Arts Illustrated

A Castle for My Princess

By Asha Iyer Kumar

Arts Illustrated's Short Story Contest Winner

‘It is said that this painting took a staggering 20 years to make. Is that true? Or is it just popular belief? I mean…a myth…?’ The interviewer asked the grey-haired woman in front of her, her question ending with an inconclusive pause. The open disbelief in her eyes was eclipsed by a child-like curiosity in her voice.

The 20-year claim deserved to be questioned, of course. Because it was an incredibly long period of time for a piece of art to come alive. The facts had to be fathomed and laid bare.
‘Are you asking me if it was just hype that I created for cheap popularity?’ The grey-haired woman shot back with a derisive laugh and turned to stare at the painting that stoically sat on an easel, loving and hating it simultaneously. And then, sobering her eyes, she gazed at the young woman’s face in front of her and held her in her gaze for a while. The familiarity of the interviewer’s features first distracted her, and then it disrupted her faculties. Distraction is different from disruption. The former merely makes one’s mind wander. The latter crumples it beyond recognition. And she was at that point.

Her artist name was Jacinta, with no surname. It was believed that she had had a different desi name before she gained her present reputation. It was rumoured by her peers who envied her popularity that part of her fame came with the name, although they had no clear reasoning for this odd presumption.

The cameras zoomed in on Jacinta and waited for her to respond to the question about the painting’s long gestation. But in the silence that ensued, she began to zone out, slowly getting sucked into the vortex of a distorted impression from the past. As she scrutinised the interviewer’s face from her seat, an old memory flashed in her mind for a moment and died. A déjà vu flickered.

Those eyes, she thought, as she read the interviewer’s face, they were of the same colour – soft, succulent and brown like honey, fringed by long, curling eyelashes. And when the young girl batted them incredulously, like a child who couldn’t wait to hear a fairy tale, her heart leapt at the striking similarity. And the hair – the same frizzy curls that fell loose on her shoulders. Only the smile was different, and that too mostly because the young girl wasn’t wearing braces like Anju did back in the day.

Behind her scrambled thoughts, Jacinta heard the interviewer repeat her question. 'Can you tell us more about the painting and its genesis? I am curious and so are our viewers. What makes it so unique?' she asked, quickly flicking a few curls away from her forehead.
‘Ah…that...!’ exclaimed Jacinta, more as a reaction to the endearing curl-tossing act that Anju so often used to do than to the question. In a split second, she saw Anju sitting in front of her. She was convinced that her daughter had miraculously emerged from wherever she had vanished to years ago and was now urging her to recount the story behind the blue castle that was auctioned at a record breaking price the previous week.

‘I didn’t draw it. I built it for you,’ she said, slowly. The cameras that were focussed on her must have let out a silent gasp. ‘I put window after window in your memory for the years you have been away from me, Anju. Remember that day when you asked me how much I loved you and I said I would one day build a castle for you, that’s how much? And you had said, “Only princesses can have castles to live in. Not ordinary girls like me. I don’t even have a new dress for my birthday.” A shadow of dismay had crossed your little face then and I was crestfallen.
What you probably meant was it was impossible that your mother who couldn’t buy you a birthday dress could build a castle for you.’

‘I know.’

‘I was single. I had a job that provided just enough for us. You saw through my incapability. It made me feel inadequate and useless as a mother. I felt I had failed in your eyes. It ripped my heart.
That night as I tucked you in bed, I said, “You are my pretty little princess, and I will build a castle for you, no matter what it takes. Don’t you believe your mother?” You merely nodded. Your smile was unconvincing, yet you held me close as we both dreamed of a castle that night.’

‘You in brick and mortar, and I, in pastels. 

‘It was the night before you went missing on your way back from school.’

Jacinta suddenly grabbed the hand of the young interviewer and said, 'Look, I kept my promise. I made this castle for you, my princess, in your favourite colour. Building window after window, through which I peered every day, hoping to find your trace somewhere within its tall walls.’

The young girl froze. She had heard that Jacinta was a maverick artist who was fast losing her bearings in the recent years, but this was unexpected. She considered wrenching her hands off, but was too intrigued by the narrative to snap it midway.

‘When they couldn't find you for several days after you disappeared,’ Jacinta continued, ‘people said weird things. Kidnapped. Trafficked. Sold. Even dead. But I was steadfast. I knew you had escaped our mundane, unprivileged existence to go and live in the castle that I was building for you. It was just that I couldn’t spot you inside it with my inept eyes. So I made new windows through which I could let light fall in the dark corners and searched for you. And I wasn’t wrong. Look, I found you after all.'

The camera was still rolling; the people behind it too wonderstruck to stop from capturing this bizarre story. The blue canvas in front of them wasn’t just a random picture; it was a deranged artist’s fractured reality.

Judge’s Note

A painter paints a castle with tall walls and windows over a period of 20 years for a lost daughter, a daughter who disappeared the day after the impoverished painter promised her a castle. With each window she paints in her daughter’s favourite colour, she searches for her lost daughter within. There is a blurring of past and present as the interviewer of this now famous artist replaces her daughter in the artist’s psyche, and we get a glimpse into what may be an artist’s ‘fractured reality’. For me, this bizarre yet totally believable story is the winning interpretation of Suresh Gulage’s amazing artwork. – Abha Iyengar

Asha Iyer Kumar

About Asha Iyer Kumar

Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author, poet, active blogger, and a writing coach and mentor for children and adolescents. She has been a columnist with Khaleej Times for several years, and is a regular contributor to popular blogs like Mompresso and DailyO. She is the author of the novel, ‘Sand Storms, Summer Rains’, a poetry collection, ‘Hymns from the Heart’, and a collection of short stories, ‘After The Rain – Stories that Bind Us’