Short Story: How Abstract Art Liberated Me and Infuriated My Peers
by Michelle D’Costa
The wine glass shatters. It’s Tuesday. It is the fifth glass shattering this week. After I Whatsapp Mom to clarify if shattering glasses bring good news or the polar opposite, I sweep the shards into the dust pan and wet a duster so that the minute particles that have escaped the broom will be absorbed by the cloth. I do it immediately for if I forget and if Kriti steps on it later, I would never forgive myself.
She is in the fifth grade — she is small. She got her periods last week — not that small.
She has gone to school. I wonder what to do. I check if Mom has replied. Blue ticks. She has seen it. I log into Facebook.
Post: Artist hacked to death over explicit painting
Below that my school classmate Ronak’s status:
Perseverance pays off. Finally red bags will replace black bags for wrapping pads at the pharmacy. Soon menstruating women will be allowed to enter places of worship. Soon men will stop urinating on streets…soon.
What the fish?
Ronak and I are just online profiles to each other like most school classmates who are “friends” on Facebook.
Mom hasn’t replied. It has been ages since I attended a book launch or art exhibition. I check for the weekend events schedule online. I see that an exhibition of an artist by the name Khulood is planned for the next day.
I click on the link:
Khulood is an artist from Bangalore. Her art has been showcased in numerous online journals. This will be her first solo exhibition.
Khulood. Sounds familiar. I check my school classmate Khulood’s profile on my Facebook friend list. It is indeed her. Today is not my day. I log out of Facebook.
What would Ronak and Khulood see on their newsfeed about me?
…. Links about art….
… .Links about parenthood…
Mom replies: “Y do u ask me sch Qs? Hav I raisd an incmpetent mther? U must kno des things. Nw think hard n tell me.”
I know I could just Google it but I fling the phone onto the sofa and decide to take a nap.
It is a Sunday. It is.. Yes. It feels like a Sunday. I’m at home. No. Not my present home. The home I was born in. I can smell Panpole — which I never did when I woke up on Sundays because I was usually at church by the time Mom made breakfast.
I am late for mass. I decide to wear the first top and jeans I see in my wardrobe and it takes ages to put them on. First I wear my top inside out, then my legs land outside the jeans several times. I want to escape before Mom or Dad can see me. Mom because… well she hates when I oversleep and Dad because he never approved of me wearing jeans. I expect them to catch me knowing already that this is a nightmare and I am trapped. But they don’t.
I enter church and try to squeeze myself into a pew. The blessing of the Eucharist is taking place. I’m so late. I kneel down. When the priest speaks into the mic I am confused. “Is it a woman or is it just me?” I ask the girl beside me who has her head bowed in prayer. I can see her lips hurriedly move in secret conversation with the Lord. She doesn’t hear me. I nudge her.
“What?” she asks, looking up. She is faceless like most people in my dreams. But her “What?” reminds me of my school arts and craft teacher, Ms. Leela.
“Is the priest a woman? He surely sounds like one,” I ask her.
“Yes she is indeed a woman,” she says, her tone suggesting, “How could you be judgmental when you are a woman yourself?” I narrow my field of vision by squinting my eyes and notice that the priest’s face has an uncanny resemblance to my school classmate Irene.
I rush out of the church immediately. Female priest? Irene?
I cannot find the exit door. I need some air. I run in circles.
I wake up, gasping. I check Irene’s profile on Facebook. She is a visual artist like those artists who rely on technology to express their creativity. I think of my painting kit. I wonder about Ms. Leela. I look for her on Facebook. She has passed away a month ago from cancer. Her timeline is flooded with pictures of her with students, accompanied by testimonials. It disgusts me. Maybe I should take a hiatus from Facebook.
I look at the time on my phone. Kriti will come at 12.30pm. Kanishk will call at 12.31pm. (He is a doting father. He spoke to her about her periods last week, can you believe it?)
I have exactly two hours to myself.
I stare at the canvas I have retrieved from the store room. I have an image in my head.
The canvas split into two halves —
On one side, a man displaying his huge biceps, with butterflies (representing women) hovering around them, the tattoo “Stud” clearly visible on his chest.
On the other side, a woman sitting with her legs slightly apart, the darkness between her knees attracting flies (representing men), her cleavage falling to depths known only to imagination. The word “Whore” tattooed on her forehead.
No, that would be explicit. I remember the post from the morning. Do I have the guts to be explicit? Abstract art is safe.
I stare at the canvas.
The last time I stared at the canvas this way was at my school annual art contest. I had never even contemplated participation as my batch mates were talented and the same students won almost every year. How could I possibly display my amateur work against theirs?
It was a Tuesday, too, and Ms. Leela informed me that a participant was absent and that I had to fill in for her. I thought I heard her wrong. I felt as if my white skirt was slowly slipping down my waist and the buttons on my white shirt would pop. The world around me seemed blurry. She shook me. I begged her but she told me that this was my chance. I stared at the white canvas before me.
The participants whom I approached for paint stripped me with their looks and told me that since they did not know which colour they would need and when, they couldn’t let me borrow anything. I couldn’t locate Ms. Leela. I did not want to disappoint her with an empty canvas. My classmate, a spectator, found a tube of red paint in her bag. What could I possibly paint?
The two most embarrassing moments of my life flashed before my eyes:
The previous month, at the bus stop, I had my head under my folded arms, leaning against a pillar. I was the seeker. Before I had said the number ten aloud, I turned, Mom was standing behind me. She dragged me by my hair. I thought it was because I was late. At home, Dad’s belt buckle found its way into my thigh and he threatened to strip me and parade me naked on the road if I even so much as thought of tainting his image in public again. I had stained my uniform. As I sobbed in the corner of my room I had thanked God that it wasn’t a Tuesday. Every Tuesday we had P.E. class and were supposed to wear white divided skirts. Red on navy blue isn’t as bad as red on white, no?
The previous Tuesday, a holiday. Mom and I were at our cousin’s house for a sleepover on Monday night. Mom found our cousin’s white bed sheet stained the next day. She yelled in front of my young cousin brother, “When I was a girl of your age, we had to use cloth! You have all kinds of pads — night, day, extra wide, extra long. What not! Yet you are so careless!” and slapped me. My young cousin asked Mom about the blood and that if I was hurt and bleeding why was she slapping me? I stared at the blood on the sheet. For a split-second it looked beautiful in its amoeba like pattern. Liberating.
As I added the final touches to my painting — a faint outline, almost a shadow resembling a square around the amoeba-like red blotches, Ms. Leela arrived, “I had forgotten to give you paint, I realised…”
She was staring at my painting and so was the judge. Again I felt I was being stripped.
I won first place. The judge said, “Best. Best. Best.” Followed by, “I seen, from student.” I wondered what he had understood from it but I never had the guts to ask him or rather tell him what it meant. The participants looked at him as if he had confessed he was a paedophile.
Ronak, the boy who came in second didn’t want to ask me what my painting meant. He didn’t want to appear obtuse, I could tell. Khulood, the girl who usually came in second, left without even glancing at my painting. They speculated rigged results. Or else how could something as meaningless as my work win? “Tell me why red?” Irene, the girl who stood third, asked me. “I had no choice,” I said, honestly. I could tell she wanted to rip apart my painting.
I became a mini-celebrity in school and an untouchable at home. Mom destroyed most of my canvases when I returned with the award. “Studdees only. No more painting.”
My painter’s kit found its way to the store room. She did not allow me to shut the door of my room anymore. Dad felt Mom was right like he always does.
Sometimes – she stood by my door in a white maxi so that she would be camouflaged by the white door. Sometimes – she crawled into my room on the pretext of swabbing a tile. Sometimes – she barged in pretending to look for something, and every single time she managed to make me jump.
I cannot remember the day I began painting. Was it in arts and craft class? Or was it at home? I remember doodling, though: a ear here, a tail there, a speech bubble here and there filled with symbols indicating censored words around “Did you know” cartoons on the inside of the back cover of my notebooks, during boring classes.
Mom didn’t take my art seriously at first. She let me buy the painter’s essentials kit from the shop beside our home with the pocket money I had saved up just so that I would shut up. But when I told her that Ms. Leela loved my work, she began to worry.
One day (before the award) Mom stood by my door with her hands folded watching me paint. “A two-year old could do that. I don’t know what your teacher sees in your work. She’s crazy. She shouldn’t teach art and make anyone believe they can paint just because they mix a few colours and splash them on the canvas.”
When I returned early from school one day (before the award) I caught Mom trying her hand at the canvas, she got so furious with me as if I had caught her cheating with the neighbour, I will never forget the way the brush was shivering in her hand. Had she wanted to be a painter as a child?
I hear the banging of the main door. It is 12.30pm.
“Mmmmmommmmyyyyyy I missed you.” Kriti burst in. “See mommy. See.” She shows me her sketch. Miss Kaur said I am a gifted artist.”
An Indian, born (1991) and raised in Bahrain, Michelle D’costa has short fiction/ poetry published in Antiserious, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Open Road Review, Raed Leaf Poetry India and many others. Her story is forthcoming in Aainanagar and her poems are forthcoming in an anthology edited by Nabina Das and Semeen Ali. She can be found here: https://michellewendydcosta.wordpress.com/