The corridor just outside the room I slept in extended about 40 metres to my parents bedroom. The shuttered rooms abutting it on either side added another hurdle in the nightly all ghost steeplechase from my room to theirs. I feared the locks on one of the several doors would be rendered inconsequential and door would creak open behind me. Looking back, details on how the lock opened (melting away or using a magic key controlled by the supernatural or a clean break in the metal) was never important and neither was what I expected to come out of the room.
The door opening was one of the easier challenges. The more serious one was avoiding running into the apparitions that walked the corridor. They followed strictly time bound mathematically determined paths and I simply had to wait at the mouth of where my room joined the corridor. At some point the distance between me and my parents room was clear and I would make a run for it because of course one of the doors could open up behind me. The apparitions I saw seldom repeated so I’m not sure if the path they followed was circular or if our house just lay on a nighttime ghoul highway.
Over summer holidays we would go to my grandparents house which unlike the house we lived in was in the centre of town. But the nighttime sojourn would repeat here as well even though I didn’t sleep alone. The run here would be from my room to the fridge in the dining room along a more complicated path. I would need to run 20 or do meters to the end if the atrium and take a right and run another 10 meters to the fridge all the while opening doors carefully so that I didn’t wake up my cousins or their parents. There were no unpopulated rooms along the corridors but I still needed to be mindful of the apparitions. I don’t remember now if I saw them there so even if I did they must have been a more docile variety.
Having run across the corridors I would now be at the fridge. Door open the non air conditioned summer midnight sucked the air from the fridge with such ferocity that the compressor motor would start to whine. I would stand in the cool yellow light gulping water or coke straight from the bottle. All the while I would be torn about looking at the wall-hanging just above the fridge. The curious within would want me to look up to see if it had changed. The sensible would want me to keep the bottle back and quietly retreat, my eyes focussed downwards.
In the week that my last grandparent died I went back to the house. The fridge was still on. It wasn’t the one from my childhood and it had one of those sensor systems that shut down the compressor when you had the door open. So no more whining from the motor to tell me when it was time to keep the bottle inside and go back to bed. Taking my time I ended up looking at the artwork.
The framed photo is a merge of a close-up and a full body-shot with the closeup done in sepia. The body-shot is of a wind blown woman in the dark of the night wearing a sleeveless dress that goes just below her knees. The photo loses focus around her feet so we don’t know if she is barefoot or what surface it is. Her hair fall below her shoulders and the tips are waving in the wind. She’s turned away from the camera and so we can’t see her face which is in the dark. Just below the body-shot is the closeup. It’s a symmetric face with features that are too perfect to be attractive. The hair is parted in the middle and straight but the detail again fades just below the shoulders so we can’t compare to the body-shot. We don’t know if these are the same women but across the high cheekbones and slender cheeks there roles down one solitary tear. It’s been going undisturbed for some time. There’s a long trail where it’s started below the eye and it’s now reached the cheek just behind which would be her first premolar. The eyes stare straight at the camera. They’re full of anger and foreboding but also fear. She’s about to do something and we can’t say what it is. We don’t know which world she is in and if that world has a passageway to where we are. Is she scorned in love? Did the couple go to a party where she ran into her lover’s paramour such that it was impossible to ignore? Was she killed and only now realises she is dead?
The only answer we do have is the certainty that she will accomplish because she is in the right. Is it because no story I’ve ever read or heard ends in a wronged woman failing to get her way. The vengeful Durga in a dress.
It’s the only piece of art that survives my grandparents. There’s other pieces in the drawing room but like the replica of the Taj Mahal those are the standard issue non-risqué collectibles for the Indian middle class of their era.
This print however was chosen. Against odds, against tradition (there is some cleavage). Hanging above the fridge it looked at us while we thirstily drank water on those summer nights or sat down for meals on the family table. Against the muted protests of children and grand children it held its place. The frigidaires below it came and went. The seating arrangements for meals changed as children grew up and left and grandchildren arrived. Countless generations of Asian house geckos hibernated behind the frame in those cruel winters. But the print kept its place.
In her final months my grandmother had stopped talking. And I was indifferent. There was nothing I needed to ask her that I didn’t know. She was an ordinary mother to ordinary children who had ordinary children of their own. The family had ordinary fights. Didn’t we all know enough about ordinary lives? Hadn’t Proust, Knausgaard and Naipaul written in enough detail about lives like hers?
Behind the sheen of her rule abiding and tax paying did she wait for someone to come ask her why she liked that photo? Was bringing up the print a test for her to find a kindred spirit to whom she could bare all without risking judgement? I wonder if I’d looked past the marble elephants in the atrium at the framed print above the fridge while she was still able to talk what secrets I might have found.