The story is the winner of the Best Thought Leader title from Simon & Schuster India, and
Best Language and Expressions title from Pan Macmillan.
Submitted for a competition themed on Sensuosity & Sexuality hosted under TMYS Review.
The prodigious stairway that led to the entrance to of MARCO museum in Rome was decked in decorative boughs on either side to ring in the festive season. It was unbearably cold, perhaps, the most extreme December of the decade. Towering Corinthians were crowned with an ornamented entablature that needed no further attention. The museum was buzzing with a covey of artists and patrons who had assembled for the annual exhibition that was to take place on New Year’s Eve.
I went inside and saw Sarah looking at my work that was all set for display in one of the coveted aisles of the museum.
“This is heavenly! Are you sure it took only three months?” she asked.
“Three months and three days!" I replied.
She smiled warmly and said,” It won’t be an exaggeration if I label this as your finest work so far.”
I stood there, looking the painting, examining the kind words that Sarah had bestowed it with.
“Don’t you agree?" she asked.
“I don’t know, Sarah. But it is my most special work, for sure”, I replied after a long sigh.
I found myself utter those words in complete imperturbation, standing there, looking at my own work, a 46x64 oil on canvas, until interrupted by Sarah.
“May I ask what makes it special?”
I looked at her and said, ‘Well that’s a story for a different day.”
“Well, I am not leaving this here, but I'll see you around in some time, the management would not like if I abandon my duties as the exhibition director. Why don’t you show yourself around”?
I smiled at her as she left to attend her duties.
My eyes were fixed again at the painting, thinking about what I had just mentioned, what made it special for me? The portrait came unravelling in front of my eyes, taking me back to when it was a mere cotton canvas.
21st of September, 2016. Sunlight sneaked through the constricted gate that led to the balcony of my tiny apartment in Florence, gated in an area which O.Henry would describe as - “the village of low rents and high arts”- where young artists had furnished their dreams against tattered walls and hung their hopes from tiny balconies that overlooked a narrow street. Inordinately disgusted by a splitting headache, I helped myself out of my bed, only to find Shlok standing in the other half of my room, his shirt buttons unsynchronised, staring without a wink at a canvas that I had placed out before heading out for the museum, where I first saw him, last evening.
I was at the Uffizi, on one of my many wanderings in search for inspiration. It was half past four, as I strolled, looking around until I reached 'The Birth of Venus' richly framed on one of the walls. It was not long until my eyes got distracted from the painting to a man, standing tall at about six feet, looking around twenty-eight, dressed in denim and corduroy. I don’t recall whether it was his eclectic sense of fashion or his perfectly symmetrical jawline that invited my gaze upon him, but I stood there looking at him, until our eyes met. He was smiling to himself notoriously, speaking to himself softly, in Hindi, not soft enough for my ears, as we were enclosed in the periphery of the frame that the great painting had formed.
“What makes you laugh, may I ask?”, I said faintly, in Hindi, as he had been speaking to himself.
“You speak Hindi?” he was elated as he said this.
“Yeah, I heard you complain about being in this museum.” I smiled back.
“I’m sorry if that offended you, or anyone?” he said, taking a full turn.
“Do you know what this painting is about?”
He gestured about his lack of any idea about it.
“This is THE BIRTH OF VENUS.” I continued, indulging myself further in the artwork.” Sandro Botticelli painted this to send out an idea of neo-platonic love as something divine in the form of a nude Venus. She is the goddess and rightfully so, an embodiment of love and sexuality.
I smiled as I finished these sentences and looked at him.
“Woah! Where do you get to know about all this?”
“I am pursuing my master’s in art history here”, I replied after a noticeable pause.
“I’m Shlok, from Delhi”, he said.
“Faiyaz”, I replied.
“I live here, in Florence.”
“Oh! I thought you were from India?” he added.
I left his question unattended until I mentioned Kashmir.
“Beautiful place", he exclaimed, ”So, Faiyaz, do you know any place where I can find good Indian food. I’m done with this whole bread and sauce thing.”
“Yeah, there’s a good place about three miles from here, you should check that out.”
“Do you mind coming along? I mean I'm new to this place and have no company. Landed just two days ago.”
“I’m sorry, but I just got here and have a lot to explore”, I said as I started to move towards another aisle.
“I could give you a spare ticket, you can drop by sometime later. I got two, for free, from my travel agency”, he mentioned.
“Oh, so that explains your presence here” I smiled as he didn't deny.
He was radiant at the restaurant, as happy as a baby in a ball pool, flipping through the menu pages, furtively. Not much went down at dinner, both of us were really invested in food that reminded us of home. Later, we headed to a bar, for a drink or two. It was mostly him talking there, enjoying his drinks, that didn't seem to stop anytime soon, and I kept company, drinking more than usual. I heard him rant about pizzas being better in India as compared to Italy, and how he found the Eiffel Tower a bit underwhelming. From his incessant prattle, one could decipher that he had been on a tour, all by himself, and had been traveling for more than ten days now, exploring Europe, meeting girls, drinking local specials and shopping around. And he was headed to Spain, in about ten days. He brought up a certain Twyla, who was staying in the service apartment right next to his, and was here from Pisa for six months, for a community project. The range of the conversation was limited, mostly about him, from his obsession with Twyla’s golden hair to why he preferred the staff at Versace in Rome than here in Florence.
Before we could realize, it was past eleven and we were too miserably drunk to act in our finest senses. Having no idea of his transient whereabouts in the city, I decided that it was in our best interest to head to my place, which was close by. The incidents that followed were a blur to both of us, and here we stood, the next morning, trying to figure out what went down.
“Did I try posing like the people in those paintings at the museum yesterday?” he asked in a tone that was either in disgust or sheer disbelief.
“And I think I tried to bring that out on my canvas?” I added hesitantly.
“Must blame it on the alcohol”, he said, trying to sound as if no toying had transpired the previous night.
“But this looks a lot like me, honestly!” he shrugged.
Seated on a wooden stool, with one of his legs folded and the other dangling down, almost touching the floor and his hands resting on his thighs, he looked quite statuesque. But I could barely remember any of those strokes that had shaped to look like him.
“Why is my face missing?” he asked.
“I have no idea what this is doing on my canvas, so I don’t think I have an answer to that.”
He ran his eyes through the sketch once again and said, "Why was I not embarrassed to strip down completely and pose like this?”
Before I could answer, he continued, "Anyway, I’m flattered. No one has tried to paint me before, I’m excited to see this, do you want to continue, Farhan?”
“ Faiyaz”, I replied, “...and I don’t think that is a good idea because this was just a mistake. For this to happen for real, you’ll have to be here a lot, sit down just like this, you understand what I’m trying to say, right?”
He stayed silent for a few seconds and to my utmost shock, agreed to strip down and pose for me, while he was here, to see this malady materialize which was nothing but a consequence of irresponsible indulgence in alcohol, that had rather left him bedazzled.
Somehow, his intimidating nature, and eyes that looked like a fluid painting in motion had me convinced, and so it was established, this saga that was supposed to take place every evening for about an hour till the end of this month.
The first day he dropped by was slightly uncomfortable for the two of us. Stripping down seemed easier when he was drunk than it did while sober. However, the discomfort faded away by the third day, when he seemed to enjoy posing, playing muse, and soaking in all the attention that my eyes and hands had on him.
I had a new supply of oil paints, from which I chose to stick to raw umber, ivory, and dim gray for his portrait. Sea salt sage and green moss candles lit on one side, wine placed in stools at reachable convenience for the two of us and music playing endlessly, as if were in harmony with my brush strokes, accounted for the ambience that had been set for our sittings.
Most days it was Mozart whose compositions occupied the air. On other days, it was Sinatra, or Presley, or the newer ones that had us smitten with their orgasmic music, or simply the classics that had the best of our hearts: Rahman, Gulzar, Kishore Kumar. This went on perfectly for eight days. He had vowed to see it only at the end of the month for what he called, 'max effect’. He used to sit on the stool quietly, resuming his posture, interrupted by occasional swings of restlessness and frivolous prattle. But mostly he was calm. Anyone who had seen him last week, at the restaurant, could not have believed his serenity while seated for the portrait. It was more than once that I exclaimed, "Look at you, so composed, in complete tranquility!”
The next day, at about nine in the morning, there was a knock on the door. I helped myself out of the bed and went to see who it was. It was an unusual time for Shlok to drop by. I was shocked to see him. Not because, it was early in the day, but for the first thing that his eyes fell on, as he entered the room. There was a young man still in deep slumber, lying undressed on my bed. He walked himself to the balcony and stood there while I arranged for the prompt departure of this person whose sleep remained undisturbed by Shlok’s arrival.
“I’m sorry, I dropped by a little too early. I was really excited to see the painting since it is last day of the month”, he said, breaking the weird silence that had prevailed all this while.“...and I have this place to visit in the evening, with Twyla, so...”
“Oh, that’s alright!” I replied, avoiding eye contact.
We walked towards the easel and I unveiled the portrait to him.
His eyes that were shining with excitement when he entered, were terribly astonished a few moments ago, and had now diminished to a state of confusion when he looked at it.
“This is it? "These are just my shoulders, Faiyaz?”
“Were you expecting it completed?”, I asked in bewilderment.
“Well, it takes time.”
He had nothing to say.
“And I don’t think, you’d be willing to pose like you’ve been doing, after what you saw this morning.”
“I am supposed to leave for Spain today, I think I told you about this.”
“OH, yes! I’m so sorry, Shlok, it slipped off my mind completely. I don’t know what I was thinking", I replied.
He smiled back, seemingly disappointed after expecting to see his portrait today.
“You can stay for lunch, if you want. It could be my parting gift to you, if not this portrait.”
“Um, yeah, I'm sorry I have plans with Twyla this evening”, he said hesitantly as he got up to leave.
“But that looks great, those shoulders”, he chuckled. “You’re going to be a great artist someday, Faiyaz.”
I could not bring myself to say anything. I stood there, smiling faintly, until he took his leave.
I headed to the balcony as he stepped down the stairs, looking at him disappear down the street in less than a minute.
That afternoon, I sat in the balcony, my legs crossed and stretched out on the railing, gazing into the abysm from which one’s worst nightmares could crawl. It was just another day. Another day of missing early morning lectures at the academy, another day of feeling insufficient. Another splash of colour and charcoal headed nowhere, another day of unfulfilled whims and how we end up making it poetic and begin to romanticize the chasmal void that people, things, incidents, and circumstances leave us with.
How there can be nothing to look forward to, how looking back can be more afflictive than helpful and how thinking about all of this can stop us from appreciating the little splashes of joy in our lives. Like the bougainvillea from my neighbours' that had begun to peep into my balcony, or how magnificently did the sun coursed its way from noon to dusk, stopping by, as if it were here to sit and ponder with me.
I thought of this man, who looked twenty-six, a little older than me, whose name I could not recall, and how unanticipatedly he had left this morning, but how it seemed that he was here to liberate me. A false sense of liberation that lingered in my heart last night, as I found myself wrapped in unknown arms.
Liberation – if I can ever know what it is, I think it must feel like holding a brush, a few inches below the ferrule, caressing it against a stretched piece fabric that seems to possess powers to dissolve all the secrets of the universe in it, the brush commanding it like a magic wand.
But that magic fades away, when arms that you thought would comfort you, unembrace and drift apart. Your hands tremble while holding the finesse of the brush, and a familiar image of a mirage, a delusion reappears, leaving you with nothing but an aching heart. One that is beyond a cardiologist’s cognisance and our ability to administer.
I was alone with my thoughts until there was a knock on the door. And there I stood, thoroughly flabbergasted. It was Shlok.
“Do you have something to eat?’
He hurried inside the room and sat on the bed, gasping for breath.
“I thought you were out with Twyla”, I added.
He threw himself on the mattress, his legs still parallel to those of the bed.
“She told me she’d be late by an hour so I was waiting for her, at the café....”
….and the same song", he continued, "that you had put towards the very end, last evening, started playing.
“Exsultate, Jubilate by Mozart?”, I asked.
“Yes!”, he replied, “and that struck me very differently. Something like never before. It took me back to last evening, when I was sitting, bare, thinking of the portrait, how excited I was to look at it the next day, and how sorted my mind was, or what you call me to be in... Traquil...”
“Tranquility", I affirmed.
“TraNQuility!”, I repeated
“TRAN QUI LITY”, I emphasized.
Both of us burst into laughter. I went and sat on the other side of the bed, increasing the volume of the stereo that was playing all this while.
(Ribs by Lorde playing)
“I want you to complete what we’ve started, Faiyaz. If just a week can do this to me, I want to see what happens when this is over “, he said softly.
His eyes were shut. Beards of perspiration rolled down his cheeks, giving his face a lustrous glow.
“I do not know what I want from my life, but I feel I will very soon. Something has changed in me, and I want to know, what it is.”, he continued.
Was this the salvage of the magic that seemingly ceased to exist a few moments ago? I did not know. But it did feel like a gust of life rushed into my veins, maybe this was what liberation felt like.
You're the only friend I need
Sharing beds like little kids
Laughing 'til our ribs get tough
But that will never be enough
October had slipped halfway. I was working on his torso, rendering justice to which seemed a daunting task, for Shlok was very particular about it. I remember his eyes gleamed with delight when he saw his chest, his abs transition smoothly into his firm thighs and leaner legs and everything in between. The veins of his hands plunging into his palm was what I felt the most satisfied with. He smiled while pointing at every small detail, and I stood their seeing him pleased with his senses, his body in oil, painted by someone he knew very little about.
(From Eden by Hozier plays)
“What do you think?”, I asked.
“This portrait will take you places, it’s beautiful. I think I like the painting more than I like myself. Don’t you think so?”, he asked.
“I would still prefer the original”, my words dissolved in laughter.
Honey you're familiar like my mirror years ago
Idealism sits prison, chivalry fell on its sword
Innocence died screaming, honey ask me I should know
I slithered here from Eden just to sit outside your door
The onset of November brought in a change of weather. Shlok would often leave earlier than usual, waning into the dimness of evenings with Twyla. But one evening, in the third week of the month, he continued sitting on the stool after we were done for the day.
“You’ve got no plans today?” I asked.
“Um, no! Twyla is working extra shifts at the community centre. “
“Do you mind if I stay here a little longer?”
“Not at all!” I replied.
“So, when are we doing the face?”, he asked keenly.
“I’m keeping the best for the last.”
He laughed and added "So, you’ve got no plans?”
“No. Just have to take my portfolio out for binding. The academy is hosting a year-end review.”
“And.... How is your friend?” he asked hesitantly.
“Who?” I asked in confusion.
“The one who was here that morning...”
“Oh, he wasn't a friend...”
He smiled as his lips puckered.
“I was wondering why you didn’t ask about it all this time, and why you agreed to-do this after seeing, well... what you saw”.
“I did this for myself. It might sound strange, but it felt like having a purpose for the first time in my life. Sitting in front of an artist, thinking about things that I never thought would occupy my mind even in my most adventurous imaginations.”, he laughed to himself and continued, "discovering life altering music, feeling strong in being vulnerable”, he kept going, “I hope you’re enjoying this too, Faiyaz?”
“Oh, it is a pleasure! “
And it was a pleasure. Seeing him seated in front of me, free to my imagery, giving away most of his time to a stranger, with unfiltered sensitivity.
(Beautiful Stranger by Halsey plays)
I did not know what he was to me, I did not know his mind as intimately as I knew his body, his veins, his folds, his curves, his moles, the wrinkles on his fingers, and the ripeness of his thighs. Maybe he was but a stranger. A stranger that had not only occupied the stretch of my canvas and the tip of my paintbrushes but also my mind.
And yet it seemed like I knew nothing.
That beautiful strangers
Only come along to do me wrong and I hope...
...and I think it's finally
finally, finally, finally, finally safe
for me to fall
Christmas lights had begun to show up on the balconies around. We were only ten days away from a new year. The portrait was almost done, except his face that I was supposed to start after Christmas as he was headed to Pisa in two days with Twyla to celebrate with her family. I was giving finishing touches to his toes, one evening, when a power failure interrupted us.
We moved to the balcony, wrapped in our coats. I carried the candles that were placed next to the easel while Shlok walked with a wine bottle.
“This is an exquisite one,” he said, opening it. “Twy got it for me”
“Thank you for bringing it along, that’s really sweet of you. And her.” I added
“Yeah, she’s sweet”, he replied.
“I think she likes you. She might be in love with you...”
“I don’t know”, he said, taking his first sip.
“Are you in love with her?”
“I don’t know”, he repeated.
"What is it like to be in love?”
“I have no idea!” I replied after I took a sip.
“But it must feel like to be in peace with yourself, I guess? All senses gratified and appeased. It could even feel like these moments. Tasting good wine, while the air that surrounds you smells like sea salt and green moss. Cold winter breeze lifting bumps off your skin as fine music and finer words seep into your ears making you feel aware about yourself.
And the most divine view, right in front of your eyes.” I added, looking at him by the flickering candlelight, swiftly diverting my gaze to the street,
“... like these gabled homes that house lovely balconies, bearing flowers in full bloom and their petals covering the cobblestones below. Maybe this, all of this feels like love!”
I sighed as the view I was talking about was blanketed in darkness.
“Have you ever been in love?” he asked.
The remaining inch of the candle subsided and we could no longer see each other.
“No!” I replied as I took the last sip.
So, can we pretend sweetly
Before the mystery ends?
I am a man with a heart that offends
With its lonely and greedy demands
“You're still here, I thought you were looking around?”
My sojourn to the past was jarringly interrupted by Sarah. It felt like being brutally sucked out of my painting that I was so keenly immersed in.
She handed me the exhibition contract to be signed.
“I must leave”, I said in a fluttered state.
“I’m headed back to Florence today.”
“Why, aren’t you staying for the exhibition?”
“But you’ve worked for this ever since I've known you, you can't’... “
“My train leaves in an hour, I must be leave for the station, Sarah.”
I didn’t wait for her reply, signed the papers and turned around, walked down the grand stairway, leaving the painting behind.
It was the last day of the year. MARCO had lived up to the hype that it had stirred around its annual exhibition. I was here with my wife whose kalamkari works were on display, at the exhibition.
"Shlok, could you come here please?" said Avantika. She was to introduce me to some of her friends from her art school in London.
I walked up to her browsing casually through the other works that were on display until my eyes froze on one, that read, "Ghair Mukammal".
I knew this painting. It knew it rather well. It was no surprise to me that it had made to one or the most prestigious exhibitions in the world, but what was, is stumbling upon it when I thought I never would.
I stood their silent and clueless for a few seconds.
Avantika had introduced me to the exhibition director a while ago who was standing just a meter away talking to a few visitors.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Sarah Bunting", I said as she turned around.
"Yes, how can I help you?", she smiled.
"We just met a while ago..."
"Yes, I remember, you're Avantika Khanna's husband. Well, Mr. Khanna I must say, she's being appreciated a lot, her work is going places."
"She is indeed very talented", I replied back. "But I wanted to ask you about this other painting", I added, pointing at Ghair Mukammal.
"Is the artist, Faiyaz Ali, here?"
"I'm sorry, who?"
"The artist, this work is by Faiyaz Ali?"
"I'm sorry Mr. Khanna, I think you're mistaken", she said sounding confused, "That painting is by Noor Mirza”.
"Are you sure?", I asked in a perplexed state.
"Yes, in fact I know him quite well", she replied.
"Is he here today?", I asked.
"I'm afraid not. He left for Florence immediately after signing the exhibition contract, yesterday."
I stood their silent and clueless for a few seconds
"Alright, thank you, Mrs. Bunting. Congratulations on putting on a great exhibition", I greeted and walked back to the painting.
It took me back three years in time when I had returned from Pisa with Twyla. It was the last day of 2016. I stood at his gate, with a fresh batch of green moss candles, the ones we had used throughout our sittings in the last three months. I knocked at his door multiple times, calling out for him. There was no answer. I waited for about thirty minutes when Mrs. Bertha who lived right next to Faiyaz's opened her door and said, "He left for India, three days ago".
I was befuddled. He seemed pretty excited to embark on the last episode of painting my face. We were very close to finishing the portrait. And now, I knew he was gone. I kept the candles in front of the door, not knowing if he'd ever receive it, and walked down, one step at a time, not knowing what I really felt like, betrayed or dejected. But it had come to an end, and I wish I had known a little more than his taste for music, maybe an email id to reach out to this young man who spent months painting me.
"Gorgeous!", Avantika came and stood beside me, putting her hands around my arms. "Ghair Mukammal by... ah, no name?"
" I'm sorry I was coming over to see your friends and then..."
"That's alright. I mean look that this, I can't take my eyes off it. This is the kind of work that makes you envious and inspires you to do better as an artist."
She was still looking at the portrait, in awe and admiration.
"Isn't it strange how, we'll never know, who the artist and the muse is, yet they'll be seen by so many people in this lifetime, known by the magic they created together."
I stood there listening to every word she said, my eyes, almost moist, thinking of how Avantika would never know the man in the painting is the one she's known so intimately for two years. That there have been other people who had known his body as deeply, or maybe more than her. And yet, the painting had forbidden this fable, and sealed it between two people who were as good as strangers now, forever. And that I would never know if the coy artist who had changed me forever, was Faiyaz or Noor or someone else. But I wondered if I really wanted to know who he really was. Because it was never the worldly ways that bound us to each other, in that small apartment, where we had let out very little about our past and certainly did not think of the future. It was all about those moments in the present. That present of yore, now, did not seem to be an event of the past, but a dream lived in another dimension.
Too precious to be regularly remembered but too wounding to conveniently forget.
I reached Florence at about 8 pm. Instead of heading home, I went straight to that old apartment I had purchased recently. As I climbed up the narrow stairway and stood in front of the door, I thought of this exact day, three years ago, when I sat inside, not uttering a word, listening to Shlok knocking at my door, waiting for me to answer.
I remember asking Bertha to lock me inside and tell anyone who drops by that I'm headed home. I remember seeing him furtively from the balcony, walk down the street in a slow place, knowing this was the last I would see of him, and this time he wouldn't be back.
About an hour later I opened the door to find two jars of green moss candles placed near the door.
And here I was, three years later. standing where he once stood.
I opened the door and went inside. Nothing had changed about the apartment in three years. I had maintained that it remains exactly the same since he left.
I sensed a regret in my heart, wishing I had painted his face and locked it up here, but I knew I couldn't look at it, without my heart shattering into a million pieces.
I turned on the stereo and lifted the candles that he had left on the door three years ago, which had remained unattended all this while.
It smelled like green moss once again, tearing me up, taking me down those lanes of piercing nostalgia and how it would stay with me forever, breaking me a little more, with each passing day. The houses on the opposite street echoed in celebrations. It was the beginning of a new decade where people looked forward to fresher starts. But I was trapped in a mirror of the past, that I couldn't escape from, mostly because I did not want to.
For now, the Christmas lights reflecting on flower petals in almost every balcony on the street, except mine, made me smile, as tears rolled down my cheeks and I closed my eyes, lying there with my legs stretched on the railing, grateful for the winter breeze.
‘...Aur bhi dukh hain zamaane mein muhabbat ke siva
Raahatein aur bhi hain wasl ki raahat ke siva..’
Author: Kanishk Sharma
Author intro : Kanishk Sharma, a student of architecture and design, is an aspiring writer and filmmaker and considers himself a true lover of literature and cinema. He lives in the voluptuous dimension of imagination and believes dreams and nightmares are as real as the here and now.
'You should know there's power in the words you're thinking', he quotes his favorite music artist as he probably sips some tea, amid the mountains he calls home where life is but a beautiful blessing, nothing but reality braided with fiction, utopian and unreal!