The Picture

 The Picture

When Pramita Mukherjee’s daughter was born twenty six years ago, her first reaction in the labour room was an outburst of tears, tears of joy, which the doctor and the nursing staff mistook for bitter tears of disappointment. From that moment, Pramita never counted the failures and disappointments of her life any more and waited for the day when her own dreams would be fulfilled through her daughter, whom she name Aparajita.

That tiny bundle of joy is a young lawyer now. She is married to an Army Officer, a doctor, posted at a remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. He has just been allotted a flat in Kolkata, and Aparajita has a great task ahead, doing up her flat in the proper way. As is the custom, she has to invite her neighbours, the wives of other officers, to tea in her flat within three weeks of her moving in. A book handed over to her by the wife of her husband’s superior in the rank, intricately describes the smallest details about the crockery, the cutlery, the linen and the etiquette. For the past two weeks, Pramita is visiting her daughter with great enthusiasm, shopping for the tea party according to the requirements in the book and planning the decor of the new flat with the creativity she could not put into use in her own household.

At the time of her marriage into a Bengali middle class family in Serampore, Pramita had just completed her graduation. Her father was an Accountant in a government office. The untimely death of his wife made him anxious about getting the motherless girl settled in marriage, and he was compelled to put aside all his plans about his daughter’s career whom they had brought up in a happy world of books, music and art.

Pramita, however, had other kinds of experiences as she started her new life. Arun, her husband, was an intelligent and honest young man – her father had made the right choice here. However, the household was run by his mother and unmarried elder sister, and he was too gentle and hesitant to have a word in any domestic matter. His sister, ten years elder to her brother, was a strong-willed, practical woman in whose life there was no place for emotions. She was good in knitting and sewing, and had an establishment in a ground floor room of their old house, where three girls stitched woman’s clothes under her direction. She and her mother had the same nature which was so much opposite Pramita’s that she soon found it very difficult to get on with them. Her upbringing and gentle nature kept her from going into confrontations, but as the creative girl’s ideas and eager proposals on many small household matters were all sternly refused or laughed at, her heart was broken and she suffered silently.

Arun was an accountant and his earning was moderate. He had no objection to Pramita’s taking up a job, but she had very little scope of acquiring new qualifications. His mother, who opposed her daughter-in-law in all her ways, was, however, enthusiastic about having an addition to the family income. Pramita, who knew good English, enrolled at a shorthand school and completed a secretarial course. She joined a commercial firm as a steno-secretary at a modest salary and contributed nearly all of it to her mother-in-law’s household.

Her father visited her occasionally. Along with the festive season’s gifts of clothes, sweets and fruits for his daughter’s family, he would add a good book or two and an album of Tagore’s songs or old melodies for his daughter. At this time, Aparajita was born. Opposing her mother-in-law and sister-in-law for the first time, Pramita had put her in a convent school. She was very alert about the child’s progress. The girl had inherited some traits of her aunt and grandmother’s nature which was painful to Pramita at times but she consoled herself by saying inwardly “This will help her win in life. She will have a bleak future if she is soft and adjusting like me”.

As time rolled on, Pramita lost her father. He died just before the results of Aparajita’s school leaving examination were declared and did not live to see his granddaughter’s success. Her mother-in-law transferred the reins of the household to her daughter and Pramita went on labouring silently as always.

The above phases of Pramita’s life, connected with many incidents were actually passing over her mind like vivid images as she sat by the window of a bus. It was a Saturday and Aparajita would be home by 4pm, after which they had planned to go for shopping. A tea set was required, along with a set of white cloth napkins (paper napkins were forbidden), a brass tray, proper flower vases and most important of all, curtains for the drawing room and for the other rooms. Pramita changed her plans. She would buy some of the things herself. She got down at Park Street and walked along the pavement, looking at the familiar buildings. Holding her father’s hand, little Pramita used to enter Flury’s on winter afternoons, often after spending the day at the Indian Museum. Oxford Book Store – the dear old bookshop Free School Street – where she remembered her father stopping in front of an old building and showing her a marble plaque at the entrance which said “William Makepeace Thackeray, Poet and Novelist, was born in this house on 18th July, 1781”.

She arrived at the old crockery shop from where her father used to buy crockery for her mother, who loved bone china tableware. As she chose a gold-bordered ivory-white tea set for her daughter’s party, she fondly remembered her parents who were not rich, but had fine taste. She also sighed sadly, as her wish of decorating her own home could never be fulfilled. She looked around for many more things, paid in advance for some sophisticated curtains to be picked up later, bought a pair of beautiful flower vases and finally walked to photo framers, where she had ordered a painting to be framed.

She handed the slip at the counter. As the framed painting was brought from inside and packed in front of her, she looked intently at the effect it produced. It was a long preserved favourite possession of hers, the copy of an original painting of a baul in performance by Abanindranath Tagore. It was now framed beautifully, fit to adorn the walls of any modern and elegant living room.

She requested the man at the counter to send for a taxi and as she waited, she remembered the incident which never allowed this painting to be put up in her own home.

When Aparajita was just 28 days old, a photographer friend of Arun had taken some lovely shots of the baby. One of those photographs was a very happy one, with a tired but smiling Pramita holding her baby and Arun by her side, looking at his daughter with a proud smile. One evening, when the baby was asleep, Pramita wrapped a cardboard and a thick piece of sponge with coloured marble paper, stuck the sponge on the board with adhesive and put the photo on it with a board pin. She put up the board in front of their room in the passage upstairs, went excitedly to her mother-in-law and said, “please go upstairs, Ma, and see what I have done!” The lady went to see what the matter was and within a minute came back with the arrangement in her hand which she had ripped off from the wall. “Here, keep this”, she flung the photograph towards her astonished daughter-in-law and threw the other things away. “You can’t do anything you like in this house. If you have to live here, you have to go by the rules of this house”. She said with extreme rudeness. “Do you know everybody makes fun of your silly deeds?” Pramita came back to her room, wept for the whole night and removed all photographs, greeting cards and pictures from her little room. This painting remained permanently in her locker, wrapped in brown paper with dried neem leaves to keep worms away.

She reached the army housing complex in ten minutes. Her daughter was already in. She unpacked the things for her daughter to see, and from a catalog of prints, showed her the design which she had chosen for the curtains. Aparajita said she liked all the items, they would all suit very well, but why did her mother take so much trouble and spend so much? She was surprised to see the quality and beauty of the things and the superb taste with which they were chosen and picked. The person she knew as her mother, only bought grocery items like oil and spices from the local grocer’s and sometimes, vegetables on her way back home from office. From as long as she could remember, things of all kinds, right from kitchenware to clothes and curtains, were bought under her aunt’s supervision with her mother sometimes accompanying, but her opinion was never sought for.

Pramita unwrapped the painting, and her daughter was more surprised. Pramita proposed that it should be put up in the drawing room, to which, however, her daughter was silent. Pramita’s eagerness suddenly received a jolt and she said in a controlled manner, “Why, Apu, don’t you like this beautiful painting? I got it framed hastily so that it could be put up before the day of your party”. With a coldness in her voice which was very familiar to Pramita, Aparajita said “It is not that the painting is not good, Ma. It is framed beautifully and I can see that you have spent much on it. I wanted something modern for this room, maybe geometric patterns or something abstract. Let’s keep this wrapped for now and I’ll think about a place for it later”. Her cellphone rang and she went walked away to her bedroom, talking to a friend.

Pramita sat among the things which she had brought here like a treasure, looking at the picture which stood on the floor, supported by a chair. Tears rose in her eyes as she watched the dreamy figure of a dancing baul in saffron in the backdrop of a magical landscape in soft hues. She envied the carefree and joyous figure that was happy as he had no expectations and thus no disappointment.

The man in charge of the office at an Old Age Home was surprised when a lady approached him with a strange request. She had come not to donate money or clothes for the inmates, but a painting for the hall! At first, he was uncertain about what to say. But when the painting was unwrapped and presented before him, the elderly gentleman was overcome by its beauty and happily accepted the gift, requesting the lady to come again and spend some time with the inmates.

Pramita stood in a train packed with jostling office crowd returning home. She often looked down to hide her tears, though no one particularly looked at her in the noisy, suffocating compartment. She was returning to that place known as her home, a home which never welcomed her on her return after a hard day’s work, nor ever cared for her happiness or sorrow. A home which has been cold and indifferent to her for the last thirty years. There were a few missed calls on her cellphone from her daughter, which she did not answer. As she alighted on the platform, she again thought of the baul. Maybe the painting has found its right place now, she thought, among people who have nearly reached the journey’s end, cast aside and detached yet tranquil and happy.

Contributing Story Teller:: Aditi Ghosh, I am a resident of Kolkata. I work as a Secretary in a real estate firm and write in between my work. I have a daughter (9 years). My husband is also based in Kolkata and is a senior accountant in a medical equipment company. aditi321@rediffmail.com

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