On the fourth platform of Eranakulam South Railway Station, the superfast train that runs between New Delhi and Trivandrum which is popularly known as ‘Kerala Express’ has already arrived. At the entrance of the railway station a huge crowd stands in waiting for someone important to come. A white banner hung casually across the tasteless concrete window that conspicuously stands in contrast with the impeccable white uniforms of the officials gathered there announces the arrival of the central Railway Minister. For the time being the railway station and the authorities seem to be less concerned with the passengers as they expectantly wait for the mighty one to alight from one of the trains that would chug in a few minutes’ time at the platform number one. Policemen and security personnel stand alert but their facial expressions betray their weariness. I imagine the minister as a responsible authority and an earnest passenger who has boarded the train two days before from New Delhi and travels all the way to Eranakulam in order to get a firsthand experience of the plight of the ordinary passengers who have to make up with dirty loos and substandard food in the rundown rail bogies. However, commonsense tells me that the minister must have flown in from Delhi and after landing at the Nedumbasseri Airport, he must have taken a train from the nearest railway station, which is Aluva.
Usually I reach railway stations and airports well ahead of time to avoid last minute confusion and above all to keep my blood pressure under control. But today I arrive late, leaving several conversations with scholarly friends half way, saying that those would be continued when we meet in Trivandrum again after two days. A benevolent auto driver takes me to the railway station and he does not overcharge me. At the ticket counter, the booking clerk, a black Mamma, takes her sweet time to punch in a ticket. At the enquiry counter, a young lady whose voice turns into the sound of an android when it passes through a speaker tells me that my train has already come at the platform number four. Steps on the flyover literally fly past under my scurrying feet and I reach a compartment next to the pantry car. Fragrance of various food items waft in the air. The pantry attendants are now relaxed as Eranakulam is the last major junction where a majority of the passengers get down after a forty eight hours long trip. I get a comfortable seat and I try to focus on myself before focusing on other people in the compartment. Last two days were really hectic with animated and spirited conversations till midnight. I try to gather myself and my thoughts, and then try to kill the thoughts one by one till I become vacant. That is a difficult task. But I feel peace and slowly I go into a deep, no not meditation but sleep.
Seated opposite to me there is a young man and a woman whose age I cannot determine vis-a-vis the age of the young man. When I wake up from my comforting slumber, I see this young man and woman. From the paraphernalia that they are carrying along with them I understand they are headed to a hospital for the large envelops are typical to medical reports and X-rays. For a moment I feel that both of them are healthy and their purpose of travel must be different. However, when the young man gets up to go to the washroom, I see him slightly labouring himself to control his body. He gets up and straightens his body with considered efforts. I imagine that he is the ill one. But the lady looks extremely silent though her face shows some kind of tiredness that is not a result of either travel or fatigue. It is the kind of silence and tiredness that we see on the faces of those people who undergo some sort of deep sorrow. She is neither young nor old. Some white hair along the hairline that borders her forehead slightly betray her age. The young man comes back from the washroom and whispers something to her and she promptly takes out the large envelope and pulls out a transparent file. I see a bunch of papers and receipts and to my shock I read the print on one of the papers: ‘Regional Cancer Centre’.
(The Book Cover of Ram Kinker and His Works by K.G.Subramnyan)
I feel a sharp sense of anxiety cutting though my innards, for no reason. I recognize that this young man is suffering from cancer. I still do not know what this woman is to him, mother or sister? She looks too young to be his mother and too old to be his sister. I study their profiles and facial features; they look alike. Now I am sure about their relationship; they must be brother and sister. He picks up a couple of papers from the file and takes out a ball point pen and sets to work. The woman gives him a popular weekly which she was seen reading when I entered the compartment. He starts something on the paper with serious concentration. I watch him working on it. Now I know that he is sketching something. I get this eerie feeling that he wants to sketch me. But he does not look at me. He keeps drawing and covertly I glance at the movements of his right hand. Initially I think that he is drawing a woman sitting at the window. But he does not look at her either. Then I think that he is drawing an imaginary girl who is wearing a skirt and blouse. As he draws the legs, I immediately get this feeling that he has lost it. Soon he finishes his sketching and starts giving some highlighting touches here and there. I cannot hold my curiosity any longer. I ogle at his drawing and find that it is the picture of a Roman soldier, may be a sci-fi character; a sort of memory drawing. He hands over the drawing papers and pen to the woman, she takes it in her hands and looks at it without any change in her facial expression. Then she keeps the papers back inside the file and keeps it inside the large envelope.
Once again the young man gets up laboriously and goes to the washroom. I feel like asking the woman about him but resist myself and wait for the young man to come back. Soon he comes back and the silent conversation between them takes place. As he settles down, I prepare myself to ask my question. I ask him whether he has studied art formally. And he replies in affirmative. I ask for the school’s name. He says the name of a private art institution in North Paraur near Eranakulam. I have not heard about it. He asks whether I am a painter myself or not. My answer is in negative. But I tell him that I am an art writer ( I did not want to confuse him with the titles like art critic or art historian) and explain it further saying that I write about art and artists. Why I do not paint or draw is his next question. I tell him that I do not know how to paint or draw. He tells me that he took out pen and paper to sketch me as he thought that I looked like an arty person. He also says that he recognizes arty people by looking at their hands. I think here he has gone wrong. My hands look more like those of a worker than that of an artist. I remember someone commenting at the Baroda station ticket counter as I was standing in a queue for my ticket and was speaking to a friend in English, saying that these days even the working class people speak in English. With my chosen Spartan looks of all time worst during the student days, there was no surprise that stranger took me for a labourer.
As he speaks on about art, his liking and disliking, I ask him why he did not choose to study art. The woman leans backward and moves her lips in order to tell me that ‘he is unwell’ and I tell her in the same way that I understand. I come to know that she is his mother and he is thirty years old. His father is a tailor working in North Paraur and his brother works in some gulf country. He left his studies by the time he finished his schooling (tenth pass) and did not try for admission in art schools as he did not have the required basic qualification. But since then he has been practicing art and been working as a graphic artist and animator. He has contributed his artistic skills as an animator in one of the recently released movies in Malayalam, he tells me. Soon he moves to the technical matters about art; how to know more about colour mixing, is there any book of tips on line drawing available in Malayalam language etc. I search in my memory for information and I fail miserably. May be there are no technical books in Malayalam about learning how to paint or draw. I ask him why he needs to go through those books at all. He says that he wants to ‘learn’ more about techniques. I tell him technique is perfected as he goes on sketching, drawing and painting. He goes silent for a moment. Then I speak of him about artists who have gone beyond techniques and suddenly I remember that I have a couple of copies of ‘Ram Kinkar and His Art’, a book by K.G.Subramanyan which I have translated into Malayalam. It was released a couple of days back in Kochi by the cultural minister of Kerala.
(The title page of the translated 'Ram Kinkar and His works)
I offer him a copy of the book. He takes it in his hand and looks at me some kind of disbelief in his eyes. I tell him that the copy is for him. He, with a great enthusiasm goes through the pages and I sense that he has been hooked by the images of Ram Kinkar Baij’s works. I tell him more about Ram Kinkar Baij and how he worked without heeding much to technique as he was a master craftsman by nature and by practice. This young man has too many questions and I answer them patiently. I ask him whether he keeps his drawings and sketching for future reference. This time the answer comes from his mother. She tells me how he destroys his drawings periodically after studied review of his own works. I tell him about the need for preserving his works. He says that his main ambition was to make a bust of Lord Shiva in cement and concrete. Not so big, but still big enough, he adds. Then he goes into silence. His mother tells me that it was then he was detected with cancer; he is affected at the lower end of his spine. Doctors have advised an operation. But they have not given any assurance, says the mother. He could even go paralysed from waist, if the operation fails, she adds in a matter of fact way. I do not know what to tell her. Soon he changes his tone; once again he becomes enthusiastic about his opinion on art. Interestingly, he even talks about art market and the kinds of money that art could make. Then he asks me the crucial question; is it necessary to conduct exhibitions to become a great artist? The question is naive, I know. But I tell him that exhibitions are perhaps not necessary but having a body of work is important.
Superfast Kerala Express has been running like a local passenger train and it is already a couple of hours late from the scheduled time. I realize that my station is approaching. I take the book from his hand and scribble down on the title page the following lines: Art heals the body, art heals the mind, art is the ultimate medicine that heals the deadliest of diseases. I write in Malayalam and sign under it. He takes the book back and reads it. His mother too reads it and her expression remains unchanged. I get up to walk towards the door. I hold his long fingered palm with my worker’s hand and tell him: You will go back healed. And you will make your Shiva.
I want to believe that my words come true, though I am an ordinary mortal with no divine powers.