"Beth, what’s taking you so long? I need help with the packing." Mrs. Connor's annoyed voice sounded across the hallway. The spacious bungalow had that distinct look of its owners moving out of it. That, however, would not be an accurate description of the situation. The owners, a family of four, had flown in from New York, with the sole purpose of selling this house off. The realtor had made the process as smooth as possible, but the paperwork still took time, and it was not before a month that the keys could be finally transferred to the buyers.
Mrs. Amelia Connor had once visited the house as a child, some 40 years back. Her grandparents were alive then. She still had a vivid memory of her grandfather. He was in his late seventies with a balding hairline and stooping shoulders. His face was crossed and re-crossed by lines of age and fatigue, but his eyes twinkled with a rare gleam of humor. He was full of many interesting tales, and recited excitedly from Keats and Shelley. At the end of the fortnight Amelia left her grandparents' home thinking how amazing his grandfather was -- "How can one stuff his head with so many useless things in a single lifetime!" Soon after, her grandparents died, and her connection with India and that huge bungalow faded away. Her parents would sometimes visit India, but with the advent of high school and college Amelia lost all interest.
A few months back Amelia came to know that she had inherited this Bangalore property from her parents. "Real Estate in Bangalore is really flourishing. Let us sell this off. We should make good money,” she told her husband. Amelia and her husband Michael flew in, got in touch with brokers, and within a couple of weeks found many potential buyers. Before turning the house over to the strangers Amelia wanted to run through her grandparents’ belongings for one last time. That was the third week of October. Her children, Beth and Tom, joined their parents at the beginning of the Thanksgiving break. Amelia could not find anything valuable or interesting among her grandparents' effects. The decaying furniture, old utensils, torn clothes and blankets - remains of a once prosperous household were all tossed out. The place was otherwise in excellent condition. Amelia remembered that her parents used to send money regularly, much to her amusement, for the upkeep of the house. The city of Bangalore was facing an acute space crunch making new constructions impossible. These hundred year old bungalows, through multiple renovations and refurbishments, had provided over time comfortable living to the upper middle class. They were built in the posh suburbs of the city. A booming tide of high tier software professionals and businessmen had dwelled in these homes for the past hundred years, since the beginning of the 21st century.
Beth and Tom were stunned by the city traffic. It took them 8 hours to reach Bangalore from New York. Thereafter, the teenagers hired a cab. "30 miles - the navigator says - should not be more that an hour." The one hour turned out to be three, as the car swerved through the stubborn traffic making countless stops at lights. The kids had fallen asleep, when the speaker of the self-driven taxi boomed over the light music - "Destination reached." The next few days went through a whirlwind of activities. The buyers, a middle aged couple, would visit the house often, and speak in a business like way with Amelia and Michael. Amelia generally negotiated well, and she was being able to extract a premium for the bungalow's well maintained antiquity and its premier location.
Amelia sorted out most of the things in the house. She retained a couple of silver vases, some books from her grandfather's vast library, her grandmother's sewing kit and a few other mementos. There was only one safe in her grandfather's study that she was not being able to open. A company called Godrej had once manufactured it. She remembered the safe from her childhood visit. Amelia tried different combinations on the password pad, but the robust door did not budge. Finally, she called in a mechanic to burst through the door. The mechanic's drill compromised the lock in no time, and Beth and Amelia peeped in. It appeared empty. Then, Beth slid her palm in and pulled out a flat piece of paper, neatly tucked inside a transparent folder. "A painting!" She gasped in amazement. "The safe guarded only this!” It was rather anticlimactic. Amelia sighed, and went into the living room to pay the locksmith.
Beth studied the painting with interest. It was done on an ordinary sheet of paper with limited colours and simple brushstrokes. The watercolour had faded at many places, but the flair of the artist was clearly evident. Beth was an ardent art student. She tried to interpret the painting, which had been preserved with so much care by his great grandfather. The sketch transmitted a sense of quiet romance and that of a peaceful intimacy. The greyness of the distant hills added a touch of melancholy to the work. The man and the woman in the painting were facing the mountains, but they were not holding hands, nor were they sitting very close, indicating that the couple was perhaps in their initial phase of courtship. Or, perhaps they were climbers about to scale the distant peak. The grey mountains beckoned them like a siren, and they bravely looked forward to the dangerous climb. Beth examined the sketch a little more critically. The lines looked hurried and the strokes seemed imprecise, but these very qualities lent significantly to the spontaneity of the creation. Beth glanced at the signature and the date on the painting. A surge of surprise shot through her spine, as she observed the date. 30th November, 2017 - the same day as today - only hundred years back. "Beth come here, I need your help. Our flight is in a few hours. You have seen the traffic." Amelia’s voice boomed across the hallway. Beth quietly slipped the painting into her travel bag.
Amelia looked at her ancestor's home for one last time. She had no reason to feel sad, and yet she felt a lump stuck near her throat. Tomorrow, strangers would take over. The family stepped into the porch. The driverless cab had just arrived. They put the luggage in front of the trunk, which opened automatically, extended two metallic arms, and engulfed the entire load in one swift gulp. "Even with such advances in technology, the traffic of the city is so unbearable," Michael murmured. "My parents and grandparents used to complain as well. Some things don't change even over a century,” Amelia replied. As the car crawled through the city, Amelia spoke in a soft voice. "The house was our last link to this country. We may not ever return. Guys, take a good look, the land of your ancestors."
The aircraft was cruising at almost the speed of sound. A bright full moon shone through the plane's window. Beth's parents had fallen asleep. Beth gently brought out the painting from her bag. She desperately tried to listen to the story that the lines, colors and the brushstrokes were trying to tell her. She looked at the signature again. It was not an Indian name. Beth knew that her great grandfather had lived in New York for many years. But, somehow it seemed from the style and the subject matter of the painting that the artist was an Indian. Suddenly, Beth looked up. Her mother was staring at her.
"I was surprised to find this inside the safe," Amelia remarked.
"You knew about the painting?" Beth asked eagerly.
"No, I did not. But I knew about the safe. I was very curious about it, when I visited my grandfather's home as a ten-year-old. I had asked him what was inside. My grandfather was a man, who never seemed to have taken life seriously. However, I detected a strange emotion on his wrinkled face, when he finally answered my question." Amelia paused for a sip of water.
"What did your grandpa say?" Amelia looked amusedly at the eager eyes of her daughter. Even after so many years, the words of her grandfather rang clearly in Amelia's mind. He had said, "I have received many wonderful gifts during my life. However, none is more precious or priceless for me than the one I have saved inside this safe." Her grandfather's voice was thick with pride.
"Diamonds? May I have a look?" Amelia felt excited.
"There I have to disappoint you. Diamonds are not priceless. But surely you can have a look, once you grow up."
"But why can't I have a look now?" Amelia was bursting with curiosity.
"Because, the person who gifted me the thing forbade me from showing it to anyone.” Grandpa replied.
"She thought it was ugly."
"Is it ugly?"
"No, it’s the most beautiful thing I have ever laid my eyes on. One day you would see for yourself." Then, he had whispered the password of the safe into Amelia’s ears.
"You forgot the password," Beth cried. "Yes I did, so we had to force the lock," Amelia spoke with a little regret. They fell silent for a moment, as the powerful engines propelled the jet across the Atlantic Ocean.
"Did he not say ....," Beth started once again.
"No, he did not say anything more. In fact, he died a few months later. " Amelia ran her fingers through her daughter's long hair.
"No one knew what was inside the safe?" Beth asked.
"I think not. I believe that he told everyone he had forgotten the access password."
"So, he actually left the painting for you?” Beth spoke after a while.
"I suppose so. But you are the artist of the family. This heirloom should belong to you. You shall add an original to the many reprints in your collection - a masterpiece by Jen, " Amelia smiled at the signature.
"Who was Jen?" Beth persisted.
"I don't know Beth. I have no way to guess."
Beth shifted restlessly on her seat. Suddenly, she felt an enormous pull towards the land she had just left behind. Next year she would start college. But before that, she needed to thoroughly explore the land of her ancestors. Beth sensed a feeling of warmth suffuse through her, as she continued to regard the picture closely. "You may not be a masterpiece, but you have surely stood the test of time. One hundred years of confinement could not rob you of your power to enthral and mystify." Beth looked outside. The beaver moon was radiating an unearthly glow in the cloudless night sky. Beth had known that her great grandfather was a rich man. The expensive jewellery and heirlooms that had been divided up among the cousins of her previous generation indicated as much. Yet, his most precious possession had eluded everyone's eyes for a century. Beth's eyes fell on the signature once more. A tiny drop of water was blending with the watercolour near the signature. Was that her own tear, or was her great grandfather reaching across a century to touch his Jen for one last time? Beth wondered.