A Short Story By Sunil Sharma
Oh! That one!
Well, that is called the Last Indian Duchess.
Not heard about it? No problem. I will fill in. See, most guests give that surprised look. I know, I know, we Indians are not that art-loving nation. How can we be? All the time trying to survive daily odds. Working hard. Kids and all that stuff you know. Devalued rupees as a currency. Low-paid jobs. Yeah! The poor infrastructure—all that.
But that is a digression.
So let me tell you about the Last Indian Duchess.
Well, well. Ever heard of Robert Browning? Nope. It is also expected. How will you? Not an English graduate.
Well…my spouse loved Browning. Loved so much that she would often recite him before her friends, especially My Last Duchess. I heard it so often that even I came to memorize it so well. Imagine. Me reciting verbatim the poem. I see you do not believe. OK. Here it goes:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, — good! but thanked
Somehow — I know not how — as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’ — and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
— E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
I see you are bemused. Most visitors are—after my long recitation. They think the whole thing odd. But it matters not. Yes. So she loved Browning. This poem. Her friends loved the way she recited it on long summer evenings or short winter nights in the room called salon. She was full of ideas. Loved to talk arts and what not. The whole bunch was like that. Nothing else to do. Talk ideas and all that. Sometimes I drifted in to see what was on but the talk and the gang were a turn-off. Yes sir. Discussing utopias. Why not work? Once I asked. And they felt hurt. Mind it. OK. I said I am a landowner—my wife called me her Dutch—and have stocks and other interests as well. We are not idiots. I have read in finest schools and colleges and can hold forth in English with the bunch of these dreamers on any topic—but I never wasted time on these wastrels. Art? My foot!
Sorry! But that is again a digression but it cannot be helped…some digression is inevitable, is it not, sir?
So, where was I?
Yes. The bunch of idlers, dreamers feeding off on her—no, on me, in fact, in this sprawling New Delhi farm-house full of all the facilities and a long driveway—anointed her The Indian Duchess. She loved it—she loved so many things that it ceased surprising me. I understand her fascination with things English. I know. We are a post-colonial nation still hung over this Raj-fixation—everything British. She loved English language, customs, literature, flowers, birds and trees. In fact, she knew a lot more about London rather than New Delhi; their countryside than ours but it is OK. We all like English. With her, it was a bit more.
She acted like the British.
Then, one of the hangers-on, suggested she go for her portrait—like my Last Duchess. She blushed! I had to agree! The search for painter ended in a semi-starved painter Paresh. The bearded fellow with pale-brown eyes and hungry look put me off but my Indian Duchess loved him. I yielded to her charms! What else? As husband, you have to. The painter painted and she would smile faintly. No, not a conscious imitation because she called women as the daughters of the Last Duchess only. “We are imprisoned for life. Some in a golden cage; others in a brass or iron one!” she would exclaim in her salon. I found it disturbing. How can it be a cage? Such a rich household? Servants. Plenty of food. No work. The maids to do her bidding. Phew! Once I asked her strolling in the garden on a balmy summer night. There were fireflies and scents of flowers and fruits. There were stars and a song being wafted on wind from the nearby river. She smiled and said nothing. Fluttered eyelashes like the pair of golden wings of a trapped butterfly in a glass. This act of put-on innocence irked me.
She again fluttered eyelashes, this time more animatedly.
I glowered. I am expecting an answer. SPEAK!
Terrified, she ran inside the country mansion, crying.
I gave up.
So the painting started. It took longer than I thought. The reason was discovered soon.
On a balmy morning, sitting under the shade of a mango tree, my Indian Duchess posed before her painter who was in raptures. That ugly Paresh! Looking at the creamy skin of my spouse! The flawless skin never ever exposed to the sun or the heat of the outdoors or the fires in the cavernous kitchen. The aquiline nose. The arched eyebrows. The flawless rosy complexion.
And that dimpled smile!
Yes, sir. The special smile that earned her fans everywhere.
The smile that would melt even a glacier!
I was taken aback. She was posing as a reclining queen, while her slave watched her hypnotized. I burst upon that idyllic scene and they both woke up from the induced trance.
Two days! I said sternly. Either the painted visage or you go out!
The painting was delivered in less than 48 hours!
That is how things get done by a man of the world.
But she was not happy. She found it lacking. Others gushed over the canvas but she kept quiet. Eyes downcast.
Yes, let us walk down to the company waiting downstairs. Bit careful sir on these steps. Spiral staircases are not good for some.
Yes. I know you are eager for the rest of the story. So, on two nights, I see this horrible dream!
My Indian Duchess running after a male that turns out into the ugly painter. I surprise them in a scented bower, cuddling each other. Confronted, she tells me she is in love with that hungry man. They are in love with each other.
Twice! I see the same dream. And dreams foretell things real only. My spouse sleeping with somebody impoverished and broke. Both mornings I asked her in the ornate bedroom about the revelation. She smiled and said nothing, face reddening.
I understood. My dreams never lie! Her face never lies!
Earlier too I dreamed such dreams. She with some strange person in a bed room.
I knew the truth. It set me free.
I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together
What wonderful lines! They came back suddenly from this poem unbidden.
Yes, please mind the marble step! It curves suddenly—bit dangerously.
Your master is known for his generosity—and his educated daughter is courted more for her fair complexion than a fat dowry.
And sir, one second.
Take a look at this bronze sculpture here, another rarity, in these parts of our country…
About the Author: Sunil Sharma based in Mumbai and is a widely-published Indian critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. He has already published three collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction, one novel and co-edited five books so far. His six short stories and the novel Minotaur were recently prescribed for the undergraduate classes under the Post-colonial Studies, Clayton University, Georgia, USA. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award 2012. Recently his poems were published in the UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree-2015.