WITH ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY SWATHI
In the year 1933, while India was trying to wriggle her wrists off the strong grip of George V, the Lever Brothers Company was doing good business in the country with its popular brand of Sunlight soaps. The Presidencies were registering surprising demands for the brand, indicating the entrance of Sunlight into most households.
To further its popularity, the administration pushed for some intense marketing. As the year was nearing its end, a creative mind in the company lighted up with the idea of publicising the brand on print calendars. This was succeeded by a noisy, smoky debate, over crystal jars of iced brandy, on what should be the visual of such a calendar. While some voiced for the painting of a British model wrapped in a thin bath towel and displaying the soap in her open palm, the others felt this could only alienate the brand in the eyes of conventional Indians. After a long period, it was decided, amid empty bottles and coughing clouds, that the calendar would have lord Krishna standing with Sunlight soaps at his feet.
A celebrated painter came up with a quick design that was at once shipped to Lever Brothers’ partner printer in Germany. Mr Karlheinz’s first impression of the design was singular. Unlike his apprentices, he didn’t dismiss it with a casual glance and proceed to printing. Mr Karlheinz was forced to pause, soon disturbed in ways inexperienced by him, and for the rest of that night, remained awake and affected; as if the design, by mistake, had been imprinted on him.
The figure in the design had muscular arms, flat, sturdy chest and an unwavering look, all as of men, but the angular position of the head, curving of hips and glistening of facial skin suggested femininity of the extreme. Man or woman, Mr Karlheinz was yet to decide, but was sure the figure’s attractiveness would appeal to both sexes, with the obvious exclusion of unfeeling men.
The eyes that looked back from the design possessed a teasing mystery. The long, linear nose directed him to the lips, stretched below in a smile that could have as well meant the man knew everything about him, his printing press in Rothenburg, all he had done and all that was coming. His well-groomed wavy hair and rouges on cheeks could only be the decorative interests of his mother, Mr Karlheinz guessed, and the long, slender garland round him the bubbling love of young, wanting ladies. The velvety stole rounding the shoulder, with its one end sailing on the floor behind, and the peculiar turquoise feather at the top of the crown, looked like perfumes of times past, nevertheless potent and fascinating to Mr Karlheinz’s eyes.
A carefully chosen green sash, perhaps by an admirer, girthed his yellow Indian lower cloth. And many ornaments of gold, intricately shaped with all senses in oneness of their outcome, were fit round neck and waist, and on wrists and anklets.
Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*
Even the sun, as if with only one purpose, shone directly behind the man’s crown. After all, Mr Karlheinz felt there was one serious misplacement in the design; whoever thought it right to mar it with a bar of English soap at the bottom!
Upon spending months personally making facsimiles of this design, and overseeing their shipping to India, Mr Karlheinz could no more resist taking a trip to India, to learn more of the man and possibly visit him. So with the last batch of calendars were packed Mr Karlheinz’s baggage of daily necessities and the original design covered in secure layers.
On one stormy night, it was announced that the ship had docked at Madras. An hour later, our German, with one hand roofing his eyes and the other clutching his baggage under his wide armpit, jogged into a ticket booth at the port’s exit. A middle-aged man in a black coat and white turban was sitting busy at the counter. Seeing a red mark on his forehead, very similar to the one worn by the man in the design, he asked in a loud, exuberant voice, ‘Sir! Where I can meet this man?’
Mr Seshadhri, removing his eyes from the bills between his fingers, turned to see a foreigner holding an image of lord Krishna. His practised eyes and ears not registering English, he decided it must be a foreign fool in search of Moksha. ‘At Srirangam, Trichinopoly,’ he quoted the first thought that flashed across.
Mr Karlheinz caught the immediate train to Trichinopoly (which he had reverently written on a piece of paper now in his breast pocket). To all the locals, he seemed an enchanting white man noble enough to travel alongside them. To him, they seemed gifted people to be able to easily travel to his place on their whim. After a day of travel, Mr Karlheinz stepped down the compartment, unidentifiably covered in coal-black and different only in attire and height.
Being weary from the journey, he slept under the tattered roof of the station, and rose in the wee hours to resume his search. A couple of enquiries landed him just before the broad stone gateway of the Srirangam temple complex. Like the hundreds of visitors walking past him, he too marched in with rising eagerness and pumping blood. The design was closely held to his chest.
As he crossed corridors, courtyards and entered countless concentric walls, his pace became faster and faster in expectancy, but also slower and slower in an unreasonable fear entering him, like he was visiting a great authority, the lord of men, or even the lord of lords. His mind revolved endlessly in the mysticism of the man in the design, wondering, when it had the power to, how much more captivating he would be in real. With every step, the fluty music fuelled his yearning and drew his feet like magnet attracting innocent scraps of iron. Clockwise tracks and spiralling queues brought him closer and closer. Pairs of palms, enjoined and raised high, became a common sight among the visitors. Mr Karlheinz deposited his baggage in a corner he wouldn’t remember later and shoved the design within his wet shirt, and gestured similarly. Damp sweat, trickle of blood from a misstepped footing, an advancement of swoon and shut eyes were elements of his own design. He felt his body move with the crowd, sometimes being pushed, sometimes being pulled, but in the end, decidedly moving towards him.
As sounds, human and instrumental, rose in a confusing chorus, he felt the stoppage of a firm hand on his chest. Opening his eyes and wiping the stagnated tears, he could see a man before him, with no upper cloth, but with a lower cloth and that red mark on forehead. Mr Karlheinz however knew this was not him; because this had a pot for his belly and furrows on exposed skin, and that smile in the design was absent here. The man pointed to a board above. It read, ‘Only Hindus allowed.’ Now, Mr Karlheinz didn’t know if he was a Hindu. He forgot to consult his mother and wife in his haste for departure.
After an argument, which clearly upset his fellow visitors, who later proceeded on their way to meet him, Mr Karlheinz was removed to the main courtyard of the temple complex and shaken the index finger at. But he clearly could not be put off so easily. All around him were images and statuettes of him, also the red mark, and music emanating from the inner chambers. His want was immersed in all factors capable of its amplification. And so, Mr Karlheinz remained reclining on the pillar he was shown for the next 23 days.
His Holiness, Parthasarathy Kothandaraman, the Chief of the temple, observing a white man at the same place every day, with eyes towards the centremost block of the temple, one night, went to stand by him, albeit maintaining a safe distance. As minutes passed, as the eyes didn’t seem to turn his way, as if fully consumed by their object, the Chief understood the man and his condition, and hoisted him.
Supported by the Chief, Mr Karlheinz, now reduced in his width, with his perilously wobbling trousers, began to walk by himself. With every step towards his chamber, life began to flow into him; eyes grew bigger, shoulders realigned, chest puffed and pace strengthened. Soon, the Chief was only an accompaniment in the darkness, a guide to this visitor. A line of doors were unlocked, little bells tinkling during such movements, and at last the door that led to his chamber, called the Garbagriha or Womb, was solemnly opened by the Chief, and Mr Karlheinz was shown the way in.
A mammothian human, darker than his surrounding darkness, emerged at an arm’s distance. He was lying on a coiled snake, which seemed terrifyingly gigantic, but unharmful. That smile was present on his face, now maybe in a gesture of welcome to this faraway visitor. The large, silvery eyes, seemed imposing and as if they were seeing him even in his sleep, which he must have literally fallen to, because he had not removed his crown, like tired children who doze off before changing their day-dress. At the other end of the chamber were resting his feet, tired from all the standing and posing for calendar designs, maybe.
Mr Karlheinz enjoined his palms and wished to raise them, but before he could, he fell face down, as though two fingers snapped somewhere and life was sucked out of him.
*You can find her other amazing artworks here.
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