No morning romp, no private onanism; no shared breakfast, no quick snack; no pot of coffee, no shot of espresso: the two hours or so before dawn had to be used for work, had to be used solely for painting.
Sevek awoke because of despair. But he awoke quietly, disturbing neither Pranaya nor the child sleeping bodkin between her parents. His wife and daughter knew nothing of his desperation. They only had a vague sense of his plight, understood that he wanted to paint, but did not know the ultimate reason why.
Pranaya’s head lay unpillowed. She was as supine to her husband’s plight as she was to the world beyond their mattress.
Sevek’s daughter, lying flesh against her mother’s umber midriff, seemed lifeless to him. Both the females looked dead in their sleep.
The painter rolled away from his family towards the uncurtained window. The city glow of downtown Dallas murmured into the bedroom, enough to allow Sevek to read the unadorned timepiece at the other end of their bedroom. He had some time yet ere dawn.
Not a fear of failure, but a fear of having no evidence of his existence motivated him to rustle himself from bed. If he had had friends who were composures or writers or directors, he would have inquired into the muses that spark their creations.
Sevek’s sense was that struggle was the raison d'etre for any self-aware artist. He did not care if this reflection was bromidic. The reason was real and impassioned.
He despised the fight though, the artist’s fight, hated it with all his material being, wanted to choke his drive to create, drown the resilience underwater, like pushing his own daughter’s rubicund face into a shallow spring puddle—if only it were so easy? This was how he defined his desperation: unwanted, yet warranted.
Sevek willed himself into the adjoining room whither his canvases, oils, and brushes lay scattered about. Most of his paraphernalia had been relegated to one corner of their one-bedroom loft by Pranaya, but evidence of Sevek’s industry rarely stayed confined to that ignoble corner. These days, empty paint tubes and headless brushes could be found intermingled with their toddler’s playthings.
He pulled the switch to the incandescent lamp and was startled to see a man sleeping on their vintage Bauhaus.
Sevek forgot that his wife’s younger brother had come up from college for an interview in Pranaya’s company. He was to interview today. He would probably get the position, Sevek guessed, become another Indian twiddling away his existence in the American IT sector. He would later become naturalized like Pranaya.
Sevek scoffed, which was more the cliché in America: he the milksop artist-painter struggling with his middle-class demons or his brother-in-law the Indian-runaway struggling to become another computer code wallah in the West? Even though Sevek did not have to fret over finances because of Pranaya’s career—instead enjoy a much more expensive lifestyle than he ever would have in India—he disliked being associated with its stereotypes.
The brother-in-law had not been disturbed by the sallow light. Sevek spotted some early-morning dribble at the corner of his brown lips. Some saliva stuck to Sevek’s sofa, some onto the student’s University of North Texas top. The collegiate green of his shirt hurt Sevek’s eyes. Out of consideration, Sevek turned the lamp off.
Sevek retreated to his corner in the dark, soon realizing that he could not paint with so little luminescence. He looked back through the open door into his bedroom, onto the figures of his wife and child.
Urban light limned their persons.
Sevek, feeling the tingle of inspiration, quickly grabbed at a mounted sheet of canvas, some brushes, and his thin, light weight easel. He deposited these professional accruements near the bedroom window.
He returned for his oils but recalled that he had used the last of his turpentine the previous morning. Acrylics were an option; they required only water for thinning. But Sevek already knew that he was not about to use those amateurish things: once an oil painter, always an oil painter. He opted for oil sticks instead: the smaller pastels from Japan, the larger cattle-markers from his new host country.
From the dull streetlamps outside, all the multifarious colors and hues—columned next to each other in their case like bars on a grill plate—appeared only monochromatic.
He chose one of the darker shades and struck oil to canvas.
Sevek was experienced; he knew never to let a blank canvas intimidate him: better to slash at the airy, affronting glare of the canvas’ bald face, then to wait for an unlikely rencontre between canvas and painter. Before looking at a subject, Sevek’s hand was always at work.
Sevek started to trace the body’s line.
He had sketched his wife’s profile numerous times when they were younger, but recounted that he had not done so since the birth of their daughter. Pranaya refused to sit for him anymore. This was a punishment, a punishment for Sevek for being more of a servant to his drawings than to his family.
Before their daughter’s appearance, Pranaya had found her husband’s otiose behavior charming, his artsy inclinations romantic; she had nurtured these facilely, much as she nurtured her daughter now. But with new responsibility had come a new reality. Sevek’s inability to sell paintings had become a superfluity, his inability to provide income unacceptable.
She was the breadwinner, he admitted freely. But Sevek did not like to cogitate over these facts often. They depressed him. He only wanted to paint.
Pranaya had turned over on her side. Even as she slept, her countenance was hard, like one of those bronze statues that always seem to face the wind. Her night slip had loosened and the side of her right breast had become visible. The comforter had kicked away hours ago because of the heat; the air condition was never a match for the sultry summer air in Dallas. All that was draped over her and her daughter’s body was a thin cotton sheet
Sevek was surprised how much he enjoyed using the oil pastels.
He had always considered these sticks of color a lesser art to the brush, but the quick movement and interchange between the rods of color was liberating. If he had had any turpentine left, he would have experimented with dipping the sticks into the solution. He pondered upon using linseed oil from the kitchen, and was about to retrieve some, when, on the nightstand, he espied a bottle of baby oil, capturing the streetlights like old-fashioned isinglass.
Sevek squeezed the remaining contents of the bottle onto a plate. Dunking one of the pastels into the gooey oil, he applied the wetted stick to the canvas. The color shot across the cloth.
He laughed: the struggle seemed today more playful than it had in years. Using the oil pastels in place of the brush reminded him that he should experiment oftener.
When he heard the downtown Spanish market below coming alive, Sevek knew his productivity would soon wane. He added a few more stokes to the canvass, then left the easel stand—picture facing the window’s growing sunlight—and returned to bed. Slumber embraced him quickly since he had risen before dawn.
A cacophony of domestication awoke Sevek an hour later: an irate wife was grumbling, a shower was warming up, a child was oozing snot, a television was relaying something unintelligible, a spoiled bother-in-law was smacking his lips over breakfast, a phone was ringing. Sevek surrendered to the forces propelling him forward and rolled out of bed for a second time.
—When are you gonna answer the phone? Sevek asked when he saw his wife and brother-in-law around the kitchen table. His daughter was strapped into a highchair, slapping a plastic cup against one of its sides.
—When are you gonna clean up that mess in our bedroom? Pranaya shot back.
She reached over to the landline.
—Hello? Ohh! Papa! Kya kar rahe ho, papa-ji?
Pranaya laughed into the receiver.
—I am missing you too! Kya? Oh, you saw on the news? No no, the tornado didn’t come through here. It went through Ft. Worth. No no, it’s next to Dallas, but not the same city. What time is it in Delhi? Oh, not so late. You are wanting to talk to your son, I know!! Okay okay, love you!
Pranaya handed the phone off to her younger brother, who began chirping away in Hindi. Ignoring her husband, Pranaya moved past him into the bedroom shower. Sevek had no job to run off to, so he was in no rush to bathe, eat, or compose himself for anything that involved the outside world.
On seeing her father, Sevek’s daughter smiled. She spasmed, then clapped her hands, and then banged her cup a few more times before dropping it to the floor. Losing her plastic cup came as something of a shock to the child. She cried.
—Sevek! Can you watch her, please!! I don’t have time for this this morning, Pranaya yelled from shower.
Sevek did as he was told and reached out for his two-year-old. The girl wailed harder. Not sure how to appease the blubbering creature, Sevek bumbled about the kitchen looking for something to satiate her. Looks of ill will from his brother-and-law on the phone convinced him to take his daughter into their bedroom.
After placing her on the bed, Sevek remembered his pastels. He took hold of the set he had used earlier along with some unpaid bills and yellowing receipts towering atop their dresser and set them in front of the child. The rows of colors were even more majestic in the morning sunlight. His daughter was enchanted. Her father smiled.
Pranaya returned from her shower, two towels wrapped around her. Though having lived in America for ten years, she still preferred to keep her tresses as long as her sisters and cousins did back on the subcontinent. As his wife dressed, Sevek followed the wispy movement of black sheen, like a tomcat eyeing a dangling string.
—What are you doing? I said watch her. Not be letting her draw all over our sheets! Pranaya’s chided her husband in his Hindi-accented English and penchant for the present progressive tense.
Her voice rent Sevek’s playful voyeurism.
—She’s okay. She’s not drawing on the sheets.
The child had long since strayed from the few paltry pieces of paper onto the linen. Sevek guided his daughter’s hands back to the papers.
Pranaya began searching through her many containers and instruments of feminine beauty and apparel.
—Have you seen the baby oil?
—Yeah, I’ve got it. It’s over here. I was using it earlier this morning.
—Using it for what?
—Is there any left?
Sevek moved to where his easel was still standing. He retrieved the plastic bottle from the stand and gave the container a squeeze. Wheezy air escaped but no oil.
—Can’t you be a little more considerate? She accosted him. What is your daughter supposed to use now? You already waste enough money on your paints and brushes. And now you have to be taking from your own daughter?
Pranaya clicked her tongue in triumphal conclusion.
If it was for their daughter, then why was Pranaya using it, Sevek was about to retort, but he held his tongue.
He got up and went to the canvass. He picked up what was left of the baby oil, and, upon attempting to return the bottle to his wife, tripped on a leg of the easel. The canvas was jarred easily from the stand and slipped to the carpeted floor, picture side up.
Pranaya looked down at the painting. Sevek stopped to take in the image, too. The colors he chosen before dawn, when all he had was the faint municipal glow of urbanization, now blazed prismaticaly under the riled strength of the naked Texas sun. The stroke and glide of the oil sticks had culminated to produce a lively stillness, like movement caught under a slow shuttering camera. The composition was unevenly balanced so that the final image of slumbering mother and child was tensely calm. Sevek had been able to capture the image of a fitful sleeper fallen into a deep sleep, and a child grabbing at a cosmos of exploding stars in her imagination. He had documented an edgy serenity in the form of two slumbering figures.
Sevek caught the movement of his daughter in his periphery. She was teetering over the side of the yard-high mattress, trying to follow the gaze of her mother and father. Toddling, she lost her balance.
—Rangasaz! Her father called.
Sevek caught his daughter before she hit the floor.
Pranaya turned away from her husband’s painting to see him holding little Rangasaz. She looked back the painting.
—Sevek, maybe this one’s alright.