AGNI Online
  Subscribe      Donate    Stay Connected    Submit      About Us  

The Portrait

by Krishangini

translated from the Tamil by Padma Narayanan

The motion was passed unanimously without any research into who had first proposed the idea. Efforts to convert the grandfather, who could not be seen in flesh and blood, into a picture and have him on the wall were now under way. In those days, the enlargement of photographs was impossible, and the only method available was to have a portrait of the man painted. As a first step, arrangements were made to find a small photo-print.

The decision was made to paint a life-size portrait by isolating him from a group photograph taken in the school he had established, and a painter was approached to take up the assignment.

Our mother, whom we called Amma, undertook a description of Thatha, our grandfather. “He had sharp eyes; so, among the particulars, you should pay special attention to his eyes,” the painter was emphatically informed. An incident to elaborate this point was also narrated at length.

“Mention must be made of Appa’s eyes; they pierced you like needles. No one could stand before him after having done something wrong. You could never lie to him. He never raised his voice. His eyes were always filled with love.” “One evening, Appa was coming down a narrow, one-way path; came a tiger on that very path; with eyes like embers, and Appa’s eyes glowed like a fire as well. Whatever was to be done? He linked his gaze with that of the tiger’s. The animal could not look anywhere else; neither could Appa remove his gaze from the tiger. He put a foot backward, then began to devour the path with his feet, step by step. And the tiger moved forward to cover Appa’s steps. Thus, walking slowly, he brought the tiger to the limits of the village. The tiger, seeing people, was unnerved. The people who saw the tiger as it followed Appa were scared. The tiger ran into the forest. Eyes: those were the kind of eyes to have; mesmerizing.”

There were many such chapters from those who had come into contact with Thatha.

And from the words of those who had come into contact with him, the reverence of others who had no knowledge of him grew.

In his siblings
In his offspring
In the relationships spoken by all—
Anna, Appa, Thatha, Periappa, Mama
A lofty soul who went beyond what those words conveyed, a teacher to others

The artist agreed to stay with us until he finished the portrait. The house was huge; his stay would not affect the lives of the other inhabitants, but what he was engaged in did have a bearing on them. It was discovered suddenly one day that they had gotten used to the smell of an unfamiliar oil that had earlier bothered them by its presence, in rasam, kuzhambu, coffee, clothes . . .

A competition was under way to evaluate the picture’s progress from day to day. It brought us home straight from school. We felt as if we were performing some sacred act when we set foot inside the room, and we were afraid to enter it after nightfall. We imagined the painter who went in and out of that room to be a person of great courage.

On holidays, when we played around the pillars in the hall—those pillars that had on many occasions defeated our attempts to encircle them with our hands, that kindled in us a fierce desire to grow up and one day possess them with our pairs of hands—the room would induce in us a sudden thirst. Our games were stopped mid-way, and resumed only after we had gone there and peeped inside.

Finally, one day, the picture was completed. Everyone convened again and discussed once more the issue of where to hang the portrait, of which place of honour it should occupy.

We all agreed that the portrait provided a good likeness of the great man. Perhaps the consensus was arrived at quickly, because the first person to see it and acknowledge its success was one held in high esteem by all. If, in his eyes, the picture showed a good resemblance to the old man, then that fact was not to be disputed.

But the picture continued to instill a fear in all the children, a fear of the supernatural. Not one of them could ever be in the room alone, especially if they were required to look at the picture for an extended period of time.

The portrait was mounted in the centre of the wall that, among the four walls of the hall, faced the entrance and was divided by the rear door. The face would stare pointedly at the resident from the time he entered the house until he arrived at the back room, having crossed many thresholds.

A soft, gentle red spread itself evenly over the floor of that hall; this was the red that one saw behind the eyelids when one lay down and closed one’s eyes in the daytime, looking at the light in the sky. The red, shiny floor looked as if a thin silk cloth had been stretched out and pasted on it. A large lotus flowered in the centre of that floor: a large square with a circle inside and another closely encircling it like a moat; and in the centre of that circle, a lotus, the kind you could draw with a compass, with alternate petals blossoming in blue, and the face of the circle in blue as well. When I danced in the middle of the full-blown lotus of that red floor, spinning around, I would delight in pretending that crowds of people were standing on all four sides and applauding the grace of my dance, the sweetness of the melody, and my own beauty. But when the portrait in its rectangular frame arrived in that huge, empty hall, it became impossible to pirouette, or sing, or dance.

Earlier, when you lay with your back on the floor and ran your eyes around, rectangles of coloured glass, which had been fixed at intervals above—green, yellow, blue, the order reversed again—were touched by the sun’s rays in the mornings and in the evenings shone like mythical golden deer and filled your tender heart with joy; but after the portrait’s advent the first thing that your eyes fell on, apart from the window, was the enormous rectangle of the portrait, and the sharpness of his look, which scared you even before you were properly awake.

On some days, when I woke from sleep and lay awake in the dark of the night, my heart pounded in the dim light of the expanse of that hall, and made me seek a place near Amma. Amma’s body became necessary. “Chee! What’s there to be scared of? See, Thatha is with us. Where he is, even the word fear does not have a place. Go to sleep, think of him.” How could I explain to her that his portrait was the source of my fears?

I had a bad stomachache. After taking medicine, I was made to stand before the portrait and vibhoothi, the sacred ash, was applied on my forehead. After that day, this ritual was conducted before and after anyone in the household was given medicine.

The portrait became a witness to promises and oaths intended to resolve secret, imcomprehensible problems. A fear of the consequences of one’s falsehoods was what made those vows dependable. Somehow, perhaps to reflect the dimensions of the room, the portrait, without fail, exuded an exaggerated fragrance, as if many people had assembled there to celebrate.

So many changes.
Changes that crawled in unobtrusively,
without springing on you.
Materialising suddenly
they came as ghosts to frighten.
The reasons for those changes
would perhaps be analysed much later.
Suggestions might be offered
to make changes different from the changes that were made.
The mind might get used to accepting the changes.
The body might be trained to use them.
But changes are, indeed, changes.
Make more changes; yet they are only new changes.
Through them
the old cannot be retailored.
Were the changes rooted in relationships that had been with you from birth?
Or were they merely your lack of comprehension of the ways of the world?

There was a change in leadership. The taproot lost its strength and the sideroots grew stronger. The evened-out terrace, the smooth floor, the coloured glass rectangles of equal size, set in walls of perfect dimensions, all this disappeared.

The portrait on the wall, after much deliberation to decide its permanent place, was also removed. In the present dwelling, if you lay on your back, you saw a small colourless square, put there to let in some light. The floor was still red; but this was the red of a brick floor.

“House” and “hall” became words that no longer defined expanse. The hall was almost always in shade, and had only that small piece of glass to distinguish day and night; this was the only instrument by which you could see the sky.

Did the light from the tiny kerosene lamp that was lit at nights enhance the darkness and stress the current state of affairs in that household, or was it their impoverished state that presented that very darkness as a small amount of light?

Not only could the present walls not accommodate the long rectangular portrait, but there was not enough room for it anywhere inside the house. It had begun to look very large. The room was not wide enough for it to be laid on the floor, and it did not have a wall tall enough to be hung on or leaned against either. Its presence became a projecting obstacle wherever it was kept.

The rectangular frame became an outlet to siphon the irritation that often collected in the house. It exaggerated talk of imminent poverty. With the change of leadership, the older inhabitants became liabilities. This, too, was a factor.

The water-tub in the yard was often covered in a film of dust. The wind made it impossible to use this water. Once, a small sparrow fell in and was drowned. In the mornings, crows dipped their beaks in the water and drank.

The portrait lost its legs again. It now covered the tub to protect the water’s purity and foil the thirst of birds.

The portrait faced outwards, and the drops of water that fell on it rolled free without sticking to the paint and glimmered when the sun’s rays shone on it.

The white back side of the canvas lost its colour and yellowed from constant contact with water.

Over a period of time, the canvas tore away; the rectangular portrait soaked up water and lost its colour and shape. Its rotting frame was dismantled. The spent cloth was removed. It was fed into the fire and reduced to ashes.


Krishangini (b. 1948) has won state- and national-level prizes in India for her three collections of poetry and one collection of short stories in Tamil.  She has also edited an anthology of women poets in translation, translated Brecht’s Mother Courage into Tamil, and written reviews of literature, dance, and painting.

Padma Narayanan (b. 1935) has won two prizes for her original stories in Tamil.  Her translation of two novellas by the mystical Tamil modernist, L.S. Ramamritham, is forthcoming from Katha Press. She has also translated contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil writers, and her translations have appeared in Routes: Representations of the West in Short Fiction from South India in Translation (Macmillan India) and elsewhere.

End of Article
AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI