We have had a partial lockdown in Kenya for a month or so, with a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and limited movement in and outside of Nairobi and the coast. Restaurant restrictions were partially lifted last Monday, but on my one grocery shopping trip since mid-March, the only perceptible differences were people wearing masks and “non-essential” retailers generally being closed.
Being human means that when you cannot have something, you should miss it – in my case, the travelling for work and pleasure and, closer to home, the Spring Valley coffees.
Yet every morning I wake up to a racket of birdsong, the prospect of the finest Kenyan arabica made all of one floor down, and an imaginary Indian village wedding scene on a deep red background, and feel content.
On the one hand, constraints abound. Even today, marriage can – for women, Indian women – symbolise confinement. The oil painting has the profile of the groom in the background, face covered, riding a white horse, towards a crowd. The guests are mostly women, some carrying children. Conjectured wedding singing and chatter fill the canvas. In the foreground, the enigmatic bride and her bare-headed, western-dressed companion stare at the viewer, perhaps in anticipation. These portraits, like the other figures, are angular, characteristic of the artist, Valentina Anopova.
Valentina, born in then Leningrad, could not sell her art during Communist times, as it belonged to the state.
I could not afford the painting when I first saw it in St Petersburg in October 1997 at an exhibition celebrating India’s 50th anniversary of independence. (My sister and I stumbled across it while visiting the Tikhvin cemetery in which Pyotr Tchaikovsky is buried.) So I bought the sketch.
The smiling mouths and blank eyes of Russian Rajneeshee singers performing that day still haunt me, like the real miserable-looking groom I saw a few years later atop a horse in a village square outside Udaipur.
On the other hand, all good things come to – and follow – those who wait. Knowing we would both coincidentally be in Delhi in March 2003, I arranged to meet Valentina at another group exhibition she was displaying her works at. I paid cash for the painting Arrival of the Fiance at the Wedding, 1986, which she subsequently posted to Amsterdam, where I was living then.
The work later graced two Bandra abodes in Mumbai, was in storage in London for two years, and then came to Nairobi, where it has been since.
The current ongoing long rains – relentless hours of thunder, lightning and fat, noisy drops – can be as dramatic as the snowstorm that I was caught in during my visit to that cemetery.
Still, this novel coronavirus has been paradoxically liberating. It has allowed me to watch our roses bloom and wither at different intervals. The Opera de Paris was broadcasting a dramatic, seductive Carmen – as is to be expected – online till 3 May.
And still the bride looks at me, giving nothing, and everything, away.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.