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FINGER-PAINTING THROUGH LIFE

27th June, 2021

Nandita

In my early teens, I showed signs of a quickly vanishing spark for painting I had as a child. My father, upon noticing my sudden disinterest in something I engage in for hours without even bothering to switch the fan on, immediately enrolled me in an art class. The summer course was very generously run for free by a university Fine Arts professor who barely looked like one. My father made it a point to drive me down to the local clubhouse every week with a tan leather backpack filled with drawing supplies. And just like that, my merry Sundays were hijacked by a man in a khaki Fedora, Cargo shorts and a perpetual three-day scruff. 


No matter what I ended up painting in his holistic, hippie, outdoorsy classes – a watercolor landscape of mountains, an extremely detailed wooden branch done in oil pastels, a cartoon rockstar with a Mohawk – he would only say one thing to me, “But where is the soul?”


“You know what,” he said after staring in disappointment at my nearly perfect silhouette of an Indian lady draped in a saree, carrying a large earthen pitcher on her head, “try painting with only your fingers today.”


I found myself dragging the paintbox, yet again, out from under my table. I rummaged through my drawers and dug out the thickest A3 sheet of smooth, cream paper I could and got to work. For the first time in my life, I stuck my finger in a mini glass-bottle filled with paint and ran my fingers in an incredible, relentless tailspin as my canvas hung on to the easel for dear life. 


A green volcano had erupted in front of my eyes, I blended every colour: black and blue and red, with the original parrot neon and let myself go completely. When I was done, the “painting” vaguely resembled a thicket, so I went ahead and gave the treetops some slick trunks with my trusty paintbrush after all.


I picked up my work with both hands when I was sure there wasn't a single empty speck of white left on the sheet and stared at it for a solid minute. In the seconds that followed, one thing was crystal clear to me; that painting was terrible. It was a mess and I hated it.


I still took it for my class that Sunday because (a) I wasn't going diving in my poster-paint set again, and (b) I was weirdly content with my work and felt rather bullish about it.


The students met in a little garden beside the broken fountain that day, this was going to be our last class for the summer. The professor made us lay down in the grass and close our eyes. We were to draw whatever went through our minds during those five minutes of outdoor meditation. I had barely closed my eyes when I heard a sharp snap among the muffled giggles of the tinier kids. It was my professor, he was sitting cross-legged beside me and had swiped my poorly rolled-up masterpiece right out of the side pocket of my backpack. An intense, animated grin was pasted on his lips. 


I sat up expectantly, “Did you finally find a soul in there?”


He looked over the painting and laughed almost as if he had mastered a practical joke of which I was the latest victim, “No,” he said bluntly, “but I found honesty.” He patted my back and left swiftly. He never told me if he liked the painting or not. Frankly, I never thought about the painting and the wide-toothed professor for a long time. It was only years later when I rekindled my love for creativity and started writing professionally, did I realise he was onto something.


I find writing Creative Nonfiction is a lot like finger-painting. You bleed raw, honest words on a piece of paper and hope your hands will know what to do; and sometimes, when magic strikes, you end up painting the same forest you fell in love with at five-years-old when your father took you to see the cabin in the woods he grew up around.


Life happens in stories, though it may not seem like that at the moment. But when we look back at our experiences, hindsight allows for reflection and perspective. A blend of these lived experiences and personal, unbiased commentary about them makes for amazing non-fiction. Sauté that in a thick gravy of literary elements and narrative styles and voila! You have yourself a delicious, steaming-hot serving of Creative Nonfiction.


The vastness and quite frankly, vagueness of this genre (like any other) makes it difficult to define. Founder and editor of the magazine “Creative Nonfiction”, Lee Gutkind said it best in the banner of his magazine: Creative Nonfiction is “simply put: true stories, well told”.

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