There’s a problem with me. I don’t know how to fix it. To draw is to survive. When it serves any other purpose, I turn into an ear at the door, scared, my calves tense, ready to flee in case they open the door. And I know very well that’s no way to live.
But the thing is…today’s problems go away tomorrow. It burns through the night like firewood that turns to ash by daybreak. This means I should finish drawing before daybreak – before my reason to draw turns to ash and I’m drawing not to get through the day but for other reasons that fail to stand up against questions that don’t even matter. Questions such as: What will they think? Won’t they think I’m weird? Isn’t it a bit too disturbing?
It really doesn’t matter! You know why? Because you’re still reading. Ha! And that’s all that matters at the end of the day. That you recognize enough human in me to say whatever you say: “different”, “weird”, “nutcase”.
I’d have loved to wait another day before putting out the artwork. But I’m still a fucked up coward who needs to hide behind the alarm that jolts me to action when I feel like I’m going to die. It is only in the shadow of my doom that I can speak what I mean. How…pathetic….interesting.
So all you get is something I’m not proud of. But that doesn’t matter either. Because you’re still reading. And once again…that is enough. For today.
Oh, also, the artwork is about a woodcutter (father figure in children’s stories, rescuer of people in the forest, an amphibian like Mowgli the Frog who lives both in the forest and in houses). It is what I aspire to be – like the children of Narnia whose cupboard opens into a forest. What I intend to do is conquer and return home of my own accord – to be the prince of the forest and yet give it all up for what we call “society”. How do I live in the forest during the day and come back home at night? How do I learn to dig deep into myself, find hidden treasures, and return with resolve to a place like the world we all share? ( for it is a very greedy world where gold kills people)
What I need is an axe. But I feel like I’ve taken up the hammer instead. And that is getting me nowhere. I am stuck.
The entire house was open to me, laid bare and naked. Except for the kitchen. The kitchen was dangerous. It had gas cylinders, knives, and hot pans. Entering it during the day, when my parents were at work, was like entering a tomb. The dry sink, the shut cabinets and closed lids, the black iron of the stove like a fire-breathing dragon asleep after a hearty meal, it all seemed…dead. But it was a living death – more like sleep.
I would wander into the kitchen in the evenings and watch my mom run around the kitchen trying to make food for all of us. I had been there hours before and the tiles had stared back at me. The squares had heaved like the chest of a sleeping monster. And here she was, moving, unaware of it quiet and submissive under her swift feet.
I would look on, from the threshold. My entry into this world of fire and sweat was only possible if she acknowledged me – only if I had the right things to say, the right things to ask. The kitchen is off-limits. To distract her would be criminal, to interact disastrous. My father would come and leave. He did not need her to be a part of this space that breathed like a boxer after 10 rounds. He was an adult.
Walking in, proceeding with caution, my arms and legs telling her that I knew that I must enter this space with great care, I was like Lazarus coming out of the tomb wrapped in cloth – slow, scared, and bound at the mouth of a tomb. I was screaming to be reborn, to become what my parents were. I ask her something in my best voice, I put my choice warrior to task. I find the rhythm of the kitchen in the sound of the metal hitting the cast iron pan. My words fit right into the spaces. They cut through the mix the way incisors cut into cheese and cake.
But she ignores me
In that moment, I am in the void. Lost, in a space where I do not belong. The chimney is old, struggling to swallow the heat. The fires blaze and I bake next to the stove. I can’t scream. I become lifeless like vegetables before they are washed. I become meat prepped for the grill. I become food.
What if I can’t leave the kitchen? What if the door is shut?
What if I can’t run away like I always do?
Am I to bake in this heat?
I need to grow. Faster.
I need to be able to go in and out as I please.
Panicking, I grab an apron. I extend my limbs, stretch out the straps and cry out – “I am not a child. Please don’t cook me”
Lego bricks, assorted, in an indigo blue container with a knob-like handle on the lid that makes it look like a teat. When you ask me about the house my father grew up in, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. It’s an image that doesn’t compete with any other: the winding roads that took us there, grandmother’s kaachimoru that I always wanted with my rice, the rubber sheets and hemispheres drying out in the sun, or the soft jasmine flowers that ended up in deathly garlands but grew back every morning like someone stuck in an abusive relationship. Among all the vibrant images of my dad’s place, the faded indigo container with yellowing lego bricks is what sticks out to me. So, I had to ask myself why.
I have a very peculiar relationship with my father’s ancestral home. To me, everything about it is fragile, like my dad’s lego bricks in the indigo container that are around 40 years old. The assorted collection was unfit for any ambitious project when I was a kid. The connectors had worn out and used to fall apart very easily. What I built with them was often of the most experimental nature. I should have known then that life was like that, that I’d always feel like I was dealt the wrong set of bricks. My imagination would be limited to, or rather free to be, a house without a roof or walls, with doors that broke easier than they opened.
My father and I are extremely different people. He’s always admired order and shunned chaos whereas I have always found beauty in the uncertain and unpredictable. It is, to me, the blessed curse of being an artist- a love for the unknown. The reward for my effortless recklessness has always been of a timeless quality, for no art has been washed in the blood that hasn’t come from the silence beyond. My father does not quite understand this, even though he wants to. This has made us unable to understand each other at a level that is required for his eventual death and my promised resurrection, the context for existence that every boy trying on his father’s shoes or shaving a beard that doesn’t exist believes he will one day receive. It is in the friction of this relationship between two unfortunate souls bound to each other that the ancestral home remains veiled. The fact that I was a kid who grew up extremely isolated from peers and popular culture in a milieu that made the language of innocence seem foreign and insipid on my tongue led to this inability to feel the earth of my ancestors even more painful.
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy spending two months in the summer every year with my grandparents. I feasted on Ammachi’s tasty food and played with my assorted collection of lego for hours. Time flew by in my bedroom on the second floor while I breathed life into all kinds of weird characters who lived in worlds that ended right outside the door, in houses that collapsed on top of them, and rooms that didn’t have walls. Downstairs, at the top of an old bookcase made from what looked like rosewood, my dad’s Lego projects were on display: vintage cars, airplanes, and helicopters, even an apollo 11 rocket model with a launchpad and all associated paraphernalia. It was so far from what I was capable of with my hand-me-down Lego bricks. My dad’s projects had an order and stability that was nothing like the chaos of the indigo container. They were a part of my dad I could not understand. I couldn’t even see them if I stood in front of the bookcase. I had to be a good distance away from them, at the top of a staircase on the opposite side of the room, at the very top where the first flight of stairs intersected the next. Only then could I peek over the handrails and observe that magnificent display of what “man” was capable of, a species that I would never feel like I was a part of. I was not allowed to take anything down because they were old and hard to put back together. Imagine what it would be like if archeologists were never allowed to get close to something they discovered, to use a delicate brush to remove the ossified remnants of time that eluded the mechanical arms of giant excavators and see the legacy of the species they belonged to; to caress the bronze and the iron and feel the warmth of warriors that had been trapped in pockets under their feet. If they are not denied the joy of feeling the liberated souls brush past them, the glory of the resurrection of the past, why was I? As far as I was concerned, I was stuck in a world with people I did not understand. My story lay buried in plain sight, waiting to be brought back to life. This was why I looked longingly at the bookcase, knowing even then that what has not been resurrected can never bring forth salvation.
There were many books in the bookcase. Glass panels separated the books, their true colour and smell, from the rest of the house. In a way, the transparent glass made the bookcase invisible. I’d never seen anyone open it or read any of the books inside. What I saw through the yellowing glass was nothing that could be part of the life of my father or my grandparents. It was nothing worth excavating. The entire house was filled with things that seemed invisible to my family and thus were enveloped in a sort of darkness. It was like the house was made up of the loose lego bricks in the indigo container. It remained so until I entered such fragile spaces by force, in febrile fashion without cicerone or candle, and threw myself into the abyss of my senses. Around the age of 12, I broke into the wooden bookcase. The glass panes were designed to move within grooves made by strips of iron that had been rusting away for years. I pushed, hesitated, then pushed again. There was a scream of glass on metal, a hollow scream that sounded like a drowning man gasping for air. And then it hit me, rushing into my nose and seeping into my skin. The smell was divine; aged papyrus mixed with the warmth of souls and rust. I felt it against my skin and in my nose and knew then, with great conviction, that what lay before me had always been a part of me and my family.
It is perhaps because the house was the site of such endless excavation, the resurrection of a past unlived, that the journey there was always synonymous with death. We lived in the city, in the heart of Kottayam. My father’s childhood home is a two-hour journey on winding roads, through forests and heavy rain, over hills and powerful rivers. Every time I step into the car to go there, I see my death on the road, ripped to shreds far away from the indigo container of assorted lego bricks. I’m guilty of having excused myself from visiting my grandparents a couple of times because the fear was too real for me to ignore. But as time passes by, like the edges of outer space recedes away from us every second and takes our past with it, the fire of the city will take the trees, the small shops and bumpy roads, the forest air and the winding roads, and leave nothing but barren land between me and my father’s house. It is for this reason that I decided to challenge death and visit my grandparents a few days ago. On the way there, I realised that so much had changed; tar and white paint had replaced the muddy roads, the forest was less dense, the river’s song had been drowned out by a dissonant chord of torpid trucks chugging to life, the houses had grown in size and show, and I had hair on my chin. The journey to my depths, the chaos in the indigo container and the unattainable order atop the bookcase, had always been one of mythical dimensions. Without the primordial cathedral of the forests with frescos of the naked sky on its canopy, and the raging waters of baptism that flow from the mountains of God, the overt prescience of nature that always preceded my rebirth was no longer on display. To uncover the part of me that remains hidden, the father who speaks in riddles, is no longer a response to nature. The geography has prepared itself for someone else; my son, perhaps. The thought released me from the ropes that tied me to my father and exposed the deep grooves on my bruised skin. It is finished. “I am a man now”, I said to myself on the way back home with the indigo container on my lap.