...But the day Kottayil Sankara Pillai Saar came to see me, I regretted having disregarded Sasankan.
He came to our house early in the morning. I was just waking up. He had taught us – Padmini and me – maths at school. The old regard still lingered. She too, like me, must have wondered why he had dropped in so early in the day.
“Where is Parameswaran?” he asked.
“Not yet up,” Padmini replied respectfully, gently pushing a chair forward so that he could sit.
Before he sat down, Saar said, “Good!”
Though I didn’t see what was good about me not being up in the morning, I lay in bed, listening closely through the gap in the door.
“Well, please don’t feel bad,” he began in his unassuming way. “Yesterday, I had called Parameswaran to help mend my window.”
Though I wanted to declare loudly, right from where I lay, that I had, in truth, no memory at all of meeting him, the feeling that he, an elderly person, that too my teacher, would not utter a blatant lie made me want to keep listening.
“Do you know what Parameswaran said to that?”
Whipping up anxiety needlessly is an old habit of his, from classroom days of old. A surge of worry made me leap up from the mat quite unknowingly.
“He said, let’s get Kanayi Kunhiraman to repair it.”
I nearly called aloud to God Almighty, but suppressing the urge, looked at Padmini. Her face was blank as she kept looking at Saar. She probably thought that this Kunhiraman was some senior carpenter, or maybe some distant uncle of my father’s – that’s why she was so still, I realised. And that’s probably why Saar delivered a short introduction on Kanayi. After the short lesson, seeing Padmini’s flushed face turn decisively towards the left, where my room is, he added, “I would say, take good care of him.”
There was no reason to disbelieve Saar. But my problem was whether I’d say such a thing. Kanayi was my teacher. A sculptor I respected. At the interview for admission to the Fine Arts College, I was asked to name three of my favourite sculptors, and his name was in the list I had made, along with Ramkinkar and Roy Choudhury, without knowing that he was seated in front of me.
After Sankara Pillai Saar left, all that Padmini said to me was this: “Take a bath, get ready. We are going to the doctor.” I did not object. The doctor was a man with chubby cheeks. I hugged him and renewed our friendship.
“Mr Francis Bacon, long time!” I said.
When he and Padmini threw surprised looks at me, I told them about our connection.
“I saw Francis Bacon for the first time when I was a student at the Fine Arts College,” I told Padmini. Turning to the doctor, I asked, “Remember, Mr Bacon?”
He immediately shook his head in agreement – probably because he was an affable person – and said, “Of course, of course I do, what a question!” And since he too possessed the shrewdness of all intelligent doctors, he cleverly extracted from me the history of my meeting with Francis Bacon.
I was in my third year in Sculpture at the Fine Arts College then. I was coming out of Mukkadan’s Bar and walking through Palayam Market. That was two days after I’d seen Bacon’s portrait by Lucian Freud in my teacher Nandakumar’s personal collection. Bacon was standing right next to the mud-filled, horribly stinky abattoir inside the market. I greeted him familiarly.
There was some reluctance to respond, but I told him anyway, “The way your Pope Innocent screams would give even Velazquez the jitters!” This single sentence put him at ease, and he held out his hand. The fact that Celia Paul, one of Lucian Freud’s lovers, was born in Thiruvananthapuram, was news to him. He graciously tolerated some stupid things that I spewed unabashedly, the brash youth that I was. When I let him know that I was a student of sculpture and that Giacometti was my favourite, he said that he preferred Giacometti’s sketches to his sculptures.
I discreetly let George, a painting student and friend, know about my encounter with Francis Bacon. He had no talent for keeping secrets, and soon, the whole college knew. One night, ACK Raja came to my hostel room along with George. He spoke for some time about painting, and handed me some money, suggesting that I go home, rest awhile, and return after. George came with me the next day. I gave him a hint about how some members of the Radical Painters’ group were envious of my meeting with Francis Bacon at Palayam. “Don’t bother about all that” – that was his advice.
Waking up early in the morning, rubbing scented kaiyyonni oil generously on my head, bathing in the river, eating Amma’s delicious food, walking with Padmini on her way back from the typing class through the lane near the temple till her house – my life was rolling on, peacefully, until the SNDP Sakha people asked if I could make a life-size statue of Sree Narayana Guru for them. That was a chance to prove myself as a sculptor, and I didn’t let it go.
On the condition that they provided me with good money, good food and good liquor, I took up the job. All three were made available in plenty.
But as it progressed, every mouthful of arrack brought up the question whether the liberators were actually imprisoned in their own statues. It was around then, while walking home one night, that I ran into the Guru. Right under the mango tree where I used to wait for Padmini! I didn’t recognise him at first. The man looked totally different from all his images and statues. Long legs, like a Giacometti sculpture! A face with grand lines and furrows, like Ramkinkar’s bust of Tagore!
“You are in confusion, aren’t you, Parameswaran?” the Guru asked.
He said “confusion” in English. How come he spoke English? I doubted for a moment. So my response was a counter-question.
“Guru, why didn’t you speak to Gandhi in English?”
He smiled as he replied, “Gandhi’s English pronunciation is stuffed with Englishmen.”
The lane wanted us to walk together; it shed its narrowness and grew expansive.
“What do I need a shrine or statue for?” he asked.
I did not reply. He pulled out two of his declarations from the waist-fold of his mundu – the one which said that temples were not to be encouraged anymore, and the one from Prabuddha Keralam, which said that he had no caste. I read both and looked at him.
“I hope you have no more doubts.”
I laughed and hugged him.
“This is the first time a drunk has touched me,” he said, turning somewhat solemn.
To dodge the discomfort, I said diffidently, “What do I do, am I not an artist?”
Walking away into the dark on his long legs, the Guru responded, “Better than Gangajal.”
Two weeks later, the statue was ready. The Ezhava grandees and the Sakha members looked at it only once. Their eyes were then directed at me. I handed them the two messages the Guru had made me read. Somebody picked up a long stick. The head shattered and the life- size statue joined the earth, attaining the ultimate release.
That very afternoon, I was taken to Dr Basheer’s hospital. Later, a relative told me that on the way there, I kept mumbling throughout that I was not born to be a sculptor, I was not born even to live, that I wasn’t born for anything.
When I returned to college after Dr Basheer’s treatment, there was a letter waiting for me. “Friend,” it said, “I am sorry that I could not see the face of your statue of the Guru.” It was signed by Matha Mappila.
That letter puzzled me not a little. Matha Mappila, who had shaken by their very roots the days of my youth, had sent me a letter! From then on, whenever I came home for the holidays, I tried to meet him. But all my efforts inevitably failed. As the years went by, I gave up. So this desire that I had let loose into the wastelands of forgetfulness had now been summoned up by his emissary.
“Taking him along is fine,” said Padmini, “but don’t you dare give him a drop of liquor!”
“Yes, no liquor,” he promised her.
“Satan-worship won’t work with me,” Padmini made doubly sure.
The man looked at me. I shook my head, meaning yes.
Excerpted with permission from the story ‘One Hell of a Lover’, from One Hell Of A Lover, Unni R, Translated from the Malayalam by J Devika, Eka.