The Singing Portrait
- A short story -
By Kangabam Ranjan Singh *
I reached my hand to the door bell and rang it, twice. A moment later a man of age twenty eight opened the door. He was wearing white plain Koutons T-shirt and a Peter-England black and grey stripped trouser. He was in Bata chappal. I knew all these because he is my friend, my best friend.
"So tell me, why are you calling me?" I asked Kanta.
Kanta was nervous as I asked him the moment he opened the door of his new rented room to me.
"Nothing but to show you something," he replied as we sat down to the sofa in his drawing room.
"And what is that?"
He gestured me to wait as he left for his bedroom.
Kanta and I were bonded together since our primary school life. He is from Manipur and is the only son of the former Chief Minister of his state. We shared same room in a hostel during our school life in Delhi. Now, he got a job in Kolkata and resided here in my own state. It was hard to get a rented room in the city and so he lived with me till last month when he got a triple room for 8500 rupees per month.
When he told me first about the room, I asked him, "Isn't it very costly? Besides, is not double room enough for you?"
He smiled at my question and said, "There is no other option for me, you knew it too. There is no other room."
"You can still stay with me," I said.
"This new room which I choose is with lot of spaces and I love it. You know how I love spaces."
Yes, Kanta used to love spaces since his childhood days and clean and attractive places as well. His new rooms filled with paintings and portraits in addition to model statues, made from wax and decorated flower vases. Of course, his new room suited well to his love for art. Feeling more thirst for art, I heard from him that he bought a portrait last week from Kolkata Auction House.
My guessed was right; he came out of his bedroom holding a computer keyboard size portrait.
"Are you calling me to show that portrait?" I asked.
"Yes, but not how you were thinking," he said as he sit to the sofa opposite to me. He was so uneasy holding the portrait.
"Not how I was thinking? What do you mean?"
"You were thinking… Never mind. Just see it and I'll tell you why." He handed me the portrait.
It was an oil painting depicting a woman sitting in a pillow and playing a sitar. Her mouth was slightly opened as if she was singing. She was in her teens and wearing a chador. Something was going on my mind by observing the portrait. She seemed to be so familiar to me as if I knew her in real person.
"Do you know whose portrait it is?" Kanta was smiling when he asked this. I wonder why if my guessed work made some strange action.
"What? Do you mean it's someone whom I know?"
"Yes, you knew her well," Kanta said pointing at the portrait on my hand without even staring at it. He continued, "The only thing is that she is now old and you met her when she is in her middle age."
"That means I never knew her when she is this much young." Saying it I monitored the image again and then, I saw those, the moles on her forehead.
"She… She is-
"Yes, Mumtaaz," Kanta helped me.
I knew from the alignment of the moles on her forehead in the shaped of Great Bear Constellation. She is one of the music teachers of my cousin sister who lived in Darjeeling. I've met her before twice during classical music festival in Darjeeling when my cousin had invited me there along with Kanta. She was a great singer during her teen days but due to some health problem, she could not sing anymore. Though she taught sitar, she is living like an ordinary lady. No one in Kolkata knew her as a singer except for someone like me who loves to listen to her songs.
"Hello!' Kanta expelled my pensive remembrance.
"Oh sorry," said I starring at him and then back to the portrait and asked him.
"So, is it Mumtaaz Begum in her teenage, you want to show me?"
"Yes, but listen to me first," Kanta said. He took a long breath slowly.
"Look Ashok, do you know why I bought the portrait?"
I didn't answer but thought that he bought it usual, for the love of art.
He shook his head sideway as if he read my mind. "I didn't buy it for just my room decoration."
I pondered myself, why.
"I was helping her," he continued. "I was trying to save Mumtaaz's life."
I was shocked. "What had happened to her?"
"She was in throat cancer and was critical. Her relatives were selling off her belonging at auction so that the money could use in her treatment. Few people had attended the auction, so I bought the portrait and help her." Kanta's face turned red when he finished it. He gave a glance at the portrait then upon the floor.
I was about to say something but he broke out again.
"But on Tuesday evening, she died in the hospital."
The word stupefied me. I didn't expect such kind of news. She was quite healthy last time we met though she can't sing.
"And I can't do anything," Kanta still carry on but this time he was whimpering.
"I'm sorry Kanta, but you did a good job by buying this portrait. At least you tried to save her," I tried to console him.
"No!" he shouted. "I was a fool by buying it. This thing has begun to haunt in the night. This portrait had begun to sing from the night the owner had died."
I never believed to what he said but I kept the portrait on the table in front of me immediately. I now understand why he called me to his room.
"Explain yourself." I urged him.
He remained silent for a moment then began to narrate again.
"It was on Sunday, I bought the portrait and hung it on this room itself just near the wall clock, there," he pointed his finger to the wall clock on the wall just on my back.
"It was quite normal before Tuesday night. I was sleeping in my bedroom when I heard a soft sitar tune. Then I realize it was not only a tune but also lady's voice reciting some classical verses. It was a lovely voice but hearing it at night was quite strange. I stepped down from my bed and began my inspection for the source." He paused for a moment.
I told him to carry on.
He sighed and continued. "It came from this room. I peeped into the room but I can't see anyone. So I turned the light on by entering the room. No one was there, but the song never stopped. I was frightened and was about to check the time on the clock when I saw it.
"I saw the portrait. It appeared as if Mumtaaz was singing from the portrait itself as the song came from it. I was not sure so leaving my fright aside I stepped toward it. I came closer and closer." Kanta's voice became more panicked. "Then the song suddenly stops when I was just below it."
When he completes his narration, I starred at him skeptically. And so I asked him, "Are you sure the song came from the portrait itself?"
"I don't know but she was willing to sing so much before she dies. Her relatives had told me she wished to sing the day she dies. They said she died in dismay unable to sing. I'm afraid there is possibility that her soul is singing."
I listened to Kanta and didn't argue back. "Did it sing again after the Tuesday night?"
Kanta nodded. "It sang again for the next two night and stopped since Friday. But I didn't dare to check it out at midnight. I kept it on my bedroom inside my suitcase since Friday.
"So it stopped till last night?" I enquired impatiently.
"Yes," he replied. "But I want to verify it again by hanging it again." He paused and added, "With you Ashok, I want to verify it with you together."
I hesitated at first but agreed to him at last. I call up at home and inform that I won't return tonight. Meanwhile he was making tea for both of us. It was a quarter passed six.
We played some games in his laptop to spend the evening. When the clock struck seven, he went to kitchen to make dinner. And so we never discussed about the portrait until we washed the dishes together after the dinner.
"Do you really think it would sing?" I asked him.
"I don't know but considering what had happened till now, I'm sure it would sing," he replied confusingly drying his hand by the towel.
"So, let's hang it up"
We made a close look together at the portrait for the last time. Then I helped myself with a stool and hung it on a nail just near the wall clock. A question built up in my mind.
"Do you know who had painted this portrait?" I interrogated him as we sat on the sofa.
"They told me, it was painted by Anand Ghosh."
The name somehow rang a bell. I've heard it somewhere like newspaper or television. I didn't mention it to Kanta, but he seemed to be confused by my body language.
"Do you know him?" he asked.
"No' but I'm sure he is also from Kolkata."
"Yes, but never heard of him though. He is a good painter. Look, how he had painted this particular one," Kanta said.
We resumed our computer games at Kanta's bedroom. Despite feeling sleepy, our curiosity kept us awake but somehow my eyes tried to glue together.
"You wait here; I'll make coffee for you. I know you're feeling sleepy," Kanta said and went toward the kitchen.
I didn't stop him not because I like coffee but because I was too heavy-eyed to do that. I checked my watch; it was almost a quarter to midnight. The hands on my watch ticked off slowly but without stopping and bringing midnight closer and closer.
"Ashok, Ashok wake up," Kanta shook my shoulder.
"Oh! What's it? Does it sing?"
"Yes, come and see for yourself."
I could hear the soft tune. Soon we reached the drawing room. It was already lighted and so I could see the young Mumtaaz in the portrait. The soft song came from it and… to my horror, the mouth was moving. Her fingers were too moving on the strings of the sitar. The scene changed in the portrait as if it is a television. It has portrayed now the whole scene when it had been painted. I could see the painter as well as the model, Mumtaaz herself. The painter must be Anand Ghosh. My doubt was clear now, he is my acquaintance, but he is very old now. I've met him recently.
Anand Ghosh visited my Baba's Clinic quite a few times in account of his health.
"He is my childhood friend," Baba used to tell me when I asked about him.
"He is a good painter but the world never knew him as he only painted for his interest. And moreover he had quitted the profession at an early age. No one in family or his friends knew the reason," Baba narrated to me further.
When I was begun to be well acquainted with Anand Ghosh, I tried to ask him in which he had never told me the reason. But one day he told me, "If you really want to know son, I'll tell you but not now, sometime later."
From that day onward I've never met him nor did he visit Baba's clinic.
Anand Ghosh, which is on the portrait, was very young. Maybe around twenty five years. He had hair carefully brushed and was, very handsome in his sky-blue shirt and black trousers.
Baba was right; Anand Ghosh was a gifted artist. He was painting by observing the singing model, Mumtaaz who was never at still. She swayed her head, moved her fingers on the string of the sitar and mouth singing- a melodious voice. Anand Ghosh enjoying the song almost finished the portrait. He was smiling at Mumtaaz in flirtating manner. Suddenly the music stopped, so also the painting. Someone had interrupted them.
"Apa," shrieked Mumtaaz dropping the sitar.
A bearded bespectacled man of age, around forty had entered the scene. He was wearing a white trouser along with a long sleeved white cotton shirt and with a cap on the head. His beard, I think was due to mehendi was reddish. He looked like a well respected Muslim man and must be Mumtaaz's father. His sharp eyes were on both Anand and Mumtaaz sternly.
"What is going on here? And what are you doing here?" he asked his daughter in severe tone. "Is this your music class and is he your student?" He pointed at Anand who was standing silently confusing at the acts.
"Stop calling me Apa. You are an undisciplined traitor girl and no longer my daughter anymore. Despite our refusal, you are still meeting him.
"But Apa, he was painting-
"I don't want to hear anything; I know what you were doing. And you painter babu," he turned to Anand. "How many time did I told you not to show your face to my daughter? Stop dreaming about her. Remember she is a Muslim and you, a Hindu."
"But Azad sir, I love her," Anand bowing his head without looking at Azad. "Please marry your daughter to me. I-
"Never! Don't you know who is she? She is a great singer. And what are you?"
"He is an artist." Mumtaaz retorted.
Azad didn't listen to her and continued. "You are nothing as compared to her."
"He is a great artist-
"Get lost from the sight of my daughter-
"But I love him and will marry him."
Azad looked at his daughter from Anand and from her to Anand again and said, "Look, what have you done to my daughter. You have adulterated her mind. So, I'm begging you now, stop thinking about now. I'm wedding her off to my friend's son."
"Anandji please," interrupted Mumtaaz this time and she turned to her father. "Apa, I'll never married that scumbag fellow and I'm not ready to be his second wife."
"But Mumtaaz, I've promised my friend to marry you to his son," said Azad slowly.
"And I promise that I'll die if I am married to him," retorted Mumtaaz.
"And they will kill us both if you are married to your Hindu painter."
"Please stop, please stop," Anand shouted swaying his head and waving his hands violently.
The father and the daughter watch him surprisingly.
He continued, "Mumtaaz, your life is more important to me. I think I can live without marrying you but can't live seeing you die."
He sighed and said slowly, "Mumtaaz, I'm sorry but I think it will be wise for you to marry to your father's choice."
And he turned to Azad, "Sir, I'm ready to leave your daughter. Please make sure she is happy."
Saying this, he stepped toward the portrait, unhooked it from the stand, brought it to Mumtaaz and said, "Mumtaaz, I don't have anything to give you, except for this small portrait in which we spent a lot of meaningful time in painting it."
Azad made a smirk when Anand said so.
But Anand continued, "I thought myself that this portrait will kept our memories fresh even if I don't live with you. But I know now keeping this portrait with me will only hurt me more. So, I'm giving it to you, your singing portrait, my last stroke from my brush. Please accept it."
"No, Anandji no," Mumtaaz cried. "If it is your last portrait, then the song I sang today will be my last song until my soul leaves my body." Saying it, Mumtaaz picked one of the brushes from Anand's pocket and pierced on her throat with its opposite pointed end in a flash.
A few drops of blood flew and settled on the portrait.
"Ashok, Ashok wake up," Kanta shook my shoulder.
"Oh what's it?" I asked him sleepily. It was my entire dream.
"You were sleeping off," he told me. He was holding two cups of coffee at his both hand. I checked my watch; it was half past midnight already. I was sleeping for about fortyfive minutes. Would Kanta believe me when I told him about my dreamy encounter, I guessed myself.
"You missed the whole Drama," Kanta said as he gave the coffee.
"What do you mean?" I enquired surprisingly.
"You won't believe me."
"Just tell me what happen, forget about convincing me."
As usual, Kanta held his breath and said, "When I entered to kitchen to make coffee, he sighed and continued, "I could heard the same song which I used to hear few nights before. I was about to call you but thought finally to confirm the source first. Soon, I reached the drawing room myself and turned the light on. I could see the portrait and the song coming from it."
My interest grew in Kanta's narration more and more. My heart begins to beat faster and I could feel a peculiar sensation in my body.
He carried on, "Then-
"What happen then?" I said. Does the figure inside the portrait began to animate, I thought myself.
"The door bell rang."
"Yes, when I opened the door, a tall and leaned fellow was standing. He was sweaty and was in bit nervousness. He seemed to be running here to my door and was surprised as I opened the door immediately after the bell rang.
"He introduced himself as Aditya Ghosh, nephew of Anand Ghosh. He asked me if I could accompany him to the next floor above immediately. He also told me to bring the portrait which was hanging near the wall clock. He said his uncle told him to do so.
"When I looked upon the portrait, it was still singing but the scene does not surprise my visitor. So I carefully brought down the portrait and to my horror, I realized the portrait didn't sing at all. The soft song now came from the wall.
"So without making any word against him, we climbed the next floor together. I'm sorry I didn't call you there. Then we entered a room, which is just above my room, where I saw few persons standing around a bed. On the bed laid a very old man, tall and thin. Aditya told me, he is Anand Ghosh and is sick. He is more critical since Mumtaaz's death.
"Anand Ghosh was playing Mumtaaz's songs in an audio tape player. Aditya further told me he had been playing that every midnight since Mumtaaz's death and the routine stopped for two days when his health was very much critical.
"All my false idea washed away; the song which I used to hear few nights before came from the audio player, Ashok," Kanta told me.
"So what had happened to the portrait?" I asked him curiously.
"Oh yes, on seeing the portrait on my hand, Anand Ghosh kept the player aside still playing and stretched his arm to the portrait. I stepped toward him and gave the portrait. He took and looked at it lovingly. Tears rolled upon his wrinkled face from the sullen eyes. He embraced it and made a silent cry and then he laid still. He did not move anymore but still, the music conyinued to played,"
Kanta finished his narration and asked me, "Do you know who Anand Ghosh was?"
"Yes, he was an artist and he was in love with Mumtaaz Begum. But due to the difference in their religion, both of them ended their life separately and sadly." Kanta was surprised at my reply so I told him the whole stories which I saw in my dream of the singing portrait.
**** Team E-pao Notes: This Short story was earlier webcasted in e-pao.net in parts and was not complete (as per the original writer) - hence we are webcasting in full!
* Kangabam Ranjan Singh contributes to e-pao.net for the first time. The writer can be contacted ranjankangabam(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was webcasted on August 09, 2011.
* Comments posted by users in this discussion thread and other parts of this site are opinions of the individuals posting them (whose user ID is displayed alongside) and not the views of e-pao.net. We strongly recommend that users exercise responsibility, sensitivity and caution over language while writing your opinions which will be seen and read by other users. Please read a complete Guideline on using comments on this website.