My mother sets an eggplant alight on the stove, and we watch the flames feed on its purple skin. The beige flesh inside is smoking. She separates the seeds and throws them in the bin. It’s a marvel her fingers don’t burn. On a white plastic board, she chops chillies and young green onions. The board is stained with turmeric, and there is still a little earth stuck in the rounds of onion stalk, but she tells me not to nitpick about small things.
She fries cumin seeds in oil and pours them on top of the steaming eggplant, followed by torn leaves of coriander. Oil splatters on the side of the stove. I cough while mixing the contents of the bowl. My maid Ila straightens her sari and sighs. She begins the work of cleaning our mess while we bring out the dishes to where Dilip sits at the dining table.
Ma doesn’t come to our house often. She says the main hall disturbs her, especially the mirrors that cover each wall, reflecting everything in multiple directions. For Dilip, the mirrors were a selling point when he was house hunting, a sign that he’d made it, and the culmination of every fantasy he had about mirrors and pornographic films. For my mother, the room is too alive, with each object and body replicated four times, with each replication repeated further in reflection.
She sits down at the table and her feet jump nervously, climbing on one another like mice escaping the midday heat. For myself, I’ve gotten used to the mirrors, have even started relying on them when Dilip and I fight because seeing a reflection shout is similar to watching television.
“So Mom,” Dilip says, “how are you feeling?”
He calls my mother mom like he calls his own. I struggled in the beginning but it was easy for him, calling two women mom and calling two places home.
My mother tries to speak in an American accent when Dilip is around. She thinks he won’t understand her otherwise, and if he tries to speak in Hindi, she replies in English. Ma attempts his Midwestern vowels and confident pauses which assume the rest of the world will wait for him to finish a sentence.
“Honestly, beta, when the doctor gave me the news, I started to fear the worst. I even started making plans to take my own life – you can ask her, isn’t it true? Sorry, I’m not trying to upset your meal, eat first, eat first, we will talk later. How is the aamti? Not too spicy, I hope? Yes, to answer your question, I was scared at first but now I don’t think I’m really sick. I feel very fine.”
Dilip nods and looks into the mirror ahead of him. “I’m so happy to hear that.”
“Ma, the doctor says you’re forgetting.”
“My scans were normal.”
“Yes, scans can be normal even though – ”
“Why are you going on insisting I’m ill?” She is holding a slice of raw onion in her hand. It drops back to her plate as she speaks.
“You’re forgetting things. You’re forgetting how to do things, basic things, like using your mobile phone and paying the electricity bill.”
“Oh, I never really knew how to pay the bill. These online things are too confusing.”
I put my hands down. She hadn’t said this to the doctor.
“And what about calling Kali Mata? You asked me to dial a person who’s been dead for ten years.”
“Seven years,” Ma says and turns to Dilip. “See how she lies?” Dilip looks between us. When he frowns, a scar from an old lacrosse injury glimmers on his temple.
“I’m not lying.”
“You are. That’s what you do. You’re a professional liar.”
We drop Ma home after dinner and Dilip hums to himself quietly. I can’t make out the tune, so I interrupt him.
“Can you believe what she was saying?”
He pauses and then answers. “Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s sick.”
“She has to believe it.”
“You aren’t an authority.”
It stings that my lack is so visible. “I didn’t say I was an authority. The doctor said she’s sick.”
“I thought the doctor said she has the brain of a young woman.”
“But she’s forgetting things – important things.”
“Important to whom? She may want to forget – maybe she doesn’t want to remember her friend is dead.”
“Either way, she’s forgetting.” I hear my tone has turned shrill.
“Voluntarily forgetting is not the same as dementia, Antara.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would she want to forget me?”
Dilip takes a breath and shakes his head. “You’re the artist, be open to possibilities. But you seem to want to seal her in.”
“She called me a liar.”
“Well, isn’t that what you make art about? About how people can’t be trusted?”
His face has dropped. He looks disappointed. I try to match his look but don’t feel it, so I bite the nail on my middle finger or, more accurately, the cuticle area. Dilip reaches out his hand and brings my arm down.
... I have been working on a project for the past three years, and I have no idea how long it will go on. It began by accident, after I drew the face of a man from a picture I found, but the next day, when I went to compare my work to the original, the picture was nowhere to be seen. I searched all day without any luck. By the evening, I had given up.
I took another piece of paper – the only paper I work on, nothing fancy, made in China, but it holds graphite well – and drew the face from my own drawing, copying my own work as faithfully as I could, the careful shading, the exact thickness of line. This has become a daily practice. I take the drawing from the day before and copy it to the best of my ability, date it, return both to the drawer and cross a square off on the calendar. There are days it takes me an hour, and there are days it takes me several.
A year into the project, I was invited to show the works at a small gallery in Bombay. The curator, who is also a friend, compared the dynamics of time and duration in my work to On Kawara, and said that this was the diary of an artist, a phrase she used for the title.
I thought the connection to On Kawara was erroneous. His work is mechanical, without any implication of the human hand. My work celebrated human fallibility. If On Kawara is about counting, I am about losing count. The curator didn’t want to go into this – the essay for the catalogue had already been spellchecked, and she said complicating the issue wouldn’t help me sell in this climate. A collector showed interest before the show opened – this sort of slowly built work was so important right now, he said.
The series didn’t sell.
I blame the title. A diary. What does that even mean? A diary sounds so trifling, so ridiculously childlike. Who wants to spend money on a diary, really? I never even saw the work as a diary. I confess I was only thinking about how impossible it is for the human hand and eye to maintain any sort of objectivity. But isn’t that how it always is? Intention and reception almost never find each other.
I dressed carefully for the opening, tried to look alluring without showing any skin, and felt completely unprepared while knowing this was the most important day of my adult life. I didn’t tell anyone about the show, but Ma found out. She came to the opening, walked through every room, and stood in front of all 365 faces. The first and the last picture met each other at the front of the gallery, hanging on either side of the entrance, creating a dialogue of difference.
They could have been the images of two different men, two different faces, done by the hands of different artists. My project to copy perfectly had been a failure, and because it was, had to be, a failure, the local art scene deemed it a tremendous success. A few newspapers carried short reviews, calling my work exciting and compulsive, remarking that it was as disturbing as it was fascinating, wondering how long I could go on.
Ma called it my game of Chinese whispers.
When I got back to Pune almost a week later, Ma cried and came at me with a rolling pin. Weeping, she said I was a traitor and liar. She wanted to know why I would do a show like this.
Holding the rolling pin I had forcefully pried away from her, I perched myself at the edge of the dining table, trying to catch my breath. What was the problem, I asked her. Why couldn’t I make the kind of art I wanted?
She told me to move out of her house that day, and did not see me again until I came one afternoon with Dilip by my side to tell her I was engaged.
Excerpted with permission from Girl In White Cotton, Avni Doshi, HarperCollins India.