It is possible to feel utterly at home in the world but this is only because we have laid claim to a small space – a few rooms, certain streets, a familiar town at best – over which our habitual wanderings create grooves that we can comfortably slip into. In truth, the world is a strange and horrifying place, as Mrs Ali discovered when she left her apartment and, for the first time, boarded a plane to Europe to participate in the opening of the art-show in which her paintings were to feature.
It started on the plane. On being asked if she wanted lime with her tea, she smiled and reached for a slice from the bowl that the steward held out. He jerked away as if bitten. ‘Tongs please, tongs please,’ he admonished, and Mrs Ali dropped the slice back in shame and confusion.
She worried about the incident while the other passengers fell asleep around her. Surely she was, in some fundamental sense, uncivilised if she could not make the connection between a pair of tongs and a slice of lemon. She thought of her husband and wished he weren’t dead so that she could blame him. As things stood, she only had herself to blame. She took silent revenge on the steward by imagining him ignorant of much about life too – the paintings of Pablo Picasso, for instance. I am going to Europe to see the paintings of Pablo Picasso, she thought. The ring of that sentence comforted her and she grew drowsy. The man next to her snored in exactly the blaring way Mr Ali used to. Every time she drifted off to sleep, she woke up anxious from the dream that she had confused this man with her husband and leaned her lolling head on his shoulder.
Mrs Ali lived alone and occasionally went out to buy art supplies, shop for groceries, visit the doctor in connection with her various minor ailments, chat with her old classmate Sara. Sara travelled all over the world, but Mrs Ali scoffed at the idea of going anywhere. Her sons came to visit her bearing packets of the things associated with the cities they lived in – filter coffee and crystallised white pumpkin, leather handbags and pearl necklaces. She gave them paintings in return. She was not sure what her children – grown men with children of their own – did with her canvases. She and Mr Ali used to visit them when he was alive but lately she was more and more reluctant to disrupt her routine. Painting was part of it. She didn’t paint in order to get somewhere. She painted to stay where she was. Most of what she did remained in her study. Some she gave away as gifts – to Sara, to her sons, to the odd charity whose fundraisers she never attended.
It seemed to Mrs Ali that the speed of her plane was greater than the speed at which the earth moved because even though they had flown for eight hours and it should, by rights, now be daybreak, outside it was still pitch dark. One of her sons had, over the phone, tried explaining jet lag to her but the concept was confusing. When she made her way through the plane’s shadowy aisle to the bathroom and there discovered dark stains on her underwear, she felt, in her befuddled state, that this premature bleeding had something to do with the fact that time behaved weirdly on flights. She had missed her previous period and the next cycle was not due till the following week, so she was unprepared. There were only male stewards around; help could not be sought. She made do with a wad of toilet paper, woke up the snoring man again, and slipped back into her seat. I am going to Europe to see the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, she thought.
Her own paintings had already reached. She imagined them lying in their casing on the floor of the empty gallery. The thought that they had travelled so far amazed Mrs Ali. After Mr Ali died and her children left home, she tended to spend long hours just sitting at a desk in the study and looking out of the window. Slowly, unobtrusively, she set up canvases in the room, moved her collection of art books there, started spending afternoons playing with her brushes and paints. The memory of the art classes she had taken as a teenager – eventually abandoned because everyone painted better than her – did not embarrass her any more. She painted the life that moved right under her nose – women foraging for firewood in the overgrown empty lots between apartments, the names of to-be married couples written with dyed petals on giant arches outside the wedding hall near her home, a park at closing time with the last child refusing to disembark from the last see-saw, a fruit-seller sitting beside small hills of differently-coloured mangoes.
Mrs Ali had a fat stack of paintings that no one had seen when Frida came to visit.
As soon as she reached the airport from where she was to take a connecting flight, Mrs Ali went in search of something to stanch the flow between her legs. Window after window was lit up with things made of leather and wood and satin and wool and plastic, not to mention the supermarket filled with perfumes and cheeses and liquor, but nowhere that simple rectangle of cotton that she needed. In a small store selling magazines and candy, she said conspiratorially to the salesgirl – sanitary pads, you know. But the girl did not want to be cast in the role of a sympathetic sister, and she didn’t seem to understand much English besides. It took some time but Mrs Ali was finally pointed to a shelf with boxes of tampons.
The instructions on the package were in Español, Deutsche and Francaise, and in the bathroom cubicle she got her hands messy with blood. She’d never used tampons before. She imagined that the women in the loo, combing their hair, fixing their lips, had softened into that sociable attitude that women in bathrooms can sometimes have. But like the salesgirl, the women in these foreign bathrooms were beautiful and aloof. They tore paper towels out of the dispenser with a swift violence, gazed at themselves coldly in the mirror without catching one another’s eyes, and then walked out, banging doors shut behind them with a sound that made Mrs Ali want to cry. She was left there, still superfluously washing her hands, the tampon hurting her.
Soon after that she missed her flight.
The airline on which she had travelled the first leg was not going to take her all the way to her destination. She had a single ticket for the whole journey, which did not make this amply clear so she stood for an hour in the wrong line. By the time she discovered her mistake, found the right queue and reached the desk, check-in had closed and her plane was taxiing down the runway.
Mrs Ali wandered away from the counter, too dazed to argue. She collapsed on a bucket seat, the tampon tearing at her insides, and tried not to stare at an Indian family who, bored by their long wait, had broken into song – they were actually singing a film song loudly, oblivious of the hushed airport and the disapproving looks of their neighbours. Their uninhibited crudity gave her courage and she searched out a pay-phone and called Frida with the change the girl at the store had given her.
Embarrassed by the confusion over the ticket, she ended up being brusque when she’d just wanted to apologise. ‘I’ll be there tomorrow,’ she kept repeating, as Frida, on her way to the airport at the other end, asked with concern if she was okay. Mrs Ali used up all her change and shrank from the idea of walking again through the vast airport with the tampon chaffing her, searching for the store so she could buy something else and get more change. So she didn’t call Sara even though that would have comforted her more than speaking to Frida. Instead she asked herself – why am I here?
She thought, anxiously this time, of her paintings. Five not very large canvases lying, vulnerable, on the floor of a gallery in a strange city, and she, cast adrift in this airport. I am going to Europe to see the paintings of Paul Cezanne, she repeated to herself till she felt calm again.
Sara was with her journalist husband at a party full of people who called each other ‘darling’ and drank daiquiris, when she met a European art curator called Frida. She was in India sourcing work for a show of contemporary Indian women’s art. ‘Oh, my friend paints too,’ said Sara innocently, even though her husband was gesturing discreetly, trying to get her to shut up. Sara didn’t understand that this was not about bored housewives – this was about art that could represent India abroad, about artists who could out-savvy foreign art curators. But Frida was interested in Mrs Ali’s art; she was interested in everything everyone told her – as she saw it, this was the only way she was going to fulfil her mission in a week.
‘Can you take me to her tomorrow?’ asked Frida, seizing upon the two unfilled hours in her diary.
When they got to Mrs Ali’s apartment the next day, Frida strode purposefully through the house with Sara making apologetic faces at Mrs Ali behind her.
The canvases had grown dusty and Mrs Ali hadn’t cleaned them. Frida studied them intently, making comments on the marvellousness of a particular blue or the cunning way the painter had left a certain face outside the frame. She looked and looked as if the canvases were not still marks of paint on cloth but a living theatre that was speaking to her. Finally she picked five, smiled glowingly at Mrs Ali, congratulated her, and explained that all the artists would be flown across for the opening of the show.
‘She doesn’t deal with the public much,’ said Sara. Frida’s expression suggested that she didn’t understand.
Mrs Ali said, ‘You see, I paint mostly for myself. It’s like nature. So much happens when no one’s looking. So many pictures are made for no one to see.’
Frida was still mystified. ‘But your paintings speak for themselves. You don’t have to do anything. It’s a holiday – you meet other artists, visit museums, enjoy the city.’
Sara and Mrs Ali stood shoulder to shoulder looking ashamed, so Frida left them, saying they must call her the following day with a final decision.
Mrs Ali was distraught.
‘But think of all the lovely museums…’ said Sara.
‘I don’t want people asking me questions about my work,’ said Mrs Ali.
‘You’ll be able to see the originals of all the art that’s in your books.’
‘How can she just walk into someone’s house and make demands like that?’
‘You will actually get to stand in the same room as a Salvador Dali.’
‘Dali is overrated. Max Ernst was the greatest Surrealist.’
Sara went directly to the computer and searched the Net for information on where Ernst’s paintings were housed. Three were currently on display in a museum in the city to which Mrs Ali had been invited. The following day, Sara called Frida on behalf of her friend and informed her that Mrs Ali was glad to be part of the exhibition and was looking forward to travelling to Europe.
Mrs Ali spent the night on a couch under an escalator in the airport and woke up with a clear diagnosis of her condition – menopause. She had forgotten that she was fifty-two and it was time. Her body would for a while now behave exactly as it liked.
When she landed a few hours later, Frida was waiting. She hugged Mrs Ali, took charge of her luggage and led her to a taxi, talking without pause about the arrangements for the opening, while Mrs Ali looked distractedly out of the window. Frida seemed to exist only for her show, while Mrs Ali saw a white stone bridge shading into grey water and felt that the precision of these colours had been excerpted into reality from a painting by Henri Matisse. She saw the almost flat profile of a teenager on a skateboard and thought of the narrow black metal heads of Alberto Giacometti. She saw how each of the opaque windows of a bank reflected the afternoon light differently and remembered a painting by Fernand Léger called 'City' in which all the colourful bustle has been cut up into a collage where everything is happening not just at the same time but on the same plane. These sights made the world feel a little less strange. Europe was exactly like Europe.
The next day, Mrs Ali met the other artists at breakfast, all of them curious to know what had happened to delay her. They were younger than her: a gang of relaxed women with square glasses and funky earrings who smiled kindly and then returned to their own talk – a babble of unrelated questions and comments.
‘Do you know which local artists are coming for the opening?’
‘I expected to be put up in a much nicer hotel.’
‘We’re apparently going to this gorgeous place for dinner afterwards.’
‘That store across the street has really good cheese… and cheap.’
‘Do you know when we’ll get our daily allowance?’
‘Frida seems to have done no PR, there’s absolutely nothing in the papers about the show.’
‘Is anyone going to the Museum of Modern Art?’ Mrs Ali asked hesitatingly.
But all of them had either visited the museum on their earlier trips to the city or gone there the previous day. Mrs Ali was given a map and many instructions on how to get to the museum and then find her way back for evening’s event. So, despite the hot flashes she was suddenly experiencing and the heavy flow of her period, Mrs Ali set off. She had come to Europe, after all, to see the paintings.
When she got off the metro and climbed up to the street where the museum was, Mrs Ali noticed two men sitting among the otherwise empty tables of an outdoor café, a bottle of wine and two half-filled glasses between them. The wind tugged at their ties and ruffled their hair, yet they sat there in companionable silence as if this was a sunny afternoon by the side of a lake, not an overcast windy morning on a busy street, with people rushing past and cars whooshing by.
The chatter of the other artists at breakfast had soothed Mrs Ali. She admired their ease in a foreign country and liked the quick bond they’d established unlike the women in the airport loo. But the image of these two men touched something deeper in her. She tried to understand it as she stood there waiting to cross the road, the wind tearing at her sari.
She thought of how, after Mr Ali died, she’d stopped meeting all those dozens of people she and her husband would, as a couple, entertain and be entertained by. Everyone accepted her withdrawal as a prolonged, perhaps permanent, period of mourning. That’s how she thought of it herself. Later, when she started painting, she would shut the door to the study even though there was no one in the house. And she always gave away her paintings with a small sheepish laugh. Whereas these two men had so confidently set up their own small island of beauty right there in the middle of the street.
Mrs Ali returned to a small painting called 'Imaginary Summer Night' by Max Ernst. She had done the rounds of the museum. She had seen: huge black violets simmering against a violet background. An installation of ordinary objects enlarged to many times their size so that an electric plug took on, according to a note by its creator, the aspect of a cathedral. A painting of the shadow of a man’s hand holding a vivid green plant instead of its shadow. Photographs of people’s personal belongings taken by an artist who had worked incognito as a cleaning lady in a hotel. A very child-like drawing of a child done by an adult. A roomful of silver – tea services, jewellery, medals – flattened by a road roller and hung from the ceiling with invisible threads.
She lost track of time gazing at each of these artworks, yet it was the Ernst painting that drew her back – a hollowed out, unreally large moon standing over a cityscape of looming black high-rises. In one corner of the room a gaggle of teenagers was being lectured to about Dali’s 'The Enigma of William Tell' and Mrs Ali moved away, realising she ought to leave to be in time for the opening. Instead she wandered through the museum, then returned for the third time to the now empty room and a renewed contemplation of the Ernst.
It was then that she felt something trickle down her leg. When she lifted her sari there was a fat line of blood making its leisurely way down her calf to her ankle, and then over the heel of her sandal to the floor. She looked around but the other person in the room had his back to her, and the guard, who had been watchful when the restless teenagers were there, had now wandered off to the adjoining room. Mrs Ali pulled out a tissue, swabbed her leg and then the floor and straightened quickly.
She started towards the exit, trying to remember where she’d seen the signs to the bathrooms. Then she stopped and returned to the painting. Another warm trickle had now begun its downward descent, unhindered by the thick protective layers put there to absorb it. Mrs Ali was unable to move. The other visitor had left the room but a couple with an audio guide had taken his place and they spent inordinately long before each work. She pulled down her sari so that it brushed the floor, and stood there while blood dripped from her, staring at the painting till it seemed to encompass a whole universe – the lives lived within those buildings, the history of the city that lay beyond, the ancient moon.
Finally the couple left and Mrs Ali tore out a whole wad of tissues and started to wipe. She looked at the exit but the guard still hadn’t returned and, in a moment of what can only be described as madness, she lifted the bloodstained wad and gently touched the Max Ernst moon with it. It left a faint smudge brown smudge which looked like it had always been there.
A little later, Mrs Ali made her way to the café where she had seen the two men, and she sat outside in the late summer dusk waiting for the waitress to bring her a bottle of wine. They would all be together now, chattering while their artwork stood by silently. Soon they would begin to ask each other about Mrs Ali and wonder what it was that was holding her up.
This story first appeared in Elle (December 2008).
Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels Neti, Neti and Lunatic in my Head and the book of poems Street on the Hill.