April 20, 2024

FICTION: The Portrait | Shikoh Mohsin Mirza

Reading Time: 12 minutes
When C. agreed to come to my place, I was rather disappointed. C. and I were colleagues, working at a downtown hardware store — she as a clerk-typist, I as an accountant. As the only female on the establishment, C. was sometimes called upon to serve as a receptionist too; otherwise, she sat next to me, occasionally typing, but mostly staring at the glossy enamel on her nails. She wore that air of inviolability about her that made flirting with her truly exciting.
Whenever she brought cheese sandwiches for lunch, she offered me one, and then cruised out with me to the shop across the road to have coffee. On one of these forays into the coffee shop, I dropped a hint that she visit me on the weekend. She picked at the lipstick on her lips, and then splaying out her fingers — as usual — started to inspect her nails closely. Sure she knows, I thought, how to play at it. Then doubts besieged me, and I thought maybe that was how a woman snubbed. 
After a week, another sandwich for me, another coffee visit, purplish lipstick with matching nail polish, and I tossed her way another hint. She giggled loudly, bent over, and slapped her left calf hard. ‘I suspect there’s an insect crawling up my leg,’ she said. Even though she had plucked a tiny squashed insect from her dress, I thought she could easily have been ambiguous. I hated myself, and vowed never to give her another chance to humiliate me.
Yet the flirting continued. A few sandwiches later, I broke my vow, and asked her again to visit me. This time C. accepted. I had always hoped she wouldn’t, but she did, and now I had a problem on hand. 
Not well paid at my job, I had rented a small room in a rundown neighbourhood. I owned neither stylish furniture nor expensive linen to impress a woman. So I thought my landlady, who was stereotypically bosomy with unpredictable swings of mood, might help. Reluctantly, and half-expecting to be thrown out, I divulged C.’s impending visit to her. Her eyes began to shine with glee. She shrugged, in exasperation or resignation, I couldn’t really make up my mind, but as she stomped up the stairs to my room I knew she had taken control of things. 
Upon entering the room, she gave out a loud sigh, then came and stood with arms akimbo at the head of the bed, her eyes darting from corner to corner. 
‘What a mess,’ she muttered resignedly, and set to work. I stood near the door, watching her bring order and precision in the shambolic world of a bachelor’s room. Even though she herself dressed rather slovenly, her feminine touch had soon transformed the room. Then, without any request being made, she offered to lend me bed linen and a table cloth. ‘For an additional charge of course… which goes without saying,’ she added matter-of-factly. 
But now another problem cropped up. Immediately after renting the room, I had noticed a shapeless damp spot in the wall above the foot of my bed. It was not big enough at the time, but over time, and particularly after the rains, moss had grown on it. It looked bigger now, adding darkness and gloom to the room. I had scrubbed the mark hard, but this had made the moss penetrate deeper into the plaster, and now the spot looked uglier, and completely discoloured. The landlady stared at it for a moment, and then said, ‘Just cover it. Better with a picture if you can.’ Her suggestion was practical, the only thing that could be done at such a short notice. It immediately reminded me of the framed portrait stowed away under the bed.
When I took the room, the only luxury coming with the rent was a wide bed with a soiled stringy mattress. Since I had very little money to spare, I decided to get a reading table and a couple of chairs from the flea market. 
The landlady had directed me to a shop, whose small and wiry shopkeeper refused to reduce the price of the table and the brace of chairs I wanted to buy. I was strapped for cash, and thought they made a good bargain, their dark brown varnish lending them the look of old-world furniture. I wanted to save some money for a bed sheet and a table cloth — which could only happen if he reduced their price. 
After much haggling, I could whittle the salesman’s avarice to the extent that he suggested a compromise. He offered a framed photograph as a free gift with my purchase. ‘It’s expensive, near-antique,’ he said. Then after a pause, he added cryptically, ‘You’ll be grateful.’ 
I wanted the particular table at any cost, and had no use for either the frame or the daguerreotype it contained. Yet I accepted it now. Having haggled and kept waiting a few customers for too long, I had no other option left but to take it as a face-saving gesture. I thought I would frame my own photograph in it. But when the furniture was delivered at my room, I promptly threw the frame under the bed and forgot its existence. And now it came in quite handy.
The picture frame was heavy and sturdy, and expensive-looking, like that of the antique portrait frames that usually adorn the walls in fashionable drawing rooms. It took a while and some effort to find the nail that could hold its weight. But when the picture had been hung, thanks of course to the landlady, the damp patch was completely covered. 
C. could now visit me, which indeed she did, on the appointed day. It was a strange age. There were very few fashionable restaurants, and those that there were I could hardly afford. Our first date and we did not know what to talk about. It was in the midst of such a predicament that C.’s eyes fell on the picture frame on the wall. The admiring look on her face forced me to follow the direction of her attention, and for the first time I had a close look at the portrait in the frame. C. was staring intently at the portrait, and I realised that it was a strikingly handsome face. A strange feeling stabbed at my heart. The thinning hair plastered on the scalp with dandyish care was adding to the person’s mystique.
As her eyes lingered on the picture, I thought I could make use of her passing interest in it. This way maybe I could mask my ineptness for not being able to engage her in a meaningful conversation. So without any deliberate attempt, my mouth blurted out that the portrait was that of one of my ancestors, my granduncle’s to be precise. 
‘Looks well bred,’ C. said. I got the lead, and now I knew what exactly to say.
‘He was an aristocrat. Was in the army actually,’ I said. I thought this way I could impress C. — at least let my ancestors do that if not me.
‘Yes,’ she said, a little incredulously.
There was a brief lull in our conversation; then she heaved a sigh. 
‘He looks strangely,’ she said, ‘you can’t make out if he is happy or sad.’ I started; I wasn’t that observant. 
‘I would say sad,’ she continued.
She was staring at the portrait fixedly. ‘What is it?’ she said in somewhat a distressing voice. ‘He is looking at us.’
Her words made me notice the portrait’s mesmerizing gaze, particularly the right eye, unfaded and gleaming.
C. had risen in my esteem. She was refined, sensitive and expressive, much to my disconcert. She was far superior to me. Maybe the face had unhinged a repressed memory inside her. I was found wanting, and now she was feeding upon the portrait and projecting her fantasy on my granduncle. 
To overcome my embarrassment, I began to embroider the picture, filling out the background. So he became an aristocrat, a soldier, an expert marksman with medals, even an adventurer, and to add to it all a dash of romance, he died at a young age, at thirty-eight to be exact.
C. was too romantic and intelligent for me. She never came back, though she did mention the picture and the strange look on the face once or twice. But when D. came over and looked inquisitively at it, I felt no qualm in telling her that he was an actor of yesteryears, a theatre artist. 
I had discovered a new use for the picture, and the fibber in me knew exactly what to do and how to invent an ancestry, glorious and majestic. She clapped her hands. ‘How wonderful!’ she exclaimed with an enthusiasm I thought was more a sham than real. With little else to do I recounted to her his daring adventures, all made up in my mind, of course, at the spur of the moment. I even talked suggestively about his sexual exploits, angling to get D. into bed, though she expertly wriggled out of the situation. I had soon unleashed on her a repertoire of made-up antics of my imagined ancestor whose supposed photograph the gilded frame carried. The dead uncle owned the evening.
I had been trained as an accountant. Soon I landed a better job as an assistant accountant at a furniture firm. As it was located very far from my rented room, I decided to move to a place closer to it. This time I was fortunate to find a family to stay with as a paying guest. It was a small family, father, mother, and a daughter. They had a small business, but since they had a big house they took in paying guests to add to their income. 
The accountant at the new firm, my immediate boss, had spent thirty years there, gazing upon his employees through small dark snake-like eyes. He looked at you without blinking, burrowing deeper and deeper inside you.
A few days had passed since my joining of the company when a strange incident occurred. As I entered my cabin, a small dilapidated cubicle, kept that way with deliberate care to announce my inferior status of an assistant accountant in the company, a strange sight met my eyes. I had left the frame with the anonymous portrait behind in my earlier room, as it had, in fact, been a distraction in my amorous adventures — the wily young ladies I succeeded in bringing to my room always managed to fend off my advances by talking about the portrait. But now I found, it was hanging on the wall over my chair in the cramped cabin, its eyes as piercing as ever looking down upon me with usual disdain and contempt.
As I stood there, looking at the picture with consternation and disbelief, I heard the high-pitched cackling sound of a hyena-laugh behind me. It was the laughter of the accountant. I turned in dismay. He had the same look on his face that had always set me ill at ease; yet today, respectfully, he handed me a letter I discovered to be from my ex-landlady. On a soiled yellowing paper, she had scribbled in black ink the following words: 
I travelled from the other edge of the city just to deliver your granduncle’s portrait. He has a nice face. Good luck. Mrs B. 
P.S. My expenses have been taken care of by your nice boss.
‘I paid her 50 bucks. You owe that money to me; add interest if you can’t cough it up now.’ I heard the accountant’s voice. ‘But I must compliment you,’ he was continuing. ‘It’s a handsome face, your granduncle’s, eh.’ It was difficult to decide whether it was a compliment or a disbelieving query. I hated both — the landlady and the accountant, and would have shattered the picture to pieces, if propriety had not prevented me. Obviously, it was neither a favour nor a kind act. The shrewd woman was coming this way on some errand, and brought along the portrait to wangle some money out of me.
So the picture hung over my head as a protective charm. After the lunch break that same day, the accountant entered my cabin in measured steps, as if showing his respect for my granduncle. Previously, he had always entered without knocking, and even with a body language suggesting his superior status — so it had to be the portrait, I surmised. He had an account register in his hand, which he placed before me gently. After a brief pause, more for effect than anything else, he stared for some time at the photograph.
‘The portrait,’ he said, pointing to it, ‘there’s something in it that fascinates me, something indefinable. …What a face.’ He opened the register and laid it before me. 
This continued for many days. Soon the accountant’s fulsome praise began to cloy. He would enter my cubicle respectfully, praise the lineaments of the framed face, and then order me around. I realised that I was being taken for granted, with not the least of civilised effort on his part to conceal it. More ominously, everyday he made me approve figures and sign bills hurriedly, without allowing me to read or check what I was signing. The situation was somewhat odd — his entering my cabin instead of me being summoned to his cabin. It smacked of some gross crime. 
I mentioned all the happenings at the office to my host family, with whom the arrangement was to have meals daily at dinnertime. As my distress grew at the accountant’s behaviour, the family pressed me to join their business. Of course, marrying their daughter was an essential condition. 
An incident at the office eventually compelled me to accept the family’s proposal. After some weeks, entirely disaffected at being led around, I made up my mind to break loose of the accountant’s hold on me, come what may. I had a professional commitment to my employers, and not to another employee like me, even more so as his honesty and integrity were coming under a cloud. So that day when he entered my cabin with a light tread, stared at the portrait in awe, and then placed the account book before me as if in usual course, I refused — politely but coldly — to sign immediately.
‘I need to check,’ I said. An incredulous look clouded his face.
‘It’s an order,’ he said. ‘You can’t say no.’
I did not move or say anything. ‘Don’t make things difficult for yourself,’ he persisted with a menacing voice. I kept staring into his eyes, and for the first time he blinked. Then he picked up the books, and began to move towards the door. At the door, however, he stopped, turned, and eyeing the portrait all the while let out a high-pitched dry laugh, and then exited shutting the door behind with a bang.
‘I can’t accept the insult to the portrait,’ I declared at the dinner table, having recounted the entire incident. And that was that. Next day I resigned, and brought the frame specially encased in an expensive cover. It was unveiled respectfully, showered with appreciative looks especially by the bride-to-be, and hung immediately on the most conspicuous space in the sitting room above the settee. The antique frame of the portrait did not look out of place on the wall, as there was already some other old-world furniture in the room. As for me, I was accepted into the family fold with instant marriage to their only daughter.
Not many weeks after that, I noticed a change in the portrait on the sitting-room wall. The pupil of the right eye appeared to have widened a little, its dark colour gone. Without the usual penetrative look the face had lost its animal magnetism. So many stories and legends had been interwoven around the portrait that it had become the sacred memento of our family, and now it looked just an ordinary face.
To discover the reason for the change, I inspected it closely. There was a small hole in place of the pupil in the right eye. Intrigued and unable to restrain myself, I took down the picture from the wall. Turning it over, I found that the hardboard, against which the picture rested, had wide cracks at many places. Carefully, I unscrewed the back of the frame, wedged a finger under the light brown hardboard, raised it slightly, and looked under it. A small gecko had snaked its way between the picture and the board. It lay, withered and dead, behind the back of the face. It was obvious that the hole in the right eye was always there. The gecko had been living there for so many weeks now and perhaps peeped out whenever it sensed a danger outside its hiding place.
The frame was probably a century old, and the picture was stuck to the glass in front. On a whim, I decided to pull the gecko out. The trick was to ease out the lizard without lifting the whole picture out of the frame. As I tried to dislodge the dry lizard from behind the portrait’s back my finger suddenly pierced its weathered paper, making gaping holes in it. Undeterred, I tried still to pull out the lizard from behind the picture’s back, holding its head tightly between my fingers. As I pulled hard, the picture suddenly crumbled, gathering in a dust heap at the bottom of the frame. At the same time, the gecko’s body, already dry, broke into smaller bits, falling down and mixing with the crumbled dust at the bottom. The scaly tail, however, lay intact on the heap, where now I spied another broken and dessicated gecko tail, perhaps that of an earlier resident of the frame. My straining at the head of the gecko had already ground it to powder between the fingers, and as I parted them, the crushed head also dropped on the heap. Dust to dust, at last, I thought impishly. 
My wife had in the meantime appeared on the scene. Though I felt relieved having been rid of the portrait, I put on a sad face considering the esteem and reverence with which I had always talked about it. My wife looked bereft.
Next evening, I had to go out of the city on a business trip. To impress on the family the sense of loss I had felt at the destruction of the portrait, throughout the day I kept silent, wandering around with a distracted look in my eyes. Even as I departed that evening, I did not forget to cast a sad look at the dark space on the wall where the frame had hung.
Returning after a week, I knocked at the door with a sense of serene relief that I would no longer have to keep up any pretence. 
My wife opened the door. As I entered, my eyes inevitably drifted towards the spot where the portrait had hung. Another framed photograph, a family portrait, now covered the blank space. My wife was looking at me closely with bright eyes.
Then, I noticed that the frame was the same old one. The new photograph showed the family gathered in front of an antique dresser with several fancy wing mirrors. This dresser had sat exactly opposite to the wall on which my supposed granduncle’s portrait had hung. And now, as the photograph had been blown up to fit the big frame, one saw — by an odd trick of reflection from the wing mirrors, perhaps — countless images of the portrait from the opposite wall receding further and further into the depths of the central mirror, the piercing eyes of my granduncle staring out as ever.
[Shikoh Mohsin Mirza, whose interests include Narratology and Philosophical Hermeneutics, has been teaching at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow (India) since 2007. He has also taught English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, for more than a decade. He is the author of a critical book Narrative Consciousness: The Role of the Narrator in Fiction, and has also published scholarly essays widely in India and abroad. He is currently working on a work of fiction about experiences of living in a majoritarian society.]

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