Her feet hurt most of the time but she didn’t mind them so much. She could hide them in those ugly made-to-order shoes. But she could not hide her hands, could she?
Manjula Parelkar knew she would never paint like Hussain, but she could learn to paint well. Handling well brushes was no problem; they didn’t feel any different from a pencil. Her problem was the cost of the materials she would need.
“Mummy,” she asked one evening while helping her mother in the kitchen after dinner, “do you think I could…” she paused nervously, “…I could have some extra money tomorrow?”
“What do you need it for?” asked her mother gently, rinsing the dishes.
“For ice-cream,” answered her brother from the door with an impish grin. Thumping the door with the palm of his hand he chanted, “We want ice-cream! We want ice-cream.” Ignoring him her mother repeated, “Why do you need the money, Manjula?”
“For colours and paints … I … I want to learn painting.”
“Painting?” asked her mother unbelievingly. “Painting? But … you …” She added quickly, “Of course, it’s a nice hobby.”
“It will be more than a hobby,” replied Manjula quietly.
Mrs. Parelkar looked at her daughter searchingly. She gazed long into those serious, melancholic eyes. Closing the tape she walked over to the kitchen cupboard and pulled out an ornate, metal tea box from the topmost shelf.
“My piggy bank,” she smiled. “Don’t let out the hiding place.” Then she pressed a few notes into Manjula’s hands. “Go ahead and buy whatever you need, dear. Have fun and show me the painting.”
Manjula Parelkar showed her first painting to her mother the very next day.
“Manjula,” cried her mother dropping her needlework in surprise, “why, that is beautiful. I didn’t know you were this good.”
“Do you really think so?” asked Manjula doubtfully.
“Of course, dear,” she held the water-colour painting at arm’s length. “It looks perfect.”
“Oh, Ma,” cried Manjula pleased, “this is just the beginning. I’ll pick up fast.”
“I’m sure you will,” her mother returned the painting.
“You must show it to Papa. He’ll be impressed.”
Mr. Parelkar pushed his glasses up and glanced at Manjula’s work. “Well done. Very good. A nice picture. See, see what all you can do.” Even though he didn’t look at her hands, those claw-like malformed fingers, she knew what he meant. She swallowed dryly, something inside her twisting painfully. She knew the pain. She was used to it. “Keep it up,” her father patted her settling in his favourite chair with the newspaper. He enquired, “Is the tea ready?”
“Why don’t you frame it?” cried her brother Amol, snatching the sheet from Manjula’s hands. “Or why don’t you sell it?” Raising it over his head he imitated an auctioneer, “Two thousands rupees. Two thousand rupees. Who bids more? Two thousand one, two thousand two…”
“Amol,” his mother warned him. “Put that painting down at once! Tell me, have you finished your homework?”
The word ‘homework’ was enough to sober Amol. He crept to his room.
Manjula returned to her brushes and paints and drifted into another world, a brighter world of glowing colour, beautiful forms and perfect shapes – the world where she wanted to belong so desperately.
Nobody had asked Manjula Parelkar what she wanted for her thirteenth birthday. But she got all she had secretly wished for.
“Oh Mummy! Mummy,” cried Manjula overwhelmed. “A set of artist’s water colours. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
“And this is from your father.” Her mother pressed a book in her hands.
‘Painting, Step by Step,’ Manjula jumped in excitement, her dark eyes shining with happiness. “Oh Papa, I could have never dreamt of this.”
“You wouldn’t have dreamt of this present either,” said her brother with a mischievous smile, holding out a big parcel, tightly wrapped and knotted. Manjula eyed it suspiciously. Sometimes she wasn’t too sure whether her brother was mischievous or simply mean.
But he wouldn’t be mean on her birthday! She began undoing the tight knots and took off the wrapper only to find another knot staring at her. She hated unknotting parcels. Why did her brother do this to her?
“Bring her the scissors,” she heard her father’s voice from behind.
“Why?” asked Amol offended. “Isn’t it fun?”
It wasn’t fun. It was sheer torture. However, she struggled on with the knots, all eleven of them. When finally she managed to unravel the last one she found a little box with a slip of paper inside. She knew what would be written on it: ‘Sorry, better luck, next time!’ It was just like Amol! Though he was only a year younger, sometimes she felt a hundred years older than him.
“Read it,” he urged.
She read, “Look for the next clue under your pillow!”
“Oh no,” cried Manjula, but her brother pulled her to her bedroom.
He even lifted the pillow for her. And there, tied with a pink ribbon, lay three water-colour brushes.
“Sable hair,” said her brother, “artist’s quality.”
She studied the new book from cover to cover and soon used up all her papers. She knew for good water-colour paintings, she needed special water-colour paper. But that was expensive.
“Mummy,” she told her mother, pointing at the thin wobbly paper. “I could do much better paintings on real water – colour paper. What do you think?
“You are right,” replied her mother, “but, oh… what a wonderful painting. You have improved a lot. I’ll talk to Papa today.”
After dinner, when the children were in bed, Mrs. Parelkar spoke to her husband about Manjula’s paintings. Manjula did not understand why her father’s voice was raised. He never raised it in front of her mother. With her heart thumping wildly, she tiptoed towards the drawing room, and peeped in.
“Smita, please,” she heard her father say. “Water-colour paper is expensive. And she won’t need one only. She’ll need dozens of them. Where will the money come from? It doesn’t grow on trees.”
“I know,” her mother’s voice was soft and pacifying. “The price of petrol has gone up,” her father continued while pacing the room, “the price of vegetables has shot up. Amol needs a new pair of shoes. These curtains need a change.” He stopped and looked at his wife tenderly, “And you, you haven’t had a new saree since last Diwali. Do you think I don’t notice all this?”
Her mother turned her face away and whispered, “I don’t need a saree. I have enough to last me a lifetime. Let’s buy her a few sheets to begin with.”
“Smita, Smita,” said Mr. Parelkar wearily, “it’s not a matter of a few sheets. After water-colour it will be oils, then canvases, and what not. Why does she want to paint, of all things? Why doesn’t she learn something more useful, like cooking or stitching? With those hands of hers she’ll never become an artist.”
“Please,” cried her mother, “don’t say that ever again. Never. I tell you she has talent. Maybe we should show her paintings to an authority on art!”
Manjula Parelkar returned to her room. She didn’t wait for an authority on art to see her paintings. She tore them into bits – one by one, slowly, without shedding a tear, her claw-like fingers absolutely steady. She bundled up the water-colours and three brushes, all of best ‘artist’s quality’ and tucked them away into the farthest corner of her cupboard.
“Mother,” she said the next day, coming into the kitchen, “do you need some help in cooking?”
“Why Manju, why?” her mother looked at her in surprise. “Why Manju, why?” she repeated, glimpsing the pain in her eyes.
“Because,” said Manjula, in as steady a voice as she could manage, “because I think cooking is a useful thing.” Manjula Parelkar learned to cook, to fry and to bake. She hated it. And she ate all she cooked, fried and baked. She hated that the most.
“Heh! This curry is real good, Mummy,” cried Amol. “I’d like some more.”
“Manjula made it,” smiled Mrs. Parelkar.
“Manjula,” asked her brother surprised. “Cooking? Since when are you cooking? I thought you were into painting.”
“I stopped painting,” returned Manjula, her eyes on her plate.
“But why?” Amol was shocked. “You were so good at it. You must be crazy.”
“Amol,” his father scolded him, “no such language in this house.”
“Sorry, Papa, but why must she do a dumb thing like this? I thought she would enter the ‘On-the-Spot Painting Competition’ in November, at my school. Why, she would have easily bagged the first prize. Hey, Manju,” he turned to his sister, “why don’t you try for me?”
Silence hung over the dining table. Nobody spoke. Manjula waited, hoping for a word from her father. Her shoulders sagged when Mr. Parelkar casually changed the topic. “I have to go to Bombay next week. There’s an important meeting at the Taj. “I’ll need my suit. Could you take it out and get it ironed?”
‘Bombay,’ thought Manjula Parelkar. She would like to go to Bombay too. People were different there. They might not whisper about her hands when they see her for the first time. Or give her that dreaded ‘Oh-God-poor-child kind of look.’ And there was an art college in Bombay. Art! Manjula Parelkar was through with art. She had given it up for good. However much it hurt, however much.
“Manju,” her mother’s voice reached her from far away, “will you give me a hand?”
Manjula helped her mother take down the steel trunk. Mrs. Parelkar opened it but then shut it again. She turned to Manju, decisively. “Manju, I would like to talk to you. I….”
“Mother, please,” interrupted the girl, her dark eyes burning. “Don’t…”
“Please, Mother! Please!”
Mrs. Parelkar gripped her daughter firmly by the shoulders and looked her straight in the eyes. He voice firm with determination, she said, “Don’t give in, Manju! There is so much in you that other girls don’t have. Let it come up. Even if you have to fight. Fight, Manju, fight.”
Manju’s throat was thick with tears. She turned away from her mother.
“Manju, look at me,” her mother said gently. “You have to learn to master obstacles. The will and the strength to overcome them can only come from within yourself.”
Manjula turned around in anguish. “Stop preaching, Mother, just stop preaching. You see, it is … it is …”
‘It is all Papa’s fault,’ she wanted to say, but deep inside she knew it wasn’t.
She dashed to her room, flung herself on the bed and buried her face in the pillow. But she couldn’t cry. The tears just would not come. When at last she sat up, her eyes fell on a newspaper cutting on the table. Strange, she thought, I didn’t keep it there. Puzzled, she picked it up and read, ‘Playing soccer with artificial feet!’ The bold heading screamed at her. ‘In New Hampshire,’ she read on, ‘Rich Belanger who had lost his feet in a train accident, decided to play football with artificial feet. His coach thought it was ridiculous. His parents did not like it. (This sentence was underlined in red.) But Belanger stuck to it and made it to the Nashau team as the defensive end.’
Manjula Parelkar dropped the clipping. What a brave boy, she thought. He didn’t give up. He played on, despite what other people said. Perhaps her mother was right. She had to fight, fight on like Rich Belanger. Manjula walked over to her cupboard, hunted through the pile of clothes and pulled out her colours and brushes. She ran her thumb over the soft bristles and the longing to paint, see and smell colours drove tears into her eyes.
On the day of the ‘On-the-Spot Painting Competition’, shortly after breakfast, her brother said, “I am off, Ma. Rattan and I are helping at the entrance gate. They are expecting a big crowd.” Turning to Manjula he said casually, “Pity you aren’t coming. I’m sure, you would have won a prize.”
“I might win one still,” Manjula replied as casually as she could. “It’ll depend on the subject in my category.”
“Your category?” cried Amol. “Manju, heh, does that mean you are participating?” He jumped up and pumped her hands up and down. “I knew you would do it! I was sure you wouldn’t give in.”
Manjula freed her hands and answered softly, “If Rich Belanger could do it, why not Manjula Parelkar?”
Her brother looked at her, a broad smile spread over his face.
“Rich Belanger?” Mrs. Parelkar asked, surprised. “Who is Rich Belanger?”
“Rich Belanger,” spoke Manjula and her brother together, “plays soccer with artificial feet. Isn’t that something?”