Since my younger sister left the family home for university last month, I have watched my parents rediscovering the house that they have lived in for the past 18 years. Now that their children have all moved out, the freshly emptied space represents possibilities – each room offering a glimmer of opportunity for new found bittersweet freedom. When I went to visit them last week, I saw that my mother had taken up a small corner of Sabreen’s recently vacated bedroom. Appropriating the stripped pine dressing table, she had converted it into a makeshift workbench. A stretched canvas lay in the middle, surrounded by a set of brushes and a modest collection of oil paints – the most elaborate medium I’ve ever seen her use. My mother was reconnecting with an old flame. Her art, neglected for years, was reclaiming its place in her overstretched life.
Ammu had always drawn, ever since I could remember. The pad of paper by the telephone in the hallway was always covered in idle sketches that she’d create during routine phone-calls with my grandmother in which she’d half-listen as she was admonished for not visiting regularly enough. The sketches were always in blue ballpoint pen and were usually of leaves, or flowers, and – often – eyes, complete with long lashes and a defined arched brow. I never asked whose eyes she drew; I suspect they weren’t of anyone in particular.
Sketching in biro was typical of Ammu. She never had her own materials, never really indulging her own unquestionable talent. Instead, in the moments when her creative urge was too strong to repress, she would raid my or my sisters’ schoolbags for our pencil cases. She wielded our yellow and black, striped, eraser-tipped HB pencils as though they were fashioned from the softest graphite, making sketch after sketch, shading light and dark and cross-hatching expertly. My felt-tipped pens were often held ransom too, chunky and indelicate in my chubby hands, in hers they were like miniature wands of bright colour. Sometimes, late at night, I would find her seated in the living room, with the television playing in the background, with a pad of typewriter paper balanced on her knees, and my palette containing 6 round discs of pigment purporting to be watercolours resting on the coffee table. Beside it would be a tumbler of water, and in her hand would be the red plastic handle of a cheap, scratchy brush – the black bristles synthetic and unruly. With these rudimentary tools she would paint scenes on the thin, bleached white office paper that wrinkled from the water – she didn’t think to spend money on indulging herself with the requisite heavy cartridge paper that could carry the paint without buckling. That was Ammu. Understated, unassuming.
I recall there being two principal subjects that my mother loved to draw; one was her family, the other was sceneries and landscapes – often imagined, or from memory, and always colourful. Ammu had a sketchbook, probably the only one I remember her having throughout my childhood. It was a simple, spiral-bound affair, with a re-enforced brown cardboard back cover. In it contained the pieces I have since committed to memory. One was a depiction of the Taj Mahal done entirely in magenta and orange felt-tipped pen – the curved domes of white marble reflected in the wide channels of water in the gardens in front of the palace. Ammu also used to draw scenes from village life in Bangladesh – a life she only lived for a couple of years during her childhood when her family was stranded there during the war of 1971. The rest of her youth was spent growing up in inner-city Manchester, but unsurprisingly, the concrete tower blocks never made it into her drawings. The village scenes were traditional and idyllic; she used to draw women, mainly, walking amongst trees - their curves outlined by the drape of a sari, with slender arms wrapped around vases of water that were balanced elegantly on one hip. Their hair was always swept up and wrapped into a loose bun at the back of the head, adorned with white flowers that I later came to know were gardenias, and my father’s favourite bloom. I always thought these graceful women looked like my mother, but considered it such a self-evident statement, that it wasn’t worth making.
Portraying likenesses was a talent she had – that spiral-bound book had pencil sketches of my sisters and I that she’d capture when we were asleep, or not looking. There was Shabnam curled up with a book, glasses pushed down her nose, her jeans slightly too short at the ankle. Or there was Sabreen – a smiling, roly-poly toddler, sketched in my father’s favourite black fibre-tipped pen, which he used to write letters. I remember one that she drew of me, on a swing. I’m laughing in the picture, my teeth crooked, and my dimples etched deep in my cheeks. Ammu also used to draw my father, more so when they were newly married. In the long, slim brown leather album that holds the handful of wedding photos they have, there are a few loose sketches that she did – in blue biro – on thin carbon paper, backed in silver foil. Sketches of my father with a black, drooping moustache and square framed glasses, that my mother probably spent many bashful hours working on, copied from a photograph.
As we grew up and her job grew more demanding, Ammu’s art slipped further and further down her ever-expanding list of priorities. Her work meant that she was often at evening meetings, occasionally travelling away from home – weekends and evenings didn’t have the space for her to even doodle on the pad of paper beside the phone. From time to time, there was the occasional piece from my mother, however. On the morning of my ninth birthday I woke up to find a seascape that she’d done and left on my bookshelf. Daubs of blue and purple and yellow swirled in half circles in the sky, and an orange and yellow sunshine bursting in the top left hand corner. It had been painted on computer paper, and was now encased in a small, wooden frame. My first personalised piece of artwork.
At the same time, I was beginning to experiment with my questionable artistic talents. I’d pore over books about papercraft and salt-dough and beg my father to take me on trips to the local arts and crafts shop to buy me acrylics or glue or silk paints. I’d spend hour upon hour in my tiny boxroom bedroom at my folding white desk working on my latest creation – a papier-mache jewellery box, or a salt-dough photo frame, or a set of abandoned china plates that I rescued from the cellar and had shakily decorated with ceramic paint. A few years later, I moved on to high school, and my artistic pursuits became less interesting – my brushes were substituted for boxed coloured pencils that I’d use for my graphic design classes and little else. Like my mother’s, my time was taken up by other things, and my oils and brushes and tubes of gouache lay forgotten in boxes in my cupboard, together with a tiny Derwent watercolour box that my father had bought for my mother one year, that I don’t ever recall her even opening.
In that corner of Sabreen’s room last week, I saw my mother’s humble beginnings of a studio. The stripped pine table hosting a few pots of dried up oils, brushes that had been retrieved from the basement and cupboards under the sink. When I was younger I dreamt that one day when I grew up, I’d buy Ammu an easel, and a suite of gouache, and acrylics, and oil paints, and a proper wooden palette with two holes for a finger and a thumb, so that she could hold it properly and mix her mediums, like real artists did. Now I realise that I’m not entirely sure whether she’d even use them if I did – like all artists, she has her particular style, and this – the patchwork, the understatement, the piecemeal approach to her creativity – this is hers. In a house where the echoes of emptier hallways are increasingly audible, Ammu has found her solace in this corner of contentment.