The camera is ready in my hand. I place myself in perfect vantage, just the right light.
I have always dealt in gazes. I know how insidious they can be. Perhaps that is why I so despise being watched. I forbade her from watching me sleep, just like I forbade Christ the Shepherd years ago. No, not the parable. The Christ the Shepherd figurine that Mother had placed in my bedroom back in Idukki—the one where Jesus, with a shepherd’s cane, stood knocking on a door.
Must have been a prize someone got from the catechism school. That is all they gave as prizes there: glass bowls and Christ figurines. That was long before the documentary—long before I realised that I had an eye for beautiful things.
I was mad at her.
It had been her idea to soak my fluorescent Kalenji t-shirts in black fabric paint and mellow them to sober colours. There were two shirts; one a fluorescent orange and the other a similar pink. She subjected them to a fabric paint deluge.
‘I know my way around colours,’ she said.
Orange came out a ruddy shade of brown and pink, maroon.
She mounted the brown shirt on a hanger and hung it on the clothes tree by the bed. The maroon, she left on the chair—as if she had placed more hopes on the fluorescent orange. The dun must have looked rather recalcitrant compared to the maroon. She always wanted the pig-headed one.
I had just taken a shower and changed into the once-upon-a-time-orange t-shirt when I felt the puce eyes dancing on me. Streaks of red, black, white, and green daubed on the shirt held me in a Kathi gaze—her Kathi gaze. I could hear the agitated thrum of the drumbeats. The shrieks of the ballet demons. The antagonist, regal, indignant with bottled stories, seared me with a penetrating glare. Raavan crawled up my nerves and made ready for war. I peeled the shirt off myself and, in a cold sweat, waited for the percussion to die down.
She walked in, gamine, that long russet sheet of wet hair swaying with her steps. I hurled the t-shirt at her.
‘What is the matter?’ she asked.
I looked away.
‘How dare you. How dare you. How dare you!’ It started as a whisper and rose in a crescendo to a shout that startled her.
I turned around to finish my castigation. There she stood, holding the t-shirt towards me. It took me a second to realise that there was no more face on it than there was fluorescence. I grabbed the shirt from her, turning it this way and that, seeking out the apparition that had caused my rage. I found nothing more than the wan, distraught ruddiness.
‘I think brown looks beautiful.’ Her words came out in a sigh.
I felt irritated, as though I had an itch somewhere I could not reach. Flustered, I turned on the television. Thaikkudam Bridge’s Navarasam spilt all over the room in catharsis and Kathakali. Anger passed. It was agony then: a heart on a skewer.
That night, I made troubled love.
‘Let Christ watch over every room,’ Mother said, as she placed Christ the Shepherd on my study table.
When my mind pranced away from the chapter on Social Justice, Christ the Shepherd’s glance needled me. His gaze was not accusing. If anything, it pleaded entry into the house whose door he was knocking. I decided that the shelf was a better place for him.
I was wrong. There was no place I could keep him to evade his sight—not under the mattress, not facedown beneath all my book junk, not this room, not another.
I heard the knock when I was in the bathroom with one hand on my junk. For the first time, I desperately wanted someone to be there on the other side of the door. Perhaps there was. But it wasn’t someone I could see.
On nights when I drowned out the prayers next room with Sinbad the Sailor in my ears, I felt a ragged man with a shepherd’s cane begging to be let into my world.
It was the morning before an exam. I must have drifted off to sleep with my textbook in hand. My brother was taking pleasure in prodding me with questions about the status of my revision. I tried warding him off with monosyllabic replies. When I made an attempt to retreat to my room, he rushed past me and knelt down in front of Christ, who was lying facedown on the shelf. Propping Christ up, he began an assiduous prayer loud enough for me to hear. Watching me out of the corners of his eyes he asked me, ‘Don’t you want to pray before the exam, brother?’
I woke up in a fit of fury. I saw Christ on the shelf, still toppled. All of a sudden, I felt faint, powerless, with no hope of the Shepherd’s intercession on my behalf.
I decided to get rid of Christ the Shepherd. I did not like being watched.
‘Are you a witch?’ I asked, toying with the amulet that nested in the hollow of her neck. ‘You have the eyes of one too,’ I said, petting her heavy lashes. I have an eye for beautiful things.
She hooked her legs over my thighs in the languor that followed love, muttering a dithyrambic tune under her breath. I felt ignored.
‘What are you chanting, witch?’ I asked.
She raised those flickering, dancing eyes of hers at me and said, ‘Uttaraswayamvaram Attakkadha. Duryodhana is about to fight the Pandavas.’
‘No…The song is just the Katha. This…’ she wrapped a sheet around herself and stood up, aquiline, knees bent, torso erect, hips gently thrust out, ‘…is the Kali.’ Her eyes began to swell out in expressions. Her arms drew patterns in the air. With a contortion of the face, Duryodhana summoned his army against the Pandavas.
‘Let’s play another game,’ I suggested. Tugging at the sheet swathed around her, Arjun began fighting off the Kauravas single-handedly. He choked the Attakkadha out of her breath.
Christ the Shepherd was made of something like porcelain; would not burn. I thought of breaking it and burying the shards. I had even chosen a spot by the neem tree, but I could not bring myself to break that man with his wistful eyes. So, he stayed put in my room until it was December. They held Secret Santa events at the Sunday school that my brother attended.
‘Whom did you get?’ I asked.
‘You’ll need to buy a gift now, won’t you?’
And then he forgot all about it until the day before they were to exchange gifts.
‘Ma, I need a gift! We have to exchange gifts tomorrow!’ he hollered from in front of the television.
‘Why didn’t you say this earlier? Where am I supposed to get a gift now?’
‘There is that Christ the Shepherd in my room, you know?’ I chimed in helpfully. ‘It’s beautiful. I don’t really have much use of it either.’
Mother liked it. My brother loved it. We packed it in a box, wrapped it, and tied a ribbon over it.
The next morning, uneventfully, Christ the Shepherd was sent away.
Days had drowned the chords of the Attakkadha.
I had been up all night. With a peg of amber syrup in hand, I walked into the room, teal coloured dawn filtering through the windows. In that moment of smudged hues and blurred lines, a blotted face crept up the corner of my eye. Red and black against a frame of sepia blue, the Kathi gathered itself. I stood rooted, tantalised. For one fleeting moment, the face pulled itself into a grimace, as though in a primaeval scream, and then evanesced into the seamlessness of the dawn. It was gone before I could tell myself that I had imagined it. All that remained was the knot in my throat and the slight tremor that rippled through the whiskey.
I was slightly dazed. When I turned around and saw her in front of the laptop, I wondered if I wasn’t imagining that as well. Once accustomed to the light of the lamp dimly glowing above her, I took in the scene in front of me.
She was unaware. She had her earphones on. They were connected to the laptop. It was her on the screen, Kathi, growling, roaring, Raavanavadham singing in her blood. Eyes hooked to the performance, she was mirroring the act quietly, the movements registering on her face and arms alone, in-sync with the music that must be pulsing through her. Every sinew of her face alight, eyes ablaze, she danced Raavan to life. Here and there, she tried to improvise. I could tell. I knew every frame of the documentary, each slant of light; I had captured it all. Yet it surprised me how long the camera had lingered on her. Must have been my eye for beautiful things.
And then, I sensed the moment coming and sprinted upstairs. In a couple of minutes, I was back.
The camera is ready in my hand. I place myself in perfect vantage, just the right light.
They are dancing out the fag end of the war. Ram fires his arrow. And the screen fills with Raavan, adorned, twisting into a grimace, a primaeval scream gurgling out of his throat—that primaeval scream gurgling out of his throat. Her face mimes it, lips parting to form a soundless scream and in that moment between two breaths, I click.
She is startled. Perhaps by the flash. Discomposed. As if I had shaken her out of a dream.
In wan and distraught ruddiness, I look into the bottomless eyes of the porcelain woman in front of me.
I can’t burn her. I can’t break her.
So, early the next morning, uneventfully, I send her away.