My mind and body are in dishabille as my mobile phone rings at six a.m. by my bedside. I ignore it as no one I know ever calls at this cockcrow hour.
Its rings persist over the beaked chorus of parrots just outside my bedroom window, whose pandemonium I turn over in my bed to watch. The parrots, I see, are collectively pecking at the browning pods of the silk cotton tree, their beaks working with furious precision.
As the early morning April sun, in New Delhi, dapples through the silk cotton tree, mild yellow, free and light, I catch sight of the birds’ frustration, greeted as they are by trails of freed, quick-to-float-away, white fluff, a mix of lignin and cellulose as I have learned in school, instead of edible pulp.
In these months of COVID 19, of social distancing, when the length of a breath signals mortality, are we being fooled like the parrots into a belief of expanding hope? As we wait out uncertainties, as we are being told daily, by one or another, of new ways of looking and becoming, is there really a way of gently peeling, layer by layer, the existential anxieties that cover us and grafting new skin over it?
My mobile identifies the insistent number that flashes on my screen as an unknown caller. I pick the call up resignedly, expecting to say ‘wrong number’ and hang up.
The caller with a clipped English accent apologizes for calling so early and so repeatedly. Identifying him as Vinod, he says, “I am calling from London as I am worried about my ninety-year-old father who lives next door to you. He has not answered my call this morning, something he never fails to do.”
Before I can ask, he says he got my number of the apartment directory.
“It is too early to call the administrator of the building and I am taking the liberty to call you at this ungodly hour. Would you be so kind as to check up on him and I will call you in five minutes?” The worry in his voice is hard to ignore.
I have been in my new apartment only four months and been incurious about neighbors and disinclined towards colony camaraderie. I am a person with boundaries and strict sense of ‘my space’ and ‘my time’. Gloved and mask-muffled as current social etiquette demands, I ring the doorbell to the flat opposite house with trepidation, not knowing what to expect. It is answered immediately, much to my relief.
His voice has more maturity than his face which at ninety is even, the only wrinkles that show are the deep crow-feet under his startlingly green eyes. His voice has a deep, urbane timbre to it like good whiskey. “Hello, Raina, come in, he says.
“How do you know my name?” I ask incredulously. “Your nameplate,” he says simply.
I tell him why I am there.
“Oh, my mobile died on me last night on me and I had no way of getting it working immediately,” he says with an unruffled calm that I marvel. “I will call up the society office on my intercom at 10 am to see if it can be set right when the administrator is available. I am sorry we inconvenienced you,” he adds softly.
As if on cue, Vinod calls. I assure him his father is fine and hand the phone over to my neighbor.
While they chat, my glance is drawn to the diaphanous white curtains that sway in the early morning breeze, white wisps of fabric that take away from the pallid impersonality of lifeless, buildings that loom, or rather seem to lie suspended, from one of his windows in the living area.
I notice my neighbor’s living space is seamless with no distinctions between rooms, the very opposite of my apartment that has clear, inflexible portions. Its décor is sparse, the style, the grace and proportion of minimalism pressingly clear. They don’t audition for noticeability but elegant livability.
And against his chalk-white walls are abstract paintings of varying sizes, complete with ridges, crevices, flows and wrinkles of paint, all with a single dominant color, blue. Before I can help myself, I find myself surveying each one of them, seeing that they move from the shades of sapphire to turquoise, from midnight navy blue to morning ice, from ultramarine to teal and then deliberately to quieter blues.
They seem to be by one painter and arranged in a sequential manner. Whether by intent, I cannot say. I make a note in my mind that this painter has a fully evolved and complex aesthetic that allows an easy passage between the real and abstract, context and timelessness, history and knowledge, and also simply between sunshine and shadow.
The real world takes shape around me only when I hear tea being poured into teacups. I see a tray neatly set with a teapot, cups and saucers, spoons, a sugar bowl, an assortment of biscuits and napkins. The time is eight a.m. My old neighbor maintains a six-foot distance and gestures to me to take my cup and my phone that looks like it has been wiped clean of the many stains it came with.
I realize I have spent more than two hours indulging in an ‘another-world’ experience. I am suffused with embarrassment, of my making free to examine his art collection, of entering his sphere of life and living in its entirety, without permission. And for that long. His quiet generosity stuns me.
He sees my discomfort and laughs. A free, happy sound. “I am Rajan Hedge, a painter and these are my paintings,” he says by way of explanation.
“Your paintings have the feel of the day, the night sometimes, the ocean other times and the sky oftentimes. Each of them has left in me a sense of vastness, a sense of infinite hope. I was despairing just ten minutes ago of whether our beliefs in such as a thing as expanding hope is stupid given what we are going through with COVID, and wondering whether this hope can ever blossom into the future. But your paintings are my answer. It can. The idea of calm interiority by being one with the universe leads me to possibilities.”
He smiles a disarming smile.
“I am glad my paintings have helped you see the world as I do, with all except the most essential details chipped away. I do understand the constancy and inevitability of change, how it both builds on our lives and takes away from it by destroying us and making us vulnerable. I acknowledge this in my paintings yet use constancy and bonding of the human spirit and its link to the eternal as my theme. I call it my aesthetic enlightenment. Perhaps, too grand a term, because it is not my truth alone but a universal one. And it explains why I stick to the color blue that lends itself beautifully to this idea.”
Is there any relation of the color to Krishna, the blue-bodied god? I ask.
“In a way, yes. My paintings reflect his various moods, joyfulness, mirth, abandon and solemnity but I have collected all of them all into something larger, to an inter-connected cosmic system, where human emotions and situations, though significant, play less of a role than the larger universal frame of reference, with living and non-living and seen and unseen forces, playing a greater part.”
Sipping his tea, he adds, “At the end of my journey, I hope I have told the world this story in some sort of happy, hopeful dialogue, one connected by links of color and texture.”
Walking to his paintings, he points to a large frame, and explains, “See my earliest brushstrokes were in electric Prussian blue, iron blue as they are called because they contain iron cyanides with a high tinting strength. But my energy over the years has moved towards lighter blues that feel the presence of the earlier colors but have come into their own with a lightness of being in harmony with all the forces over, under, in and around it.”
I am reminded of the lines I read somewhere.
The sunken path emerges
not as feeling nor as thought
but as the mind itself, historical, embodied, and alive.
I have come to check in on a person but have managed to catch the expansive vision of an Indologist visionnaire, as the French would say.
As I say bye to him, promising to look him up daily, I wonder if this feeling of ethereality he has left me with, will dissolve when I go back to my apartment. To the familiar, banal, immutable shapes of my own life. Or will it carry me past the COVID crisis and into the future?
I pray I have caught this precious vision for good. If not, I intend to visit every day to make it stick.