The Old Masters

Amit Chaudhuri

He glanced at his watch and made an attempt to finish the tea in his cup; he was waiting for a call, and it was his second cup of tea. Five minutes later, the phone began to ring.

‘Pramathesh?’ said the voice at the other end; and he could tell, from its slight note of insouciance and boredom, that it was Ranjit.

‘I was waiting for your call, old man,’ he said, trying to muffle his irritation with his usual show of joviality. ‘You were supposed to call half an hour ago.’ He didn’t know why he even bothered to mention this, since Ranjit, who was never known to acknowledge he was late, would take this to be an unnecessarily pedantic remark, a remark that pointed to the actual, if generally concealed, gulf that distinguished their temperaments.

‘Trying to send the boy off to school . . . didn’t want to go this morning,’ he muttered. ‘That boy’ll cost me my job one of these days.’

‘Come, come, don’t blame it on poor Mithu. He has enough troubles being an innocent bystander in your life. Are we ready?’

‘Of course I’m ready! Should we say ten minutes?’ As an afterthought, a change of register: ‘Sorry I didn’t call earlier.’

You can’t choose your colleagues in the office; he hadn’t grasped the significance of this until a few months ago. And to pretend you were friends – that, too, was a fiction you couldn’t bring yourself wholly to believe in, but couldn’t entirely dispense with either; you did ‘things’ together, sometimes outside office hours, you visited each others’ houses (he’d been to Ranjit’s place in New Alipore only the day before yesterday), got to know each others’ wives and children, the kind of food the wife, affectionately referred to as the ‘grihini’, cooked, and, yet, you made a pact to keep all that was true and most important about yourself from the colleague, in case the desirable boundary between private life and secret nightmare and employment ceased to exist. Meanwhile, your real friends, those mythological beings, who by now had embarked on lives and careers of their own, fell obligingly by the wayside, they became things you put inside a closet and meant to recover, some day, in the future. In other words, you were alone, with your family, and your destiny.

Pramathesh Majumdar had joined the company three years ago, soon after coming back from England in 1964 as a chartered accountant. A brief honeymoon period with office life and work in Calcutta ensued, which also saw this makeshift arrangement, this friendship, with Ranjit Biswas come into being. Ranjit had never been abroad; he’d been born and brought up in Calcutta. He had the ease and the unquestioning expectancy of routine repeating itself, and of things continuing to fit, that belong to one who has never been removed from his original habitat. Pramathesh belonged nowhere; he came, originally, from East Bengal; his sights were probably set somewhere higher. Although Ranjit Biswas was still, strictly speaking, a colleague, both knew, though this wasn’t articulated, that Pramathesh, in his unassuming way, was preparing himself for the race people called ‘professional life’, while Ranjit, with his impatience over keeping appointments, was perhaps going to stay in the same place for some time, feeling, now and then, bitter, without being unduly bothered to do anything about it. It was the strength of Pramathesh’s British degree that gave him a head start, of course, but it was also something else, a meticulousness which might be called foresight. In fact, Pramathesh had been transferred to the Delhi office in June this year, and since the Delhi office was now the head office, this move had been interpreted as a promotion.

Today’s mission was the outcome of a chance remark made the day before yesterday. He’d been sitting at Ranjit’s place after dinner, contemplating returning to the guest-house; he said, stretching his arms: ‘Well, I’m returning to Delhi next week. Have to get down to some shopping.’

‘Like what, Pramathesh da?’ asked Ranjit’s wife, Malini, as she was putting away the dishes.

‘The usual things, I suppose,’ said Pramathesh, who looked younger than his 39 years. ‘Go to Gariahat, buy a few saris; decorations; take some gandharaj lime – my son loves those . . .’ In his heart of hearts, he missed Calcutta; Delhi seemed small and transitory and provincial in comparison.

‘How did the project with the boss go this time?’ asked Ranjit, lighting a cigarette (his wife called him a ‘chain-smoker’) and leaning against the wicker chair on the verandah. There was curiosity in his voice, and a hint of competitiveness.

‘Oh all right,’ said Pramathesh, sounding non-committal, but actually engrossed in the mental picture of Lahiri as it hovered before him, a quiet, balding man with fair, tissue-paper-like skin who wore glasses with thick lenses and looked as if nothing had changed noticeably since the years before Independence. He could hear his voice and his cough. ‘You know, generous and friendly when he’s in a good mood, and slightly unfathomable when he’s not.’

Ranjit nodded, and took a fresh puff on his cigarette.

‘Are you thinking of taking back a two-kilo rui from the fish market?’ said Malini from the semi-lit dining-room, her voice holding back laughter. ‘I saw you eating today, and thought: “He doesn’t get fish there.”’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Pramathesh, ‘I’ll just give it to the air-hostess and tell her to hang on to it until we land.’

‘A lot of people take back mishti doi,’ said Ranjit. He began to laugh in his unobtrusively nasty, dry manner, which meant that he was going to reveal something that had given him pleasure at someone else’s expense. ‘I saw a man standing in line for security at the airport with a huge bhaad of doi, and the next time I saw him the bhaad had fallen to the ground and shattered, the yoghurt lay on the floor in a tragic mess: the poor man, he looked lost and heartbroken! I don’t think we’ll see him in Calcutta in a hurry!’

After a few moments, Pramathesh said quietly, ‘I was thinking of taking back a picture, something nice – to hang up in the new flat.’

‘A picture?’

There were still hardly any art galleries in Calcutta. And the idea of buying a painting – and not a print – was still an unusual one. But, recently, at a cocktail party in a superior’s bungalow in Delhi, Pramathesh’s wife had noticed an original Nandalal Bose. Not that she’d known it was an original; but someone told her it was. Returning to their own flat, she’d said it might be a good idea to buy a decent painting for their drawing room; it would be their first stab at creating a status that would be in accordance with Pramathesh’s professional life.

Now, Ranjit racked his brains and said, ‘Well, I know where Gopal Ghosh lives – we could go there.’ Of course, owning a Gopal Ghosh may not be owning a Picasso; but his paintings were held in high regard. Just as Pramathesh’s career as a chartered accountant and an employee was at the fledgling stage, so was the Indian art world, with its ambivalences and lack of self-belief. Paradoxically, it was those who might be accused of not understanding art who would nourish it, unknowingly, through this delicate moment, setting up a concomitance between its life and theirs. It was as if their lives were destined, in some sense, to be connected and to grow together, though this must not be seen to be so.

So the two men decided to meet in front of the office itself in Chowringhee, at a quarter past ten on Saturday, before the seven-storeyed building. An old, moustached watchman who had nothing much to occupy him hovered in the background while Pramathesh waited for Ranjit to arrive. When he did, he instructed his driver to remain parked where he was. From there, they went in Ranjit’s white Ambassador, the driver in front wordless, down a main artery, which was fairly deserted on a Saturday, towards one of the by-lanes in an area quite far from both New Alipore and the company guest-house; Pramathesh, in fact, didn’t know what it was called. Here, they came to a ground-floor flat in an old two-storeyed house in a narrow lane, facing, and flanked by, other houses not unlike it. They were not sure if they should just walk in, but when they did, finding the door open, there was no one inside; only the ceiling fan hung immobile above them. The painter, emerging into the living-room a few minutes later to discover them, didn’t seem to mind their intrusion. He was wearing a dhuti and a shabby jacket himself, and looked abstracted; he glanced at the two men in their pressed shirtsleeves, trousers and sandals, and appeared to make a shrewd appraisal of why they were here and who they might be. ‘Was it you who just came up in the car?’ he asked, to which Pramathesh said, a little hesitantly: ‘Yes.’ He finally sold Pramathesh two of his paintings very matter-of-factly, bringing them from a room inside, one showing a pale, white forest, in which the trees were crested with white blossoms, with probably a peasant woman walking in it, and the other of a group of figures, possibly pilgrims, walking dimly past a mountainside. One might have missed their appeal; indeed, Pramathesh had to summon up something forgotten inside him, something from his early youth, in order to respond to them. It was not a faculty he had to use often, or of late; and he wasn’t altogether sure of his judgment. At any rate, without quite knowing why, he bought the two paintings for 150 rupees each.

Two days later, Pramathesh left Calcutta. As had been apparent, he continued, as the next decade unfolded, to do substantially better than Ranjit Biswas. His rise even surprised himself. Ranjit remained more or less stationary, with the prospect of a small promotion in the next five years; while Pramathesh was transferred to Bombay, and made General Manager at the Bombay branch. The last old master he bought was a Jamini Roy, in 1969, again on a visit to Calcutta in the winter. By then, Calcutta was in decline; the branch was experiencing a series of lock-outs, and Ranjit was sounding more and more beleagured and nonplussed, as if he’d just found out that he was fighting the battle alone. ‘It’s difficult to be in control any more, bhai. They,’ he meant the workers, ‘are the bosses now; we run behind them,’ he said, a little self-conscious in his defensiveness, and partly because Pramathesh was now, technically, no longer a colleague; the old banter had a slight fakeness about it.

Jamini Roy was already an old man, and, during this visit, Pramathesh went to the painter’s house with Amita, his wife, small and bright in a printed silk sari, about to assume life in Bombay; the old man, in a vest and dhuti, tottered out, and signed the paintings on the floor. When asked innocently by Amita, ‘What time of the day do you paint?’ he responded like any cantankerous old man: ‘How can I answer that? Can I tell you when I eat, or drink, or sleep?’ Upside down on the floor before them lay the paintings, the ideal figures with over-large eyes that did not see, the repetitive shapes in repose.

It’s not as if Pramathesh and Amita Majumdar spent too much time thinking about these paintings; Bombay didn’t give one much time to think. They moved from drawing-room to drawing-room as the couple themselves moved about in Bombay, from Worli to Kemp’s Corner to Malabar Hill. And it wasn’t as if they were insensitive to art; nor were they pretentiously artistic; they were content to display them, respectfully, on the walls. Of course, they – the paintings – did coincide with that part of the couple that was defined by their natural ambition, by Pramathesh’s career and his concern for the future, but in an odd way, so that the paintings somewhat transcended, or ignored, these vivid concerns. They were probably an unexplored part of their lives. Meanwhile, Jamini Roy, who’d already seemed so old, died peacefully in 1972. Gopal Ghosh died in penury and neglect about five years later, his last days an alcoholic stupor, often drinking himself to sleep on the pavement, and being carried home by passers-by.

On subsequent visits to Calcutta (and they did need to make visits, because they had relatives here, and occasionally there were weddings), Pramathesh and his wife were spared the embarrassment of having to meet the Biswases too frequently, because Ranjit had lost his job and joined a Marwari company that made ceiling and table fans, where he seemed reasonably happy, and able to conceal from himself the fact that here, too, the prospects for advancement were of a limited nature. But he had a better position than before; and, since Pramathesh was appointed to the Board in 1977, it was just as well they didn’t meet except in the lobby of the Calcutta Club by accident, or at Lake Market, where they came upon each other with surprised exclamations and hurriedly exchanged pleasantries before saying goodbye. Former colleagues are happy to meet and depart from each other like ghosts, in an evanescent zone of their own making that lies somewhere between their working life, leisure time, memory and the future. Nothing is final about these meetings until they retire, and they can review the shape of their achievements. Even then, their children, who may have entirely forgotten each other, have the potential to carry on their fathers’ rivalries and friendships without knowing it, in their parents’ drifting, speculative daydreams. Anyway, Ranjit leaving his job and disappearing in another direction saved Pramathesh the minor embarrassment of having to be his superior, and preside over his career.

The main surprise in Pramathesh’s life came from his son, who took up the violin and Western classical music when he was a teenager in a serious way. What had begun as an eccentric but admirable pursuit after school hours became something more than that. One day, the boy came back from school and said: ‘Baba, I want to study the violin.’ Pramathesh was too disarmed to raise an objection just then; and, as he remained unable to come up with one after two, then three, years, he saw, fondly but with a lurking feeling of helplessness, that his son would level out what he had striven for, that all the sense of certainty and dull, precious predictability and self-sufficiency he had naively built up would now – he was almost grateful for it – become, whether his son succeeded or not (because success in the arts counts for so little), less quantifiable, like a new beginning. His son and grandchildren would lead a life quite different from what he’d thought they would. He sent his son to study the violin in London, and this almost rendered him bankrupt, though his ‘almost bankrupt’ was still substantially better off than most of his countrymen. He and Amita moved, after his retirement in the mid-1980s, to a spacious apartment in West Bandra which he had bought twelve years ago for two lakh rupees; they lived here alone, with a servant, going out together now and then to walk in the lane, while their son, finally, settled in the US and married there, making several abortive attempts to inaugurate a career as a musician. The paintings went with them to Bandra, and gazed upon Pramathesh’s life without understanding its trajectory, but forgiving it nevertheless by not giving it too much importance. Now and then he gazed back at the paintings, considering what, or who, had given birth to that procession of figures by the mountainside, or that pale forest; those shadowy colours pointed to something he was still content, in his deliberate withdrawal from the imagination, not to understand. Jamini Roy, however, stayed in the drawing-room, immutable; and Gopal Ghosh, who had been forgotten by the art world and then lately recovered and re-estimated, was like an enigma that had glancingly touched Pramathesh’s working and his private life, near and utterly distant. The world that had produced that curious art, those daubs of green and bold lines, which one never knew, in the end, what to think of, had long ceased to exist; he had made an inroad towards it, by chance, for some other reason, and touched it without ever entering it anything but superficially. History, as if to compensate for that passing, and in a belated consciousness of its own importance, had added to the paintings a value that neither Pramathesh nor the painters would have at first dreamt of; while taking away from him, gradually, his working life, his youth, and the bustling innocence of his adult certainties.