Friday, December 24, 2010

The Painting

It’s not easy being an art dealer.
Not in these recessionary times. Not in India. But at 35 I was kind of too entrenched in this profession to change tracks now. Having had enough trouble changing markets, by moving back to India at the height of recession, I didn’t want to try another new thing in my life. Moving back to India was tough. But every time I look at the painting I know I did the right thing. And I smile.
Ajay Mehra. That’s me. In two years, already a known name in this niche field. The good part though, was that I dealt with large corporate and architectural firms. I hardly had any private clients. Why is that good? In a perverse way, it was good because then I didn’t have to talk about the painting. I hardly entertained my clients at home. It was only close friends and they knew about it.
Art was my first love but also one that had treated me badly. I loved to paint as a child but my parents realized early enough that I had no talent in that department. It took me, of course, many years to reach that painful realization, by which time a degree in economics seemed the right thing to do.
However as a child painting consumed me. And I was greatly encouraged there by an indulgent grandmother who probably saw in her first grandchild everything a prodigy could be. She got me a little easel, an apron, a palette; a variety of brushes, a whole set of oil colours, and from time to time would bring me large coffee table books of the Masters. Perhaps, unknown to her, while it did not improve my painting skills, it vastly contributed to my intimate knowledge of the styles and eras of art, and I knew the paintings of the great Masters almost by memory. It was what would finally stand me in good stead when I lucked into this profession, just because I landed up interning as a lowly bookkeeper in an art auction firm.
On my 10th birthday, my grandmother walked in again with what I knew by this time, had to be a gift related to painting. The gift-wrapped package left nothing to the imagination. When I held it I knew it was a framed painting. My grandmother was perhaps a little more excited than I was as I ripped the wrapping paper to reveal the painting inside.
Now I can laugh and safely say that it was hideous. It was a still life. By probably some unknown struggling artist. (Today my experience tells me that that unknown struggling artist must have remained that way). The painting featured to the right a vase of flowers, a sad imitation of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, only they were pink roses, or maybe carnations, on a table covered with a bright purple table cloth. A few lavender flowers peeked out from below the pink bunch. A water jug sat aimlessly next to the vase and a diaphanous orange and yellow curtain seemed to be flapping in the background. The wall to the right was a rich maroon. To my boyish eyes, this was a lovely riot of colour. I looked lovingly at each stroke painted and mentally tried to figure out how much paint and how many colours the artist had had a field day with. I hugged my grandmother who obviously was delighted with her poor choice! The painting went up in my bedroom soon after. And stayed there. For almost as long as I can remember.
As I grew and moved to college, university degree, hostel life and finally a stint abroad, the painting moved as my parents moved to their retirement home. Of course my mother keeping with the sentiments of my grandmother, who was long since gone, kept packing and unpacking the painting till finally she was too old and relegated it to one of my packed cartons that I did not have time to look at, during my 10-day visits to my parents. By this time my parents had also given up the hope that their only child was ever coming back.
It was only when my mother passed away that I was left wondering what my father would do alone. The immediate solution was to take him back with me. But that presented new set of problems. Kavita, my wife, was working too. And between two growing boys and a hectic schedule which revolved around work, entertaining, a reasonably busy social life and monitoring homework and extra-curricular activities for the children, looking after my father got more and more difficult. It was also embarrassing when I had friends and some select clients over. My father was unable to follow their accents as they spoke or simply walked away. I began to entertain less and less and Kavita and I chose to go out more and more.
Over a period of time I realized that even my father was beginning to dislike the lack of any social interaction and when he expressed the desire to go back I jumped at the idea. The only option was to find a good retirement home for him, in India. I did what was necessary. The retirement home I found had everything my father would need plus emergency services, a doctor on call and small issues taken care of.
On the whole an undemanding person, my father had no complaints and seemed to be happy. I made frequent visits; though short, to see that he was doing fine. On one of the visits he told me that he missed the family. On another he handed me the painting. Wrapped carefully by my mother well before she had passed away in a series of plastic bags and paper, it brought memories of my mother and grandmother flooding back. I carried it as hand baggage back with me to New York.
The next day l left for work only to come home and see the painting placed prominently on my bedside table. I was staring at it with glazed eyes when Kavita walked in and laughed. “It’s hideous!” she said, “And you brought it back?”
I told her about the painting. And what it meant to me.
A bit mollified and anxious to make amends because she had hurt my sentiments, she said, “Look, this frame is falling apart. Should I get it redone? Maybe we can put it up in the boys’ room now”.
It seemed like a good idea and I nodded.
A few days later, I was in the office and the phone rang. It was my wife. When was I coming home she asked. There was a letter waiting for me, she said. I wondered why she had made that call. But soon got caught up in client meetings and forgot about it till I was on my way home.
Once home, Kavita smiled and handed me a small yellowed envelope. It had my name written on it in fairly ornate writing. My grandmother’s writing! I couldn’t believe it.
“Where was this?” I asked my wife. “At the back of the frame,” she said. “They called me from the shop and I went and picked it up”.
With trembling hands I opened the envelope. The paper inside was yellowed too. I opened the small square paper in which my grandmother had written a letter.

Dear Ajay,

I hope it is you who is reading the letter. I know you will love this painting when I give it to you. But I also know that soon you will outgrow it. And soon you will be embarrassed by it.
I am sure you don’t know why I bought this painting. If you’re older when you read this you’ll agree that there is a lot wrong with the painting. But I feel that you will learn those lessons from books. I do hope I am around when you do and I get to see you as a fine painter or at least as someone who appreciates good art.
Sometimes in life things don’t look very good. They don’t show you in good light. But they are there for a reason. They are there because there are sentiments invested in them. It’s the reason why I still have the first blanket that we wrapped your mother in. Or for that matter the booties that you wore, that I knitted for you. Lemon yellow. They now have a hole in them. But they grow precious by the minute to me. Because in them I see not just you or my grandson, but a whole relationship, a knitting together of the time we’ve spent together, me telling you stories, you waiting for me to come over with gifts, you poring over the books I got you, you taking to painting with such enthusiasm. Everything comes alive when I see that bauble of yellow wool and it brings back so much joy that no amount of new booties or expensive things can bring.
Don’t you think this is what makes everything in life special? Relationships with our children? Our spouses? Our parents? Our grandparents?

Kavita was staring at me while I read the letter. Tears glistened in my eyes as I looked up. She hurried across and started reading the letter with me. I looked down and continued… the next three paras of the letter went on to reminisce the wonderful moments we spent together. With her. With my grandfather. With my parents. Almost choking I read through those and as she neared the end she said…

I do hope again, Ajay that it is you who are reading this. And I do hope that in some moment of embarrassment given away this painting.
Wherever you are, whenever you find this, remember me and remember this. It’s not the money, the fame, the social circle, possessions, it’s relationships that matter. And though on the surface, a relationship may look as embarrassing as a painting that is garishly done, behind it lies a lifetime of love and memories to cherish.
And that’s what makes it priceless.
With love
Your grandmother
P.S. If you are not Ajay Mehra who is reading this, please please try and contact him on the address on the envelope.

I looked at Kavita. She too had tears in her eyes. I knew what she was thinking. Had we missed out on what was most precious in our life?
The next few months went in a tizzy. My decision was made. I was going to get back what was most priceless in my life. I moved back to Bombay and got my father resettled with us.
The painting now has a pride of place in my house, the letter framed in my study. When guests come and admire my invaluable Manet, Monet and Picasso print collection, they often wonder at this painting. I smile and tell them, “This one? It’s priceless”.
And I watch as the rest of the family smiles.


  1. Not the painting, I'd think the unsaid parts in the letter might have changed his mind....

  2. @Ravinar
    Yes, sometimes the unspoken is better than what is verbalized!

  3. Nice read. Well written, as usual in your inimitable way.

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  5. Beautiful short story, it somehow reminded me of my grandma and the bond I shared with her. Please do your world a favor and get back to writing these!