyed girl Lily, standing there smiling at us, accompanied by her parents, Newland Russel and Margaret. Russel was the district attorney of Shimla at that time, and Lucy was his 5 year old daughter, I had known them ever since my first day in India, though Russel was in mid- thirties but we were more like friends. It was the case with most of the Britishers in India at that time, almost everyone knew everyone else. Being a small city it was free from most of the national agitations till that time, life was calm and simple and the British Administration had a good control over the place. The little girl was waving at us from across the street, we approached them, Bernard had joined as Russel’s junior adviser in the office, but they knew each other from Britain itself, their families in Northamptonshire had a long history of acquaintance since past few generations.

“Hullo lads, what’s up, having the pleasure of evening tea, huh, common fellas? Let’s have a little supper at Russels, Margaret here will love to cook some bacon for you.” He was as usual warm and affectionate, he was a short fellow of about 5 feet and half, generous and lovable person. Same was her wife Margaret, sweet and a perfect Lady in all senses.

” Oh Newland, Greetings Sire, what a pleasure to see you”┬ásaid Bernard.
“Pleasure, ehh? You just saw me an hour back in the Office. Hoho!” and we all laughed at the moment. Lily was playing with her doll, clad in a blue frock and sandals, with red ribbon in her blonde hair, she herself looked like a doll. Such a beautiful, lively girl she was. We had a small chat there and somehow managed to postpone the Dinner invitation till the next weekend. While they were to leave, Bernard muttered out “Hey Newland, I just came in possession of a very eccentric piece of art, you’ll love it.”

“Ahh is that so?” He said looking at my face, I just shrugged. “Very well than, Margaret you and Lily go home, I’ll just have a look at this piece of art Bernard just got. Will be back in time for dinner.” Being a connoisseur of arts, Russel was always enthusiastic for these things. Throughout our half a mile walk to Bernard’s Quarters, they were completely engrossed in the discussion over the painting , and the incident that the old man created there at the shop. Though I was not very much into arts back in those days, I just kept on nodding and smiling on whatever comments they made.

Finally after 15 minutes on foot, we reached his Quarters. It was like a gated community for the British officials, some 50 odd two storey houses, in a secure lane close to the army base. As we entered the two Indian policemen at the gate rose, I was accustomed to it by now, these people just wanted to please anyone with the fair skin, somehow I felt sorry for them, the way they cringe, they way tend to satisfy, they lacked the will, self-respect, and that was the main reason for me to be fascinated by Gandhi, the way he was molding these people into a voice, a will, a passion, it was just amazing. I was woven in my own thoughts and didn’t even realize when we came in front of No.303, Harilal came running, he saluted Russel, and asked about Lily. Harilal was around 50, he had been here since the past twenty years, he never married, as some rumors say he was in love with some ‘Firang’ girl (firang, yes I know this is what they call us, and I don’t know why but it used to tease me back then, and still it teases me), one sided love, she was the daughter of some military man, she married off in the local church, and he was left heartbroken. Around 20 years ago he joined in as one of the caretakers of this place, he looked after the laundry, lightening, gardening, cleaning, getting groceries and other daily chores of at least 5 houses in that place.

“Hey Eddie, anything wrong? Come up here.” It was Russel who startled me, standing alone in the front porch, together we moved in Bernard’s Bedroom. He had hung the painting on the wall facing his bed, right in front of his eyes while laying down. He had cleaned it up with some varnish and oil, the frame was cleaner now, a few scratching marks were there on both sides of the frame, like those created by trying to tear apart the frame. But the painting in itself was looking better now. It was wide, wide as if it has got the whole widht of a mountain range, and the grass today was greener, greener than yesterday, maybe it was the cleaning that did it, thought I. And yes the robes were Green, dark green, there was no faint possibility of them being Blue.

Russel was having a close look at it, “Hmm, perfect frame, cast in some Mugal Style, and this leather as canvas, certainly remarkable, white leather, not easy to afford, certainly it came from someone famous, or at least rich, let me look for a sign of the artist”
“I’ve already checked, there is nothing” said Bernard.

“Very well, the colors are fade, oil colors for sure, one thing you noticed Eddie, here come close”, the three of us leaned closer to the painting, “look, just look at this, apart from the rider look at the other parts, they are dull with dust, brazen and rough, now look here, here at these robes, certainly the leather below is old, but the colors, the colors are just faded, no dust, the luster is still here. This is certainly a remarkable painting you’ve got laddie, at least 200 years old, certainly calls for a toast”

Bernard opened up his trunks to bring out a 20 years old single malt, this was certainly a celebration for him. We had a few drinks, but all through it, he was looking at his painting, like some kid, who just got his first ever crayons, or like some sailor looking at the land he just discovered out of nowhere. It was close to 9 when we bid farewell to him.

For the next two days I didn’t get a chance to meet Bernard, as I had mentioned before, just till a couple of weeks before Bernard’s arrival, I was having a easy roll in the revenue office, but that audit right in the middle of the Week caught the whole office by surprise, as expected there were small imperfections and deviations found in the ledgers, but nothing big was caught. I had always been careful enough to complete the paper way as far as possible. So as a precautionary measure, the Higher Authorities had decided to transfer half of the staff to other cities. I was getting transferred to Delhi too, the Capital city and the Administrative center of British India. When I heard that Bernard was to come to India, I had thought of having a easy, fun filled life in Shimla, but maybe the fate had something else in store for me. It was on that Wednesday morning I was just getting ready for my office, wearing up my waist coat, when Harilal came in inform me about Bernard. He was apparently having high fever. I instructed Harilal to ask Bernard to take a holiday and rest and on my way to office, I called up Dr. Ghosh, a Bengali doctor, had served the British Army in the First World War, now retired, those days he was in private practice in that slow city of Shimla. I asked him to pay a visit to Bernard, and left for office, owing to my transfer that week was very hectic, there were so many formalities, so much information and accounts which had to be documented down for the person who’ll be taking over, It was only twilight when I was free from work, I went straight to see Bernard, when I entered his Bedroom, he was staring at the painting and smiling to himself. On my arrival he nodded at me and went back to stare at it. “You know Eddie, this is funny” his voice was weak an shaking, I put my hand on his head he had fever, high fever indeed, “I just had a dream about this painting, no rather you can call it a nightmare, but somehow it didn’t frighten me.”

“You took Medicine?”
“He offered me a ride on his horse.”
“What? Look Eddie I’m asking you something here, It’s not funny.” I was furious now.

“Ohk, that doctor of yours paid a visit, I took my medicines, having warm water, took my lunch properly. Now you happy nanny?” He said sitting up. I almost smiled at this gesture of his.

He was sitting upright now, smiling, “He has no face.” And he grinned.

“Who?” I was bit concerned.

“The rider, In the painting, It was so real, I thought I was hallucinating, but it was a dream. I was in this same field as this painting.”

I was little concerned now, he was beginning frightening me now, looking at my grave face he said “Oh Eddie, come on it was just a dream, didn’t I just tell you that?” And yes I felt he was right, I was his best friend and if he had to share something, it would be me. I smiled at him, and diverted the discussions back to our old high school days, we had a pleasant time, he had his dinner of grains and soup in bed only and I had a little bacon, curry and some rice. Harilal came a few times to check over him. He was silent and sleepy now, I sat by his bed on the armchair and started reading that book on Wars and Strategies that Bernard had bought the previous week.

It was around midnight when I woke up, I realized I had dozed off while reading that book, I thought of leaving. Bernard was in his bed, I picked up my coat and hat, and proceeded towards the gate. It was then that I turned to have a look on him. He was wide eyed, awake, staring at the painting, A chill went down my spine, I called his name. He just looked at me and said “He has no face”, I was about to say something when he burst into that laughter “You moron, I just woke up with the sound of your footsteps”, he reassured me, I bid him goodnight and started. Through the corner of my eyes I looked at him, he was gazing at the painting again, smiling.

I was little disturbed the following morning, I wasn’t able to concentrate on the transfer formalities, I left office early and went to his place, this time he was in the living room, reading newspaper. That was a big relief for me, we chatted a little, I asked about what doctor said, we had some tea and reassured I came back to my place. For next two days I didn’t find the time to visit him, though on my way to the Reveue office, I checked up with Dr. Ghosh, who told me that he had recovered but he had lost some weight and strength, which was normal for a fever in Indian Climate.

On the night before my journey to Delhi the Russels invited us over for dinner, It was a pleasant warm evening with few people from the neighborhood, Bernard was in good spirits too. Since his fever, it was the first time he was out with people, and the little champagne was doing good for him. And Lily, she was on a roll with her cute childish talks, innocent questions, funny faces. As usual she was trying to get all the attention in the room. It was a warm farewell for me. On our way back home, first I dropped Bernard to his quarters and then walked to my place.

Next day Bernard came to bid me farewell at the station. He was a bit sad but he didn’t say anything, of course for him it was just one month in a new country, a country where most of the people hate him for being a Britisher, he just didn’t know many people around, and his best friend was also moving away. Only when my train started did I notice that there was a certain gloom on his face, he was looking little thin, some 4-5 Kg thinner, he waved a hand at me and grinned, and he was looking more miserable, reddish eyes. I didn’t know the reason but throughout my journey, I felt restless and from time to time, Bernard’s lean posture kept coming to my mind, finally I fell asleep.

I had to join office right from the next day. The officials had arranged some quarters for me, they weren’t as good as I had in Shimla, but they were decent. I made a list of to-do things after office and headed there. Compared to Shimla, this place was hell, so many files, so many departments and sub-departments, so much data. It was a depressing start in the new office, and most of my colleagues wore spectacles, with greying hair and in their mid-forties. That day I left early, bought some stuff for my new place, sent a telegram to Bernard’s office asking about his health and did some petty household chores.

There was so much work in office that it kept me engaged throughout the week, it was the first Sunday when I realized that I hadn’t received any reply from Bernard. That Sunday again I sent a telegram to Bernard, asking him to reply back as soon as he got this one. But again for the entire week there was no reply from his side. Next Sunday I sent a telegram both to Bernard and Russel, asking about Bernard’s whereabouts.

Next day, I clearly remember it was about 2 P.M. on that Monday, I was busy examining the audit details for last year when the peon came to deliver me a letter, It was from Russel, putting aside the ledger I was working on, I tore open the envelope, it was a letter written in that untidy, tiny writing of Russel, which I had become accustomed to in the past two years. There was a sense of relief inside me while opening it, at least I got a reply from Shimla, but the contents of the letter blew me away. I still have that letter preserved in my diary. It read something like this:

March 21, 1928 ,

Dear Edward,
I’m good here, Lily is in all good spirits and Margaret is fine too. But this is in regard to Bernard, In two weeks you left us, something strange has happened with him. He was missing from Judicial Office since Monday. I thought he might be ill, but on Wednesday, Margaret saw him in the Market. He was unshaven, shabby and behaved ridiculously, he looked shaken and battered. That evening, I and Margaret visited his quarters, he wasn’t there, his housekeeper told us that he had been out since early morning. On inquiring about his health he said that Bernard often complains of headache and sweating, but otherwise he’s fine. We waited there till midnight but he never came back, Margaret wanted me to lodge a complaint with the Police, but I decided to wait till the next day, I thought maybe he was at some other friend’s place.
Next morning on my way to office I decided to check on him, whether he was back or not. To my relief he was back, at the time he was sleeping. I wanted to ask Hiralal when Bernard came back, but he himself was sleeping. Though I was concerned, but his being back was a relief. Two days passed, it was the Friday evening when I met Mr. Walter, Bernard’s direct Supervisor who told me that Bernard was back in office. Later that evening I paid him a visit, he was looking pale and weak, but was talking cheerfully. I asked him about his absence from office for two days and the night he was missing, he laughed it off saying that he was just wandering around, getting to know the place better, I was assured and went back home.
It was Monday night when this awkward thing happened, It was about 8 in the evening when Hiralal came to my house, he was looking worried and confused. We took him in and asked if everything was all right. What he told us was strange! He told that since the past two days Bernard had been sitting in bed the entire time and was staring at that painting. He had declined food and had cold and cough. He tried to call in Dr. Ghosh but Bernard rejected saying he was fine and was just thinking over something. It was that evening itself, Hiralal came in to collect the laundry while he heard Bernard talking to someone in his bedroom. To his surprise, he was alone, he became excited at the sight of Hiralal and told him that the rider in the painting was moving. Hiralal asked him to go out in the fresh air, but he laughed him off saying that he was fine. Margaret and I accompanied Hiralal to Bernard’s Quarters, he was there, he was shaven and in his night dress already, we had a little chat and he seemed fine, when we insisted he had a little soup and bread, and looked in his senses. Only while bidding us farewell, while Margaret was moving out, he came close to me and whispered in my ear ‘Hey Russel you know, the rider in the painting moves’. I thought it as some joke and laughed off. But he hold me tightly and took me back to the bedroom, and asked me to look at the painting. It was exactly the same it was the first time I saw it. I insisted him to go to bed, but his manner startled me.

Two days later on Tuesday, I paid him a visit in the evening, Hiralal told that he hadn’t been out of his bed for two days, he was unshaven and looking ill, a dozen of burnt cigars were lying in the ashtray on the bedside table, it was a pitiful sight to saw a gentlemen like him in such a condition. He was pleased to see me, but once again he started the same topic, he kept on insisting that the horse rider moves. But in the painting he was right there on the left edge just as I found it for the first time. Concerned for him, I took him out with me for dinner, he was silent most of the time, I tried my best to make a conversation, but his mind was somewhere else. Concerned I called up Dr. Ghosh and informed about all this, he assured me that he would look after him. Since then I have been paying daily visits to him in the evening.
But his obsession for the painting is increasing everyday, he had stopped coming to Office, and is spending entire day in his bedroom, many-a-times Hiralal has heard him talking to someone, and most of the time he seems to ask something out of this imaginary person. Whenever anyone visits him, he sounds well and in spirits, Dr. Ghosh declared him anemic but there are no other signs of physical or Mental illness, though he’s constantly losing weight.

I tried to remove the painting from his bedroom, but the mere talk of this enrages him and he becomes abusive and violent. He’s too obsessed with that painting, even last night he declined to come for dinner and spent the night locked up in his bedroom.
Margaret is having some bad feelings about all this, and even I’m concerned, Bernard doesn’t have many friends here and you are the closest one he ever had.

Please try to be here at the earliest, We are very concerned for him.

Your Friend,
Russel N.L.

Once I finished the letter a chill went down my spine, I could feel that little sweat on my forehead .I was upset after reading the letter, I read and reread it, how could a person like Bernard be like this, just in a matter of two weeks, I was deeply concerned, not just concerned I was tensed and horrified too. I mean he was my childhood friend, an intellectual bright one, one with a rational determination, to think of him losing his nerve like this was beyond imagination.

It had been just two weeks into new office, and there was a lot of work pressure too, it was hard but somehow I convinced my supervisor for one week leave. By the night train, I reached Shimla. It was 5 A.M. in morning, compared to Delhi It was still much cooler in Shimla. Coming out of the station I felt a shiver of cold, so I put on my leather overcoat. It was too early, the small city was still asleep, there were a few wagons outside, I took one and headed straight to Russel’s place.

—To be Continued—