The picture began slowly, with Ghazni discarding one canvas after the other, trying to find the right combination of colours for the background. Finally, after a week, he had found the right tone for the picture.
It was on that day that he first met Sita.
“What’s that?” the words had been spoken right behind him, and Ghazni jumped, then swiveled around on the stool angrily.
The girl before him wore a simple light green sari, her hair done up in a fashionable pompadour, a few ringlets falling onto her forehead. Hardly more than 16, she bore a striking resemblance to the woman he was painting.
“Sorry. Startled you?” her English was British, without a trace of an Indian accent in it. “What you doing?”
He held up the paintbrush suggestively.
“I know you’re painting,” she rolled two perfect black eyes. “I mean what’re you painting?”
“That’s offensive.” Her eyes narrowed.
He gestured to the wooden box that lay open on another small stool beside the canvas. “I am painting your mother.” The picture lay there, facing upwards.
“Why the brown, then?” she picked up the picture, examined it carefully. “These are all grays and whites.”
“I’ve decided I want to give it a forest background; give it a wilder feel.”
“My father told you to do that? If yes, he needs a talking to.”
No humour. He shook his head. “Relax, it’s just the toning.”
“What’d you mean, toning?”
“The background of the background... of sorts?”
“Toning.” She nodded a little. “Why’s it brown?”
“Sienna.” He said, pressing the brush lightly to the rough canvas. “It’s the one under-paint I’m most comfortable with.” Please let me work in peace.
The next day, he found her in the room again, this time there before him, looking hard at the picture of her mother. Surrounded with paints and used colour palettes, she looked like a child sitting inside a nursery rhyme illustration.
“She looks like me.” She informed him without looking up when he walked in.
“Mothers tend to do that.” He agreed, sitting down on the three-legged stool.
“Witty.” She handed him the picture. “Once you’re finished with this, would you like to paint me?”
He looked her over. She would make a brilliant subject, with her pompadour and the childish smile and the neon-coloured saris she wore.
“That depends,” He shrugged, placing the photograph inside the box and adjusting the canvas. “If I don’t have some other clients and you agree to come to the studio, I suppose I could paint you.”
“I’ll pay you.” She batted her eyelids at him.
“When do I start?” he half-smiled. She was the most childlike teenager he had ever met.
She laughed aloud. “Do I still have to come to the studio if I pay?”
“Indeed. Only the biggest bosses get house visits. You will have to come to the studio.” He daubed a dollop of grey onto the palette.
“I will, if I’m free.” She said, twisting her silver bracelet around her wrist.
Shrugging, he began his work for the day, painting in the outline of her mother’s face. Within moments, he had forgotten all about his young audience.
The next day, she arrived when he had paused painting for lunch.
Ghazni looked at the small tin box in his lap, then at her. “It’s a box.”
“No. God, I can see it’s a box. What’s in it?”
He held up the morsel of paratha in his hand for her to see.
“Oh, it’s your lunch.”
You have a penchant for stating the obvious. “No, I like to call it my paint.”
“What?” she shook her head as she moved the wooden box with the photograph in it to his usual stool and sat down on the stool beside the canvas, facing him. “Why do you make such bad jokes?”
“Good ones aren’t all that easy.” He said, offering her the food.
“I wouldn’t know. They come effortlessly to me.” She smiled, taking a piece of the paratha and chewing it slowly. “Who makes your lunch?”
“Most days, I make it myself. On lucky days, Razia does.”
“Who is Razia?”
“My-” he paused. “My fiancee.”
“Oh, you’re engaged?” she looked rather taken-aback.
“Why do you always do that?” he shakes his head. “Always wasting your breath saying obvious things.”
“Everyone has odd habits. You like pulling at your earlobe when you’re painting, don’t you? That’s a waste of earlobes.”
“I don’t pull at my earlobes and that’s not a very funny joke.” Rather self-consciously, Ghazni closed the lunch-box and stood up. “I should get back to the -” he gestured to the canvas. Wiping his hands on a napkin, he handed the box with the photograph to her and settled down again, palette in one hand, brush in the other.
He drew a long, pointless brown line, then sighed.
“You’re staring at me. Wouldn’t you rather be somewhere else?”
“Not at all.”
Nodding, he drew another brown line, this one crossing the one before.
“What’re you doing?”
“That’s not Vienna.”
“Sienna,” he corrected.
“What’s your name again?”
“Why Ghazni? That doesn’t mean anything.”
Ghazni groaned a little. She raised an eyebrow expectantly.
“My forefathers fought in Mahmud Ghaznavi’s wars, which means one child every two generations gets a useless name for no reason.”
“It’s a beautiful word, though.”
“Meaningless.” He shrugged. “Do you want a deal?”
“What?” she pushed back a strand of hair from her forehead.
“If you let me finish this quietly, I’ll paint you for free.”
“I don’t want to get painted anymore.” She shrugged. “But you could do something else for me?”
“What?” he gave her a glare. She didn’t seem much affected by it.
“Anything. I’ll tell you when the time comes.”
“Fine. Anything. Gentleman’s agreement. Just let me paint in peace.”
She made a zipping gesture with her hand across her lips.
It was the day he had finally begun painting in the braided hair, having finished the outlines, that Razia came to find him at the Sethi manor. Still in her college clothes, her hair pulled tightly back in a bun that rested in the crook of her neck and left shoulder, she was led into the Art Room as Sita called it, by the uniformed butler.
“Miss Yusuf, Sir.”
Ghazni, with his back to the door, tried to think of any Miss Yusufs he knew. None. Some friend of the girl, then. He thought.
“Ghazni, can I talk to you?”
“Razzu?” he swiveled around. Sita was looking at her with badly veiled curiosity.
“Do you know her?” she asked Ghazni. “Is this Razia? Your fiancee?”
Razia looked at Ghazni quizzically. Rolling his eyes, he led her out of the room, Sita still watching the two of them.
“Chattha is sitting in the house right now.”
“Chattha? In what house?”
“In your house.” She gave him an annoyed look. “Where else could he sit? Idiot.”
“To harass us for the money, what else.”
Ghazni swore under his breath. “But we’ve already paid this month’s instalment.”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head helplessly. “Maa is scared. I’ve tried talking to him but he isn’t listening to a word of mine. Can you come home?”
“Of course, I can.”
Telling the butler to clear up the room, Ghazni left for his house with Razia.
Chattha was, indeed, seated at the old dining table, his luxuriant moustache glowering down at Ghazni’s mother and his Tamilian tenant, who sat before him, the former looking anywhere but at the man and the latter looking right at him.
When the man caught sight of Ghazni, he waved cheerfully, the black piece of jewellery in his wrist jingling. “Ghazni, child, been days since I saw you. You look good!”
“What do you want?”
“My money, of course. Not much else you can give, is there?” Chattha must have smiled under the moustache but it was impossible to tell.
“I gave this month’s instalment to Sameer at your house last week.”
“Not the instalment, child, I want the money I gave to your father. All of it.”
Ghazni pulled up a chair and sat down beside Radha, who was still staring ferociously at the man before her.
“You do not have the legal right to demand that money any more, Mr. Chattha. You have an agreement with Mr. Basit of instalments to be paid over the course of three years.” Radha said in clipped tones.
“Not a written one, ji,” Chattha gave her the full force of his moustachioed smile. “And I want the money back now.”
Ghazni felt anger bubble in the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean, now? How can I pay back three lacs to you right now?”
“You can’t.” Chattha laughed.
“Why are you here, Chattha?”
“That the girl you want to marry?” his gaze slid to Razia, who was standing in the doorway, jaw set. “Good choice, though not as fine as Sethi’s girl.”
“You’ve forgotten your way today, Moustache-Man.” Ghazni stood up, face flaming. “I’ve paid this month’s instalment. I would really rather not see your face till the next one is due.”
“Who do you think you are, though,” Razia said coldly from the doorway. “barging in here in broad daylight?”
“I’m the one who can pay your debts off,” Chattha snapped his fingers. “Like this.”
To be continued...