Black and Blue
To the villagers, he was known as Chacha Tehseen. Tehseen Shah was respected throughout the village. People he barely knew greeted him whenever he made the daily trek from his home to the mosque.
Chacha Tehseen was a tall, burly man with a head full of gray hair, brimming with ideas. His artwork was printed every week in a local Sindhi newspaper. The villagers often referred to him as the mad artist since he mostly stayed in his home, painting on whatever he could find.
There was something else about Tehseen Shah. He usually sat hunched over, a somber expression on his face, closed off to the world. Chacha Tehseen had no enemies and no friends. People said that he once had a wife and two sons but that his wife had died in mysterious circumstances and his sons had moved on to greener pastures.
What they didn’t know was that there was someone Chacha Tehseen often talked to. Her name was Saman and she was nine years old. She would sometimes stop by Chacha Tehseen’s house and talk to him for hours on end. He wasn’t quite sure if he liked her or not. She was just a child but she asked him questions that he could not quite answer.
“Don’t you have children, Chacha?” she asked him one day. This was a sore subject for Chacha Tehseen. He wasn’t particularly fond of his children.
“No,” he answered curtly.
“Are you lying?”
Chacha Tehseen was slightly annoyed by her constant intrusion but completely astonished at how perceptive she was.
“I’m too old to lie,” he murmured as he dipped his paintbrush in a pot of red paint and stroked it across the canvas. He wasn’t yet sure of what he was painting. But Saman often inspired him and he believed the image would come to him soon.
“You can’t be too old to lie!” Saman exclaimed. “That’s a lie!”
He mixed white paint with brown and brushed it across the canvas in a shape that resembled a triangle. So he was creating a person today. But just one person? Chacha Tehseen felt that there should be one more.
“You are too young to understand some things,” Chacha Tehseen explained to her.
She started at him defiantly. “I can understand just as well as you can!”
“You should go home. Your mother must be worried,” Chacha Tehseen said. He was tired of her company. He had never been fond of children, so her constant intrusion was beginning to irritate him. Perhaps it was time he began keeping his door locked.
“I don’t have a mother,” Saman said. She dipped her finger in a pot of yellow paint and stared at it. Chacha Tehseen’s wife had been immensely fond of the color yellow. She would wear a yellow braid and yellow bangles and a yellow kameez.
“Don’t touch my paint!” Chacha Tehseen warned her.
“It’s my paint too!” she said.
Chacha Tehseen frowned at her. Children could be very ignorant at times.
“Go home, chokri,” he told her. Saman laughed and he felt more annoyed than ever. He wanted her to leave. But what are wants in the face of reality?
“My baba says you killed your wife.”
Chacha Tehseen flung the paintbrush, covered in yellow paint, across the room.
“You will have to clean that,” she said calmly, eyeing the little blobs of yellow sprinkled across the floor.
Yellow. Yellow. Yellow.
The color haunted him. Tehseen Shah felt a little on edge. There were so many memories flooding his mind after years of trying to suppress them. But there they were, playing in front of his eyes like a movie. He remembered Masooma’s face as clearly as his own. She had a long mane of black hair and almond shaped brown eyes. There was a jagged scar that marred her left cheek.
She didn’t always have that scar, but whenever her face popped into his head, there it was. He tried to forget it. He tried to imagine her without it but it was always there.
A little after the birth of his second son, Tehseen Shah had come home with his eyes on fire. He felt the anger pounding in his ears. Earlier in the day, he had polished off about six glasses of hard liquor and a small amount of heroin. He wasn’t a drug addict but he didn’t mind the occasional dose. When he had knocked on the door in the middle of the night, Masooma had opened it with a baby in her arms and her hair cascading down her back.
“Is this how you open the door, you randi?” he had confronted her. If he hadn’t been so drunk, he would have noticed the fear in her eyes. He had loved her, despite everything.
“I knew it would be you…” she had mumbled.
Tehseen Shah did not remember all of it. When he woke up the next morning he saw his wife had a deep red scar running across her cheek. He didn’t ask and she didn’t say anything. She gave him his glass of milk and a panadol like he had asked her for.
As the sun went down, Masooma set down a plate of fried potatoes in front of him. They ate in silence except for the cries of his youngest son.
She still didn’t say anything.
“I’m going out,” he told her. She handed him his shawl and his cap. He wrapped it around his shoulders and set off to play poker with his friends. He could see that Masooma wanted to stop him. Perhaps she was too afraid to utter a word.
Tehseen Shah returned to the present. His canvas was still in front of him. He dipped his paintbrush in a pot of blue paint and painted over the brown triangular face with quick strokes. He hadn’t painted the eyes yet but he knew what color they would be; black, but the whites of the man’s eyes would be red.
Saman picked up the paintbrush that he had thrown earlier and handed it back to Chacha Tehseen.
“Jazakallah,” he whispered. He was almost ashamed of his behavior but he told himself Saman was an irritating child and he was a hot-tempered man.
“Chacha,” Saman began. “Why is the man’s skin blue?”
“I suppose, it shows his manhood,” he said. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure what blue represented. He wasn’t even sure what manhood was meant to be. So many different people had so many different definitions of the word and he was lost.
“My baba thinks your paintings are a waste of time.”
“I don’t care what your baba thinks!”
But Tehseen Shah did care. He cared about what people thought. He knew people whispered about him behind his back and they wondered why he was so morose, why he was painting all the time, why he was so melancholy.
Tehseen Shah believed he was meant to be melancholy. He had found a wonderful companion in Masooma. She was a beautiful woman who understood him perfectly but her life was a tragedy. Tehseen Shah often returned home drunk and Masooma would quietly endure the pain his alcoholism had bought in their lives.
He drank more often. And he began to consume heroin. But it wasn’t his fault. What was he to do if heroin was cheaper than water? An artist could never earn much anyway. What was he to do?
Two days before Eid ul Azha, Masooma asked him whether they would be sacrificing an animal.
“Yes,” Tehseen Shah said confidently. “I’m painting a house. It’s good money.”
So when the deal fell through, Tehseen Shah procured two hundred grams of heroin and sold it. He needed the money. There was a goat to be bought and an Eid to be celebrated. He comforted himself in the knowledge that the money was meant to make his family happy. Besides, even if he didn’t sell drugs, others would.
He bought a goat and took it home. His sons ran towards him. They hugged him and Masooma smiled. For one day, they were truly happy. He watched as his sons fed the goat. Masooma cooked rice and daal and the boys complained as their parents laughed. It was almost picturesque.
Until the police showed up at his door and tied him down. Masooma looked broken and their sons cried. Tehseen Shah remained tight lipped and never uttered a word.
Chacha Tehseen dipped the paintbrush in a pot of silver paint and stroked it from one end of the canvas to the other. Saman looked on with sheer amazement.
“Is that supposed to be a braid?” She asked him. He nodded in response.
“It’s very beautiful,” she whispered.
Masooma had often tied her long hair in a braid that she draped across her shoulder. Tehseen Shah had often admired the sweet scent of her hair. He had run his fingers through it so often that he could still feel the silkiness of her hair. Until the day he felt so angry at her that he had snipped it off. Oddly enough, he couldn’t even remember what he was angry about.
The woman in Chacha Tehseen’s painting had big beautiful eyes. He painted the irises brown with specks of black and red to show the reflection of the torture she was staring at.
“She looks very sad,” Saman said.
“She is sad,” Chacha Tehseen murmured.
His wife had been happy the day she died. Masooma had served him an omelet with a paratha. The taste had grown bitter in his memory.
“What will you do today?” Masooma asked him in a cheerful voice.
“The usual,” Tehseen Shah responded.
“Get some food for the kids on your way back,” she said.
“And for you?”
“I’ll manage,” she said with a small smile. It was the last time she smiled at him.
He had come home very late that day. His sons had fallen asleep on the charpai in the courtyard which was good since he had forgotten to get dinner for them. He assumed that Masooma would have fed them. He entered the house in search of her. He found her sitting on the sofa with her head rolled back and her eyes wide open and wet with tears. He saw the scar on her cheek and he saw her chin length hair that had once been much longer.
He had tried to shake her in hopes that she would wake up but she never did. He would never forget the sight of her beautiful hands lying limp in a pool of blood. And he cried for the life he could have had and the love he had lost.
Chacha Tehseen took a step back and looked at his finished painting. In front of him stood a silver haired woman and behind her stood a blue man with bloodshot eyes. His blue fingers were wrapped around a knife.
He turned around to see Saman admiring the painting.
“What do you think?” he asked her.
She smiled at him. He could see a glint of mischievousness in her eyes. He ignored her, hoping she would leave. Her smile made him feel a sense of déjà vu.
“You’ve painted me beautifully,” she whispered.
“What?” he immediately flipped his head toward her but she was gone, almost as if she vanished into thin air.