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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Artist of Artists' Village


Rajendra is an ambitious man. He is also an artist, the only artist I know in Artist Village where I live. I knew it from his talk when we met on walks in morning in the hills surrounding Artist Village. He was always talking of big things, a little beyond his ken. He talked of making movies, holding grand art exhibitions, and being invited to chair huge literary festivals. His achievements were considerably less than his dreams. An intensely spiritual man with long hair and a beard, he looked like an ascetic who would be found in the forests around Himalaya, wearing saffron robes, foreheads smeared with ash. He had a small business taking up landscaping contracts, employed a few people, and he was doing well. What happened in his life seemed disastrous enough to make me want to write this story.

“I want to leave something for the world. I want to be known to have lived as an artist, not just a man who is greedy for money,” he told me once.

In the year 1975 and 1980 two children were born to him and his wife Rajni. The boy who was older he named Chandra and the girl was named Chandrika. He had high hopes for both of them wanting to make them excel in some artistic field. Both his children were given much love and much freedom in their childhood. Rajendra believed this to be essential to artistic expression. They could go anywhere, choose their friends, eat anything, and say anything, without much rebuke from Rajni and Rajendra. However, contrary to what he had imagined, they cultivated bad friends and grew up to be specimens of uncontrolled aggression and needless insistence. Instead of being artistic like him they turned out to be uncontrollable teenagers who existed only to torment their parents.
By the time Rajendra realised this, it was too late. Rajendra wrote and produced plays and acted in them. He also wrote poetry. His aim was to engage enough people in his artistic endeavours and thereby get ahead in life. He was too preoccupied to know what changes had happened to his own wife and children. His much coveted aim was to be a sought-after literary star, an icon of the young, a leading literary personality of the nation.

His house, whenever I would visit him, was filled with knick-knacks of his theatrical profession, sculptures, paintings, et cetera. The house looked the part of an artists’ residence, artistically cluttered with books, brushes, and paint cans. One day he invited Rajni and his children to his play being shown at the local theatre. During the play he was totally immersed in his role and, even afterwards, he had a discussion with his actor friends about what had gone wrong and what had gone right with their performance. Rajni and the children didn’t understand his talk and felt ignored.

“Why is baba speaking to that girl?” Chandra asked.

“Why is baba not coming to us and speaking to us?” Chandrika asked.
Rajni had no answers to these questions, so she took the children home, a bit chagrined at her husband’s behaviour.

At home she confronted him.

“Aho, last night you were busy talking to that girl Manisha. You didn’t even glance towards us.”

“But, aho, the profession itself is like that. It’s like that in the theatre world. When you are acting you have to talk about theatrical nuances. Otherwise the play would be a disaster.”

“The children didn’t like it. They were complaining.”

“I will make them understand, you don’t worry. These are simple matters they should not worry about. Can’t they see how hard I am working for them?”

Unfortunately, no occasion arose in which Rajendra could apologise to the children or to explain things. Slowly the distance between them grew into silence, and then blossomed into an unexpressed hostility. Seeing the children so upset and uncommunicative, Rajni also started ignoring Rajendra. To some extent the children poisoned her mind against their father. She became jealous. When Rajendra came home late she imagined he was with the other girl, Manisha, and wouldn’t give him dinner. When he left early in the morning she supposed that he had gone to pick up Manisha, so she didn’t ask him if he wanted tea. These things snowballed into a serious situation that Rajendra couldn’t understand or set right. The poison of hatred had entered his wife’s and his children’s minds and there was nothing he could do about it.

It was January and the cold had not receded. Artist Village shuddered and slept late, as it was colder in the valley surrounded by the Parsik Hills. The birds sang in the trees, there was dew on leaves in the garden of their modest house in the village. It was also the month Chandra got a job in a call centre nearby. The income was good and he rented a flat close to the Village. He decided that his mother and sister should leave his father and come and live with him.

One day Chandra hired a truck and, without asking his father, shifted all the accessories of their life in Artist Village to his new flat. This included the refrigerator, cooking utensils, and the furniture. That day when Rajendra came home, he unlocked the door to find the house empty. There wasn’t even a bed he could sleep on. Chandra and Rajni had taken everything with them.

“How? How can they do this to me, after all I have done for them?” Rajendra cried. This was something he couldn’t understand. I tried to pacify him as best as I could.

Slowly days passed. The wounds dried and became scabrous. Rajendra was living alone now. He felt a new kind of loneliness. By some strange coincidence, the neighbours stopped speaking to him in the moment of crisis. This pained him. I realised he was a wronged man and was sympathetic. I would visit him and talk to him and would tell him that things would be alright. I could see that he had bought the essential utensils and furniture needed for his survival. The theatre props were gathering dust in the corners of his rooms. I could see his misery. Except for commiserating with his plight I could do nothing. I didn’t want to see him disintegrate like this. We had come to live in Artist Village at the same time. An earlier batch of residents had died. We had joined hands in fighting for water, electricity, and transport for our Village. And now in a cruel twist of fate his life became knotted and it wasn’t easy undoing it. All Rajendra’s ambitions lay in tatters as he watched is personal life turn into a tragic drama that he couldn’t even imagine directing in one of his own, often tragic, plays. He was distraught at the thought that fate would be so cruel to him. His life was spinning in an orbit he had never imagined. He stopped writing plays and poetry. He would spend his days singing bhajans and praying. It seemed the artist in him had died.


It was in January of the next year that Chandrika got married to her long-time boyfriend, Arun, a Malayali, from South India. Before the wedding Arun’s parents approached Rajendra for a dowry, saying it was a custom among Malayalis. Rajendra sold a farm house he had in Khopoli and gave rupees two million as dowry to Arun’s father in a cloth bag he bought for the purpose. It was spring when the wedding was conducted by a priest in the local Malayali temple. Rajendra didn’t attend it to bless his daughter whom he dearly loved. His heart had hardened by now and he began seeing Manisha more often and, sometimes, brought her home.

This relationship, too, was doomed to fail. For some time Rajendra, being depressed, didn’t write any more plays. It seemed as if the creative juices had dried, and he couldn’t create characters and plots. Manisha, his lover, who was an actress wasn’t getting enough roles outside the ones she did in his plays. Her foray into television was also unsuccessful. The only role she got had two lines of dialogue. Thereby, the distance between the lovers grew. Manisha also realized the age gap between them and, egged on by her mother, started seeing less of Rajendra.

Rajendra had bought a car with a little financial help from Manisha. She had willingly contributed a few thousand rupees. One night Manisha came with her brothers and drove away in the car. Rajendra woke up the next morning to find his car gone.

“How can she do this to me? Everybody is out to humiliate me,” he told me on our morning walk, fingering his long beard. “When a man is down fate hits him harder; take it; take it; is it fair?” I had no answer. I could see that the separation from Manisha was a big blow Rajendra couldn’t handle. Sometimes he didn’t come for walks and spent several hours worshipping in a special room he had created for the purpose. When his art should have come to his aid, he couldn’t think about doing anything artistic. His ambitions of becoming a big literary star lay in tatters.

Arun’s father, who lived close by, dropped in one day. He said it was a courtesy call, but of his actual purpose Rajendra became aware. Arun wanted to buy a flat and was falling short by a million Rupees. Rajendra was categorical in his stand that he didn’t have any money and had paid them all he had.

This didn’t satisfy Arun’s father. He and his wife started harassing Chandrika saying her father was unkind to them. Arun didn’t intercede on behalf of his wife. This led to a fight between Chandrika and Arun.

“This is not good. You should speak up against them and support me.”

“But Chandrika, they are my parents, I have my responsibility towards them.”

“I knew this. You will always side with your parents. I knew this,” she cried.
“What can I do?”

So one December night in 2005 when the cold had settled over the Village in a cloud-like miasma, when the dogs were loudly fighting their nocturnal battles, she came back to Rajendra’s house. Rajendra was at home when she knocked. He opened the door and found his daughter standing on the threshold. He said he had no place for her and told her to go to her mother.

“But I want to live with you, here,” Chandrika said and Rajendra’s heart melted. After all, she was his daughter and he forgave her.
Days passed. When Rajendra was away Rajni would come to meet Chandrika. They would be a happy pair washing vegetables and cooking meals for him. Though she didn’t say it to her daughter, Rajni was repentant and wanted to come back to her husband. Children say cruel things because they are innocent which should not be taken seriously. Chandra was a good boy but he had his own life, his own friends, and a girl friend. Lately, he spent very little time at home and Rajni was feeling lonely.

I could detect a marked improvement in Rajendra’s life after Chandrika moved in. His life improved under the care of his beloved daughter. He started writing plays again and his play, “Bindast Bol” (say with courage) was a big hit with the people of the surrogate city of New Bombay that lay on the outskirts of the great city. His ambition also had returned. A critic had called the story, “A comeback vehicle for the talented Rajendra Phadke.”

Chandra meanwhile announced to his mother that he was going to marry his girlfriend Swati. Chandra invited Rajendra for the wedding, which he attended. Here Rajendra blessed Chandra.

It was Diwali season then, the year after Chandrika had returned to Rajendra’s home. The festival of lights was going on in all its splendour and glory and Rajendra had hung a multicoloured lantern above his house. Chandrika made sweets to be exchanged with neighbours and Rajni also came to help her. It was then that mother and daughter hatched the plot to melt the coldness that had come into their relationship with Rajendra.

Rajni brought her son and his wife Swati to Rajendra’s house. Rajendra was at home, dressed in his trademark kurta and churidar and spread around the house were the props of the play Bindast Bol.

“What made you come back? You had decided to leave me.”

“I am sorry about what I have done,” Rajni said.

“Now you realize what the truth is? Say with courage, what you feel.”

“Yes. Forgive me. Children are children, they can make mistakes because they are innocent.”

“Aai, don’t say that, remember that day, the day of the play, he had completely ignored us?”

Rajni remembered but could do nothing about it. She had forgotten the artistic nature of her husband. Perhaps, she realised it was cruel to ignore him and not serve him food.

“There were mistakes from both our parts. I realise I, too, made mistakes. I am willing to take back all of you. I have no hard feelings.”

“No I will not be a part of this compromise,” Chandra said and walked out of the house.

That day on Rajni started living in her house, the one belonging to her husband. Chandra lived with Swati in their rented home. It was nearby and Swati would drop in, once in a while, to help Rajni and Chandrika.
Rajendra was not troubled by his son’s behaviour. He became determined to enjoy his Diwali. He bought Rajni and Chandrika gifts and saris. He bought a sari for Swati also. But Chandra didn’t come to wish his father and take his blessing during the worship of the Goddess of wealth, an important event during Diwali. He couldn’t be mollified by what his mother and sister said.

“He is young and hot blooded. He will return to me some time. Let’s give him a chance. I know him, he is my son.”

That was a great Diwali for the entire neighbourhood. The whole place had a look of gaiety and crackers were burst in plenty. I was happy to see peace returning to Rajendra’s family. I knew he was a good man and would overcome his problems with forbearance and patience. The artist of Artist Village had made his comeback.