“And who is that?” asked Papa indicating the figure in the middle, although everyone present, including him, knew the answer. His voice held the right amount of puzzlement and curiosity, as Pinkoo peeped at the drawing-sheet in Papaís hands, and the drawings appeared upside-down to him. There was an expectant pause in which Papa, Mummy, Sharma Uncle, Sharma Aunty and Mona Didi waited to hear the answer.
I was young enough—I was eleven—to want to promptly answer any question put by a grown-up. But I was also old enough—five years older than Pinkoo—to know that they wanted to hear the reply only from him. An intrusion from any other quarter, even if it were his elder brother, would not be welcome.
So Pinkoo advanced a step further and looked carefully at the pencilled drawing in the centre of the sheet, flanked on either side by a shorter figure. “Thatís you,” he said softly as the corners of his thin compressed lips twitched upwards. A light hue of red spread from his cheeks to his ears.
He blushed beautifully. Something inside tugged me sharply on seeing his cheeks and ears flush red and force himself to lift his eyes from the ground to look at Papa. He stood with his feet close together, his thin arms jutting out from his shirtsleeves, clasped to his sides. His straight raven hair slanted across his forehead and touched his eyebrow.
He stood in the centre of the room, a bashful smile lighting up his face as satisfied exclamations and sighs went around the room at his reply. I stood behind Papaís chair looking over his shoulder alternately at Pinkoo and at his drawings in Papaís hands.
“Me?” exclaimed Papa, again injecting just the right amount of surprise and perplexity into his voice that it almost convinced me of its genuineness. “But why do you think I look like this?” he continued, jabbing his forefinger at the central figure in the paper.
Everyone leaned forwards in their chairs, ready to catch any word that fell from Pinkooís lips. Pinkoo flinched visibly under their keen collective gaze. His complexion flitted through brighter and brighter shades of red, until the tips of his ears glowed scarlet to my anxious eyes. His eyes were anchored to the mosaic flooring and I could feel the effort as he tried to drag them upwards.
“Bec-because,” he faltered. I felt furious with Papa. Standing behind him, I wanted to lunge at his shoulders, shake them and push him from his calm, stable, seated posture and stop him from scaring my brother. I wanted to pull everyone out of their chairs and make them stop looking at Pinkoo. Why couldnít they leave him alone?
“Because,” he carried on bravely, gathering his breath for one final plunge, “you have no hair.” And it really looked to me as if the effort had been too much for his frail body, as if he didnít care anymore whether he breathed or not. He stood slumped in the centre, not daring to look up at Papaís eyes to see how he had taken his reply.
But Papa was not looking at Pinkoo now. He looked around the room, first and Mummy, then at Sharma Uncle, Aunty and Mona Didi. Once he was satisfied he had everyoneís eye, he burst out laughing. The others took the cue and joined in with their laughter. Papa and Sharma Uncle roared boisterously, throwing their heads back, Mummy and Sharma Aunty laughed soundlessly into their kerchiefs while Mona Didi looked on with the bored, suffering smile of the teenager. I too fell in with the others but I kept my eyes on Pinkoo.
He stood as if rooted to the same spot in the centre of the room, away from everyone around him, looking so forlorn and lonely that I wanted to fly to him, cover him with my embraces, console and shield him from all prying and troublesome eyes. But I didnít. I stood behind Papa and watched. I watched as the tension drained drop by drop from his limbs, hearing the round of laughter. Yet the bashful smile remained plastered to his face and the eyes retained their reddish tinge. He appeared as weak and defenseless as a newly hatched chick, naked without its down and hapless prey to the first marauder.
“Did you hear that?” Papa asked Sharma Uncle, interrupting his mirth. Sharma Uncle shook his head vigorously as if he hadnít. “Did you hear that? He says I look like that because I have no hair!”
“Well, thatís true. You are going bald. He has drawn you correctly,” said Sharma Uncle and again everyone fell in with the resulting laughter.
Yes, what Pinkoo had drawn was correct. There was something recognizable in the three sketches he had doodled with the pencil. The middle one was of course, Papa, the one on the right was Mummy and on the left, it was I. He had left himself out in the family portrait.
What was apparent to me—and must have been to the others—was that he had not attempted to reproduce any likeness, but had exaggerated some feature that he found interesting. So Papaís few straggling hair were replaced by a bald pate as round as a coin. Mummy was draped with her favourite polka dot sari, even her bindi and earrings looked like polka dots; and my embarrassingly large ears had taken on the proportions of those of an African elephant.
It was this comical aspect of the drawings that delighted everybody. “He has got talent, no doubt about that,” declared Sharma Uncle. “Yes,” Mummy said, an unmistakable touch of pride in her voice, “his teacher says his drawings are the best in his class. Even at home he likes to draw all the time. We let him do whatever he likes.”
Pinkoo stood alone, forgotten. But now he looked relaxed, almost happy that they werenít bothering about him. Why didnít they (they were grown-ups after all) understand that he was happy when left alone? His smile was now mixed with a quiet pleasure, and it warmed my heart too.
It pleased me that they praised him, like they praised my voice when I was asked to sing. My voice was tolerably good and I was always asked to sing at every birthday party I attended. I had a talent for singing, they said. But I felt happier when they praised Pinkoo and made him happy. But I also wished they would leave him alone.
“So young man,” Sharma Uncleís voice jerked Pinkoo back from his isolation, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” Pinkooís words came out surprisingly firm. “I want to be a drawer.”
Mona Didi giggled. I shouted, infuriated, “Go away, all of you. Have you come to trouble my brother and laugh at him?” I thought I shouted, but I must not have, for they didnít budge.
“Not drawer, you should say an artist,” corrected Papa. “You heard that? Our son wants to become an artist,” he told Mummy. “You heard that? Our son wants to become an artist,” he told Mummy again fifteen years later.
“No, Papa, I said I wanted to become a cartoonist,” clarified Pinkoo. I stood behind Papaís chair feeling it vibrate in my hands after Papa had got up violently shoving it backwards into my midriff. He stared hard at level with Pinkooís face, as if he would prise open Pinkooís lowered eyes with his gaze. Mummy stood distraught, equidistant from both, her eyes rolling back and forth from husband to son, as if she were watching a tennis match in progress.
“Cartoonist!” Papa sneered. “Youíll become a cartoon yourself.” He breathed heavily showing what a great exertion this was causing him. His head was as smooth and round as a coin. Pinkoo stared at his feet, his tall, gangling frame cutting an awkward picture in front of Papaís rigid straight-backed bearing.
“But tell me, Pinkoo,” Papa began suddenly in a softened tone as if were struck by a new thought. Perhaps he felt he was being absurd, or Pinkoo was, or someone. It could not obviously be serious, serious enough for him to raise his voice. He sounded almost cheerful, almost apologetic in the manner of one laughing at a joke played on oneself. “Tell me, who put this idea of drawing cartoons in your head?” he asked conspiratorially.
“You did, who else?” I burst out at Papa. Rather, I didnít. I didnít say, “Itís Mummy and you who have displayed Pinkooís drawings to anyone who visited us.” I didnít say, “Itís you both who agreed proudly when they said Pinkoo was talented.” I also didnít say, “Itís you who gently corrected him when he said he wanted to be a drawer. Donít you remember anything?” I didnít say a lot of things. I stood and watched Pinkoo.
He twiddled with the belt loops on his jeans, which I noticed was mine. Half his clothes were hand-me-downs from me but he didnít mind it, never noticed it, in fact. He liked nothing better than being left alone. Only I could imagine how painful it was for him to stand there and talk to Papa, not knowing what to do with his hands, aware that his ears were glowing red like dying embers in a stamped-out fire. “No one did,” he said, “I wanted to draw myself.”
Papa regarded Pinkoo thoughtfully for a minute, eyebrows drawn together, noticing for the first time that there was something new or strange going on. When he spoke again, it was in the calm, measured tones of someone in control, of someone who has grasped the situation and is now ready to handle anything that is thrown at him. “No one asked you to stop drawing,” came out his modulated voice. “You can draw whenever you want. But—,” he said, raising his hand as if to ward off Pinkoo from interrupting him, as if Pinkoo had even thought of interrupting, as if Pinkoo had even raised his eyes, let alone his voice.
“But not for your living. You cannot earn your living by drawing cartoons, you hear me? Do you understand?” Mummy nodded sagely, she had heard and understood. I had heard but not understood. Pinkoo had neither.
“Papa,” he began, each word of his thudding against my chest with the effort it took to come out of his painfully contracted mouth, “I showed some of my cartoons to the Daily Times editor. He said he would keep me on a trial basis for three months. If he is happy with my work, I can get a permanent position.”
He sank into his shoes like a punctured tyre after the longest speech I had ever heard from his lips. He had given it all, used up all his nerve and strength and now he could do no more. How I longed to cover him, hold his head against my chest and run my fingers through his hair.
Papaís face darkened as though a blind had been drawn across his face. The blow had caught him unawares and like all unexpected blows, it had hurt. Pinkoo had tried to accomplish something on his own, for himself, without his involvement, without his knowledge and had succeeded, almost…
“How much will they pay you?” he asked, feigning childlike innocence. He wasnít any better than a child in masking his motives. I marvelled at my facility to read his thoughts so easily. And all these years his thoughts had been the thoughts of a grown-up to me, unapproachable, unquestionable. What had happened now? Had I become a grown-up too, or had we all remained children always?
“Two thousand a month.” I couldnít see Pinkoo speak, his head was always bent down. “In the beginning.”
“Oh, in the beginning?” Papa fought hard to keep from gloating. “But as an engineer you will get 4-5 times that easily.”
Pinkoo must have known that if he didnít talk then, he couldnít talk afterwards again. “But I donít want to be an engineer, Papa,” he said. Mummy stirred uneasily, perhaps she too had sensed the edge of desperation in him. “Save him Mummy, save him,” I pleaded silently.
“Donít want?” Papa cried, incredulous. This time he was not affecting. “But then why did you spend four years studying it?” He couldnít stop himself now, he had done with all the acting and simulating. He had to talk, make himself heard and understood and talk and talk.
“Why didnít you tell me anything before I paid that hefty donation to get you an engineering seat? I could have put you in arts college if that was what you wanted.”
“Sure you could have,” I said, my voice brimming with sarcasm. “Only when the time for that has long gone, you say you could have. Didnít he tell you before that he wanted to draw? Donít you see you his talent? But you cannot hear unless one shouts into your ears.”
Yet no one moved, nobody even looked at me. Were they all deaf, or had I been struck mute? It was as if I were speaking standing behind a glass partition and they could see me mouthing words (if they looked at me) like a fish in an aquarium. It was as if I had never spoken at all.
“Of course,” Papa continued, “itís not a question of the money I spent on your education.”
“Then why mention it, if itís not that?” I rejoined, quick as an arrow jumping off its bowstring.
“You must realise,” he said to Pinkoo, regaining his controlled, thought-out mode of delivery, “that you cannot depend on being an artist for a living. Itís too risky. Only a handful achieves success like that. It will take years to get noticed, to be recognized. How will you look after yourself during that time, forget having a family of your own. I cannot support you forever, you know.”
“So that was it?” I sniggered. “After all this, what it finally comes down to is this, this blackmail? Call it what you like, your grown-up fatherly advice, the experiential knowledge your baldpate has accumulated over the years, whatever. Let him try. You can afford it, I know. I will take care of him, if thatís what bothers you.”
I finished my soundless speech, bubbling over with wrath. It was strange, almost comical, shouting in a vacuum, where Papaís words had no relation with mine.
“Understand that nobody is asking you to stop drawing. You can always do it in your free time. Itís a very good hobby and I am proud of your talent. Look at your brother, he works in his office and sings whenever he finds the time, which we all find so entertaining. Do you think he is unhappy?”
“No, Papa, no,” I implored, “for Godís sake donít assume the responsibility of guaranteeing my happiness. Itís too heavy a responsibility. Please donít hold me up as your role model for Pinkoo. What will he think? That I am in cahoots with you? That he has to look up to me?”
Indeed, Pinkoo looked up at me for a moment and in that look, understood, judged and forgave me. I realised that there was no need to shake my head almost imperceptibly to deny that I was colluding with Papa.
Papa caught Mummyís eyes and nodded. Mummy stepped forward bravely and turned to Pinkoo. “Listen to your father, Pinkoo,” she importuned. “Whatever we say is for your good. We are your parents, do you think we donít want your happiness?”
“Stop it Mummy,” I said wearily. “What do you want him to say? Papa was better; at least we all know he doesnít believe what he is saying. But you, who obviously believe that you are right and plead and implore your son so desperately to desist from his doomed path… what does he say to you?”
He didnít say anything. He stood unresponsive for a minute, turning over God knows what in his head and then, without a word turned back and went into his room. Papa and Mummy, this time without any eye contact, mutually consented to leave him alone.
I sauntered in after a while, during which I had hoped, wished and prayed that Pinkoo knew of some untapped well from which he could draw the strength to rebel. Pinkoo was flopped on his belly on the bed, his eyes boring through the fluttering leaves of the electrical engineering textbook that lay open six inches from his chin.
“What did you decide?” I asked without any preamble when he didnít look around even after hearing me come in. He shrugged. “Perhaps Papa and Mummy are right. They know better.” His voice sounded shaky and disembodied, but that was probably because he lay on his belly.
“No, they donít,” I checked him sharply. “You know better. You have to do whatever you like, otherwise…”
“Otherwise?” he took it up. “You like singing, donít you? Why didnít you pursue it further?”
“I-I made a wrong decision.” Why did my tongue stumble like this? “Th-thatís why I donít want you to make it too.”
His voice broke. “I needed your support. Why didnít you speak up before Papa? Why didnít you?”
But I had spoken. At every point, I had stopped and questioned and jeered Papa. No one had heard, thatís all. But to my mind, I had spoken.
I saw Pinkooís drawing book lying beside him. I took it and flipped through the scores of drawings, cartoons and caricatures. I had seen it any number of times, but it gave me a queer pleasure each time I leafed through it anew. The last work was a new one to me. He must have made it just then. There was Papa standing with mouth wide open raising an admonishing finger; there was Pinkoo himself, head and shoulders bowed, wilting before Papa; there was Mummy positioned midway between Papa and Pinkoo, one eye at Papa and one at Pinkoo; and there, at the top right-hand corner peeping from behind the curtain, like R. K. Laxmanís common man, was me.
I deserved that, I knew. Yet I wanted to confirm. “Thatís me, right?” I asked Pinkoo, and he shrugged as if to say yes. “Thatís me, right?” I asked Pinkoo, and he shrugged as if to say yes again another nineteen years later.
“See, I told you it was Tauji,” Sona nudged Munna in the ribs triumphantly. “Munna said it wasnít you,” she explained to me.
“Why Munna, canít you see the same big moustache I have and the man in your Papaís drawing has?” I coerced Munna into agreeing.
“Look, Dadi, isnít it nice?” cried Sona, shoving the paper under Mummyís nose as she came out into the veranda. Mummy smiled patiently, “Of course itís very good. Pinkoo you should come with Neha and the kids more often. See how lively the house becomes.”
“Yes Mummy,” Pinkoo agreed solemnly.
Mummy beckoned Sona and Munna towards her. “You both should learn how to draw from your Papa. Did you know he drew so well at your age?” Sona and Munna truthfully shook their heads. “Your Dadaji used to say that your Papa has such a talent for drawing cartoons that he could become a cartoonist any time.”
“Like the ones that come in the newspapers?” asked Sona.
“Yes, like those,” Mummy agreed serenely. I hadnít seen a more graceful and honest liar before. I looked at Pinkoo, but his back was towards us and he appeared to be gazing at something beyond the boundary-wall that was invisible to me.
Munna stared at the drawing sheet in his hands, his eyebrows furrowed with concentration. “But Papa,” he arose at last, bafflement still clouding his eyes and went over to Pinkoo carrying the drawing, “who is that?”