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Pranav Deshpande

Tragedy Fantasy Children


Pranav Deshpande

Tragedy Fantasy Children

The Painting

The Painting

10 mins 85 10 mins 85

And there he was every morning. With the easel and the paintbrush and the canvas and the multitude of colors. Natural colors. Combined colors. An amalgam of various colors mixed with each other, each richer than the previous one, every combination calling out to a fertile imagination, a child’s emotions taken wings. It was a riot out there in the room, pages after pages of illusions, painted with feverish excitement and reckless abandon and then leading nowhere and then equally hastily discarded. The boy was desperate, he had to come up with something. Something unique. He had just recently visited the art museum and seen for himself paintings, both abstract and seemingly mundane. He had Googled the Renaissance masters and lost himself in that era. He had imagined himself as an understudy to Rembrandt and Picasso and da Vinci. He had stood on the Bridge of Sighs and looked across the waters flowing through the canals, a gondola passing by, with two star crossed lovers indulging in a yearning final embrace. And Bellini had stood on that bridge and held earnest discussions with Van Gogh and then Michelangelo had led him to the Sistine Chapel. And then the ages passed and Dali and Frida brought him to the latter day century. Frames after frames of Gothic and classic art flashed before his eyes and absorbed his dreams as well. As a child of three, he had seen the first of these paintings at a museum and then it was as if an obsession had taken hold. 

His parents knew that he was gifted and so did his teachers. Special needs, they called it. Because his gift had brought a certain lack of social construct in his personal make-up, a behaviour that had fancy names these days. And fancy beatings from his schoolmates. They called his fantasies weird and laughed and jeered as he tried to painstakingly explain to them the beauty, the majesty, the pristine excellence that was art. "They have travelled across the length and breadth of time" he yelled "They may have died centuries back, but I know them. Yes, even today, I know who they were, what they thought. Books and art forms, it makes people immortal" he finished his desperate exhortation, as he was being paraded half naked in front of his jeering seniors. Well, he couldn't be bothered with them, he consoled himself. They were mere mortals.

His favorite present was a copy of the famous Praying Hands, it’s subtext touching his small heart and infusing a feeling of love and sacrifice into his as yet unformed consciousness. And so he continued to work the paintbrush, for that one elusive painting that would stand out.

Three weeks back, something had happened. Maybe an epiphany. He was too young to have experienced the storms and calms of life, they had passed over him leaving his ignorant childhood as yet untouched. And yet he was growing now and knowing the ways of the world and more storms loomed. And life was readying him, for a rise or a fall he knew not, but he had his trusty paintbrush in his hand and he now had a goal.

It was an ordinary enough theme. Him and his parents holding hands. Standing on the lost horizon, the setting sun in the backdrop, a house with orchards and a chimney and cows grazing in the meadow. This theme had been repeated a million times by million happy kids across the world. So there was nothing novel about this, nothing abstract, nothing exciting, nothing that could make you go to a museum and gaze lovingly at it, unless the people were lifelike and maybe that was what he intended. When he expressed this view, everybody appreciated him, keeping their private thoughts to themselves, as happens with most public appreciations.

And he started his work. Most kids would be ready in half an hour or an hour at the most, but not him. This was personal, it was a project and it would be done with the earnest zeal of a suffering artist. He started spending days in the attic and in the bedroom and his studies started getting neglected and so did his eating and sleeping habits but he was a small, healthy kid and his body was still acclimating. The strokes went feverish and again multiple waste paper baskets were consumed and nobody could understand it. He was taken to stay with his aunts and uncles for some time. His aunts and uncles asked him and tried to understand what he meant, but they couldn’t, for the life of them.

He heard loud noises and banging doors and tables being thumped and yelling and threats, he said. The uncles and aunts told him that it was just his imagination and counselled between themselves what to tell his parents. He was not like this, before. His paintings had brought joy and wonder, not the distinct sense of unease they were bringing now. His cousins were not permitted to play with him anymore, his cousin sister, she was a toddler and she had seen one of his attempts and she had got nightmares for the next two months. They were all terrified.

The painting started getting worse and worse. Every previous attempt was better than the next, rather than vice versa. It was as if his heart had rebelled, a desperation, a longing of he knew not what. Each furious brush stroke told of that desperation and sometimes the results were monstrous. One week, flames were erupting from the father’s eyes, the next week, the Mother was made into some hideous monster. His Uncle was turned into a demon, the day after his Uncle has lectured him on the importance of not neglecting his studies. And he had also shown himself running away and the bridge behind him had burnt. In one painting, the teacher had caught fire. All of these were hastily discarded, but the fact of their existence was sufficient for a growing alarm.

He hated some of these experiments himself, he said. He seized each of these experiments and consigned them to the trash, he said. But deep within his heart, while he knew that every new experiment would be even more disturbing than the previous one, he still persisted, because he was feeling some sort of calm, when each such painting was completed. A momentary calm, of course, but still.

From time to time, he changed houses, as if the changed surroundings could bring succour. A trip was undertaken to a place where there was greenery and flowers and silence. But the bottles tinkled in the night and he was back at his easel again and those furious rages took over again and there he went, again.

Two months. Three months.

Then one day he was called and made to sit before his entire relatives. And they all told him that he needed to stop. They told him why. They spoke to him gently. They told him that he would need to pack his bags. That he would be going away.

And he told them that the painting was ready.

They all assembled in the attic and yes, there it was.

He watched them all expectantly. The results were exactly what he had expected. There was dead silence. You could hear a pin drop. They were all tongue tied. Astonished. They hadn’t seen such a painting before.

The women smiled and hugged him. Tears were running down their cheeks. The men grunted and made their way downstairs and one of them got on the phone.

And in the afternoon, two people came. Well suited. Bespectacled. Respectable. They looked at the painting and they looked at him. And he could see the wonder in their eyes.

“This needs to be shown” one of them said. And when he said that, the boy felt as if he’d achieved his life’s purpose. He was thrilled. His painting was ready and now it would be shown. Shown, could you believe it? 

The painting of a family. It would be his “Praying Hands” he muttered to himself. And smiled.

He was taken out for ice cream. The aunts pampered him.

And then the day arrived. The big day. They were going to showcase his painting to the world. They told him that a large group of people were going to see it. His chest heaved with pride, his masterpiece was going to be displayed. And they had recognised that there was an innate quality to his painting, because while the other kids’ painting went to the waste basket, his was going to be displayed. He felt a thrill of terror and pride. Maybe they would ask him to make a speech. Oh God. What would he say. He was perspiring. The uncles gave him a disapproving stare and asked him to use a kerchief. It would never do to show sweat beads before a discerning audience, would it. No Sir.

There were a couple of photographs. Oh wow. Photographers! They were asking some questions. Trying to shove a mike in his face. But the Uncles didn’t allow that. Why not? He wondered. The Uncles smiled at him and shook their heads. Oh. They were being protective of him. Stars needed to be protected. He knew that. He blushed and smiled with joy.

It was a big car. They were taking him and his painting. It was lovingly rolled up and he could see the care and concern with which it was wrapped up and taken. The ride was uneventful but his heart was bursting with joy. This was a masterpiece. His masterpiece. He began to envision. Being called to the great art houses. Learning under Impressionist Masters, were they still around these days? No matter. He would bring glory to his family.

The car rolled to a stop. There were photographers there also and he started to smile. Grin. But his Uncle squeezed his shoulders gently and he knew that he would have to behave like a star. Maybe start practising now.

When his painting was unveiled before everyone, nobody would be able to stop him. Nobody at all.

There were three men standing at the top of the steps. One of the men took hold of the painting and took it inside, smiling at him all the time and the others too looked at him and smiled and nodded soothingly. Adoring fans, he thought. The one in the middle looked like the museum curator.

He waited in anticipation. He had read about auction houses before and he knew the process. The mediocre paintings would be brought out first. And sold. And then his painting would be displayed. His masterpiece. He wondered if there were any art connoisseurs in the audience. Collectors for whom price would be no object. Wow! What if that were true!

And then they brought him into the room. A hush fell over the crowd.

And there it was. The painting. His painting. On display for all of them to see. He could see all the people staring at it and whispering to each other. He felt proud. Proud of himself. Proud of his creator for giving him this talented gift that he could now present for the ages. He stood there with his chest held high. Both his parents were looking at him.

Then he smiled, as a man, who looked just like his grandfather, got up in the middle of the room. A large, kind of obese man, his pink florid face and multiple chins juggling every time he walked or talked. And he came to the middle of the room. He looked at the boy. Smiled. A dimply, warm, kind smile The boy smiled back.

Then he looked at the painting. At the waiting audience. At the parents. At the boy. And then, after clearing his throat, he said:

“Your Honor! Take a look at this painting. Two hideous monsters breathing fire at each other - one called Papa, the other called Mama. And he’s depicted himself as cut in the middle. Your Honor, this child is a special needs kid, caught between two abusive parents, who have already made allegations of violence against each other. His medical reports show that he’s delusional, he spends time in fantasies and he’s anti social. I don’t know if this child needs to be committed to a mental institution, but he’s certainly not fit to decide which parent he wants to stay with.....”

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