Was it love when we stood on the seaside promenade in the stormy rain, listing all the reasons we shouldn't be together while our eyes were helplessly drawn to each other's lips? Was it love when I would crawl out of bed at 2 AM so I could exchange a few words with you, which inevitably turned into an hour long conversation? Was it love when we pledged to be together forever, finding ways to fit into each other's dreams? Was it love when you felt compelled to pour out every idea to me in excruciating detail, while the mere sound of your voice set my senses on fire? Was it love when I searched for reasons to speak to you, your words providing me solace in the darkest hours? Was it love when I declared my passion for you, intoxicated and incoherent, surrounded by so many censuring eyes? Was it love when all I looked forward to were your Skype calls even though the connection allowed us to exchange barely a few lines? Was it love when I couldn't enjoy a single day at work after you quit, assailed as I was by your memories? Was it love when you said you missed me, that whoever I'd be with would be immeasurably lucky? Was it love when the mere mention of your name made me blush furiously? Was it love when your embrace made me feel like I was finally whole? Was it?
"I drew another portrait," he confessed, instantly turning the warmth in my bones to shards of ice. "Did you draw her?" I asked, unwilling to extricate myself from his embrace. His hands released me instead. My flushed skin embarrassed me. Why did I kiss him? But he kissed you back, my mind whispered. "Her? The portrait bears a resemblance to the previous one I drew, yes," Shayan said, all of a sudden aloof. "I feel compelled to draw..I've never felt this way before. It's actually quite exhilarating!" he continued. Suvarna's spirit exhilarated him? The thought repulsed me. All I said was, "Show me."
The easel stood in the intimate interiors of his bedroom this time. "I drew the portrait as soon as I awoke from a nap," Shayan said by way of explanation, probably cued in by my questioning eyebrows. Bless body language. There was no doubt about it. The tilt of her chin, the curve of that nose and the shimmer in her eyes - Shayan had captured Suvarna's essence perfectly. And if it was possible, she looked even more alluring in this avatar, closer to thirty than twenty five. "She has aged further," I commented stonily. "Yeah. She just seems to get lovelier with every passing portrait," Shayan mused, making my gut twist. "It's Suvarna. You don't find this the slightest bit disturbing? The fact that you keep drawing her portraits and she keeps aging in them as though she were still alive?" "That's an interesting theory!" Shayan murmured, his head tilted to one side. "As though she were still alive. Indeed. Perhaps it's my sub-conscious that is trying to offer her a convoluted form of justice through these portraits." At least, he had now accepted that it was Suvarna he kept drawing. "What when she dies in your portraits as well?" I asked, strangely scared for this man who seemed so willing to be in the grip of an unknown paranormal force. "We'll see," he said, his lips curving in a lopsided smile. I didn't smile back. "Why did you kiss me?" I wanted to ask. And what if he said, "Because you did"? That would crush me. That really wasn't what I wanted to hear. And so I left the question unasked. I left my thirst unquenched.
I believe in ghosts. I believe in all sorts of phenomena. After all, we have long since established that anything is possible as long as it is within the purview of human imagination, and perhaps even when it's not. Where Shayan could barely tolerate that apartment earlier, now he rarely left it. He waited to draw Suvarna's portraits like a child awaiting her day's quota of candy. The portraits were few and far between. But when they came, he never failed to show them to me. I began counting the days when Shayan's Suvarna would die, so I could have a normal conversation with him. It was all he spoke of. It was all he thought of. And he didn't seem to think it was unhealthy at all. How much could I, a veritable stranger, interfere? And what would I say? That I didn't want a dead woman capturing all his attentions? That I wanted him to finish her off as quickly as possible so we would be rid of her spectre?
One crisp Wednesday morning, I knocked on Shayan's door. We were to travel to work together and shoot his segment for the tragedy episode of Realty Check. The sight that met me had me rushing to clear my face of disgusted incredulity. From his bedraggled hair to his thoughtlessly assembled clothes, Shayan looked like a complete mess. "Is this how you want to appear on national television?" I asked him. He had the grace to look sheepish. "I'm sorry, I haven't dressed up in so long." You haven't been out in so long, I wanted to say. "Let's get you into something better. And do you have a comb somewhere?" I asked, walking past him into the house, now littered eerily with Suvarna's paintings. She appeared to have hit her sixties in the latest one, occupying pride of place on the wall, above the clock.
"Do you own any formals at all?" I asked Shayan, rummaging through the clothes in his cupboard. "Sorry. I detest those things." I finally settled upon a crisp white kurta and grey cotton pants. I pulled the comb through his hair, which was slightly wet and smelt of fragrances I didn't recognise. I had him sit on the bed and leaned over to brush his hair, the gesture feeling oddly intimate and unsettling. "I've become too obsessed with my paintings, haven't I?" Shayan asked, his breath teasing my chest tantalisingly. I wanted to take the opportunity to lash out at him and let him know what an antisocial freak he had turned into. But there was a note of disarming vulnerability in his voice that made me desist. "You just need to get out more," I said. "And wasn't your break supposed to last only for a couple of months?" "I don't feel like getting back to the routine of a job," Shayan shrugged. "My savings should see me through for couple more months. After that, I might consider taking up one." "Or you could sell these paintings," I suggested intrepidly. Shayan stood up to look at said paintings, depicting the aging and impeccably lovely Suvarna in various angles and magnifications. “I don’t think I could do that. Not even posthumously,” he said, making my bones freeze.
[To be continued]