First published in Sahitya Academy’s Indian Literature Journal, Issue No – 281, May/June 2014.
The paint had dried, the brushes were stiff. The hair stuck together like a million crossed fingers, a reminder of the years they had seen and been together for. He had not entered the room for a long time. The pungent smell of the paint still lay heavily besides the broom; a broom for some reason. He had half a mind to swish it, swirl it again. An end is an end, for it is an end, and end it shall, he knew.
Everything was packed, and while his hands still itched to pack that one box which mattered the most, with all the paint brushes and the creamy yellow sheets untouched for years, he ended up kicking the tin box. The dry red didn’t come out but it could have been blood.
Something for the city to add to her expanse of things that none of her peoples threw second glance at; he locked the store room and came down to his flat. The green store room on the terrace would be sorely missed. It wasn’t his, they all dumped there. The room was bare except for the suitcases with the army cover and the cardboard boxes that Sareeta was good enough to sell at a reasonable price. The bulb flickered; maybe the next occupant would have the twenty rupee change. He had a fixed list of his General Store requirements, and the bulb was always looked at with a promise – shall buy you next time.
Retirement is less like an end of an era, and more like the end of the final era. He didn’t mind going their ways, all these men. He would be moving to his ancestral village. A largely unfulfilling career, it had been.
“My village is beautiful. I have a name there.” He said to no one in particular in the local train, the last he would ever take. It was a different time zone; he didn’t recognise any of the regulars. The city was already alien, mere days older than his last working day.
“So this is it.” He told Kharkar. They sat in Lakshmi Restaurant and Bar, a perfectly oval structure in one of the many by lanes forking out of the expressway.
“Well, at least we got the free beer. What more do you want from life.” He didn’t like him, or any of them. They were young and boisterous. And they got it all done without effort. When he worked with Keshavlal Advertising, he made three, sometimes four banners in a single day. His fingers did it mechanically. And they were huge. It was art; now it was just computers, pictures, internet and printing. The boys around him were paid for manual labor.
“Drink all you want.” It was awkward. He had worked with them for quite some time now, and never once did they talk about anything that was not related to work. Widower, and with no children, nothing interesting ever happened in his life, except of course the printing ink falling on the chairs, and the subsequent blue-black behinds of the ladies.
“So Uncleji, are you going to come visit us and your other friends some time?” Faizal lit a bidi.
“He wants to have a quiet easy life ahead. Don’t you?”
“I don’t plan to come back, ever. I have some ancestral property in Poortigaon. I have lived here for the better part of half a century; I sure have some good Bombay stories for my brother’s grandchildren.”
“Ah, the retired life of simplicity in a village. It sounds like the movies. Sanyaas,” Kharkar said. The next round of Kingfisher Strong was ordered. Salted peanuts are too costly these days.
He knew they were delighted to have been treated to free beers, he would have too had he been invited by other retiring men. He was never close with his boys, and didn’t expect them to feel his absence. It stung nonetheless. In the painting days, he was respected. He had a cabin, and that little box is Queen’s own bedroom for men of the city. Maybe back then, they would have been shaken by his leave, he would like to believe.
When the printers came a decade or two ago, everything changed. Rajiv Gandhi brought them. It was all done with a computer now. Sir had told him that people sit down and design these banners on the computer and that it was a way more complicated procedure than it was during his yesteryears. When his art was of no use, he was given the charge of putting up advertisements on the huge billboards on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. The billboards were owned by the Agency, and the Agency was rich, as were the designers. His seniority entitled him to have four boys working under him, and every Wednesday they left Bombay to change the advertisements on the expressway. For the past fifteen years, this had been what it was – hard construction-like labour. Removing the old hoardings, and putting up new ones. The Agency owned more than seventy huge and small billboards on this strip. They changed them all. Climbing, pulling down, putting up, and Bombay again. From a painter, he became a worker.
“I need a last favour from you boys.” Postponing was sure to make the conversation slower and awkward. They were surprised at his abruptness. “I know this will sound, farfetched,but consider it as your parting gift to me. Help me in this, and I will die a happy man.” Somewhere down the lane, the call for the evening prayers reverberated from the mosque. The four of them, young and strong, couldn’t beat his capacity for alcohol yet, their eyes were already hazy.
“Anything Uncleji.” Amongst them all, he liked Kharkhar the most. He was a small devout man in his early twenties. He had studied till tenth and when his sister was married off to a teacher twenty years older than her, he lost faith in studies.
“As long as it doesn’t cost us much.” Kishor Aggarwal, another character, was a stoner. Baniyas will always be misers, he said out loud.
“For years I have worked hard at convincing the rich to buy products. Products and services, of which I could only dream about, passed through his hands, for years. I always wondered what it would be like to be at the receiving end of our advertisements. I wished to look up at a billboard and be charmed by the beauty of it. Buy it. It never happened.” He began. Knowing very well, that if they were caught they would lose their jobs, he wished for the sake of the climbs of the billboards, that they risk it.
It would be a mockery of the company. In their largely unstable worlds, with incomes that gave six bidis a day, and a chawl room a life, this was a risk not worth taking. In the city of shiny watches worn by shiny men, there were many others who had similar wishes in life – to whisk the watch away.
Chance was not on their side. Inspections happened regularly.
“We live the same life as you do.” One of them muttered.
“No. Before the computers came, we made all the advertisements by hand. I was a painter. I was an artist. It took me hours to paint one advertisement. From Chembur to Dadar, my pieces looked down at the city and her peoples. The advertising world knew me. I was not just the worker who put up a hoarding along the flyover, I was the hoarding.” Years of working together, and he had managed to stay in a vocabulary that never voiced out his past.
“How come we have never seen any of your works in the time we have spent together? I would be quite happy to go by your paintings before you leave.”
“So what is it that you demand of us?”
“Those years are lost. Under the illusion of modernity, the Americans invented things that buried my work. My fingers are of no use today, my hands are.” He knew he was proud. Pride comes before the fall. But he had to say it, he was a good painter. “I want you to put up a self-portrait I made in the last few months. I want you to change the hoarding, not with what the agency provides you, but with my portrait.”
It took a little time for his words to sink in, even with the raw cold of the beer.
“We will be caught. It is an extreme measure, and I cannot understand how this will change anything.”
“We could lose our jobs if there is an inspection.” We will lose our jobs, was muttered like a subtitle.
“The chances of an inspection are little. I do not want it here in the city, but in one of the later blocks on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. The agency doesn’t inspect them. After all, it is only for a week. You can remove mine and change it when next week’s delivery comes.”
“You haven’t answered my question, Uncleji. Why? Why do you want to do this?”
“I want to be seen. I want to be known.”
“This is stupid. Just imagine a worker’s face glaring at you as you drive a Mercedes to Pune, and those billboards are huge.”
“I don’t think they have inspections every week. Sahab is too lazy for that.” Kharkhar was trying to side with him, but he could see the doubt in his eyes.
He lost himself somewhere after this, and it was the paint, not the beer. He could see them shaking their heads, getting convinced and then having doubts again. They talked for long. He sat there, oblivious to them. It dragged on, but the nodding was there, it seemed that the nod was thinking as it went about its business, but it did go about its business. He felt lighter.
“I have couriered it to Faizal. Make of it what you want to. Burn it, if you think it is not worth it. Tomorrow on my way to Poortigaon, when I look out of the window of the bus, I wish I see myself.” And with that he got up. His hands shook as he paid the bill and left them sitting there. This was not a warm farewell. No, not at all. He went home and went to look at my paint tins again. He fell asleep on the terrace.
He looked back at the city one last time. The bus was in the afternoon. He got off about a kilometre away. The sun had set and he hoped he would be able to catch the next bus before darkness. The walk seemed long. Maybe it was the anticipation, maybe it was the fact that two cities will be at his feet, looking up at the painter man and acknowledge. Respecting him for a life lived normally, ordinarily. But a life lived. He was around the bend; and decided not to look up till he was closer and he could touch it.
Head bent, shoes worn out, cars roaring past, he walked.
It was huge. He felt one of the pillars, still not ready to look up. Shouldn’t have done this, he thought. In the end, he just wanted the city to know the name, the face, the advertisement of the artist.
He looked up. Sachin Tendulkar with a gold plaited French pen. Chest hurt. He climbed up the huge billboard and sat atop Sachin through the night, watching the cars whizz past. Bombay lay at his feet; Pune lay at the horizon. In the narrow lane that melted into the dump yard in Southern Bombay, they slept off to a small story of the insane painter-man they worked for and the city that is bereft of his emotions.