An Honest Conversation
Grandma painted on slabs of butter
We were walking on the two finger trail around Ulsoor Lake; she was telling me why squirrels had lines on their back. “Squirrels are the only animals born from the tips of trees. Baby squirrels sprout at the tip of branches and slide down the tree bark on their backs. The bark scratches lines onto their backs. And that’s why squirrels never leave their trees, their mothers.”
I only half understood my grandmother’s explanations. I half believed them, I half loved her.
We lived in an old Brahmin house that has more garden than house. Our house was just four ground floor rooms placed next to each other like the squares of a Rubik’s cube. Eraser sized windows, pencil sized window grills, no glass pane. The door was a slab of wooden butter that looked like it was melting because rats have been eating away its edges for the past thirty years. And it all used to be white, underneath all the rain damage and the yellowness of age. Grandma and I were the neighborhood light bulbs that emitted an odd light that attracted flies and strange questions. One frequently asked question was: how did my grandfather die? She’d say he died on the inside, like a flower that shriveled and died because it swallowed its own honey. They’d ask another question, vainly trying to understand us, “But what happened to your grandson’s parents though?”
“I’m sure they’re behind the curtains. We’ve never bothered to check though.” She answered like this each time. Some people would stop talking to us after this conversation while others grew fascinated, surrounding Grandma like the protective petals of a flower.
I reasoned Grandma’s behavior, telling myself that she probably talked like this because she was a painter, a job none of my friend’s parents ever seemed to have. But I’ve always wanted to know my grandmother beyond her words. For most people, their words were a bridge to their mind. My grandmother’s words were a bridge to her paintings, the ones in which I couldn’t make out circles and rectangles.
Apart from canvas and paper paintings, Grandma painted on slabs of butter and called them butter paintings. She’d mix food coloring powders into see-through liquid, not water. Different pools of color in separate small steel bowls. I would watch her trace color, the paintbrush touching the butter like it was in love. She would usually paint tree canopies or the sky over a sea or just swirls of circles. Once she was finished painting a slab, she’d run to the kitchen and grab a blow torch. She’d laugh excitedly and say, “This is the best part! You enjoy watching this don’t you?” I didn’t enjoy watching it but I never admitted that to her. I could never look away from her face as she used the blow torch to melt the butter painting. It was done methodically. First the four corners were warmed, then a hole was melted into the center and by then you could see Grandma’s face become happy in the sad way. We’d watch the colors curve and bloom and fade into the butter. “This is like as if I was inside my brain, watching my thoughts,” she’d say as she dipped her little finger in the melted pool. “Hmm, curious,” she’d say as she licked the butter off her little finger.
I had a rare glimpse into Grandma’s mind when her old friend from Davengere came to stay with us for one night. He was unlike other old people in that he didn’t stoop or smell of Ponds cream. We sat around our old dining table in the kitchen, eating some wobbly milk pie he’d brought for us. Grandma and he ate it right out of the baking pan while they’d given me a mushy slice in a steel bowl; this was Grandma’s way of excluding me from their conversation. They both had their elbows on the table top, occasionally pointing their spoon at the other’s face to emphasize a point. If I stayed quiet, I would be allowed to stay up till 9 pm and listen to their talk.
Grandma held her chin in her palm as she spoke, “So, you’re applying to teach at Srishti? I gave up years ago. The more I talked about paint brush angles, the less the kids learnt. But you’ve always been a good teacher.”
He replied with a knowing smile, “Some people are painters and some people are painting teachers. Anyway, this visit isn’t about my teaching position at Srishti. It’s about your gallery showcase in 3 days. Everyone’s getting excited. How do you feel?”
Grandma put down her spoon and held her elbows in her hands as she said, “Hmm, I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m a little nervous.”
“You say that all the time but I’m sure it’ll be a success. More people are coming to see you, the odd little butterfly you are. Your paintings are a nice supplement to meeting you.”
“That’s an odd compliment. I’m not the person you remember me from 10 years ago. Time has changed me and my paint brush strokes,” said Grandma.
“That’s true but some people don’t lose their inherent colors. I’m sure deep down you’re still the girl who ran after squirrel secrets. Remember how you used to steal bird nests and keep your earrings and pens in them, convinced they’d give birth to eggs? Do you still have that bird nest?”
“No, my mother burned it. She said I had one home, I didn’t need another home.”
I’d never heard stories of Grandma as a girl. I interjected, “Grandma, what are squirrel secrets?”
I knew I shouldn’t have interrupted them as Grandma seemed to remember that I was there. She turned to me, “You’ve finished your pie, let’s get you to bed. It’s late.”
“But I want to know!”
But my bowl was already taken away and she was driving me to my room, her hands cupping my shoulders like it was a steering wheel.
The next day, after our guest had left, she knew I was mad at her for excluding me last night. I was sitting in the garden, on our bed of weeds, digging holes by punching my fist into the soft earth. I’d spit into each fist sized hole and cover the white froth with more earth. I was getting my fists and my white shirt dirty. Grandma let me get dirty like this and pull out weeds when I was mad at her. She’d sit on our white swing set and draw sketches on the large sketch pad on her lap. Once I’d run out of spit to fill the holes, I’d stop and sit next to Grandma, watching her draw my face in different stages of a lie.
“I’m sorry about last night. I wanted to talk to my friend alone. You don’t like it when I hover around when your friends are over to play.” In a way, neither of us have accepted each other. But I, at least, tried to understand her; I said, “But you know all my friends, you talk to them. You don’t want me around your friends or your paintings.”
“That’s because you’d be bored. And you say you don’t understand my paintings. And you touch the paint on the canvas. Your fingerprints dirty the painting.”
I stayed quiet because it was true. She continued, “But I’ll tell you what a squirrel secret is. Let’s go to Ulsoor again.”
“Can we get a pet squirrel for our garden?”, I asked.
“Only if we can catch one here!” she said as her stooped back did a trotting run on the green mossy grass surrounding the Lake. Against the strips of teal water and tree canopies, Grandma looked like a painting that I could understand. And to someone looking at us from afar, I was a part of her painting too. We’d make a nice watercolor.
“Well, we have to run if we’re ever going to catch up with any squirrel.”
We ran after one that had a star shaped splotch on the back of its head. It was carrying something round. It stopped at the foot of a Banyan tree and dug a hole in the cone formed by two slithering roots. It stuck its head up a lot, nervously, as it buried its treasure. It looked up at the surrounding water one more anxious time before it ran away.
“So, what’s a squirrel secret?” I turned to my grandmother.
“Well, to find out you have to dig up what that squirrel buried.”
I ran over to the spot between the huge roots and dug out a handful of earth.
“Grandma! The squirrel had buried a peanut, look!” I ran over and opened my palm to her.
She smiled and said, “Well, you’re not going to know the secret until you eat it.” I stared at her.
“But I don’t want to eat the squirrel’s food. It’s going to come looking for it at dinner time. It’ll be sad when it finds this gone.”
She laughed and said, “But don’t you want to know what a secret tastes like? I can’t explain things. You have to eat it, to understand.”
We were suddenly two different paintings. She was a portrait that hung in shadowy light and I was an abstract piece with clearly defined circles and rectangles.
I said, “No, I don’t want to know. I’ll just put this back. I want to go back home.”
Maybe Grandma became a little scared of me after that squirrel day at Ulsoor because she let me eat packets of chips and she listened to me recite multiplication tables without interrupting me with her explanations of how numbers 1 and 2 were a married couple and how numbers 3 and 4 were best friends. I knew she was really trying when she let me attend her gallery showcase on Friday night. We even wore coordinated outfits to let other people know that we were related- she wore a white sari with thin gold leaves trimming the edges and I wore a white kurta with gold water waves trimming the bottom. When we entered the Srishti gallery, she put her arm around my shoulder as people streamed around her. People were wandering around almost like they were lost, lost in the understanding of Grandma’s paintings. A small group crowded around Grandma, asking her questions. They started at the first painting hanging at the entrance; it was of an old man’s wrinkles and his beard.
They’d ask her, “The lightness of this piece… how do you do it?” Grandma would say, “I wanted to bring out the heaviness of age; I don’t understand how it became this light. I didn’t expect it, really.”
As the evening went on, people asked more questions.
“How did you understand the shadows in the lake?”
“Where did you find the darkness for this tree?”
“How did you draw the veins for his skin?”
“What color is this lightness?”
Grandma would usually say, “I don’t know, I just felt like water. It really flowed.” Or if she really wanted to answer a question, she’d say, “I wanted to know why people got lost so I painted lots of light. I’m not sure I found out why though.”
So many questions about things Grandma couldn’t understand. So many things I didn’t understand about Grandma’s answers but we just stood there together in our matching white outfits with gold trimming.
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