Watercolor Girl / Syeda Mahnoor Raza

For Agha Baba, who wanted to see the world read my words. 1927-2020.

It is a perpetual Tuesday morning. He’s dipping his brush in a flimsy palette, edges caked with paint. “Watercolor girl, come back to me,” he whispers, gently tracing the edges of the pencil outline with a diluted brown. There is a gaping emptiness in the middle of the brown paint, where a nose was supposed to have been.

It has been a week, he assumes. The fluorescent white lamp that’s long replaced the sun fuels the days on slow-burning coconut oil. It’s for your memory, they told him. The smell hangs in the air like a thick, low-lying mist.

He is unsure of what his memory has to do with anything. He can remember many things – even too much, sometimes. Lately, he has been thinking of the Baháʼís he was acquainted with during his time as a diplomat, several lifetimes ago. He had sat down with them for a smoke, and listened to them discuss some sort of alchemy of the spirit: turning their sorrow to solace, and letting go of earthly time to reunite with the Beloved.

His memory, then, was irrelevant and unimportant, if losing time was a stepping stone to finding her – his beloved – again. Day and night, month and year all bleed into each other, discoloring the pool of Time. They plunge in and out of the chasm he used to try avoid wading in, lest the ghosts of laughing children outside his bedroom door tugged at his ankles and dragged him under. Now, he sees it as part of the process – the process of retracing the contours of her nose.

The water swirls in protest, as if trying to evade being tossed into a kiyari of wilted plants. He steps back from the painting to wipe his hands on the starched daaman of his blue kameez. The Stillness makes way for him, shifting as he heads to the kitchen. The Silence muffles the sound of water as it hits the bottom of his mug; he heads back to the narrow strip of lawn where the easel stands waiting.

As the easel meets the mug, they erect a landmark on the avenue of Time – an otherwise endless, barren highway. And then, the Silence folds herself around them with all the possessiveness of a hovering parent, her tightening grip inducing a ringing in his ears. All the white noise is gone.

He is handed china brimming with ginger tea. For your tinnitus. He doesn’t see what tinnitus has to do with it; ever since the Solitude went into labor with the Silence, he’s borne the responsibility of raising a child he never wanted. The baby was born fifteen and a half pounds, laden with the weight of a loneliness she brought along like a placental afterbirth. Baptized in seawater, the child wore a freighted wool, and produced a pressure in his ears that no amount of ginger could carve out, and so he dedicated all of this time that he had suddenly found himself in possession of (the past few weeks, months, years?) to pacifying the Silence.

The tenor is broken briefly; the sea splits in two to let the sound of an untimely azaan float through. It is an act of intimacy, this age-old memorabilia forking through the Silence. The Muezzin has been steadfast in his friendship, signaling the anticipation of large-scale disaster every day for twelve years, or perhaps a week. Every intonation is a glimpse into the Muezzin’s innermost terrors, his unspoken sorrows, and the memory of everything he has lost. He imagines the man, wrinkled fingers raised to his ears, as he bellows from atop the mountain every night, begging, pleading for Change to return. He isn’t sure what fresh crisis the azaan is supposed to forebode at this point, but he’s grateful that the Muezzin persists nonetheless: a sole warrior against the tyranny of the Silence and the darkness of Time, and his only companion.

One would largely prefer the promised crisis just about now, he thinks lightly, packing up the last of his grandson’s art supplies. He would return to them tomorrow, hopefully with the recollection of what went into that empty patch of skin.

He spills the murky paint to the plants once more, letting himself imagine the bare mango tree’s ancient roots reaching for dampness. It hasn’t flowered in years. The gardener once told him that trees are linked to their owners’ lifelines. The grapefruit in the corner of the narrow strip of land perseveres, somehow. He picks up the easel and heads inside, grumbling to himself. Maybe it’s his paint that has been poisoning the mango.

He wanders down the corridor now. He has always thought of it as a haunted, fantastical hallway, the glossy portraits celebrating an era long-past. He can hardly remember the faces staring at one another from across the walls, but finds himself reaching for their features anyway: here is his beti graduating, there stand three young boys in uniform. He catches sight of a turban and a chadar, and a gold-lined dress coming apart at the seams. The only face peering down at him is Amin’s. Tomorrow, he’d work on her hair, he reminds himself. She had ever-ebony hair: fine, carefully trimmed with household scissors, pushed back with an astonishingly durable plastic band. She would’ve scoffed at him, would’ve called him foolish for refusing to look closer, grasping instead for faded images in his memory. “One day,” he’d have replied to her familiar mock-indignation, “I’ll put together enough pieces to make us whole again. You wait and see.”

The azaan fades out, and like sand at the bottom of a pool, the Silence settles in again: she finds a home in the brick and mortar; she billows under painstakingly-smoothed sheets; she expands earthly time like metal over heat. A day and a month flies by as she puts her soft hands over his weary eyes, casting a thin mist over his vision. There is a sense of things having been gashed apart, and then sewn back together clumsily with a needle and thread piercing through the indiscernible past and future, making all the torn pieces look identical in the failing lamplight.

It’s your eyesight. He doesn’t understand what his eyesight has to do with anything, for even after he had looped the string in his glasses around both his ears to prevent them from slipping down his nose, all the clocks stayed ruptured, and the rope tying together one moment to the next remained irreversibly flaccid. 

He props his easel up again. He is, of course, conscious of her – somewhere amid the fresh towels and the unfurled Sunday Bazaar curtains – but the tables are sheathed in films of dust, a diamond of woodwork has gone missing, and the curling deemak on the chipping whitewash threatens to crumble. He is conscious of her, but feels that he will never know her – the rippling shadow of a water lily – again. He will never know the shape of her nose, he despairs. He sinks to his knees, the heels of his shoes digging into the soft loam. He shakes. He rocks back and forth. He cups his palms over his face and drags them downwards, the brush – still wedged between his fingers – leaving a trail of paint down his cheek. He cranes his neck to lift his eyes to the sky, and wails.

But he must compose himself. He puts down his splayed paintbrush, and rubbing his eyes, looks over at the mango tree, still balancing on his heels. He should take up gardening, he decides suddenly, carefully rising to grab a shovel abandoned in the cement rubble beside the door. He crouches under the tree, digging, digging, digging.  He is digging out the weeds, digging out the poison paint, digging for lost treasure. He has dug out a small grave.

A Fatiha is what the moment calls for, so he whispers the verses slowly, careful not to break the Silence, and sweeps the soil back into the shallow hole. For the casualties of Time, he tells himself, patting it tenderly. A mass grave – for the clocks they had surrendered, and the touch they had outlawed, and the calendars banished to obscurity, and the wives of those lost at war. He blinks at the roots a while longer, trying to remember what her nose looked like when she reached out to pick a mango; maybe if he squinted at the branches and summoned up the right memory, he could capture the frame and copy it to canvas.

He rushes to his painting and stares intently at that infuriating, unrelenting patch of brown. He tries to slow the rising and falling of his frail chest as wheezes of frustration escape his diaphragm. The embolism caught in his lungs lurches like a lump in his throat, and he can feel his entire life, made of little incidents floating in coconut oil, disappear like a wave on the shore, sending the plastic watercolor palette, and a hobbyist’s orchard, and the portraits, and fragments of an azaan hurtling through the tide, and settling at the bottom of the pit. He feels like he must punch a hole through the canvas now, but instead traces his finger over the dried paint. He should head to the roof, he decides impulsively; a change in scenery is what he needs.

Gripping the railing with one hand and the canvas with another, he hobbles on the soles of his feet, ascending the steep staircase and shaking the metal rooftop door out of its state of disuse. He is hit by a wave of vertigo, stepping into the cloudless daylight and watching clumps of civilization stretch out below. He takes a shaky breath before letting the bristles make gentle, indecisive strokes of paint. Grasping the brush by its rusty ferrule, he debates how to go about sketching her nose. Was it delicate? Slender? Afghani? Punjabi? Did she go down to Panipat recently, did she promise to bring back curry from Karnal? He shakes his head gently; he can’t remember.

His eyes wander beyond the painting, and he is seized by a moment of panic. The locusts are back, he thinks. A biblical calamity that ushered in a modern plague, they veiled the windows for a month, or perhaps three. But no – these figures in the distance are far from a swarm of locusts. As the geometrical shapes drift apart, he recognizes the fragility of the paper, translucent as skin stretched over the veins of a frame, the feeling of a dori wrapped around your fingers.

The kites in the sky slice through the air in a triumphant rebellion against the cloud of Stillness and the tyranny of Silence. He feels them take ahold of the locust-wrought darkness and lift it, the heavy draperies rolling up in time with the impermeable fog in his mind. He can almost see the Muezzin raise his hands in celebration as he feels the weight of grief and loss and despair let up. The carelessly-woven thread snaps. It is Basant.

Suddenly he knows, he knows!He flattens the wisps of grey above his ears in anticipation, bracing for impact as fragments of the image start coming back to him. She had a stately nose, and a wide bridge that connected the root to the round tip. He can see it now: that defiant tip, a handsome arch, and fierce nostrils. It was an heirloom, passed on to all of their children, and all of their children – nothing short of majestic, although you’d never catch her describing it that way, considering all the nose-pinching their infant sons experienced. It is emblazoned in his memory – scrunching up when she laughed, flaring when he turned down dinner, reddening when illness sought him out. How could he ever forget?

He etches today’s date at the edge of the painting; it is November the third. He finally has all the pieces; it feels like freedom. Amin looks at him in the eye, stately nose and all, and smiles. “Watercolor girl, don’t you disappear,” he sings as a patang billows above his head, and then soars.

   کیا بود و باش پوچھو ہو پورب کے ساکنو

ہم کو غریب جان کے ہنس ہنس پکار کے

دلی جو ایک شہر تھا عالم میں انتخاب

رہتے تھے منتخب ہی جہاں روزگار کے

اس کو فلک نے لوٹ کے برباد کر دیا

ہم رہنے والے ہیں اسی اجڑے دیار کے

(میر تقی میر)



Syeda Mahnoor Raza, 19, has been doing her freshman year of college remotely from Islamabad, Pakistan. When not writing, she can be found wallowing in nostalgia, reading existential poetry, and trying to master gouache.

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