Editor's Note

Our parents: Present. Absent. Living. Dead. Healthy. Diseased. Flawed. Perfect. Evil. Suffering. Reluctant. Diffident. Arrogant. Human… 

Our parents in and through us: Present. Present. Present. Present. Present. Present. Present. Present…

It never gets old, this story. Keerthana Jagadeesh’s Father’s Art manages to tell it anew, in a form all its own. The endnotes are crucial, mind.

— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine

A landscape

“Olive green,” Pa said, stepping back from a landscape he had drunk-walked into the living room. Turpentine and whiskey were jolly good friends in Pa’s hands. He went on about broken pearl chips in the sky and half-browns in the pond, but he soon left his comprehensive appreciation in the dust with his habit of packing the art into his tight cast of meaning, and in this case, it was “olive green.” Forevermore, the painting would be known for its olive greenness.

But I saw things differently from my father. A breeze painted in fading purple brought a strange feeling like I was being gently licked behind my ears. Its colors left a taste of fresh orange in my jowl, bringing wonderful, biting sensations. Vinegary skies, grasslands with a bowl-like blending with a horizon, and Normandes and Braunviehs staring back at me. I had never seen a brown cow before. I had only seen them in black and white. But there she was, looking out at me as if even her cow brain was registering for the first time that humans also came in brown.


I offer a correction and an elaboration here: cows are dichromatic organisms and can only see yellow and blue, so that Braunvieh never registered my brown skin. And, as it happens when you conduct these fact-checks on the internet, you feel like opening your Instagram. Before you know it, you are looking at a picture of your father. Pa has so many black moles on his face that it feels like his skin is a sheet held up by the nimble hands and toes of innumerable tiny black flies. Over the years, I learned, much too slowly, that Pa thinks he’s ugly. Not just that he’s ugly, but he also suspects he is made of what he calls “Dalit blood” (those Pa-judgements, “Dalit blood” and “Olive green”, that’s the way he saw the world; there is very little I can forgive him for). Because the internet will distract you from even this painful knowledge, you open a video titled, “How do Cows Perceive the World”. They have panoramic vision (the video said), meaning they can see everything except what’s directly behind them and what’s right in front of their nose. I wonder if Pa knew what was right in front of his nose. Did he see me? I was so tired of faking an interest in art to be close to my father. Did he see me? I dangled right in front of his nose.


Girl With a Water Jug

“Look how neatly her hair is combed,” said Pa. “Tucked into a hairband so neatly.”

“And look how she’s carrying the heavy jug of water up that hill,” said Ma. “Helping her mother with the household chores, isn’t she?”

The girl had a sour-mouthed softness about her as she swung the brown-handled pot through a pool of purple butterflies hanging by her ankle, jealously disrupting their lazy insect pleasures. The line of her pale blue country skirt was parallel to a tree trunk. Her calf muscles gave the full story: stacked like the spooning curves of a solar eclipse. She broached reminders of the whole universe. Is that what paintings were for? To show us how we held eclipses in our calves?

Pa turned to me. “Latha, you could look like her if you just combed your fucking hair.”


Once, I had a dream that I was pulling on jeans in a trial room. They were tight and stuck to my thighs like black duct tape. I walked out of the trial room, and Pa was outside. “You look fat,” he said. From another trial room, the Girl With A Water Jug stepped out wearing the same stick-on jeans and carrying her jug of water. “You look magnificent,” Pa exclaimed.

She smiles at him like in the painting, as if somebody’s asked her to, and then she walks up to Pa and empties her jug of water on him. Pa disappears behind a rainbow-colored waterfall, but he’s calling to us, asking for help. The Girl With A Water-Less Jug turns to me and says, “Knowing your father will not help you survive. He doesn’t see you with the clarity with which he sees himself.” I woke up feeling like I’d swallowed a gray cloud, pain stuffed like condensed rain in my woolly belly. All those years Pa tried to improve my hair, nose, math, hips, and “that stupid look” on my face. But he didn’t do all that “to make me a better person.” He was just unhappy, and he let that feeling spill over me like paint over an empty canvas.


A Postcard of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

I loved the geometry of it: a woman’s shadow pooled in correspondence to the circle of her umbrella. Shadows harmonized as black piano keys to white piano keys. A monkey’s curved back and a woman’s skirt rouched over her behind put me in an egalitarian mood because, after all, all bums were bums. A girl was in flight, and I knew she would be caught in her mother’s arms. There would be no betrayals, not on a park day. If there was going to be a surprise, it would be something nice like pineapple pieces in vanilla cake. I imagined that if I sent a postcard depicting the slow love of sun-filled days, it would be to convey that I wanted to spend it with that person.


When Pa received Anand’s postcard from New York, he looked like a cold creamsicle was trailing down his spine, and I think his brain did that ahhhhh haa. He rose in the middle of breakfast and went to the frame shop.

“Growing up, Anand and I were the only ones who cared about art. He brought me paints and good, thick paper,” Pa told us.

“Maybe this year, when he visits, we can meet him as well,” Ma said pointedly. She avoided looking at the postcard and even gave it her infamous side-eye, the harbinger of its inevitable disappearance. My holey yellow pajamas went that way – one mom-side-eye and it was never to be seen again. But she wouldn’t do that with Anand’s presents because she knows Pa would give her a good kick.

A week after the postcard arrived, Pa took Ma and me to Cubbon Park, and we picnicked opposite the rose gardens, eating rolled chapatis with sugar and butter. This was not something we did because Pa hated public parks. But that day, Pa carried an umbrella and squinted off into the coppery yellow woods, miming a nobleman assessing his properties. A secret little smile played on Pa’s face as he pretended to read his open newspaper, thinking we couldn’t see him. Was this Pa happy? Was this me happy? Was this me happy because Pa happy? Was this we happy because Pa happy? Was this happy? In his head, Pa must’ve been on the Island of La Grande Jatte with Anand, and that’s when I realized what a great big secret other people’s happiness was. You only ever managed a glimpse of it, and then, of course, you forgot all about it because other people’s happiness – even your father’s, especially your father’s – was never quite as memorable as your own.


The Great Papaya Blitz of 2003: Anger Pollocks

Canvas: Two white walls fade to grey under the footsteps of spiders, lizards, and their associates. In one high corner of the wall, a splatter of papaya.

Artist: Pa

Technique: Pa throwing a fit (and a bowl of papaya)

Artist’s Inspiration: a mid-morning snack served at 11:07 AM instead of 11:00 AM

Artist’s Assistant: Ma bitterly beating herself for the above seven-minute delay.


Later that day, I crept up to the closed door of Pa’s room and listened to my parents fighting.

“Do you even like me?” Ma was asking. “You don’t look at me, we don’t talk, and you think I’m a maid who cares for your daughter and keeps the house for you.”

“That’s what you deserve, you bevarsi,” said Pa. I imagined his red-veined eyes when he shouted.

“And what do you deserve?” asked Ma. “Anand is not here. He has a wife and family in another country. But you can’t stop yourself from dreaming about Anand, can you? You’re the one who’s trapped in a delusion about love, not me.”

There was a loud thud against the door, and I ran back to my room and sat at my desk, pretending to study. I heard the thuds again and again like as if he was beating her against a table, and then, I heard the door open. Ma was thrown on the floor, and the door snapped shut. I waited for Ma to come to my room, but she didn’t. She went back into the kitchen to make lunch and didn’t bring it up, not later, not ever. I sat there sweating, watching my last few illusions flee: when it came to my father, I couldn’t help my mother, and when it was my turn, she wouldn’t be able to help me either.


Dancing Nataraja

Brass and iron, weighing five kilograms, the Nataraja danced his way into our house and took residence on our dining table. He had four arms; one held a double-backed drum (“creation”), and another held a ball of fire (“destruction”). A third palm was held up and threatening, moments before it might reach out to slap someone. A set of brass clouds floated from behind his head (“cosmic power”), and he stood in triumph over Apasmarapurusha, half-baby and half-demon (“our ignorance”).


It was strange for Pa to bring home an idol since he loved to parade his atheist personality around the house as Ma did her rituals in the puja room. He didn’t take part in our daily prayers, he never made the weekly temple visit with Ma and yet, he brought us our Nataraja. He was perfectly cast, with a cinched, curving waist and in secret, I licked the whole iron length of him, begetting my first shivery pre-adolescent orgasm. My father, on the other hand, pointed out, “He was the Hitler of the Gods, you know that?”

One day, Pa and I were going to the market next to the temple to buy some groceries, but there was nowhere to park except in the temple car park. Pa quickly pulled into one of the free spots, and we saw a sign on the wall: No parking except for temple visitors. Pa ignored the sign even though I pointed at it. When we returned from the market with our bags of groceries, a security guard was standing by our car.

“This is only for temple visitors, not a parking spot for the market and the movies and the whatnot,” he said. “Did you visit the temple as well?”

“No, we didn’t.”

“You’ll have to pay a fine.”

“What kind of fine?”

“You’ll not be forgiven by the one up there,” said the guard, pointing to the sky.

Pa touched the top of his head as if he had felt a raindrop. “Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“He’s dancing on our heads right now.”

“Get out of here and don’t park here again. It’s only for temple visitors,” the security guard shouted.

Pa laughed like a maniac and took up a Nataraja dance pose, with all our grocery bags hanging off of him and giving the illusion of four hands holding a bag of pomegranates (“after-dinner-snack”), rat poison (“for unwelcome visitors”), Lifebuoy soap (“to keep our cosmic power clean”) and some cucumbers (“to deal with our ignorance with a cool head”). I rushed into the car and closed the door, pretending not to know the Nataraja man, but I was torn between fear and laughter by my father’s little Delphic thrills.


Be Fearless: Portrait of Swami Vivekananda

One day, I came home from school to find it hanging right over my study desk.

“I don’t want it in my room,” I told Pa.

“You don’t know anything,” Pa said. “He was a great man. He attained nirvana through meditation and feared nothing. He spoke to world leaders and spread Hinduism. I got the one that says ‘Be Fearless’ because I never want you to be scared of anything in the world.”

The man was swathed in orange robes and an orange turban and looked angry at not receiving the respect due to him. But he wasn’t going to get it from me.

“Why don’t you hang it in your room if you like it so much?” I asked.

“I want you to be fearless.”

“I’m already fearless. You’re the one who needs it,” I said, laughing.

Before I knew it, Pa had slapped me blue and red across my mouth. My uncombed hair was hauled up like a rope in his fist, my body an empty bucket flailing in an empty well. He pulled on my hair again and again till I screamed for it to stop.

“I want you to look at him every day and be brave,” Pa said, leaving me on the floor.


Later in life, when I was visiting my parents for a three-day weekend but still doing meetings on Zoom calls, Pa came into my room and asked me to review his CV. He told me he had emailed it to me. I indicated wordlessly to the crowded video-on Zoom call. He looked angry about having to wait, but it was only a few minutes to the end of the call.

“I have another one in ten,” I said, opening his attachment. It was a long CV, but instead of work experiences, he had put in a list of well-connected people he knew. “They’ll want to know about you, not the who’s-who you know.”

“But isn’t it all about who you know?” he asked. “What will they ask me? I don’t know how to talk about myself.”

“You had a successful business for many years. Talk about that,” I suggested.

He grunted sarcastically, “Like I can sit there and talk about my failures. At my age? Looking for a job? Nobody will want me.” He searched my face for reassurance, but I had another call to join. Pa stood there looking up at the Swami Vivekananda portrait, proclaiming, Be Fearless!

“You don’t know what it’s taken me to get here,” Pa said. “You’ve never had to take risks the way I have. If I had your education and this booming tech industry, I would’ve done more than you could ever do.”

I indicated to my screen, and Pa got angrier. “Yes, yes, Madame Remote Worker has to get back to ‘Remote Working.’

Why don’t you try opening a business at eighteen and feed a family on those earnings? It’s not as easy as joining a fucking Zoom call.” With that, he took the Swami Vivekananda portrait off the hook, secured it under his arm, and left the room, slamming the door behind him. I thought I heard Pa cry on the other side, but I couldn’t be sure. I turned my audio and video off and sat with my head bowed over a truth: how difficult it was to be happy with my slender wisp of life when all it did was remind my father about his failures.


An Unknowable Body

It was the first time all three of us went to an art gallery together. I didn’t know there could be so many paintings of the naked body. They were all shrouded in a soft light. You had to really stare at a painting to know which part it was, but Ma wouldn’t let me look at things in peace. Instead, Ma shuddered all through the exhibition and tried to cover my eyes when I tried to look closely at the tender, pink head of a penis. Meanwhile, Pa had a sheepish expression and kept saying, “I read about this in the paper. They didn’t say it was nudes. I didn’t know it would be like this!” Ma threw Pa dirty looks all throughout, and Pa stayed quiet for once and let himself be cowed by Ma, but he kept saying, “There’s nothing wrong with this art. Latha’s old enough.” I giggled, glad for once that Pa felt like he had to defend himself.

We left the gallery in a hurry, with Ma saying, “Let’s go to the temple. We don’t want those sins in our eyes to hang around. One visit to the temple will erase all of that.”

Pa had nothing to say to counter, so we parked like true devotees in the temple car park. Ma kept at me, imploring me not to tell anyone about the show. “Nobody at school, don’t mention it at the next family gathering, not even to your grandmother, absolutely nobody,” she begged me.

Inside the temple, Ma prayed furiously for all of us, for our dear old eyes exposed to unknowable nudes. She rang the temple bell so many times I thought the vibrations would knock my ears off. When other devotees looked at Ma’s desperate face and wondered if it was over an imminent death in the family, Pa cheerfully explained, “We just saw some nudes, that’s all.” Ma covered her ears and wept her prayers. Pa laughed, looking so delighted with himself that I laughed, too. It was easy to be cavalier about God when Pa was in a good mood. It was one of those days, surprising and delightful for the smooth, unmarked page of it.


Portrait of A Man Who Wants to be Remembered as Handsome

Perhaps hawks are not too happy about us always describing men’s noses as hawk-nosed, but there are so few relevant noses one can refer to, surely not a zebra’s or a vulture’s nose, which looks a bit like an uncircumcised penis. This particular nose in the portrait has been imbued with more power than a nose strictly needs; it cannot breathe fire, but it can be called a handsome nose of the hawk variety.

And is there a man behind those eyes? Yes, he has given himself yellow-brown eyes for some reason and crowned himself with a hairline like two undulating waves. There is a rosiness to his cheeks, not from good health but from photo-studio makeup. A spectacular gold stud in his ear, a chunk of the proverbial family fortune. He has the gusto of a dream: collared shirt disco ball lined, pink and blue silk scarf worn like an open secret around his neck, those hip-rise white cotton pants, and an amber drink in his hand. He stares back without a smile, a man for whom desires were a method of practicing his discipline.


On Sundays, I made Pa coffee. I added a little ghee to the milk, mixed it with the thick chicory decoction, and served it in a whiskey glass. I looked at Pa’s face in greeting and saw his right eyeball schlepped to the left white corner. I pointed at it and said, “Something is wrong.”

Pa looked insulted. Touching his face, he said, “What’s wrong with you?”

His eyeball lay like a dead rat in one corner of his eye. I pointed at it again, wordless. I was scared; I didn’t want that eye looking at me. Ma came up behind me, peered into Pa’s face, and let out a little squeak. Pa got even angrier. He threw the coffee cup against the counter, the glass shattering all over the kitchen floor. He rushed to the bathroom mirror and looked at his reflection. Ma and I gathered behind him, and all three of us looked at Pa’s dead right eye.

Later, we found out that Pa had had a stroke that left everything except his right eye unscathed. It was slotted between 1 and 4 on the NIH scale, and it was so delicate that Pa had brushed his teeth and watered the plants without knowing he’d had a stroke. He didn’t speak for days after we came home from the hospital. I watched Pa wash his face and look up at the mirror hopefully, as if all it took was a little soap water to fix it. He looked like that from then on, dead-eyed, some youthful symmetry in his face destroyed.

A few weeks after the stroke, Pa had his portrait done (which he later hung in his bedroom). He asked the painter to give him a “regular” eye, and he had Ma and me do his makeup. He kept asking us if we could cover it up.

“Not even with magic,” Ma muttered under her breath so only I could hear.


Father’s Hands Holding White Shoe Polish

Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, located on a hill in the Altinho neighbourhood. I climbed up steps made of broken ceramic tiles gummed into cement, past candy-colored Portuguese architecture on one side and the small city of Panjim on the other, curling upwards like a torn spring of black and white newspaper headline. I was 24, and I had gone to see my painting, something I had made, but not a painting of me, not me at all. It hung alongside far more accomplished artists in that obscure hilltop gallery.

It was all painted as if in a hurry, Pa mid-sentence, mid-morning, rushing me off to school. I was not sure whose hands they were. Were they my Pa’s or the man who acted like he was something far beyond my father? Dark hands opened the screw top brush head dripping with white chalk paint. Had Pa polished my shoes every morning? Perhaps he had. My pair of size two canvas shoes, grubby and scuffed, sat there waiting to be painted white; it reminded me of how small my feet have remained. He had, I think. He had polished my shoes. How that knowledge punched me in the chest.

I rushed out of the gallery and stood beneath the thick canopy of trees in Altinho. My heart pounded with memory. It was two years to Pa’s last stroke. Ma found him in his bedroom, fallen in front of his large portrait, looking over his own dying.

I couldn’t go back in to look at my painting. What use was making art when you couldn’t be sure of how to do the living bit? I had tried to know my father, but he had only allowed me a glimpse. There was that one time he had run the tip of a hot incense stick over my knee as punishment, and I still have the sharp oblique angle of that burn. Why was it so easy to remember my father’s cruelties but so difficult to recall him polishing my shoes? Yet, my hands had unknowingly painted Pa’s little efforts, retrieved from beneath all those bitter years. He had tied my shoelaces and put me on the school bus. The chalky gin scent of shoe paint hung over him, and I could smell it all the way in Panjim.

Just then, something rustled up there in the trees, and I looked up and saw a great hornbill resting on a branch, balanced like a precarious trophy. It had a black and white plume, a magnificent yellow head, and a beak that could carry water. It sat there quiet and ethereal, gathered up to itself, reminding me of Pa’s joy at discovering beautiful things in the world.


Artist: Lucian Freud.  Daughter & Father (2002). Oil on canvas.
@ Lucian Freud. Reproduced here via  WikiArt.

Keerthana Jagadeesh’s story is of a particular father, but perhaps its parent is of a more general type than we’d like to admit. An ineradicable quintessence of selfishness seems to constitute the artist’s soul. Which brings us to Lucian Freud.  By most accounts, Lucian Freud was as much a failure as a father as he was a successful artist. And he was very successful. Nevertheless, he got along well with a few of his children, who seem to remember him with that peculiar combination of  emotions also implicit in this story. His painting Daughter & Father was an appropriate match.


Keerthana Jagadeesh is a fiction writer based in Bangalore. Some of her stories have been published in nether Quarterly, gulmohar quarterly, and The Irregular Times.

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