|TWENTY-SEVEN VELVET BOXES|
By Zia Marshall Shoma scooped up her hair into a ponytail as she ran down the stairs to get breakfast ready for Farhaan. Soft sunlight filtered in through the large picture window that framed the side of the staircase. Shoma lingered for a few moments by the window taking in the early morning sounds as the world gently came awake. She stared appreciatively at the sky. It was a beautiful medley of soft colors – pale blue tinged with fiery orange and delicate pink hues. She smiled when she saw a snow-white pigeon flying by the window. The pale sunbeams slanted through its pristine white feathers and they glowed in the gentle morning light. If only, Shoma thought longingly, she could be as free as that pigeon flying in the sky.
The striking of the clock announcing the hour startled her out of her reverie. It was already seven and Farhaan would soon be down. He grew impatient if his breakfast was not waiting for him at the table.
Entering the kitchen, Shoma swiftly rolled out the dough for the paratha, deftly stuffing it with creamy-yellow potatoes before folding the edges into a triangle. She rolled the dough once more, gently this time, so that the potato didn’t spill out. She set the paratha on the pan and watched as it puffed up slightly and turned a golden brown. Sliding it onto a plate, she set a bowl of curds next to it and dashed into the dining room.
Shoma heaved a sigh of relief when she saw that Farhaan had not yet come down. She neatly folded the newspaper and placed it beside his plate. Then she fished out the letter from the pocket of her jeans and stared at it for a long moment. Should she show it to Farhaan? With trembling fingers, she opened the envelope and drew out the letter reading it once more although she already knew its contents almost word for word. It was an offer letter from a university in Paris. They were impressed by her work and had invited her to attend a six-month art course. Shoma fingered the stiff official-looking stationery. If only Farhaan would relent and let her go. It would catapult her into a different league of artists altogether. She would learn things, which she could never dream of learning here. Then she thought of Farhaan’s reaction and unbidden, there rose in her mind, an image of the velvet boxes stacked in the drawer of her cupboard. She shuddered inwardly and was on the verge of stuffing the letter back into her pocket. Then, at the last minute, she changed her mind. She would show the letter to Farhaan, she decided, with a sudden air of defiance. If she hid it away, she would always wonder why she hadn’t at least tried. Perhaps, she could convince him to let her go to Paris. After all, six months was not such a long time.
Shoma mentally rehearsed the words she would use to coax Farhaan. Just as she was placing the letter beside Farhaan’s plate, he strode into the room, struggling to knot his tie. Settling down on the chair, he opened the newspaper that Shoma had placed beside his plate. The crisp pages rustled as he turned to the Business section and scanned the news, while hurriedly eating his breakfast at the same time. Shoma sat next to him, gazing at the familiar furrow that always appeared at the point between his eyebrows, when he was concentrating on something. He hadn’t noticed the letter. Shoma wondered if she should avoid mentioning it. Maybe this wasn’t such a good time to broach the subject, she thought. She’d ask him in the evening, when he was more relaxed.
Suddenly a wave of resentment swept over Shoma. Would it always be like this, she wondered. Would she always have to match her words to suit Farhaan’s moods? Defiantly, she decided to broach the subject right away.
“Farhaan,” she said.
“Hmm, what’s it?” he asked from behind the pages of the paper.
“There’s a letter beside your newspaper. Didn’t you notice it?” Shoma asked hesitantly.
Farhaan glanced down and picked up the letter. He turned it around in his fingers, raising his eyebrows when he noticed the address from the Paris University stamped on the back of the envelope.
“It’s an offer letter, Farhaan. The university has accepted me for a six-month art course. I would really like to go. It will give me a chance to learn so much, spread my wings, take my art to a new level,” Shoma said, speaking quickly as she stared at Farhaan. She held her breath wondering how he would react. And yet, deep down, in the secret place within her, where truth always rings out loud and clear, she knew what his reaction would be.
Farhaan tossed the letter aside contemptuously and rose from his chair. Shoma knew what would follow. She watched him walk around the table to the chair where she was seated.
“So you want to leave me for six whole months, Shoma,” Farhaan said, in a voice that had almost dropped to a whisper. Shoma cowered in the chair, head bent, holding up her hands in a vain attempt to protect herself.
“Look around you,” he snarled, holding her hair and yanking back her head. “I have given you so much. And yet you talk of leaving, Shoma! Do you really expect me to let you go to Paris for six months? What kind of fool do you take me for?”
Shoma watched him with detachment, noting the steely look in his eyes as he stared down at her. She knew the danger signs by now. She knew that the sensible thing to do would be to back off and say she didn’t really want to go to Paris and wasn’t interested in the course. But something within her prompted her to continue.
“It’s such a wonderful opportunity, Farhaan. I know I’m attending art classes here, but they are a pale shadow compared to what I could learn out there. Please Farhaan, I really want to do this. Perhaps you could come with me,” Shoma said, grasping the sleeve of his shirt, as he relaxed his hold on her hair. She wondered if he would relent and then realized that she had been hoping for far too much.
Gently, Farhaan started stroking her hair. Shoma shuddered for she knew what would follow. She would not scream she told herself, clenching her hands into fists. She would not give him that satisfaction, she thought as the blows rained down on her, as he slapped and shouted and then slapped some more.
“How dare you even think of leaving me,” he shouted angrily, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her hard till her head snapped back and forth and she was sure she would black out.
Then it stopped, almost as suddenly as it had started. And Farhaan was in her arms, begging forgiveness, promising it would not happen again. Instinctively, she found herself running her fingers through his thick hair and soothing him, telling him it didn’t matter. Tenderly, he cupped her face in his hands and looked into her large tear-filled eyes. He turned away when he saw the hurt and betrayal in them.
“Don’t look like that, Shoma,” he pleaded, gently rubbing the blue-black bruise on her cheek. “Shoma,” he whispered softly, gently raising her chin till she was forced to look at him. “I’m sorry I lost control. It’s just that the thought of you leaving me drives me into a rage. I promise it won’t happen again.”
She nodded listlessly.
“I have to go,” he said, almost apologetically. “You’ll be fine, won’t you?”
She nodded, marveling at the concern she saw in his eyes.
“I’ll make it up to you this evening, I promise,” he said.
She stood at the door, watching as he got into his car and pulled out of the driveway. She knew he would bring her a gift that evening. What would it be, she wondered. A diamond necklace? Or a ruby bracelet, perhaps? Her drawer was full of these gifts. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds all lay in their deep blue velvet boxes, their blazing brilliance matching the fury that simmered in Farhaan’s eyes. She smiled and accepted each gift with quiet equanimity. She stacked them neatly in the drawer but she never wore them. She couldn’t bear to put on these mute yet fiery symbols of Farhaan’s anger and her submission.
Suddenly she was filled with curiosity. Making her way to the bedroom, she opened the wardrobe. Removing the velvet boxes, she stacked them neatly on the bed. Slowly she counted the stack of boxes. Twenty-seven velvet boxes lay on the bed; twenty-seven times Farhaan had struck her in the year since they had been married. And today she would add the twenty-eighth box to the pile. And so it would go on, she realized. When would it stop, she wondered. Would it stop when the drawer was full and couldn’t hold any more boxes? She imagined herself telling Farhaan, “Stop Farhaan, you mustn’t strike me. You see the drawer is quite full and we really don’t have any more room to add another velvet box.” She wondered if he would kill her then. Or would it be earlier? While there was still room in the drawer for a few more velvet boxes.
Chiding herself for being morbid, she picked up the boxes and returned them to the drawer. Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was almost eleven o’clock. If she hurried, she could still make it to her art class. Practice had taught Shoma how to distance herself from the reality of her situation. She had learned the fine art of stepping away from her body and observing herself like a detached observer. She was totally calm and composed as she dressed, choosing a long-sleeve shirt and jeans to cover the latest evidence of Farhaan’s anger. Then she made her way to the dressing table, randomly opening drawers and piling make-up on to the table. She started on her face, adding an extra layer of concealer to the bruises, and then coating her face with foundation. She applied make-up with methodical precision. Then she surveyed the result in the mirror, gazing at her face for a long moment to make sure that the bruises weren’t visible.
“God gave you one face and you make yourself another,” she recalled Farhaan telling her long ago as he had watched her applying make-up. It was before they had married, while they had still been in college. Farhaan had been fond of quoting literature and Shakespeare had been a particular favorite. She smiled ironically at her reflection in the mirror for it was indeed another face she wore nowadays, one that she often didn’t recognize in more ways than one.
She was five minutes late to class. Apologizing to her instructor, Karan, she slid behind her easel. It looked like today would be what Karan called a “free reign” class.
“Draw what you want, or better still draw what you feel,” he was saying to the class. “Let your art emerge from the depths of your soul and those of you who can manage it, be your art.”
Shoma drew in bold rough strokes, struggling to capture the image that was floating at the gray edges of her consciousness. Soon she was engrossed in her painting, and for a while she managed to block out the reality that was threatening her sanity with each passing day. Her fingers worked feverishly as she gave form to the image – the hot relentless sun, the parched earth, the old and gnarled tree shorn of leaves and the solitary figure crouched beneath it drawing scant comfort from its meager shade. She was so absorbed in the painting that she didn’t notice the other students leaving the class. Looking up, she realized that Karan was standing behind her studying her picture.
“It’s good,” he said frowning at the painting. “You’ve captured the essence of the emotion or mood you are trying to convey. But you need to work on your technique a bit. Here let me show you.” Taking her hand in his, he showed her how to modify the painting, add more depth to the image. “Have you thought of a name for the painting?” he asked.
“A Study in Solitude,” she replied in a dull voice.
“The figure under the tree is you, isn’t it, Shoma?” he asked candidly.
She started shaking her head, and then found herself nodding instead.
“Are things that bad, Shoma? What’s going on with you?”
“It’s nothing,” she mumbled, shaking her head. “Forget it.” She turned away to hide her tears.
“Talking helps, you know. Would you like to tell me about it?”
Shoma shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. “I can’t,” she whispered.
But Karan refused to give up. She looked so lost and forlorn, that somehow he knew that he had to save her – from herself if need be.
“Come with me,” Karan said gently. “Let’s have a cup of coffee.”
“I can’t,” Shoma protested, shaking her head vigorously. “I hardly know you and besides it wouldn’t be proper.”
“Why? Is it because you’re married?”
She nodded. “Yes, Farhaan wouldn’t like me going out with another man, even if it is for an innocent cup of coffee.”
“And do you always do what Farhaan wants?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Well, I won’t take no for an answer, Shoma,” Karan said stubbornly. “Besides what Farhaan doesn’t know can’t hurt him.”
Taking her hand, he led her out of the studio. They made their way to a tiny coffee shop. After they had ordered, Karan placed his hand over Shoma’s. She found the gesture strangely comforting and swiftly bowed her head as tears formed in her eyes. Raising her face, he gently wiped the tears that were rolling down her cheeks.
“You’re young, beautiful, and very talented, Shoma. You have everything to look forward to in life.”
“You don’t know…you can’t possibly understand what my life is like,” she said.
Karan gazed at her. She seemed meek and suppressed. Yet his artist’s eye caught the almost severe lines of her jaw, the firm set of her lips that told him she was made of sterner stuff.
“I’d like to paint you, Shoma,” he said.
“Why?” she asked, astonished.
“Because I’d like to strip away the face you are trying to show the world. I’d like to show you what you are actually made of, who you really are,” Karan said and she frowned at the intensity in his voice. “But I have to warn you. If I am to paint you properly, I will first have to make love to you,” he added, candidly.
He waited, wondering how she would react. Shoma stared at Karan incredulously. What he had just said was outrageous, beyond the bounds of propriety. And yet, something within her craved warmth, comfort and shelter perhaps, even it was fleeting, from the blazing corrosive love that Farhaan offered.
“It won’t take more than an afternoon,” he said. “You’ll be home by this evening.”
One afternoon, she thought, as she recalled the twenty-seven velvet boxes stacked neatly in her drawer. Yes, she thought, she had certainly earned an afternoon in which she could live life freely; an afternoon in which she needn’t feel like a stuffed animal living in a glass case.
“Why not!” she said, laughing as she threw caution to the winds. She held out her hand to him. “Come, let’s go before I change my mind.”
Grinning, he took her hand in his and led her out of the coffee shop and back to the studio. The place had a deserted air.
“I don’t have any more classes scheduled for today,” Karan explained.
He led her to the couch in the far corner of the room. Gently lowering her onto the couch, he undressed her. Then he explored her body with his mouth and his hands, cupping, molding, tasting, till she arched her back with pleasure and called out his name. When he entered her, she wrapped her legs around him, placing her hands on his hips, urging him on.
The whole act seemed surreal; it had an almost dream-like quality to it. Shoma gave herself up to the moment. Karan’s arms were strong and comforting. His body felt different; the way they fit together was also different. She drew him closer to her, encircling him in her arms. Closing her eyes, she realized that there was none of the tumultuous passion she was accustomed to. With Farhaan, she felt she was like a wave in the wild sea as it crashed against the rocks. But with Karan it was strangely different, infinitely more tender, like the soft rocking of a boat in a serene sea. Karan was a gentle lover, careful of her needs, and she felt strangely secure in his arms as he led them both to the brink of passion till at last they collapsed in each other’s arms.
Rising, he walked to the easel and placed it beside her. Idly, Shoma wondered if she should protest – he was planning on painting her in the nude. But the afternoon had driven away the last of her inhibitions. Besides, she felt too good about herself to move. Settling down on the couch, she watched as Karan’s hands flew over the easel in easy rhythmic movements. She felt free and light and happier than she had felt in a long time, as she drifted off to sleep, a smile tugging at her lips. When she opened her eyes, she saw Karan dabbing at the easel with a soft cloth. “Don’t move,” he said, urgently. “It’s almost done.”
She lay still, till at last, he laid down the brush with a satisfied sigh.
“Yes,” he said. “I think I’ve managed to capture it.”
She was curious. “Can I see it?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he replied.
Taking the painting, he carried it to the opposite corner of the studio and propped it against a large mirror that occupied the length of a wall.
“Close your eyes,” he instructed.
With a smile, she obeyed, holding out her hands to him. He led her to the painting.
“I want you to see the woman in the painting and compare her with the woman you see in the mirror,” Karan said, urgently, almost harshly.
She wondered what he was talking about. But when she opened her eyes, she understood. She gasped when she saw the woman in the painting. It looked like her. The shape of the face was the same and her features were also the same. But it wasn’t her! This woman in the painting had boundless energy in her eyes; her own eyes that stared back at her from the mirror were flat and dead. Shoma stared at the woman in the painting, taking in the arched eyebrows, the proud, almost defiant tilt of the head.
“The woman in the painting is so strong and determined,” she whispered. “She looks like she can reach out and do almost anything. But the woman in the mirror looks like life has beaten her. She is dead, defeated, a shadow of her true self.”
Shoma stumbled away from the painting. “It’s not true,” she cried. “It’s an illusion, an artist’s trick. Oh, you are cruel. You make me want things that cannot be, that can never be. You should have left me alone.”
Furiously, she looked around for her clothes and dressed herself. She was angry with Karan for showing her who she could be. She was also angry with herself for she didn’t believe she had it within her to ever be that woman.
“I am sorry if I have offended you, Shoma,” Karan said. “I wanted to offer you a glimpse of what is hidden within you waiting to be released. But how you eventually choose to live your life is up to you, isn’t it?”
She walked out of the studio without a word. A growing sense of numbness overtook her as she walked home. She felt she was growing smaller and smaller, while the walls closed in around her. She craved the feel of the paintbrush in her hands and the roughness of the canvas beneath her fingers. She needed to paint what she was feeling. Painting would help her decide what to do next. Reaching home, she walked into the small studio at the back of the house. It was hot and airless, but she didn’t throw open the windows as she normally did when she entered the room. She didn’t switch on the lights either but painted in darkness. She didn’t need to see what she was painting, because it was embedded in the core of her being. She needed to rip out her soul and place it on canvas.
Closing her eyes, Shoma painted. She knew from memory where each color was located on her palette and instinctively she knew the right amount of color to take when she was blending the paints. The hours ticked away and still she painted, eyes closed. She painted the whirlpool that her life had become, and she painted the harsh gray lightning-filled sky. She painted the shore, calm, beautiful, distant, and unreachable. And she painted the small paper boat that was being sucked into the whirlpool, deeper and deeper.
A fragment from a half-forgotten poem flashed across her mind. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Who had written it, she wondered. And then it came to her as she recalled a long ago literature class in college. Farhaan had been sitting beside her as the professor read out Yeats’s poem. Her mind flashed back to her college days when she had met and fallen in love with Farhaan. Had she known back then, what was concealed within his charming demeanor? Had some part of her guessed how things would turn out? And would she still have chosen to marry him if she had known?
A dim memory nudged at the gray edges of her consciousness. Farhaan was leaning across the table, telling her he had found a job and begging her to marry him. She remembered how pleased he had been when she agreed. She remembered him promising her he would make her very happy. And she remembered him saying that she mustn’t ever allow him to raise his hand on her. If he ever did, she must stop him immediately. Had he known back then, she wondered, about the monster that was lurking within him? Opening her eyes, she stared at the painting before her. “A terrible beauty is born” – another fragment from a poem. Who had written this one? She struggled to remember and then gave up. It didn’t matter; she had her answer. She knew what she had to do.
“Shoma, I have been looking all over the house for you,” Farhaan’s voice cut across her thoughts bringing her back to reality. Walking across the room, he looked at the painting. And Shoma stared at his handsome face, the liquid brown eyes, and the cupid bow of his lips. It was a face she knew so well. Was he the man of her dreams? Or a monster? Or maybe both?
Looking up from the painting, Farhaan stared at his wife in awe. “Shoma, you are so talented. This is the most beautiful painting I have ever seen. Shoma, don’t you see! You don’t need to go to Paris! You are already so very talented, I bet if you went there, you would teach them a thing or two about art. Shoma, why won’t you show your paintings to the world? Why do you want to hide your talent? Shoma, Shoma, Shoma,” taking her hand, he whirled her across the room. And she gazed into his eyes, marveling at the love she saw in them. “I won’t listen to you this time, Shoma. Paris be damned! You will have a show. I will organize it. I want the world to see your paintings. You will be famous. That’s what I want for you.”
She smiled at his enthusiasm.
“Shoma, Shoma, darling Shoma, I want to make you happy forever. See what I’ve got you.”
She stared at the velvet box in his hand, the twenty-eighth box. She watched him open the box and take out the emerald and diamond choker that lay inside. She felt a strange sense of déjà vu as he fastened the choker around her neck. Feeling the cool smoothness of the stones with her fingers, she turned to look at him.
“Come, I want to show you how beautiful you look,” he cried, taking her hand and leading her to the mirror.
Shoma stared at Farhaan in the mirror. He had never looked as handsome as he did in that moment. And she realized that she would always love him. It didn’t matter what he did. It would not shake her love.
The next morning, Farhaan held Shoma close to him, hugging her fiercely before leaving for work. She hugged him back, with all the love she had for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. After he left, she methodically stacked the twenty-seven boxes into an overnight bag. She took nothing else; she needed nothing else. Picking up the bag, she went out to the waiting cab, to freedom, and a new life.
And in the house, by Farhaan’s bed, Shoma had left a note under the diamond and emerald choker trying to explain her love, which grew by the day, and her decision to leave while she still had the strength to do so. About the Author:Zia Marshall holds an MPhil and PhD in English Literature. She is a Learning Designer and Communication Specialist skilled in performance and competency development for personal and professional growth. She creates context-sensitive, solution-oriented e-learning, blended learning, and mobile learning programs for corporate houses like Wipro, Infosys, HCL, DHL and also for the education sector. She is skilled at applying instructional psychology to learning environments and aligning learning programs with business goals and strategies. She has designed and written several courses deploying life skills, communication skills and skills in dealing with workplace issues. She has also conceptualized and designed products and solutions across multiple industries and verticals such as banking and finance, business logistics, management coaching, performance management, software training, product training, process training and sales and service training. She has worked extensively in the K-12 sector to transform conventional textbook material into story-based multimedia solutions and feedback-oriented assessment banks. Her articles have been published in http://www.selfgrowth.com/, https://elearningindustry.com/, http://havingtime.com/, https://overcomingms.org/community/blog/.