The cool morning that had settled upon the city wore the look of the ordinary, but a surprise lay in wait for me upon my return from the school run.
A breath hissed upon my shoulder as I pulled into the parking lot. My eyes shot to the rear-view mirror. An inscrutable woman reposed in the backseat, right behind me.
I swung to face her. “Who are you?”
“I’m you,” she said, not missing a beat.
“What do you mean, you’re me? I’m me!”
She shrugged. “I’m me too.”
I had to admit – her Nubian nose and chapped lips reminded me of me.
“I’m your shadow.” The confidence in her words rang louder than I expected it to. “I’m the part of you that gets left behind at home when you go to office.”
“And what do you do all day at home?”
“The same thing you do when you’re at home – the dishes, the dinners, the chores, binge-watching favourite shows, and sometimes, I dabble in creative work.”
I put her to the test. “If you’re really me, prove it.”
“Ask me anything you like.”
“No, not an objective test. A subjective one. Come with me.”
I couldn’t stave off the chance that she might steal my existence and run away with it. Her face was a blank mask into which she would pour my features and pass off as me, rattling off my birthdate, mouthing Shailesh’s name as if he were her husband, not mine.
She fell in step behind me as I sneaked her up to my apartment and whisked her inside. Ma did not catch sight of her, and neither did Baba.
Silence enshrouded our sprint up the stairs to my studio on the second floor of my duplex. I had wrested control of the storeroom from my elders and my husband. They longed to turn it into a temple room and dreamed of reading from the scriptures there. On this one point they all agreed – they could not, would not, yield the storeroom to my creative attempts. It deserved to house a temple, not piddling pieces of art.
I set my foot down. Scriptures and sculptures did not go together.
One day, they yielded the domain to me, foolishly venturing out to choose the perfect temple unit carved from marble. I hesitated not an instant, and shifted all my casting materials, wires and pottery wheel into the room. How could I let go of the chance? The room beckoned to me – the solitary zone in the house where my art wouldn’t disturb my family. More importantly, they couldn’t disrupt my art either.
Those four walls built my world for me. I whittled, and carved, and chiselled away, or so I liked to think. In truth, I hacked away at a dump of clay until it resembled something that made sense to someone somewhere.
People gawked at my art, demanded to know what it meant. Why did art always have to mean something? Couldn’t it just be? It allowed me to flush away the aching boredom of my work, where I punched sales targets like an automaton, plugging and pitching away at clients until they fell into the quicksand of my spiel.
I began shielding my art from everyone. But I couldn’t conceal it from my shadow.
She inspected the piece I had begun. A nude sculpture of a woman’s body stood on the table. I intended to replace the breasts and the triangle between her legs with wings.
The shadow didn’t question me. She observed it from multiple angles, walking around it as one would circle the holy fire.
She came to a stop at the point where she started. “What did you intend to make?”
I dug out the sketch I had doodled in haste. My drawing fared worse than my sculptures, but she didn’t flinch. “Here, I want you to finish it.”
The words left my mouth before I could even be sure. My toil and drudgery had birthed a banal piece. It did not mirror the picture I had built in my mind. The wings I had moulded into shape resembled nothing.
The blankness never left her face. “I’ll try.”
I locked the door on my way out.
Hours later, as I sat hunched over a presentation with my colleagues, it struck me – I had not told her what I did not want. I had surrendered to her imagination. I trusted she would find her way around the piece. She would know what I wanted from her and from that work of art.
That evening I retreated to my cocoon of solitude before my family glimpsed my empty seat at the dinner table.
I closed the studio door behind me with a soft click.
At first, I couldn’t locate her. Then I heard a sniffing. In one corner she crouched, hugging her knees to her chest.
I looked at her askance. Why had the strength left her bones?
She answered my unasked question. “It’s past twilight. Dusk has fallen. I am weak.”
I said nothing. How did one console a shadow? How did one soothe a ghost, a fragment of a person? She might have disappeared, not in a puff of smoke, but without anyone noticing, other than me.
My work of art stood naked in the centre of the room. It did not resemble the piece I had left behind in the morning. She had desecrated the private parts, switching out the wings and replacing them with eyes.
Weakness shrunk her nod to an almost imperceptible gesture. “The wings…looked awkward,” she whispered.
“You changed everything.”
I took a turn about the piece she had created, just as she had done. Her embellishments did not bear my stamp of creativity or approval. I’d need multiple rounds of metamorphosis to coax it into the structure I desired.
I watched every hour of the clock tick through the night. When dawn glimmered through the curtains, little remained of the creature she had built.
She appeared by my side as I expunged the eyes she had planted on the woman’s body. I let the gaping holes remain. It imparted an illusion of space, of nothingness, a sense of freedom that the earlier work lacked. The eyes had forced a rigid frame upon the viewer’s imagination – a woman with “windows of the soul” all over her body.
The shadow lived each day the same as her first. She bounded into the middle of the room during the morning. At dawn, her energy attained its peak. It rose with the sun and dazzled all corners of the studio.
When my shadow put the finishing touches to the woman with holes, I tasked her with constructing a smaller series of sculptures – a veritable zoo of little figurines bearing intricate detail.
This time I did not share any sketches. She conjured up miniscule patterns in the clay, pinching the pieces between her fingers and clogging dirt under her fingernails. When they dried, she slid them under a focus light and forged deeper impressions using pins and needles.
One day her enthusiasm spilled out of her. The distant sound of a crash shattered our breakfast table.
Curiosity gripped my kin, or fear. I didn’t know which. I blocked their way, but they swept past me and hurried up the stairs to my studio, Shailesh leading the pack.
He flung open the door.
She stood near the shards of glass arrayed on the floor, fiddling with the edge of her dress. An unfinished maquette stood on the table, a trio of mini-craters visible in the clay where she had poked her fingers deep into it.
Father said, “Who’s this?”
She glanced up, her face as vacuous as ever.
Shailesh snorted. “She’s someone K has hired as an assistant.”
I searched my husband’s eyes as he answered my father. Did he see through her the way he did me?
He turned to me. “Isn’t that right, K?”
Father almost stared me down. “She looks mighty like you herself.”
“Think of her as another me.” I shepherded them out the door.
I showed the woman with holes to my friend Trina. She curated the Indian Gallery of Modern Art. I had never revealed to anyone that I had taken to creating sculptures, but it always lurked in the back of my mind – if ever I built something dazzling, I would share it with her.
Trina observed the piece from all angles, circling around it as the shadow and I had done, a thoughtful finger resting on her chin. Her small features were inscrutable – did she like it or did she view it as the worst example of humanity? Neither her beady eyes nor her cupid-bow lips told me anything.
“What are you calling it?” she asked, her gaze fixed on the sculpture.
“Devi,” I said, deciding on the spot.
“I want to make it the centrepiece of our re-opening. Bring it along. Who’s she?”
I followed the direction of her index finger. The shadow sat curled up in the corner, thighs to bosom, her arms wrapped around her calves as always, her complexion sapped of its hue.
“No one,” I said, “just my assistant.”
The invitation card arrived in the mail.
The IGMA’s grand opening featured ‘Devi’ up front and centre, right at the entrance, as Trina had promised. I admired the little placard at the corner of the base: By Kamya Gupta.
‘Devi’ found mention in The Bombay Mirror, in an offhand remark that I viewed as complimentary.
Trina demanded more, along similar lines. The shadow and I hunkered down to work. We supplied Trina with a series of smaller pieces, select ones culled from our zoo.
My phone started trilling with calls. The National Gallery of Indian Art wanted my contribution too.
In time, we stocked enough sculptures to fill up half the room. A miniature garden of pieces formed our joint repertoire.
The shadow weakened by the day. I shouldered the major tasks myself, no longer leaning on her for help. I could whittle and carve just as well, or perhaps even better.
As the days shortened, I saw less of her. Trina bought a few of my pieces, but she ceased when I sold my next feminine sculpture to the National Gallery instead of her.
The shadow, in one of her stronger days, said, “You must stick with Trina. She will help you accomplish great things.”
I harrumphed. What did the shadow know? She saw nothing of life after sunset. She knew nothing of the hours beyond dusk and before sunrise.
I couldn’t pinpoint when the day came but I saw her no more. My mini-gallery of figures languished. They accumulated grime. So did I.
Trina stopped calling me. The National Gallery called but once, and when I had nothing to offer them, never again.
I traversed the virtual breadth of the earth for my shadow, through the sunniest deserts and the iciest glaciers.
Can I say she retreated into the shadows? She withdrew into herself. That’s what I believed.
She carried a piece of me along with her. I never found her again, and I have been searching ever since.
Gargi Mehra is a writer, software professional and mother living in India. Her stories have placed in writing competitions and appeared in several journals online and in print, including Litro, On the Premises, Papercuts magazine, among others.
© 2019, Gargi Mehra