by Padma Prasad
The artist he finally hired was a short young man with a thick beard, long hair and a serious, earnest gaze. His shirt collar was frayed, and he even had a hint of a potbelly that was severely arrested by a worn-out leather belt.
The young man listened intensely as Chen explained the job to him. Just two years out of art school, he was certainly inexperienced but seemed talented enough for Chen, who had become desperate for an illustrator. Chen carefully examined his portfolio and gave him a basic test in technique. The young man, Guru, deftly stroked out a very professional-looking sketch.
"We can stop searching," Chen announced to his family that evening. "The new man will come to work at nine o'clock, not tomorrow but the day after. Wednesday. Tomorrow, he says, is not an auspicious day for him. Which is good, because that, my dear, will give you time to get ready."
His daughter regarded him with a sturdy, unblinking gaze, her mind calculating what needed to be done. For a long time the desire to prove herself to her father had inspired her. When she first showed him her work, he dismissed it with a cursory glance. He would not admit as much, but he liked women to be women. This elder daughter, Kim, however, had always defied him both openly and subtly. Finally he had had to acknowledge that she was a major part of his success. Her long conical fingers were born to draw. Her mathematically precise eyes honed in on the hidden angles and curves of natural objects--leaves, flowers, fruit. When his weavers translated her designs onto fabric, the result was profitable beyond his dreams.
He had invited the sons of his friends to woo her. Kim remained polite but uncooperative. When she saw her father was still not about to give up, she sent her fingers out on strike. It was only when Chen almost lost an important order from Dream-Ins Inc. that he gave up. After that her designs grew even more confident.
The young man--Guru--came to work punctually on Wednesday morning and set up his drafting table, brushes and other materials with a rhythmic but studied care. When Kim first saw him, his shirtsleeves were tightly rolled up, his face purposeful, his fingers already moving like precision instruments.
"This is what you have to do," she said as soon as he noticed her.
She opened a file folder, her eyes on his face. For once, she thought, her father had done something she could approve of. The young man followed her concepts of design and color with almost no explanation. She drew deep, satisfying breaths as Guru's fingers began working, translating each line and shade into a pattern of squares for the weavers. She felt his understanding as something physical and was almost afraid to watch him for too long.
The light fragrance she wore lingered with Guru after she was gone. It was almost as if she remained there beside him, approving. In the morning when he sat down at his table he knew she had been there the night before after he had left--some papers were slightly askew, a brush out of place, sometimes a short brown hair lay on the cover of a folder.
Soon it was time for Chen to give him his first check.
"We are very pleased with your work, Guru," he said, patting him on the back.
"Thank you, Mr. Chen," Guru said, drawing his hand through his hair that moved like a mass of metal wires.
Chen made a face at the gesture. "You don't find this...hairstyle a nuisance?" he said with a false laugh.
The next day Kim stared at Guru in disbelief, too amazed even to look expressionless. His head was shaved and glistening and his beard gone. Not even the trace of a moustache remained. He smiled back and waited. But she merely bent her head over an open file and said, "I see you've altered the color of these flowers, over here."
"I was wondering when you would come by for that piece."
He pulled open the drawer of his desk and took out the original pattern she had left with him, with the color she had specified. She tilted her head over the two different versions, then took a deep breath and said, "Here is today's design."
The paper was trembling in her hand. He steadied it with his own and, selecting an appropriate pen, added a tiny squiggle to the top of each geometric petal in her design. "There. Now it is more perfect."
She stared down at the drawing as if he had just vandalized it. "Maybe you should stick to your own work, and let me do mine."
Just then Chen appeared, waving an opened letter, a big smile on his face.
"Guru, Guru, my friend. Look at this. We have received an award: 'The most innovative fabric design of the year'," he read. "Do you remember the second design Kim gave you? That was the lucky one!"
"It was very beautiful," Guru replied without emotion.
“New hairstyle, Guru? Nice, very nice. They want to interview me for the newspaper. They may even want to talk to you. Both of you. My design team!"
After that, Guru stuck to doing exactly what he was told. If he felt a line was needed or a tint was missing, he ignored the feeling. Soon he grew tired of the work and felt himself ripe for a change. Chen noticed the alteration in his attitude. He said nothing, but when Guru showed no interest in the newspaper article that was subsequently published, Chen decided to talk to him.
"Something is bothering you, Guru. Is everything alright at home, with your family?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Your face has changed. It has a different expression, as if your head is full of serious thoughts."
"It has always been like that. Maybe you just see my face more clearly now because the hair is gone."
"I see. Maybe that's what it is."
A few days later Kim approached Guru's desk. "Please take a look at this. For some reason I'm not able to finish it."
Guru regarded her for what seemed a long time before he turned his attention to the drawing she was holding. Suddenly she moved some papers aside and sat down on his desk.
"So, tell me, do you pray to that Indian animal god?" she asked.
"What animal god?"
"The one with the elephant head. I've seen pictures." Her eyes were darting about his face as if with a mind of their own. "You actually pray to him? Does he answer your prayers?"
"I don't think any god does that. We have to find our own answers."
"What do you use to pray, then? A prayer book? A Bible?"
"I just talk. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't. What difference is it to you, anyway. May I please get on with my work?" He turned away from her. "If you want to leave the drawing with me, I'll look at it later."
But she refused to move.
"Why did you shave your head?" She was swinging her legs now, the expression on her face frank and intense. He noted with surprise that her eyes were more brown than black and that there was a very dark mole on the left side of her nose, like an ornament. He drew his hand across the fuzz of new hair on his scalp and smiled back at her.
Guru left early that day. But instead of going to his room he walked to a nearby park and sat down on his favorite, shaky bench. Already many of the trees were leafless. The patterns made by their branches soothed him. When the full moon rose he was ready to talk to the moon god. But Kim's pattern was also on his mind. As he contemplated the dark sky he saw that a set of three circles would complete each of her motifs. He sketched them in the dirt with a stick and thought how similar the design was to the ones his mother made to decorate the floors of their house on festival days.
Then he realized he was hungry. Careful not to disturb the equilibrium of the bench, he got to his feet and headed toward the hotdog man who ran a business just outside the park. The hotdog man had a fixed routine for each hotdog he sold and became agitated when it was disturbed by an impatient or overbearing customer. Guru's hand raised in greeting was enough for him today to begin his routine. "Today, it's on me."
When Guru protested the man replied, "Free for you, yes. My daughter has finally left her crazy boyfriend. And I'm celebrating."
Guru laughed. He knew how long the hotdog man had prayed for his daughter to find a boyfriend. When she did find one, and it turned out to be an abusive relationship she was unable to get out of, the pain seemed to settle like cooking grease into the creases of the hotdog man's face and he began looking at people with blurred, crazy eyes. That was when he started concentrating with manic precision on the precise halving of each hotdog bun and the perfect grilling of each hotdog before allowing anyone to buy it.
"So you are free at last," Guru said as he accepted a veggie dog and liberally applied some special spicy sauce.
"You bet. We said nothing to her, eh, no whys, no whats when she showed up all roughed up, like you never seen anyone your whole life. There I was thinking, This is my baby, my little baby. She's going back to school and her mother has bought a beautiful necklace with little gold petals for her.”
"Gold petals is a good pattern," Guru said.
When he reached his rooms it was close to 9:00 p.m. His brother was waiting for him. His face was stern and serious.
"Is this your normal time to get home?"
"I had some work to finish."
"How is it going there?"
"Good, pretty good."
"Have they mentioned a raise?"
"Not yet. But they like my work."
"You haven't come to visit very much since you started working there. Little Boy misses you."
After three sons, now in their mid-teens and early twenties, his wife had had a late pregnancy and Little Boy, now two years old, was the result.
"I'll come by this weekend."
"Mother is very sick. Uncle Balu called from Madras. I was only just there the beginning of this year. It might be a good idea for you to go see her."
"She's been much worse this week. You don't want to have it on your conscience. And it would do her good to see you. She can see how well you're looking after yourself, and that will put her at peace," he said. "I spoke to my travel-agent friend. There's been a cancellation. I booked it, a night flight for tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? But I have to give some notice."
"Things happen. They'll understand."
Guru spent a restless night and woke with a headache. Not once did he think of defying his brother. When he saw Kim she looked radiant, and her mood affected him deeply. It was like sitting in the park and talking to the moon god. As he began to clear his drafting table, she said, "How long will you be gone?"
"Three, maybe four weeks. My mother will be very happy to see me. I'm the youngest, you know. She worries about me. It's good to have someone worrying about you. You don't get into so much trouble. I'm the youngest.... I already said that. There's almost fifteen years between me and my brother. That's why she worries all the time about me. I'm all by myself, and this is still a new country for me. Every day she prays for my health and prosperity. I don't pray myself that much. I don't have to, because she is praying, you see. When someone else worries about you, it makes things a lot easier." He paused and looked into her dark eyes. "Much more efficient. You can focus completely on the business at hand."
Avoiding his eyes, she said, "Your father, what about him?"
"He died when I was four. I don't remember him. He was quite a hero, though. Everyone still talks about him. He was very strong, like a wrestler. He could eat seven hens at one meal. Really. And he had quite an interesting death. He was a rice farmer. One day, just after the rains, his tractor went into a rut and got stuck in the mud. He jumped out, set himself behind the stuck wheel and lifted it out of the mud. Really. But the strain was too much for him, and without even realizing it he had a stroke. He drove home and only then collapsed in the front yard. My mother should have done a little more worrying about him. But at the time all she was thinking about was making sure everyone was fed."
Then Guru showed her the new design he had come up with. "You know, this reminds me strongly of the patterns my mother makes in front of the house every morning."
When she responded with a puzzled look, he said, "Marketing."
"When the gods go for their morning walk, they will, you know, be lured into the house that looks most attractive."
He started to laugh, and Kim could see that, although his complexion was dark, his gums were pink and almost all his teeth showed when he laughed.
"Your mother believes this?"
"Yes, of course. Even when she is unable to get out of bed, she will make sure somebody does it. Before dawn. That's the best time. Otherwise, it's very bad for the house if you leave the front of it undecorated. Like there's been a death in the family.... I have an idea. When I return I'll bring her patterns with me and you can see what you can do with them."
Guru told her where he had left everything and even wrote a set of instructions on how to proceed in case he did not see her again. Chen was away in Ottawa that week but had called to wish Guru a safe journey.
"I almost forgot," Kim said. "My father told me to give you this month's check before you leave."
"That's very kind of him." As he was leaving he said, "So, you seem very happy today. Is it because I will not be around to interfere with your work for a while?"
She shook her head. "When my father called this morning he said he has decided to open a new office in Ottawa. He wants me to run this office until he is set up there."
"Congratulations," he said. "By the way, you know the design that won the prize? I made some changes in that too."
She nodded. "I know."
"I will return soon."
He put the envelope containing his check into his pocket and left her standing near the window.
When he reached his room his brother was waiting for him with a suitcase full of things for his mother and various other relatives. His brother's wife had also made some snacks for the plane ride. Guru was glad his brother had brought along his little son for the ride to the airport. The boy's curiosity distracted him from brooding too much.
His brother promised to check his rooms every week and water his phil- odendron. Guru felt feverish and anxious. During the drive to the airport he kept checking to make sure he had his ticket and passport. Only after he was safely inside the plane did he breathe easily, and it was only as the plane was taxiing down the runway that he remembered the check still in his pocket. He had meant to give it to his brother. He opened the envelope and saw there was a note inside as well.
"Do you worry about anyone, Guru?" she had written in her delicate hand.
(Padma Prasad was born in Chennai,
India but now lives and works in Fairfax, Virginia. She has a master’s
in English Literature and is a writer, painter and graphic artist. Her
work has appeared in Another
Toronto Quarterly and in Eclectica.)