Sujata-a face in his paintings ચિત્રોમાં એક ચહેરો

Sujata – a face in his paintings

I had always seen my friend, Sujata, surrounded by some admiring girlfriends and worshiping boys in our neighborhood playground.  It was 1958, when I was a dreamy-eyed twelve-year-old, and my friend Sujata was three years older than I. We all wanted to be her best friend and felt privileged when we could stand next to her. She knew how to please the people around her. She was a very good athlete, a clever student with a charming personality. Some used to compare her to the contemporary film star, Nutan.

In spite of the three-year age difference, we became best friends. I did not bribe Sujata with any special gifts or a fruit from my garden. Of course, having a good-looking older brother might have helped. An awkward, clueless young girl as I was, I learned from Sujata how to be sweet and make friends. Every evening, boys and girls played at our neighborhood playground.  We used to get a kick out of telling her which older boy was staring at her. Her response would be a hidden smile. She loved all that attention.

Sujata graduated from high school and joined an art college. She was very successful in sports, dance and in her studies. Later, we were not very close, but I would hear about her love affairs and her brothers beating up the guys to keep them away from Sujata.  But our friends felt that she was making good choices. One boy was very right for her, but her family would not allow a union. After she graduated from college, Sujata went away to live with her sister in another city for some time.
Then one day, her marriage was arranged. It was disheartening to see her being pressured to say “yes” to a man of her family’s choice. I met him at their wedding. Some younger, crude friends started joking, “Sujata, he looks so dull – if you slap him, he would not say anything.”  One sister of the groom heard the comments and protested sharply, “Don’t you dare. Our brother is not like that.” I said, “Our Sujata is not someone who would slap anyone.” But the damage was done, and Sujata felt ashamed.
But, unfortunately it happened the other way around – the groom hit our Sujata. She came back to her parents’ home after a month or so. She was very upset and refused to return to her in-laws’ house. It was a big scandal. Her mother-in-law came to take her back, and after some tricks, threats, and promises, Sujata had to return.  After that, every time I saw her my heart ached for her and my mind questioned, “Is this the same Sujata?”  The last time I saw her was with her six-month-old-baby. She said, “This baby has brought some joy to my life.”

A few years later, I moved to the USA from India and did not meet Sujata again for several years.  I heard that Sujata had two daughters and was living a somber life.
We were in California. My life was full with two lively children, my parents-in-law, and other family members in the house. One time, some friends of my father-in-law came to visit from northern California. We were talking about my hometown, and he asked me whether I knew Sujata! When I told them that she was my friend, they told me a story which shook me up.
The elderly uncle said, “We have one artist named Ritik in our neighborhood who still worships Sujata after all these years.”
I did not know this fellow because they had met when Sujata stayed with her older sister in another town, but I had heard his name. He had gone to school in a different city but was from the same town and caste as Sujata.  As soon as he found out about me, Ritik called. He wanted to know all about Sujata. Then he requested, “Can you please, mail a letter for me from your address and also receive Sujata’s reply at your address? I don’t want to create any problem for her.”
Wow! I was puzzled by this new romantic complication. Anyway, I agreed and a few letters passed back and forth through my hand. After several months the letters stopped. During a visit to India I met Sujata briefly. She inquired about Ritik, but I did not have any information. I asked her a few questions before we bid goodbye.
With another twist of circumstances, Ritik and our family moved to the same city, and we were invited to his exhibition of paintings. We established a connection. After a few weeks, we sat down for a long talk.
Ritik’s life had been hanging by a thread named Sujata. He said, “In my paintings, do you recognize her face? The day I met Sujata was like a planned event by the stars up above. I believed that Destiny had Her hand in bringing us together. It was love at first sight for me. I met her several times and expressed my feelings and hoped to spend our lives together. I had a hard time reading her thoughts. She was casually agreeing with my feelings and was sweet to me. I made her a painting and presented it to her. Her sister did not look very pleased with our friendship but did not say anything. Sujata was inquiring about my finances and education, which were quite modest. The day came when she had to go back to her parents’ home. I asked, ‘What about us? I love you. Can I come to your house and ask your parents for your hand in marriage?’ She said, ‘My parents will not agree and my brothers will beat you up badly. I cannot displease my family.’ I was devastated.  I had sort of written away my life to her name.  With time, I realized that she had been making up excuses. Maybe she was not committed to this relationship as I had been. But it was too late for me to return to my old self.”
In India, the conversation I had had with Sujata flashed in my mind. I had asked her, ‘Why did you marry this guy instead of Ritik?’ She confessed, ‘I was envious of the girls around me marring the rich guys – so greed clouded my judgment and I agreed to marry an engineer instead of an artist.’
I asked about the letters. Ritik said, “When I wrote the first letter, I was skeptical, but when I received her reply, I felt that on the branch of my mute life the birds started to sing. She said that she had been thinking about me often and missed being with me. As communications continued, she begged me to make arrangements to bring her to America with her two teenage daughters. That proposal made me look at this revived fling differently. I am secretly corresponding with someone’s wife! And I stopped.

So, in this lifetime, I feel rich that I have loved someone. I am not alone because in the corner of my heart Sujata is there. I look and see her face in my paintings. The question does not arise whether she loved me or not because, for me, the reality is that I will always love her.”

Her face in my paintings…
She loved me, she loved me not,
The question does not prick anymore.
Her presence is here like a twinkle in a star,
I am out of her circle, a far-fallen star.

She came into my life, I felt it destined,
Left her shadow melted barely with mine.
Those were the days–tepid, trivial for her.
They still trim colors for this lifelong dreamer.

I offered her a simple and singular daisy,
She chose to take the bunch of roses.
A sweet melancholy comes to sit beside,
Keeps me warm and cozy inside.

My precious past is anchored deep within,
On my blues and grays, bright red reigns.
There she may be, withered and wise,
But smiles in my paintings with a shy surprise.

Saryu Parikh.