Drawing Lessons

After she leaves, I berate myself for choosing the most blatant lie. He calls, and I don’t answer the phone because I already know he won’t be coming home for dinner. Before leaving, Flora asks to be paid. I ask him for a piece of paper and a pencil, and I draw a picture of my husband’s eye from memory. Karun was training to be an architect, and I was a graduate student hoarding notebooks filled with bad poetry. He asked me not to tell you. I kept asking her questions, but it made her cry more. But he might get deported. Ask your father. Pascal’s wager, I tell my sister, when she expresses her disapproval. We found a better lawyer, she says. The world opened up when I was with him. He was always pointing out things: a strange-looking bird, a surreal street sign, a man selling kites and flutes, the beauty of a building I walked past every day. They feel different, I say, parroting her words and her tone. We sit next to each other at the dining table, and I tell her I want to try portraiture. He tells me about a new client who calls for a meeting every few days because she keeps changing her mind about the house. Why not, she says. I know this to be untrue because I was in the living room till four a.m., watching re-runs of the news. I kiss her neck, and lick the scar on the left side of her torso. I know you and your husband have been trying for a child. She usually speaks of Akash with a competitive edge to her tone, but today she sounds tired. You’ve made me look young, she laughs, and touches my cheek. I play out the fight in my head, realize it would end with me placating him, and without any words having passed between us, I don’t ask the question. Even this simple outing to Nayar’s Destiny Bazaar – a ten-minute taxi from my house, and five flights of stairs – has exhausted me. Look. Suddenly the conversation feels like a crossword puzzle where the clues are wrongly numbered. I finish reading Flora’s book, and call her one evening, hoping she will forgive me. Are you upset with me? He thinks I’m a good influence. I don’t want to argue about this again. Keep your hand loose. But now I know: Moira means destiny. She sketches an oval on my sheet of paper, and shows me the basic shape of a face. I know what it’s like to feel betrayed by your body. I am too stunned to respond, but her gesture isn’t sexual.  
On Monday, Flora arrives earlier than usual, and asks if I want to take a walk before we begin the lesson. I say. I start with the mouth: her lips are thin. Don’t look down at the page too much. I hand him five hundred rupees, and leave without taking the notes he has written about rituals I need to perform.  
When my sister calls at our usual time, I explain to her that I’m in two marriages with one person. It looks out of place slung across her shoulder, next to the carefully braided silver hair, and even more so when she places it on the floor next to her, in this house bereft of children. A question I know the answer to is also a question harbouring an accusation. I change the topic, and ask about her son, who attends a small liberal arts college in North America, and was recently arrested for drug possession. It is thirty-five degrees and cloudless outside, but before I can respond, she confesses: Your husband called me yesterday because he’s worried about you and he asked me to get you to go out. Flora B-H-A-V-N-A-N-I. He wears large gold-plated rings on both thumbs, and his fingernails have the sheen of a recent manicure.  
The days move slowly with nothing to look forward to. She undresses because she has agreed to let me draw her, but I am overcome with lust, and ask if I can kiss her. She tells me about the new television show her husband has been making her watch. At least you have a son. Doctrine of Colours by Goethe. I ask whether she has any children. The person I was back then, a stranger to myself now, agreed to a date, and then five more, before we slept together. I don’t know. At my age it didn’t seem necessary to get a reconstruction. You know that’s not true, Tarini. She comes to my house on Mondays and Wednesdays, and for the past five weeks we have been drawing bowls of fruit: mangos, apples, coconuts, lychees. Soon, I hope, she will teach me figure composition. Lose an appendage or lose my marriage? Amazon women cut off their breast so they can be better warriors, she tells me, and suddenly I am afraid: not of her, but of my passion for her. I met Karun at a party hosted by our mutual friend who was intent on setting us up for reasons as yet unknown to me. Mustard leaves, spinach leaves and radish leaves, sautéed with garlic and green chillies. It is a very hot day.  
I have a master’s in English Literature from St Xavier’s College, and mine is a love marriage, which means visiting astrologers is not something I have always done. He said you’ve been more cheerful since we started the drawing class. She is offering herself up to the brutality of my inexperienced hand. I am afraid of the feelings it might evoke. It was an old rotary phone.  
My husband has a mole on his left eyelid that looks like smudged kajal. And please don’t offer me your money. Just, you know, I could tell something transformative would happen, she said. I couldn’t give her directions because she didn’t know where she was. It’s from a book, my mother had said, when I asked. One day she wants all wood and bamboo, then next day she watches some movie, and wants marble-topped everything. My husband’s mole glows magenta. I was born in Chembur only, back when it was a refugee camp in 1950. My perfume made him sneeze, and I didn’t understand his humour, which involved riddles and violent knock-knock jokes. I’ve been taking drawing lessons from a woman named Flora. The Pomeranian, whom we have named Igor, announces Flora’s arrival by barking before the doorbell rings. What book? This habit got me into a different kind of trouble when I turned thirteen: I was sent to the school mental health counsellor. There are wrinkles deepening around her eyes. It’s June, and the rain clouds have arrived. They think I would have a good career as a wet nurse. Will be late. Don’t get stuck on any one part. Should I turn up the fan? It made me furious that someone else’s faulty memory was to blame for my sense of incompleteness. Moles signify different things depending on the body part. She looks over the drawings, and says, Your lines remind me of Kokoschka. Do I send her my warmest wishes, or my sincerest regards? Very good, he says, with the authority of a doctor examining an X-ray. Nayar looks at me, You lost your spectacles? A mole on or around the eyes could mean domestic trouble or bad luck with finances, my astrologer Mr Nayar informs me. Flora types the name into her phone and shows me portraits by Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian expressionist. We could even go to the Hanging Gardens and collect flowers. I bring out my checkbook and ask for her full name. Tomorrow I was thinking of going out for dinner with the girls. I couldn’t keep even one son in check. I have always been envious of my sister’s name, and never understood why my parents gave her the sweet, normal, Indian name, while I was called Moira. Karun is worried about the expense.  
As a child, I was afraid of confrontation, and would start reciting the national anthem when anyone asked me a question I found abrasive. What got to me was his attentiveness to everything around him. I’m sorry. It feels different, she states. My phone trills to announce a text message: Why aren’t you picking up? I want her to draw me, but it’s an intimacy I will not allow myself. She doesn’t elaborate, and something in her demeanor stiffens.  
I’m thinking about Gertrude Stein again, and how Karun memorized lines from her books to impress me. If I ask, he’ll say: I came home at one but I was watching television in the living room. The girls are my friends from college: Tina, Urmila and Yogita. I already know all the answers. That’s fine, I say. Tina keeps telling me her bladder wants to burst, and the other two are squeezing my breasts. In the end I write that I am terminating the lessons because I would like to invest more time in other parts of my life. I’ve lived here since then. I send the maid to Flora’s house to deliver the note, along with some money. No, I don’t know. They appear in my dreams, perhaps because I’ve told this lie, and made them my unwitting accomplices. What is there to forgive, she says in a neutral tone, though I don’t believe her. I am unsure whether it is an act of cruelty, or a cry for help. As he starts talking about the connection between the face and the planet Saturn, my eyes wander to a painting on the opposite wall. I pore over the book, searching for a note, an underlined sentence, a dog-eared page, but there is no sign of a message from her. Married a few years ago. I breathe in the scent of her talcum powder. I can handle this, she says in Marathi, go practice your drawing. I don’t remember, my father said. Tina wants to try the new Chinese place. I wait for Flora with anticipation. Tarini doesn’t push the matter. For a moment I catch a glimpse of another Flora: a woman who has tried, and failed at motherhood. The one inside my head, filled with words and passion, and the one I confront in Karun’s presence. Try to draw me, she says. Why am I telling you all this? We are both too tired for our usual fights. A good book. she asks, with unexpected tenderness. Let the object tell you what colour it wants to be, she says. Goethe calls these extraordinary affections of the retina. Damn annoying. I try reading a book about how nutrition affects thyroid and fertility, but my mind wanders, and I play a game of Would You Rather. All colours are hurt spectacles, I think, and say aloud without intention. He wants a photograph of my husband’s mole, since my husband works all day, and could not accompany me for this consultation.  
Goethe: Objects are often seen by sick persons in variegated colours. One daughter. Why not, she repeats. She tells me about her breast cancer, and how she had a full mastectomy of her left breast. I close my eyes, and the image of her from my dream appears. I spend an hour trying to get the wording right. I visit the astrologer, but he has nothing new to tell me. My throat closes up, and I feel hurt. I think he wants to have a second child just so he can keep watching these cartoons. When my sister calls in the evening, I do not mention any of this. Can we start classes next week?  
At dinner, Karun asks about my day, but I don’t mention Flora, or the fact that I know he spoke with her about my condition. She seems pleased that I am taking initiative. We don’t have to walk.  
Image © Elné
  I’m sure this makes you happy, she sighs. Love. It might be nice to have him back, I say. Flora is a catholic name, I say. I’m making a casserole. We move our chairs so we are facing each other, and she looks at me with a mixture of encouragement and acceptance. You don’t know my situation, I say, surprised by the coldness in my voice. I pause, and she asks to see the drawing. She shrugs, then smiles. Gertrude Stein, I mumble. I haven’t spoken to any of them in months, and I have no intention of doing so. After a year of marriage I realized Karun’s outward-looking nature was also an evasion: he remained hidden from me. For a moment my thoughts drift, and I place a hand on my neck and ask her if it’s too warm. Nayar traces his finger along the drawing, as if the texture of the paper might reveal something. I had a strange dream the other night. I have to go now, she says. The child was crying, and wanted directions to my house because she was lost. Move the pencil in the same direction, but apply more pressure to express darkness. Suffer or tell the truth about my desires? Be betrayed by my own body or my husband’s body? Something simple first, she says. The rest of the day is blurred, boring and without texture. She nods. A passage from a section about colours and their shadows. It’s not that Tarini is homophobic, but I am embarrassed to admit having discovered new aspects of my sexuality at this age. I once asked, suspecting we had been pushed together as a social experiment. The astrologer wants me to return home for the photograph, but just leaving the house takes reserves of energy that I struggle to find. They leave and Flora arrives. She asked me a series of yes or no questions, to which I kept saying maybe, and then told me to stop reciting the national anthem when I wasn’t supposed to. Instead, I find myself being nicer to Karun at breakfast – placing a kiss on his neck, which he doesn’t acknowledge. Die at the age of fifty or never experience childbirth? Our heads almost touching, we look at the pictures together. It’s based on the myth of Hanuman, and all the Hindu gods have modern superpowers. The friend later claimed she had an intuition that Karun and I would make an alchemical match. She hands me the money, along with a book, which Flora has sent for me. That makes you sound like a schizoid, darling, she says. We work in silence, making watercolour paintings of a small copper mug. In partnership with the   Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She grabs my wrist and presses my hand to her left breast, then she brings my hand to her right breast. Flora doesn’t say anything for a while, but arranges the drawing materials on the table, and talks about colour theory and aura. Don’t be afraid to draw my old age. What does that mean? Another late night tomorrow. The maid returns with the money. He smoked, and I didn’t like the smell of it. Getting a drink with co-workers. In this way, our marriage is two separate marriages. Try shading. Flora ma’am said no need, the maid tells me, in a combination of broken English and Marathi. She calls every day at four p.m., and we talk for an hour, and then I spend an hour in the kitchen, supervising the maid as she prepares our dinner. Shades of teal and turquoise in a diamond shape at the center, surrounded by yellow and orange blotches, inside a mute bronze frame. The future looks the same as it did two weeks ago. She carries a large sketchbook and a box of charcoal pencils in a backpack meant for schoolchildren. I explore her body with my hands, and tell her I want to paint her in orange and gold. I can already predict her reaction: Focus on making children instead of unmaking your marriage, she will say, with uninhibited pompousness. Am I unable to continue the lessons, or am I simply no longer in need of them?  
I write a note to Flora. I was speaking to a child over the telephone. Anushka Jasraj’s ‘Drawing Lessons’ is the winning entry for Asia. We end early because I am tired. Tina is pregnant with her second child, Urmila’s first daughter started school recently, and with Yogita’s children I’ve lost count. He’s just concerned, but it felt so underhanded to not tell you that. I read to her from the book. Igor stops barking when I open the door, and sniffs around Flora’s small feet as she takes off her blue chappals. Are you still considering a second round of fertility treatment? Sindhi? But sometimes you almost miss being viewed as a sexual object. I have one above my belly button, and I’m told it’s a sign of fertility, but this has proven untrue. Boyle relates an instance of a lady, who, after a fall by which an eye was bruised, saw all objects, but especially white objects, glittering in colours, even to an intolerable degree.  
It is five in the morning when Karun gets into bed. I ask if she wants to take a walk after our class.  
It is Monday. Yes, she says. It was very distressing.