From a specific angle, they can pass off as dementors prowling through a stark white fog. Except, these don’t seem to suck out soul, rather they are born of a soul in desperate need of lighting its own weight.
She paints ravens in flight. She also paints still life, rugs, slippers, potted plants, café interiors. She paints lovers in discourse, friends on a rug, two stools and a beer bottle under twinkling fairy lights. Objects, trees, people. Broken bridges. The tragicomedy of our everyday existence rendered in snapshots. And in between, she paints those ravens.
Ravens in various stages of taking flight and in rest. Ravens under a grey shadow that look like death, ravens slightly smudged and looking cutely about. Ravens locked in a fight and ravens basking in a yellow diseased glow.
She has been painting these ravens for quite a few years now, intermittently. She calls them Spirits of the Unborn. The works often have gaps between them running into months and years, but they never fail to return. I find myself looking for them, waiting for one to turn up when the hiatus is too long. Why isn’t she painting ravens anymore? Has she stopped? Are the spirits in rest now?
I met her in the first year of college. She was a year senior. Brash, cool, stunningly pretty. She wore clothes I have only seen film stars wear before. She walked and talked like a being from a different world. She was from a different world from mine. Calcutta South. English-medium. Completely unabashed around boys. Intimidating in her self-assurance. Somewhat contemptuous. Acutely aware of the effect she has on people. Turning heads wherever she went.
I feared her. I feared a hell lot of things back then, to be honest, and she was one of them. She could be rude and hurtful when she wanted to. She could be cruel to those who are too awed by her. I watched her from afar like one watches a fire; so pretty from a distance, so destructive if you stray beyond predictability.
She did not paint back then. At least, I don’t remember her doing so. I was not close enough to know, admittedly. Yet I don’t think she did. It started after she joined our class in the post-graduation level. I can’t remember how and when we became friends – there is so much that I don’t remember from those days – but I think it must have had something to do with the shared preference for the last benches.
They were crayon drawings at first. She would sit in a corner of our regular haunt in the campus and paint away on her own. She evolved right before my eyes; from playfully dabbling with paints to joining a full-blown course in painting and emerging years later as an artist with a distinct sensibility and signature. The atmosphere inspired her maybe; the wind used to push people to express themselves around that area of campus in those days.
Not me, though. If anything, I had shut down even more. I was fresh out of a nightmarish relationship that would continue to define my life choices almost a decade later, and a lot of unprocessed emotions reigned in my head which I did not have the courage to face. In such a time we became friends, me and her, two polar opposites as it may seem. I don’t know what kind of solace I found in her but I did find some. She had something restless about her, her outward persona playful and edgy and yet a stillness, a darkness lurking behind that none would ever know. She was there when I battled my worst bout of depression. She was there to get drunk together, and to jabber about inconsequential things for hours to an end.
I remember going on a trip with her. There was another man with us, a man who knew my ex-boyfriend. He was in love with her, and she was in that grey zone of enjoying the attention and yet being repulsed by it a bit. He was perpetually drunk, much like my ex-boyfriend. We were hiking that day. I remember her walking behind me on that trail, in a black top and a white flower tucked into her hair. I remember that man drunkenly accuse her of playing with his emotions, and at one point shouting, “If [insert name of my ex-boyfriend] was in my place he’d beat the shit out of you.” Then he shouted to me, “Well you would know!” Or something to that effect.
I remember her laugh. Uproarious and derisive. I felt the fear and repulsion that had threatened to settle on me a moment ago leaving my body. I don’t remember what I said in answer, or if I answered at all. Yet I remember her laugh that mocked him on my behalf and shut him down. I don’t think I could have said anything better. It was an example in silencing the fear in your head, and not letting it take hold of you. It was a lesson in how words can be rendered worthless if you do not fear them.
I know of violence she has suffered because of this particular trait. I know how people with insecurities felt threatened by her larger-than-their-ego persona and sometimes did unspeakable things. And yet she refused to bite the dust. I know of many accusations of insensitivity that people have against her. And yet she was the first one I verbalized the complete details of my assault to, on a yellow taxi ride one evening. I don’t remember what she said to me. But I know she knew then, and understood.
I have not been able to return the favour. I always got to know of her pain from hearsay. I always felt I never could reach her, and was still slightly afraid and in awe. I watched from afar as lovers and friends left her, as illnesses slowed her down and abuses left their mark. I watched from afar as she lost her mother. I went and spoke with her, uttered words of consolation and yet I felt like a clown. What words could I offer her to make this hole look less like a hole? I have no words for that kind of tragedy; the only thing I felt then is a kind of solid, impenetrable sense of dread. I think she understood. She always understands more than she lets on. She always knows deeper than she lets on.
She paints table fans, colourful matchboxes, a night sky full of twinkling stars. She is still a bit boisterous, and even more beautiful with age. She awes people and allures them, just like those sunny paintings of her. And in between, she lets those ravens loose.
I have spent many an hour with those ravens. I have tried to see her through them without judgment and awe. Without the veneers of strength and defiance that she puts on for the world. Sometimes I catch a sense of overwhelming dread, sometimes I feel a great pain welling up, and sometimes I just see a beautiful mind at work, curious and hungry like a child.
Her ravens tell me things about her that I never knew, or would never know. Things I cannot put into words; for I don’t think I have the accurate words, or even the accurate meaning. I have already written so many things which might not be accurate.
She would laugh at this fidgeting though. She would tell me just write it out and let it be. I imagine her laughing at this, maybe being a bit saddened, and angry.
For I too am in love with her, like those countless others. I have often wondered whether ‘being in love’ is in some way counter-productive to ‘loving’; it involves a lot of awe and imagination which might have very little to do with the person being loved herself. So I imagine her being a little angry, and sad. But I think she’ll still understand. Like she always did.
The accompanying image is from the ‘Spirit of the Unborn’ series, painted in 2015, watercolour on paper. You can see more of her work here.