When her grandmother died two summers back of a heart attack, Ruchira spent an entire week in bed. She refused to go to India for the funeral, though maybe she should have, because she dreamed over and over what she had thought she couldn't bear to look at. The hard orange thrust of the flames of the cremation pyre, the hair going first, in a short, manic burst of light, the skin warping like wood, the eyeballs melting, her grandmother's face blackening and collapsing in on itself with terrible finality. It didn't help that her parents told her that the event, which occurred in a modern crematorium rather than the traditional burning ghats, was quick and sanitary and invisible.
She started the paintings soon after that.
"It's a series," Ruchira stammered now, speaking too fast. "Mythic images from Indian legends. I've only managed to complete three so far. The first is Hanuman, the monkey god, carrying the magic herb that can bring you back to life--you know the story? When Lakshman was hurt in battle, and Hanuman plucked up an entire mountain because he wasn't sure which herb he was supposed to bring back -?" She'd painted Hanuman in purples and blues and looped his tail in an elegant, gentlemanly manner over an arm. In his right hand he held a miniature mountain the way one might hold a box of chocolates when paying a visit. She had given him a human face, her father's (unexpectedly, she'd turned out to be good at portraits), his expression of puzzled kindness. She remembered the ecstatic day when the idea had first swooped down on her like a taloned angel. Now the painting looked fanciful, garish. It made her blush.
"But it's brilliant. They're all brilliant," Biren said. "An amazing concept. I've never seen anything like it. This next one, isn't that the magic cow, what's her name, who possesses all the riches of the world-"
"Kama dhenu," she supplied shyly, delighted by his recognition. The cow in the painting reclined on a cloud, her chin resting on demure, folded forelegs. A shower of gold coins fanned out from her hooves, carpeting the earth below. Her white wings were as tidily pleated as a widow's sari. Around her head, words from old stories arched in a rainbow. Long long ago. Beyond the fields of Tepantar. Once there was a poor brahmin who had a clever wife. And the snake carried a jewel on its head. Her stubborn, alert face was that of Ruchira's grandmother.
By the time they got to the third painting, it was too late to go to the concert and Ruchira no longer stammered. With precise gestures she explained to Biren that the huge eagle-creature was Jatayu, who died trying to save Sita from the evil ten-headed Ravana as he was abducting her. In Ruchira's painting Jatayu's feathers were saffron and white and green, the colors of the Indian flag. His face was that of her grandfather, whom she only knew from sepia photographs because he died long before she was born--in the Andaman prisons, where the British used to send freedom fighters. Her grandmother had told her the story. They had caught him making bombs, he'd been part of a conspiracy to assassinate Lord Minto, the hated governor-general. In Ruchira's painting, Ravana, pasty-faced and with a prominent overbite, was clearly British, and Jatayu had knocked off all his bowler hats with one giant swipe of his claw.
"I love it!" said Biren. "I just love it!"
They kissed their first kiss soon after that. He tasted of salted sunflower seeds (his secret weakness, she would learn later). His tongue was thin and pointy and intelligent. She doesn't remember leading him to the bedroom, only that they were there already, lying on the crumpled blue bedcover, his fingers, her fingers, the small hollow inside his elbow and the vein pulsing in it. She thought she could see a faint radiation of heat where their skins touched. Did his hair smell of lemons? In her hurry she tore a loose button off his shirt. (Later they would laugh about that.) The back of his ear-stud rasped her hand, raising a weal. He brought it to his mouth and licked it. The small mirrors embroidered into the bedcover pressed their cool disks against her bare back, then against his. His nipples were brown and hard as apple seeds in her mouth.
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