The Portrait of a Baby
It was on Christmas night at around 11 o’clock, when everyone was partying the night away at clubs, discos and beaches, that Samuel the painter was busy in his studio.
Samuel was poor, very poor. He lived alone in a shanty built entirely out of tin and wood, which was 6 feet by 4 feet, in one of the slums of Mumbai, India. This shanty of his, also served as his studio, where he painted portraits of nouveau riche business merchants and postcards with floral scenes, to be sold on the streets of Mumbai during fairs and festivals.
Samuel tried the whole of Christmas morning, to sell some of his painted postcards on the streets of the bazaar. He had hoped that some of his floral designs would attract the eyes of those celebrating Christmas or that maybe his woeful appearance would evoke some empathy or sympathy from a passerby, thus bestowing upon him a donation of at least fifty rupees, so that he could have something decent to eat for the week.
Unfortunately, he did not sell a single postcard, in spite of spending the entire day in the biting cold. Although it does not snow in Mumbai during winter, the cold breeze and atmosphere can be quite harsh on a painter’s hungry body, with only a khadi kurta and flimsy worn out dark blue jeans. He returned to his shanty by 6 o’clock in the evening, tired and famished, with a bundle of his floral postcards still in his hand. In fury tinged with frustration, he flung his creations upon his filthy and damp bed, picked up his paint brush and tried to finish a painting he had begun the previous night. Outside his window Christmas revelers were hugging each other with presents in their hands, wishing each other a very happy Christmas.
“Happy Christmas,” muttered Samuel under his breath, as his curly long raven hair, which reached right upon his shoulders and which had not been washed for months, fell tenderly over his pox marked fair face. “What’s so happy about it? I’m still starving!” exclaimed Samuel to himself sarcastically, as his paint brush moved briskly and furiously over the canvas.
The paint on the easel mixed themselves according to Samuel’s command and brought out beautiful shades of greenish-chrome yellow and aquamarine, that would have charmed any observer, but unfortunately not the observers that Samuel came across.
“I should have listened to my mother,” murmured Samuel as he did a few minor touchups to the painting, “I should have joined my father in the family business…but no, I was stubborn, I wanted to be an artist…ha!, some artist I have made myself….can’t even keep warm in this weather….did not even go to Church for fear that the rotten stench from my cold body, would spoil a decent man’s Christmas…I’m not a painter, I’m just a loser…a loser!”
As Samuel uttered the last sentence, he dropped his paint brush and fell upon the muddy floor of his shanty, in front of his painting ….and started to weep like a child, his curly long hair covering his face completely.
Just then….an unearthly sound of a pipe being played, echoed through the dilapidated shanty. Samuel immediately raised his head up and looked around, his tears still wet upon his crimson cheeks.
“Who is it?” came Samuel’s voice in fear. He thought that his hungry mind was playing tricks with him….but the pipe playing continued uninterrupted. Samuel staggered himself, trembling with terror, to a standing position….and then realized that the pipe playing was coming from his painting.
Now the painting itself was a strange piece of art in itself. It was the portrait of a beautiful damsel, with silvery white hair, clad in a simple gown which was aquamarine in colour. She was holding a radiant sunflower at her breast in her left hand, while her right hand was raised to the heavens. She was surrounded by a number of snow white doves.
Samuel stared fixedly at the painting especially at the eyes of the resplendent damsel, which was honey brown and full of pathos.
It then happened…the damsel blinked her extraordinarily large eyes and smiled a tender hearted smile at Samuel. Samuel froze in amazement as the enchanting damsel pulled herself out of the picture canvas and with the sunflower still daintily held in her hand, stood strong and tall in front of her creator Samuel.
“I’ve gone balmy….this can’t be happening,” whimpered the horror struck Samuel rubbing his eyes continuously with the back of his hands.
“Do not fear me painter,” declared the maiden, in a voice that sounded like the gush of cold wind.
“What…what do you want with me?” stammered the painter.
The damsel looked carefully all around the poor wretched room and said: “You are to paint a picture for me. I am the spirit of resplendent poverty.”
“Spirit…spirit,” gasped Samuel but the damsel paid no heed to his mutterings.
“You, oh painter, will paint a marvellous picture of the baby in the manger with his mother and foster father.”
“Jesus’ birth,” mumbled Samuel astonished.
“Yes, oh painter,” affirmed the spirit now gliding all over the room, making Samuel feel quite giddy, “If the painting is completed by midnight tomorrow, you will be rewarded with gold but……if you fail, you will be killed on the spot and doomed to roam the earth as a ghost, for the rest of eternity.”
The thought of being rewarded with gold appealed to Samuel, although he could not digest the part about roaming the Earth as a ghost. He was about to pinch himself to see if he was awake, but before he could, the damsel backed herself into her own picture and was frozen as a piece of the canvas once again. Samuel looked at the clock on the broken stool near his bed; it was 12 midnight. Immediately although he yearned for food and was chilled to the bone, he put a fresh sheet on his easel and began to paint.
For the next fourteen hours, Samuel drew and painted like a madman, without a pause and without a sound coming from his mouth. Most of the slum dwellers went to work the next morning, but Samuel just painted. An elderly lady from the neighbouring shanty, even knocked on Samuel’s door, to share with him the leftover red meat of the previous night, but Samuel did not answer the door.
By two o’clock in the afternoon the picture was almost ready. The manger was dark, filled with warm hay and occupied by a few lambs and an old cow. In front, in a posture of reverence knelt a very swarthy but handsome Saint Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, while lying down next to him, tired and pale after giving birth, was the Mother of Jesus, who looked like a teenager, with warm light blue eyes and long silky raven black hair. Next to her wrapped up in white swaddling cloth, was a new born baby with a healthy body… but no face.
The problem was that Samuel could not find in his imagination, a fitting image for the new born. He rattled his head and pulled his hair, but nothing seemed to be to his liking. He tried to recall images of infants he had known, but none was suiting his purpose. He painted the rest of the picture carefully, and yet was unable to think of a face that would fit the baby Jesus.
The hours passed on quickly from two o’clock to three o’clock…four….five…six….seven, but Samuel remained puzzled.
“No face, no face is worth it,” grumbled Samuel breaking a wooden paint brush into two. The slum dwellers had returned to the slum by eight o’clock that night, after a hard day’s work. Some were drunk and some were shouting abuses at each another which terribly annoyed Samuel.
“Shut up, I need to concentrate!!” shouted Samuel at them from his window and then got back to sketching a face with his black crayon.
“Now what’s with the silly painter?” asked one of the middle-aged slum dwellers in a gruff voice.
“He’s been painting all day…only one picture,” answered a young lad clad in a dhoti, who lived outside Samuel’s shanty.
“Picture of what?” asked the elderly lady who had earlier come with the leftover red meat.
The lad smiled as he replied: “The picture of Christmas, Jesus as a baby in the stable, with his foster father and Mother….just that the baby has no face!”
The crowd outside Samuel’s shanty started to laugh derisively, without mercy. Samuel burned within with anger, but said nothing and continued to sketch, his finger black with grime and charcoal.
After a while there was a knock on Samuel’s door.
“Why don’t they leave me alone?” grumbled Samuel, throwing his black Camlin crayon on the muddy floor and moved towards the door to open it and give the intruder a piece of his mind.
Outside stood the old lady who had come in the morning, wearing a tattered white sari and green plastic bangles, holding a small picture in her hands.
“What is it now?” asked Samuel rudely.
The old lady with a feeble smile gave Samuel the tiny picture and said:
“Son, I heard you were having trouble finding a suitable face for the baby in the manger, so I thought….I thought my picture would help.”
Samuel stared at the picture….and his face shone in delight. The picture was actually a photograph of an extraordinarily beautiful new born baby, wrapped in a torn bed sheet with a smile on his face and pretty ebony black eyes.
“Thank you so much dear old woman,” replied Samuel beaming with joy. “This child is perfect for my portrait….by the way, who is he?”
The old lady’s eyes brimmed with hot tears as she answered meekly:
“This is the photograph of my son, Randir.”
The answer astounded Samuel, for Randir, the old lady’s son was a murderer and drug smuggler, who was condemned and hanged.
‘He was a very beautiful child,” mumbled Samuel distraught.
“You can give him salvation by painting him….and goodnight to you,” answered the lady in a choked voice, as she retreated back to her own shanty after closing Samuel’s door.
Samuel did not appreciate the fact that he had to give Randir’s face to Jesus…but the old lady did request him….so he copied the image of the charming face onto his canvas.
At midnight, the damsel appeared again and Samuel greeted her with courtesy and pointed towards the picture.
The sound of a pipe playing began again as the damsel stared at the portrait….but suddenly the music ceased as she pointed to the face of the baby with shock in her eyes.
“Who is this?” she exclaimed.
“The child Jesus,” replied Samuel.
“You lie to me,” said the damsel still pointing to the face of the baby, “This is the face of the murderer Randir.”
“There you are wrong,” replied Samuel with determination, “No child is born a murderer. All children are born innocent and bring happiness and hope to their parents, just the way Jesus did. The difference here is that Jesus though mortal, was Emmanuel, God incarnate, whereas a mortal child can only become one when joined to the heart of Jesus….I through this painting have pleaded salvation for the soul of a mortal, for the sake of a poor mother.”
The damsel was pleased with Samuel’s answer, and all at once the pipe playing started again, with a choir of children’s voices singing the carol:
“Come and behold him, born the King of angels
O come, let us adore him
O come, let us adore him
O come, let us adore him
Christ the Lord.”
Then there was a bright light that spread all over the shanty, blinding Samuel for a minute.
When he rubbed his eyes and looked again, he was overjoyed to see his whole shanty overflowing with gold coins, bedazzling him. The portrait of the Christmas scene had vanished, and in its place stood Randir, dressed in a white robe with a bright yellow sash around his waist, who smiled at Samuel and said:
“Thank you for helping me. We shall meet again in heaven.”
Randir then vanished leaving Samuel scratching his filthy head, with a beaming smile of peace.
Copyright © 2012 Fiza Pathan
A short story from my book ‘Treasury of Bizarre Christmas Stories’