The Starving Artist

God had generously bestowed talent on Ashmita, but he had not been so generous with good fortune.

When Ashmita was a child, she lost both her parents in a car accident. Ashmita was nine then. And her younger brother Sameer was just over a year old. 

Ashmita had just returned from school that day. From the gate of the compound, she saw neighbors and relatives, all dressed in white, standing in the compound of their home. They were talking in low voices. She tentatively approached the group and spotted her mama (uncle/mother’s brother). He had been in a deep conversation with another man. On seeing her, he abruptly halted that conversation and walked to her in his usual brisk manner. He beckoned his wife, Ashmita’s mami (aunt), who was standing nearby with a group of women. Mami quickly came towards them and putting her hand on Ashmita’s shoulders led her inside the building to their living room. 

Another aunt was sitting nearby with Sameer in her arms. 

“It was an accident. They were driving when a child ran into their path. They made a sharp turn to avoid hitting the child and ran into a tree. They were gone on the spot.”

Ashmita listened in stunned silence. But she didn’t make a sound or even cry. At least not in the first few hours as her little mind was processing what just happened.

She looked at Sameer. He stretched his arms towards his didi and she reached to pick him up and hold him close. 

That day Ashmita became more of a mother and less of a sister to the chubby little toddler. She learned to bury her pain and sorry deep within her tiny frame.

The following days were a blur. After the cremation, Ashmita and Sameer moved to their mama and mami’s home in a nearby town. Their own home was rented out to strangers and the rental income was to be the means to pay for the two children’s upkeep.

Other than Sameer, the only other thing that warmed Ashmita’s little heart was art. She loved drawing and painting. The difficulties of her life all faded into the background when Ashmita immersed herself in a sketch or painting. She started with simple sketches of objects and people. Over time she expanded her skills to painting with watercolors and oil paints. She experimented with ceramics and pottery. Wood carving and sculpture too. 

Ashmita never felt much joy on her birthday. If anything, it made her a little despondent to think that those who gave her life, her parents, were not there to celebrate it. Still, for Sameer’s sake, and her mama-mami, she would hide the melancholy. She would accept the gift from her mama-mami, usually a floral envelope filled with her birthday money. She would put on the new dress that her masi would send her unfailingly each year and cut the proverbial birthday cake. This was the usual way birthdays were celebrated in that household. There really was nothing to be unhappy about. But joy evaded Ashmita, especially on her birthdays. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t change that.

On this her eighteenth birthday, something was different, There was a faint stirring in the air. Ashmita felt that way more than once. And she saw glimpses of her life to come. Glimpses of her childhood home, where she would live with Sameer. The empty space would be filled by the brother-sister duo and their belongings. Their voices would echo in the rooms, and their pictures on the wall

On the door, a nameplate reads ‘Ashmita and Sameer Shah’. 

These dreams of a home had first started appearing to her soon after her sixteenth birthday. She had tried to push them away thinking it would never happen. But they persisted. They haunted her day and night, appearing with increasing clarity with each passing day.

On her birthday morning, Ashmita showered and dressed in the pale blue Lucknowi suit that masi had sent from Nashik. When she looked in the mirror, Ashmita felt like she barely knew the girl who looked back. Her reflection looked so much more confident than she felt. 

Today was the day that she would make her ask. Ask to move out. Into a home of her own. Hers and Sameer’s.

She entered the living room, where her mama was sitting on the couch reading Gujarati Samachar as was his usual morning practice. Mami was in the kitchen preparing his tea and the plate of ganthiya that he routinely ate each morning.

“Jai Shree Krishna, mama”, Ashmita said softly.

Mama looked up and greeted her in his loud voice. 

“Jai Shree Krishna. Av, av. Come sit by me, Ashu.”, he said kindly.

When Ashmita was seated, he reached into his pocket to pull out the envelope that contained her birthday money. 

“Many happy returns of the day”, he said warmly as he put the envelope into her hands.

“Thank you, mama”. Ashmita said looking at his kind face.

Mama, I wanted to ask you something”, Ashmita began when her mami walked in with the tray of tea and ganthiya.

“Happy Birthday, Asmita’, she smiled. “The dress looks good on you.”

“Thank you, mami”, Ashmita said.

“Make sure to wear it today when Kantibhai and his family come for tea. Their son Vinod just returned from the States and has joined his family business. They are looking for a girl for him. We are old friends so they want Vinod to meet Ashmita first”

Ashmita looked at her mama to see if he knew and he nodded to indicate that he agreed with what mami was saying. 

“We can’t get a better match for you, Ashmita”, mami continued to speak as she laid down the tray and handed mama the cup of tea.

Bol ne beta, you were saying something?”, mama prodded.

After only a moment’s hesitation, Ashmita said in a low but steady voice.

“I want to move to Mumbai.”

“Move to Mumbai?”, he asked incredulously. 

And the very next moment, “Do you have any problem here? Has someone said something?”. He turned to look enquiringly at mami, who shook her head to indicate, she had no idea.

“It is not like that mama.” Ashmita continued.

“I want to live in mom and dad’s house”

“But dear what will you do in Mumbai? And everything is so expensive there, how will you afford it?”

“I have thought about it. I will teach art in Savita Vidya Kendra, the school I attended before I moved to Pune. 

“Before mom and dad died”, the words hung unsaid in the room.

Aloud Ashmita continued, “I have spoken to Gargi ma’am. She told me that the Art Teacher’s position has been open in the school for some time. And they would be happy to accept alumni for that role.”

“You have thought of it all. And I am only just learning about it.” Mama said with a slight catch in his voice.

Ashmita reached out to touch his shoulder lightly. 

“I am not unhappy here. You know it. But I feel like a part of me is left behind in Mumbai. And more importantly, I want to stand on my own two feet. Live in my own home, pay for my own expenses, and take care of Sameer too. In all my years here, I had planned and expected that for when I grow up. That Sammer and I will go back to live where mom and dad did.”

“Who will take care of him, when you go to work?” he asked and then immediately answered himself.

“You will probably have him attend Savita Vidya Kendra too? So you can both travel together.”

Ashmita clarified that ‘travel together’, in this case, meant a fifteen-minute walk.

“But Mumbai is expensive beta. I am not sure if a teacher’s salary will cover all your expenses. You have to think of Sameer’s education too. If he picks an expensive education after his high school how will it all work?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it mama. You have done so much for Sameer and me. Let me take care of our life now.”

“I want you to think of the alternative too, Ashmita” mami spoke up.

“You could marry into a good, prosperous family, like Kantibhai’s, and live comfortably. You would not need to work to pay for your expenses,”

“And we will take care of Sameer”, mami continued. “Think about it, beta. There is really no need for you to struggle”

Just then the doorbell rang and Ashmita got up to open the door.

She stepped back to allow their visitors into the living room. Kantibhai and his rotund wife, Shaila ben walked in followed by a tall man of about 20. Vinod had grown so tall since their childhood days when they played cricket in the building compound.

“Kanti bhai, avo avo. Welcome!”, mama rose to greet his old friend.

“We were to come by the evening train but Vinod suggested we just drive to Pune now that the highways are so good. So we got here earlier than planned.”

Kain vandho nahi (no problem)” mami piped in.

Beso (please sit)”, she waved them to the sofa.

When the visitors were comfortably seated, mami got up to bring refreshments. Ashmita rose to follow her but mami waved her back to her seat.

Bes ne. You haven’t met Vinod for so many years. You two will have a lot to catch up on.” she said with a glint in her eyes.

Ashmita settled back on the sofa but didn’t say anything.

The elders began an animated conversation about their common friends while Vinod and Ashmita sat in silence.

The topic then turned to Vinod. 

“Our Vinod is such a susheel boy. Even after living abroad for 3 years, he hasn’t forgotten his culture. He is back in Mumbai so we can find him a good Indian girl.”, Shaila ben smiled in Ashmita’s direction.

“We wish Vinod the very best of luck. I am sure he will find a wonderful wife very soon.” mama said.

Then he continued with a twinkle in his eyes

“Our Ashmita is going to Mumbai to be a starving artist”, he chuckled. Ashmita looked at him with surprise and pleasure as he diverted the conversation to other topics.

The conversation continued to flow among the elders. As old friends who met after a long time, they had a lot to catch up on.

Ashmita only half listened to what was being said. 

She was thinking of beginning work on the nameplate “Ashmita & Sameer Shah”. She could see it hanging on the door. The names were carved in deep rosewood with a gold trim.

Several years of feeling like a long-staying guest had finally brought Ashmita to her eighteenth birthday and her first job. For the first time in her life, Ashmita had a home of her own.

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