“Can you draw my picture?”, someone asked me recently.
I used to hear that question once in a while ever since I became an established artist in my peer group from school time itself. It was my pleasure to draw portraits or simply some random pictures for my friends and I used to tell them that the quality of the picture can be related to my closeness with the ‘subject’. One of my friend’s comments after receiving his caricature from me was this, “Being able to draw a caricature is a skill but being caricatured is an honour.” And I told him that he got his picture drawn because he deserved it.
I was not intending to mean that I’m a great artist or something, but someone with a very little knowledge in art. They say ignorance is better than half knowledge. In my case I managed to impress quite a lot of my friends with my half knowledge or less in art. However I could never fulfill all the requests I received.
“Why don’t you smile?” is another interesting question many shoot at me as if it matters to them a lot.
“Why do you look rude and unpleasant?” they may also ask.
I neither made them satisfied with an answer nor a smile. I never felt the need to since those who were close to me never needed an answer and I was the least bothered about the rest. The fact is that the lack of a smile was not because life didn’t give me a reason to smile but the reasons not to smile were way stronger and the battle between the reasons always left me in a state of detachment. Anyway I can tell you this, I’ve made many to smile and some among them were really special. Both the persons and their smiles. Now let me tell you the story of one such smile.
Nine years ago…
It was a pleasant Sunday morning of early December. I was walking towards the school where I had to participate in a painting competition representing my own school in the super senior category. When I was about to enter the school’s auditorium where the event was supposed to start in a few minutes, a Honda CRV screeched to a halt on the school grounds and even before the car came to a stop a little girl emerged into view opening the front door.
The vehicle felt somehow familiar to me. I watched the girl grabbing her small yellow Tweety bag from the back seat, waving at the person in the driving seat and rushing towards me. On half running past me she asked in a hush and breathless voice – “Did it start? Am I late?”
I was confused whether she was asking it herself or to me. Inside the hall there were almost a hundred children and as directed we all settled into the arranged table and chair quickly. I was searching for a familiar face since I knew that from my school there must have been two more students for the junior and senior categories. Then someone poked me from behind and it was the little girl who still seemed out of breath but was now managing a cute smile. The veil she was wearing explained she was a Muslim.
‘She must be participating in the junior category’, was my sudden thought since she looked almost ten and I was worried about the number of people who looked my age with whom I had to compete. Before I could ask her something she made a statement.
“You study in my school” I couldn’t help but laugh because of the authority in her voice.
“No I don’t study in your school, I study in my school”, I joked.
She was puzzled. Nevertheless I was happy to meet someone from my school. And then I understood why the car felt familiar because I used to admire the Honda CRV parked in the school parking lot every evening but I didn’t know for whom it was waiting there till I met this little kid. We had a little chat about the topic they might provide for us and from experience I told her that if lucky she would be getting a printed page to fill in the colours. To my surprise she was expecting a serious topic like ‘festival’. Though I teased her for her overconfidence, I sensed the kid’s attitude towards art and made a mental note to take a look at her drawing as the competition ends.
She sat at the table next to me and we were all given paper and topics. As I predicted she got a printed-paper to fill in the colours, which made her look uneasy and I got the topic ‘A dream’. Wasting no time everyone dived into the A3 white sheet before them. I sat there confused what to draw watching in awe the little girl unwrapping her new packet of imported sketch pens.
‘She’s gonna be one hell of an artist’, intuitively my mind whispered.
All of a sudden I had an idea to draw her in my picture. I studied her. She was a cute girl with woody brown eyes and narrow eyebrows. Long stretch of straight hair that extended arms length was braided into a plait which could be seen beyond the veil that covered her head. I made my choice and started sketching her. I decided to make her sleep in my picture and drew a cloud of things little kids may dream about above her bed. And I didn’t forget to add a paint brush also in the list.
As it was almost two hours, one of the event coordinators came near us and told her that her father was waiting for her. She was already done with her colouring and left the hall quickly. My eyes followed her till the door and then she looked back and waved at me. I felt there was something special about that kid and something connected both of us. At that moment I preferred to believe it was art that connected us.
Back at school the next week one-day morning I spotted her in the third standard as I was passing through the corridor towards my class, which was a block away. She caught my eyes and gave me her best smile. I waved at her.
‘The best gift you can get from a person is a wholehearted smile’, I thought, as I made my way forward.
After that I used to see her once in a while at the school premises and whenever I met her she would be half running and panting. She always had some curious questions to ask me often related to art, like why can’t we paint the sky green. It seemed to me that she was interested in surrealism then itself. Thus grew our friendship and I could never see her without her cute smile. Few months passed and then it was exam time.
Finishing my last exam of eleventh standard I was leaving for home from school. When I reached the parking lot I saw the CRV and the little girl was about to get in. Then she saw me and gestured me to stop. I walked towards her. For the first time I had ever seen her, she looked unpleasant.
Nevertheless she asked me without any hesitation, “Can you draw my picture?”
“Why would you want that?” was my sudden reply.
“That will make me happy”, she replied in a tired tone.
I wanted to ask why she was sad but the car honked and she got in. I never knew then it was the last time I would ever see her. I could see her waving at me through the tinted rear wind shield till the car turned a corner of the school gate and then disappeared out of sight. I stood there waving back rather feeling uneasy.
Then it was summer vacation and two months later when classes started again I looked for her in the school and as I couldn’t see her anywhere I enquired in all divisions of fourth standard but got the answer that she’s not back yet. Since her absence started to bother me, finally I met the fourth standard class teacher and asked for details. She said the kid quit the school and I insisted to know the reason since it was not so common to quit the school at third standard as not many schools entertained new admissions in fourth. The teacher told me what she knew with a confused look at me and my impatience. The kid was having a condition. She had a hole on her heart’s wall from birth. She was not supposed to run or lift heavy things which she never obeyed and that’s why she used to be out of breath often. I also learnt that her family moved to the city for better treatment or possibly a surgery and that’s why she had to quit the school. I walked back to my class with a heavy heart. She was the first one to ask me to draw a picture and even if I did it before she asked I felt really sad that I couldn’t give it to her or even show it to her. I couldn’t make her happy. I couldn’t see her smile again.
One year ago…
I was stepping into my third semester of post graduation. As I was getting out of the library in the evening on a pretty normal day I saw a girl. A small fair girl with woody brown eyes and narrow eyebrows. She was wearing a veil over her head. Still her straight long hair which was braided into a plait peaked outside the veil. She instantaneously reminded me of my little ‘girl friend’ from school. I wanted to know her name. I waited for her to enter her name in the library register. When she moved inside I checked the name. Riswana. The name wasn’t that common and I felt some butterflies in my stomach.
The following days I started to notice her somewhere in the campus. She would always be with a bunch of her classmates walking to class or back to hostel. I learnt that she was in the second year of her under graduation. She always looked happy with a cute little smile across her lips. As days passed on I saw her once in a while but never initiated a conversation.
However one day as I was leaving for hostel I saw her walking towards me in the opposite direction. She was alone and was looking grim. She walked past me looking down as if she was not bothered about the worldly affairs. All of a sudden out of nowhere a question echoed in my mind.
“Can you draw my picture? That’ll make me happy”
I felt my heartbeat rising and the next thing I knew was that back at hostel I was making a sketch on my artist’s pad. For me it was always a great feeling to draw those who were close to me, especially my friends. In this case it was even more special. Few hours and there before me on the A4 sheet was Riswana. I added a calligraphic ‘Bismillah’ to the picture, thanking the God for giving me a second chance. I couldn’t give it to her for a few weeks as I never wanted people’s attention and misunderstandings. Also I felt disquiet about the way she may react.
Nevertheless one day I met her after class in the evening and gave her the picture which I put in a cover. She was puzzled. “What is this?” she asked looking worried.
“Don’t worry, open it and see for yourself. It’s for you”, I said with a smile.
I was used to the reaction when people see their picture drawn since I had already gifted many of my friends with their portraits and caricatures. I preferred to take their smile and the blush they had on their face at that moment as my reward. However I didn’t wait for Riswana’s reaction but simply walked away with an elated heart.
The next time I saw her she had a broad grin on her face.
“How did you…?” She didn’t complete the question.
“Did you like it…?”, I asked.
“Yeah, thank you but…” she was still confused. The thing is I was no one to her. She was not even an acquaintance. A perfect stranger. And she must have been wondering why on earth did I draw her.
“You know kid, some reasons are hard to explain sometimes in a single word or a sentence.” Giving her a faint smile I walked away.
On my way back to hostel involuntarily my hands reached for my wallet in the back pocket and I took it out. Inside on the photo holder, there was a few years old paper cutting. A thirteen year old kid smiled at me from the now yellowing paper. And it was written under the photograph, “In loving memory of, Riswana.”