Archive of Issues
Archive of Narrations
Syndic Literary Journal

Lines, or A Portrait Contemplates Its Audience

Written and Narrated by Nitin Jagdish


Author Nitin Jagdish  provides the background for his story:

The genesis of this story is rather autobiographical.  My maternal grandfather served in the last Mysore maharaja’s court as a diwan.  He was a Milton aficionado.  He was known for having a temper, but he was very gentle with me.  Of course, since I’m his daughter’s son, I’m not carrying his last name (or my paternal grandfather’s for that matter; South Indian immigrants went through a renaming process back in the late 60s). 

There is a painting of the court members that hangs in a Mysore museum, and he’s in the portrait.  The missus and I paid a visit back in 2006. I had just finished a fellowship that allowed me to work as a congressional staffer, and wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to being a Federal bureaucrat.  Seeing him in the painting triggered (to use a fashionable verb) a fair amount of depression and unease about my place in the world (“I have so little and that can be taken away”).  Rather than writing a straight poem about how I felt back then when I saw my grandfather’s portrait, I thought it would be more interesting to write about how the grandfather views the grandson, only to reveal the grandson has written all of his lines.  It was a challenge to revisit that time in my life. 

Lines, or A Portrait Contemplates Its Audience 

After a member of the court of a Mysore maharaja dies, his soul is trapped in a painting of him.  Years later, his grandson and granddaughter-in-law come to see the portrait. 

“Which portrait is his?”

“That one. I guess it looks like him.”

          Dearest Kiran, the great painter lacked an artisan’s cast of mind. His meek lines smack of incompetence: my frame bleeds into the background, scarcely discernable; my face, behind immense specs, is barely seen.

You are my sweetest boon: a grandson to push our family’s name deeper into posterity.  A man will not perish if his family’s name is still heard in the world; its embers stave oblivion.

          “This would’ve been a great photo if the guard wasn’t so uptight.”

          The gods have spoken.  No day ends before: a tenured cook defrauds her employer, a Brahmin soils his soul by traveling abroad, a beef-drunk tourist befriends a beggar, and the guard scolds a would-be picture taker.

Sweet bumbling jailer, why do you bother? The gods have decreed this work will receive only stray glances from posterity.  Scant lines slant to see it; one flashbulb will not summon a cascade of bleaching light.

          “What was he like?”

“He was a hothead, but gentle with me.  The last time I saw him, we had to share a bed.  I wet it.  He never told my parents.  Of course, he was eighty-two at the time; how can we be sure it was me?”

Appa translated Sanskrit poems and plays into English and Kannada; his books are still borrowed from libraries.  I shook hands with Mountbatten and Panditji, and served in the last Maharaja’s court.

          This proud clan, blessed through the yugas with legions of sages, is now cursed with a polluted family line: Kiran is a dolt, and his grasps at wit accent a life of stoic mediocrity.

          Lord Surya, grant me the sweetest boon: deface this portrait. Let your divine light simmer and bleach this prison, dissolve its form and color, and free me to be reborn into the world.  

          I will be reborn as my great grandson and rebel against Kiran: I will earn a first-class degree, marry a proper girl and pursue a suitable career.  I will rehabilitate our name for posterity.

          “He studied English literature, Milton particularly. Everyone says he was very well-read.”

          “Sounds like you would’ve gotten along well with him.”

          “I wish I had a chance to talk to him about poetry.”

          Your lines disgrace the art of poetry, and sound nothing like me: I would never twaddle about posterity, oblivion-staving embers or beef-drunk tourists.   You may be high-born, but your writing betrays a street hawker’s mentality.  Use another dummy to peddle your lines.

           It is hopeless.  Kiran, I cannot persuade you to erase this doggerel.  Thanks to your mulish ways, I am now twice-trapped in ill-rendered lines.



Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
History of Syndic
Write Letter / Contact Publisher
© all photos/text

Archive of Issues

Archive of Narrations