When Avi said he saw Dr Sharma’s wife’s ghost, what he meant he had seen a ravishing young woman, fairy white and buxom, sitting stark naked on the terrace of the house that overlooked his backyard. Her legs dangled onto the thin ledge as she looked ahead, her golden hair flung forward over her ample assets, awash in the pale light of a full moon. It was a heart-stopping sight that jumped upon him from the boxy, double-storied dwelling, an abode to students and painters and the disquieted spirit of its landlady.
Avi had woken up in the wee hours of morning and had gone there to switch on the submersible pump to fill the overhead tank that kept the water taps running. He shot back like a bullet through the door he had appeared, flushed more with shame than fear. Back in his house as he stood calming his racing pulse, it occurred to him that he may have witnessed an unearthly creature after all. He realised how it put him in the league of his grandparents who spoke of ghouls and spectres as if they were housemaids and cooks. Hours later, he was still wide-eyed as he gushed about it with a tremor in his voice. He kept looking wistfully at the huge poster of Brooke Shields that hung on a wall of my room, as if to help illuminate his point, when he came to me.
Although I didn’t know it when I moved into the one-room bachelor apartment on the second floor of the house for an incredibly low rent, it was common knowledge that the recently departed soul of Dr Sharma’s wife was lingering on in the precincts due to untended matters best known to her. Some said her boundless love for her adolescent children was a hindrance to her salvation. Many others thought she may have cut short her pain and despair by swallowing a bunch of sleeping pills, setting herself free much earlier than the cancer would eventually have done, but now she was doomed to live her remaining years on earth in spirit, if not in flesh, and undergo the mandatory suffering. Many sightings were reported and the early birds of the neighbourhood swore it was between four and five in the morning, the time she had died, that her presence was most forcefully felt. It was said to be quiet, her spirit, sailing past the odd ledge or window like a feather, though Balbir Rai swore of clinking trinkets, and folks agreed he was lying, and that he was unduly foisting the habits of less civilised ghouls of his native village upon the refined spirit of a city known for its culture. Rai’s house shared a common wall with Dr Sharma’s.
Dr Sharma’s bachelor flats were much sought after as he rented it out regardless of the marital status of the prospective tenants and there was often a waiting list. It was a cause of discontentment among his neighbours but then they were unhappy about his dead wife too, and he didn’t give two hoots to any of it. The first floor of his house had four such dwelling units and a tiny terrace towards the back touched Avi’s house. The second floor had a lone such unit and afforded a huge terrace, and I was its rather constant occupant, guarding my territory fiercely. Occasionally, the occupants from the floors below welled up to the top to catch the winter sun or the puffs of zephyr in sweltering summer nights.
The regional centre of National Academy of Art stood on a road close by, ten minutes’ walk from the house. The academy was a perennial haunt of art students of all kinds -painters, sculptors, moulders and weirdoes. What it also ensured was the house was never short of tenants. They appeared with their easels, canvas, colours, moulds and metals overnight and vanished in similar haste. I ran into a fresh troika one evening, smoking cigarettes nonchalantly, leaning against the parapet of my terrace. Looking around, I noticed cast off cigarette butts too and it sent my temper soaring. I gruffly asked them to stop smoking and collect the litter they had produced. One of them sported a ponytail and seemed to be their leader. He apologized profusely on everyone’s behalf, stubbed out his cigarette and picked up the butts. The other two followed him sheepishly. After an awkward pause, however, I introduced myself and they were happy to introduce themselves too.
It turned out that Biren, Sumer and Victor hailed from three distant corners of the country, spaced away like the legs of a tripod. Biren had come from Assam, Sumer belonged to Rajasthan and Victor had his home in Goa. As if to emphasise their distant origins, the artists had very different painting styles compared to each other. Biren’s paintings smacked of a land of mountains, rivers and fog, rendered in charcoal abstracts. Sumer’s paintings were crowded with dunes and temples, suffused with shades of orange and maroon; his people were ridiculously skeletal. Victor was apparently the most gifted of them all, he was a painter of women and their many moods, their fortunes and misfortunes. His drawings were varied, vivid and full bodied, and women were counterbalanced with tormentors – pot-bellied, moustachioed, uniformed, dagger-wielding and pinstripe-suited.
Victor seemed to have a fascination for women of Nordic descent who he claimed were the ‘epitome of womanhood’. He often talked about certain Veera and Salli, representatives of Finnish Airline who had befriended him during an art exhibition in New Delhi. They were quite struck by his paintings, he’d say, and had offered to pose as models for his ‘masterpiece’.
Veera and Salli were not the only fans of Victor’s works. Balibir Rai, who had risen from selling betel leaves to owning a busy restaurant in Ganj, was also bowled over by his talents and had bought a painting from him for an undisclosed sum. He would visit the exhibitions organized by the Academy to savour the ‘the big-busted-hour-glass-figures’ in the paintings. Victor’s art easily passed the touchstone of femininity set by him, ‘He knows omens!’
I decided to wait for a couple of days before bursting Avi’s illusion about the naked ghost but it turned out to be a bad idea for all. The very next day of his imagined tryst with the supernatural, his sister stepped out in the backyard only to see a large painted canvas positioned carefully on the first-floor terrace. It depicted an undraped woman, her legs dangling out of a rooftop in reckless abandon.
The artists would often expose their paintings in the sun but never before had they put forth such combustible stuff. It was quite a shock to Avi for reasons more than one. That, it was tantamount to foisting pornography on the neighbourhood was one, a crime unforgiveable enough. But what was worse, it shattered his illusion of having come across a beautiful spirit and he felt short-changed. The woman he had seen was apparently a living soul who had modelled for the nudist art and the canvas was then proffered to the sun for baking in the elements of its subject. And the thought that the painters had access to such femmes fatales who were clearly foreigners, smouldered him further. Using a stepladder, he quickly went up the fence and pulled himself into the balcony stepping over the railing. He freed the painting off its stand and sent it crashing to his backyard and scaled his way back. Back in his house, he shredded it to smaller pieces with a razor.
Come evening, the painters trundled their way up to my room, sombre as if in mourning. I cooked some tea and offered them biscuits but they remained sullen. Victor was inconsolable, ‘You don’t understand -It is like losing one’s child.’ His ponytail was a frizzled mess.
There was no doubt in their minds about the culprit. Avi had left succinct footprints on the colour smeared floor of the painters’ balcony. They had even wandered to the front of Avi’s house where they had found a severed piece of the canvas that Victor was still clutching in his hands. They had been quickly booed away by the family though.
‘I am sure it is crime enough and that lanky man is guilty of plundering. Tell me, why shouldn’t I call in the police?’ Victor demanded of me.
‘I am sure it is crime enough, and first rate at that.’ I spoke. ‘But I am not sure how the police will react to it all, what with public display of nude paintings and the naked foreigners wandering at night. There are obscenity laws too. More than that, you know how the police is, always sniffing for reasons to harass gentle souls like you.’
‘We know he is your friend.’ Biren said with venom.
‘Look, I know how hard it must be, like losing a part of your body, your offspring. Hope you will forgive me if I suggest you paint it again. I mean, invite your model friend once more.’ I tried my best to mollify them.
Victor didn’t touch his tea.
A month passed and the April suddenly started getting intolerably hot and stuffy. I fell to my old habit of pulling out a mattress on the terrace, fixing up a mosquito net on sticks and sleeping under the open sky. The nights were hot to start with but once past the midnight, the wind would pick up thick with the fragrance of night jasmine. Early in the morning, a batch of cuckoos would break into a duel, calling louder and louder over the mad cawing of the crows in the nearby park. But it was not till the late morning sun pinching me hard that I’d undo the camp. One night though, much before the clamouring of the birds began, I found myself awake and gazing at a pair of white sneakers, inches from my face. A pair of rose-white legs arose from the shoes and as my eyes travelled upwards, a tall statuesque figure hovered over me under the late-night sky. I stood bolt upright with a jerk, mosquito net and all, and found myself staring at two large crystalline eyes framed in golden hair. I was about to rend the night with my alarmed gibberish when her lips moved, ‘Hi! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! I am Veera…!’
She was trying to hold my hand through the net. I was returning from my somnolence quickly, beginning to realise she was probably the famed model I’d been hearing about. I pushed the net away from my body swiftly, wide awake by now, trying to look smart in whatever I was dressed in. I realized how truly beautiful she was, like Brooke Shields come off the wall! But she seemed deeply upset about something.
‘Help a friend, please! I know you’ve got a bike. Will you drop me to the airport, please? I will pay you —please?’ She was speaking very quickly. Like those girls in the movies.
‘I don’t want to be paid!’ I found my voice as her words hit me. ‘Aren’t you the model they keep talking…. Where is he?’
‘Jeesus! Victor —he is sick! Drop me to the airport, please. I will pay you. I will pay you….’ She began fumbling with her large handbag frantically.
‘Wait, give me a moment.’ I said, thinking hard. The painter must be as crazy as Avi thinks he is. I heaved the mattress and the net back into my room. I slipped into a pair of jeans and t-shirt briskly, remembering to pocket my driving license, all the while thinking what Victor might have done to perturb her so. Did he …? My heart was thudding away at the thought. She knocked and came in and looked around as if searching for something. She rushed at the water keg and poured several cups of water and drank in large gulps. Her fingers trembled as she held the cup. I hoped the water was still cool. I hoped she was not hurt by the lunatic who had done God knows what to her.
“Hurry, please, hurry!” She implored.
Soon we were shooting like a rocket through empty streets, the wind roaring in my ears. I was still wondering if it was a lucid dream but there were Veera’s hands, digging hard into my shoulders, and I could feel her wispy embrace at my back, almost expecting it. I knew the exact spots where the police check posts were set up for the night and skirted clear of them, turning into sub-streets. The police were sure to have stopped us and unleash a barrage of questions just for the heck of it. We entered the airport building within an hour with the first light of dawn.
Veera didn’t have much to say nor did she waste time getting off the bike. She had pulled out what appeared to be foreign currency notes from her handbag but I told her firmly that I would not be paid. She grabbed my arm and shook it vigorously as tears rolled down her cheeks from under the goggles she had slipped on. ‘Goodbye! Kiitos ystäväni…. Näkemiin!’ I didn’t know what she was mumbling except that she was grateful and relieved as hell. Then she spun and rushed towards the security guards at the entrance.
I could still feel her palms on my shoulders as I rode back, my back dreaming of the touch it had felt moments ago. There was no reason to hurry. I had just helped a foreign fairy escape the clutches of a local fiend. I was transformed to a knight of global calibre.
As I cut into the last lane to my house, I was shocked to see a large crowd gathered under our building. A grim looking police van was parked next to a white-coloured ambulance close to the gate. My heart leapt to my mouth as I killed the engine of my bike, pulling it away discreetly at some distance. I looked for familiar faces in the ominous crowd. Balbir Rai stood at the gate of his house, clutching a newspaper in one hand and his lungi with the other. With leaden feet, I moved closer to him searching his face for answers. Presently, some people emerged from the front holding a stretcher, carrying a large body covered with a sheet and I could just spot a ponytail peeking out at one end. Biren and Sumer followed it with bowed heads.
‘Suicide!’ Balbir Rai said balefully, pointing at the stretcher with his poorly shaved chin. ‘Love with phoren omens.’