Would you allow your need for money to eclipse your sense of right and wrong? A story by Prajyoth K. explores this question.
A young man, standing in front of a blank canvas, gazed at it intently. His gaze was so intent that he failed to notice the movement behind him, and when he did, it pulled him back to reality with a start.
“Hello Trafalgar, I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, his voice hoarse from want of moisture. He moved to grab the water bottle as the man who had just entered looked around at all the paintings in the room. Every canvas in the room, except for one, was splattered with dark shades. Trafalgar’s eyes turned to the young man, seemingly aloof and uninterested.
“Eustass Kid, I’m so glad to have finally met you,” he exclaimed with a straight face.
Eustass grew up with his father always encouraging him to reach for the stars. He always reminded him to never give up on his unique and appealing talent. “We have to stand up for what we believe in,” he would say. “Honesty starts with being ourselves, true to what we are and what we believe in. That may not always be popular, but it will always let you follow your dreams and your heart!”
Every time he had been in doubt, his father’s reassuring words had guided him through, motivating him to break all shackles and become what he had always wanted to be: a painter. Even though his dream went against societal norms and people looked down on him every time he dared to mention it to somebody else, his father had supported him throughout his life and even in his final moments, his wish was for his son to achieve what he had always wanted.
Life after his father’s death had certainly not been a bed of roses for Eustass, and it kept presenting him with new challenges. The greatest jolt, however, was the sudden and tragic demise of his friend, Albus – a middle-aged, chivalrous man who had helped Eustass through some difficult times.
Now that he was gone, Eustass had no choice but to team up with Trafalgar – despite the warnings that were given to him by his friends – for he needed to earn his bread. Trafalgar had the reputation of being a conceited man, but he was one of the trusted ministers of His Highness the Great Sultan of Hindustan, and he had entrusted Trafalgar with the task of selecting masterpieces from the entire kingdom which were to adorn his palace.
“That’s a nice gallery you’ve got,” Trafalgar finally broke the awkward silence.
“They are all my paintings,” Eustass said, hoping for some sign of approval or appreciation.
Trafalgar studied the painter. He was a young, well-built man, with a trim moustache that could not be avoided even if someone tried. But in the back of his mind, Trafalgar knew something bothered him, even though he hesitated to speak his mind. He was not at all pleased about Eustass’s dark skin tone. He had not known about Eustass’s appearance when he had decided to do business with him, but now that it was out in the open, he was disturbed and ill at ease. Trafalgar had made it a point to not associate himself with such people; they were not worthy. But he had already agreed, he reminded himself, and knowing that he was only doing the deal to make a few quick bucks, he convinced himself to not walk out of the room.
“So,” he said, not meeting Eustass’s eyes. He didn’t wish to look at him any longer than he needed to. “They are good, but … I observed a … pattern … in your paintings. Would you care to explain why your paintings only have swarthy people in them? Do you hate people of other colours?”
“No,” Eustass shrugged, “I just like experimenting with darker colours.” He didn’t think it was that big a deal.
“That wouldn’t do,” Trafalgar snapped. Eustass turned to look at him, startled by the tone of his voice. Trafalgar cleared his throat and adjusted his shirt before he opened his mouth again to speak in a business-like manner. “There is an auction day after tomorrow at the Royal Grounds and you are invited. However, you are requested not to include any dark-skinned people in your painting.”
Eustass was still confused; Trafalgar’s answer had not given him any explanation.
“And why is that?” he asked.
Trafalgar was still staring at the paintings, moving his eyes from the first in line to the second and to the third, and so on.
“Well, you see,” he began, moving closer to the canvasses, “most of the people invited are the nobles of the Sultanate. They have such beautiful noses and such … fair … skin.”
Eustass could not believe what Trafalgar was subtly trying to tell him. He was at a loss for words. When Trafalgar turned to face him a moment later, his hands behind his back, his expression made Eustass feel even worse.
“Now you know the nobles… such paintings wouldn’t tickle their fancy. And oh! You are the only Swart on the invitation list.”
How preposterous, Eustass thought to himself. He knew it was for his own reasons that Trafalgar did not want him to paint people of his own colour. But pressed by need, Eustass had little choice but to agree with him.
“Okay,” he finally replied.
“Excellent! I’ll be expecting you in the Palace Grounds by nine thirty in the morning. Be punctual.”
Trafalgar gave the paintings a final look, snorted, flipped his coat and went through the door.
On the day of the auction, Eustass stood outside with the painting that he had carefully wrapped in paper. He took a deep breath and slowly entered the auction hall.
“Here already? Show me the painting, will you?” Trafalgar snapped his hands for the canvas without waiting for a reply.
The canvas shone with light colours that appealed to Trafalgar’s eyes. The painting was a scene with many fair-skinned people, just as he had ordered, but the difference between the two groups of people was evident. A few people in the painting were wearing elegant clothes and smiling at each other. Many men and women stood behind them in peasant clothes with solemn faces.
Trafalgar was so thoroughly impressed that for a second, he wondered whether Eustass was capable of doing such a good job. But he did not understand the reason for the differences in their appearance. When he asked Eustass, he shrugged it off, saying it was a new trend.
The show commenced. As the day went by, the speeches slipped into dance and play. But the food and merry-making felt like an eternity to Eustass who could hardly control his nerves. He was so worried about the reaction to his painting that he abandoned a plate overflowing with food, waiting for the actual event to start.
Eustass’s concerns were shown valid when the auction started. Some of the paintings were getting appreciation and fetching a good sum, but most of the art did not fetch anything at. Eustass knew that his painting was last in line, and looking at the crowd, which was growing bored and unappreciative, his heart sank to the floor. His head snapped up and his heart beat louder when he heard his name being announced.
“And this piece, titled Black Paint, bu Eustass Kid?”
He studied the faces in the crowd. Many were apathetic, while the rest looked displeased.
“This is just an ordinary piece,” said one of the critics, “and such a bizarre name!”
There was a buzz in the crowd. Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing: why would anyone name a paining of white people ‘Black Paint’?
Eustass took a deep breath as he set foot on the stage. He knew it was his turn to promote the painting like other artists – or he could wait for someone to bid on it. He cleared his throat and prepared himself to address the crowd.
“Pretty dull in here, isn’t it?” he spoke, gathering his confidence. He moved to the end of the stage, all eyes on him, and, grabbing the edge of the curtains, pulled them open, exposing the audience to the sunlight. There was a murmur until a few in the audience saw his painting and gasped.
The painting had magically transformed. As soon as the sun shone on them, the light colours had all darkened by a few shades. The brown and black skins of the nobles went beautifully with their now-magenta robes. The common people in the back were now wearing dark clothes and undoubtedly resembled the lower and middle classes who worked as farmers and labourers.
Trafalgar, who had been standing in corner, ran to the stage. His fists were balled up at his sides and his face was red with anger. “Eustass! What is this?! Explain!” he screamed.
The audience, however, paid no attention. Spellbound, they stood up one by one and started clapping. As the applause grew thunderous, Eustass’s worry was washed away by a huge grin. The painting was undoubtedly a success.
The Sultan, too, rose in his praise. “Eustass Kid – ever praised! Well, son, you have truly lived up to your name!”
Content, Eustass walked up to Trafalgar, who was still standing in a corner, his anger showing no signs of having abated. He stood straighter as he saw Eustass, feeling ready to explode. But before he could do anything, Eustass spoke.
“You know, it was nice working with you,” he said calmly. “Though I really do feel sorry for people like you who don’t know how to respect others. I hope today’s auction was a lesson for you. There is a single colour on an artist’s palette that provides meaning to both life and art. That colour is love.”
Trafalgar lowered his eyes in shame. He had nothing to say in his defence. Eustass smiled and walked away.
Editing: Mrinal Verma, Vani Sharma
Illustrations: Aditi Verma