Her Spiritual Crisis

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I draw naked people. Sketching live models is my hobby. I have drawn over a hundred individuals from all walks of life, and Conversations in the Nude captures my tryst with nudity.
Conversations in the Nude | Mihir Srivastava | Harper Collins India Original | 224 pages | Rs 499
I draw naked people. Sketching live models is my hobby. I have drawn over a hundred individuals from all walks of life, and Conversations in the Nude captures my tryst with nudity. It’s a collaborative art project—between me and my subjects. I am inspired by the curves of the human form and there is an element of me in every sketch of mine.

I began sketching nudes to ward off boredom. And it did pull me out of the rut of life’s predictability. But soon, it became so much more.

This book is not a justification but an assertion of selfhood. Nudity evokes in me the Indian philosophical truth that dispossession is a sure path to the ultimate possession—enlightenment. Nudity teaches me that there are no stereotypes. Just individuals.

Sadly, I am hardly ever complimented for my art; what impresses people is my ability to persuade others to pose nude. India, they say, is a conservative country. My experience has been that Indians are fairly radical in a closed room— so long as anonymity is guaranteed. Some call it hypocrisy. I call it privacy. I assure my subjects anonymity, even if they are willing to reveal their identities. It’s the phenomenon that is important to me, not the participant.

The following chapter, one of the book’s eleven, is about sketching a stranger—a Russian girl I met in Haridwar. We were together for 12 hours.

I read a piece on the sharp spike in teenage suicides in Russia in recent years. These copy-cat suicides are bizarre. Young couples, for instance, jump off high-rises holding each other’s hands. Experts blame it on the usual things: alcoholism, drugs and dysfunctional families. But who can deny that politics too has a role to play? In post-communist Russia, there are few jobs and many woes, and an increasing sense of disillusionment. There are a lot of troubled young people there struggling to cope. I met one such girl. She posed for me and described her affliction as an acute spiritual crisis.

This was the second-last day of the year. I had been out on a birding trip to a resort in Corbett National Park. After two days with slow-walking birdwatchers, I decided to do a spot of vagabonding on my own. I decided to do it on noisy, rickety government buses. They are very uncomfortable, but certainly have character. And they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are: bone-breakers. I was bored and looking for some adventure, and this avoidable discomfort was part of the package.

I trekked for two hours along a canal to reach the nearest town, Ramnagar, and then took a bus to Haridwar. I was in a bus for the next ten hours, so clearly Rishikesh wasn’t as close to Ramnagar as I had thought it was.

It was 8.30 pm when my mangled, roaring ride came to a shuddering halt at Haridwar Bus Stand. I tottered out and looked for another bus to complete the last leg of my journey. By now, I was done with the rickety buses. I wanted a decent one with cushioned seats and a head rest for last 35 kilometres of the journey. There was one such ‘deluxe’ bus parked there. It was inviting. There was only one unoccupied seat left, and I rushed to grab it. I saw a blonde woman sitting on the adjacent seat, and was disappointed. Perhaps, this seat belonged to a boyfriend or travel mate.

‘May I?’


Good for me and my poor sore back.

The bus would start in about half an hour, the conductor announced, and encouraged his passengers to take a tea break. She wanted the translation, which I provided. She looked kind of worried. It was very cold and getting colder.

‘By Russian standards, this weather is springtime, isn’t it?’ I asked, zipping up my jacket. She smiled. We were talking. Over the next hour, she told me about her stay in India, her trip to Kerala for a week at a spa resort. She started her two-month-long India tour with a stay in Varanasi for a month. Now, she would learn yoga in Rishikesh for two weeks and fly back to Moscow mid-January. We were enjoying the conversation. I introduced her to my hobby and showed her my sketchbook.

She felt confident enough to share her problem with the expectation that I would be part of the solution. ‘I have no idea where I am going to stay tonight,’ she said. I had the same problem, but being a native (and male), I wasn’t overly worried about that. She had no objection to us sharing a room and the cost. But for that, I advised her that we should pose as if we were in some sort of a relationship. She agreed. Her English was very heavily Russian- accented, so we decided that I would do all the talking and she would just say yes, if required.

We checked into a decent room with a powerful heating system. We allowed the room to get warm while she told me about her new-found love for Hinduism. ‘This is the only religion that has the potential to help me deal with the spiritual crisis I am facing,’ she said. She was in search of solace. She was running from her own life, and there was nowhere to go.

To me, part of her problem was that she was desperately looking for a solution. She needed to stop and take stock. She considered the point and agreed.

‘Would yoga help?’

‘It might. But a sketching session with me would surely soothe you.’

She was expecting it. ‘I can try,’ she replied, in the tone of a sexagenarian agreeing to try a new line of treatment for her chronic backache.

This was not for the first time that she was posing nude. Her former boyfriend loved to take photographs of her in the nude. She was not particularly fond of those pictures. ‘My body looked strange to me in them,’ she said. Those pictures appeared impolitely stark to her.

‘My sketches will not be a replica of you,’ I explained. ‘Nor will they be blunt like those pictures. Your curves will only inspire my drawings.’

It was already eleven when we started the sketching session. I was tired, but very keen to sketch her. I wanted to see if posing for me would quell her unrest somewhat.

The room was warm enough for her to shed her clothes. She undressed facing a wall. Her red underwear was translucent. She did not remove it. I did not insist, but I did remind her softly, ‘I draw nudes. And you would agree that there is no scale to nudity. Either you are nude or not.’

I could see her blond, curly pubic hair tightly packed inside her revealing underwear.

She had a red scar on her lower abdomen, which matched the colour of her briefs.

‘What is this scar?’ I asked her, pointing to it.

‘All I can say is this is not a birth mark.’ She allowed me to touch the red patch. Her body was emitting heat waves. Her soft and smooth skin smelt like sandalwood.

‘Either it is an insect bite, or you tied your belt too tight,’ I concluded.

She lay down on the bed to pose. I was too tired to pursue a conversation. In the last two hours of incessant talking, we had left little unsaid. But she expanded on the nature of her spiritual crisis. Sex, she declared, is not important. It is a mechanical act that corrodes the soul. We demand so much from each other, but no one is ready to give an inch. People are takers. There are no givers. That was the gist of what she said for the next half an hour.

In the past five years, her relationship woes had kept building. She felt that the burden of her relationships was solely on her. Her boyfriend of two years had cheated on her, hooking up with her best friend. It was months before she came to know about the affair. When she did, they were unremorseful. ‘Yes, we love each other,’ they announced.

‘They were suddenly not the people I knew for years,’ she said, voice choking. ‘Suddenly, there was a big vacuum. They were unfair to me. Life was unfair to me. Initially, I thought I was to blame for this situation. And then I started to blame them. I still can’t get over hating them.’

She wanted to kill them. She wanted to kill herself. She started dating her ex-boyfriend’s cousin. It was a reaction. She just wanted to prove a point, she didn’t even know what. This new flame in her life was ten years her senior. They were together for six months. She ensured her former boyfriend knew just how happy things were in her new relationship. She ended up compounding her own miseries—she was trying hard to be happy when she wasn’t. There was no future in that relationship either. They were together in body, but their souls were poles apart.

‘When he made love to me, I would stare at the roof,’ she said, looking up at the ceiling.

Now she is dating a doctor in Moscow. ‘This is the first time my partner needs me more than, or at least as much as, I need him. The problem is that I don’t need him bad enough,’ she confessed. ‘I still love that cheating bastard.’ Her doctor boyfriend came with her to India and stayed in Varanasi with her. He left before she went to Kerala.

‘There is this restlessness in me. It refuses to go. Yoga might help,’ she said again.

I finished my second sketch and walked to her side of the double bed to show her the sketch. Her clear blue eyes were wet.

‘Can I tell you something frankly? Don’t take yourself so seriously,’ I said.

The air in the room was dry and hot. Her red translucent underwear was disturbing me.

‘I have to tell you one more thing frankly. Please remove your red underwear. It looks like the last remnant of communist rule in a capitalist world.’

She laughed for the first time since we met, but did nothing. Perhaps she thought it was just a joke. Anyway, about ten minutes later, she went to the loo and returned naked.

I made six sketches in all. They were rough and quick. ‘I like the aggression of your lines,’ she complimented me.

‘I will do a couple of sketches in the morning too if there is time and if you are up to it.’ With that, I called off the sketching session and got into bed next to her.

I was too tired to fall asleep. And the fact that a naked woman was lying beside me was difficult to ignore.

In the dim light that came in through a glass ventilator on top of the main door, I saw that her eyes were still wide open. She was making no special effort to sleep.

I asked her hesitantly, ‘Can we make love?’ It was a reckless act that showed little respect for her.

‘You too want sex?’’

‘I want to make love with you,’ I said, stressing on the word ‘love’.

‘No,’ was her sharp, loud reply. She sounded furious. She turned the other way, but did not put on her clothes either, in spite of the fact that I had made my intentions clear. I observed her back for a while, and was tempted to sketch her in that pose. Her abrupt ‘no’ had killed all of my hopes for any further intimacy, and that allowed me to finally fall asleep.

I am not sure exactly, but something like a couple of hours later, she woke me up and said, ‘Let’s make love.’

We did.

She was only half there.

‘I will not let you stare at the roof,’ I said, covering her eyes with my hands. I was trying to soothe her with my body. It was a long encounter that lacked passion.

I woke up the next morning to the bright sun and a cold breeze on my face. She was sitting on the chair in front of me, dressed and ready to go, and staring fixedly at me. She had already opened the window and drawn the curtains. I got up, startled.

‘We should not have done it,’ she said.

‘Yes, I was too tired to sketch,’ I replied, and forced a smile.

She was in no mood to entertain jokes. ‘I wanted to avoid this. I want no lust in my life for some time. It serves no purpose,’ she said.

Grimness settled in the room in spite of the bright morning light.

‘I regret it if you regret it. But let me tell you this. The problem with you is very simple. You make simple issues complex. And then fuck your happiness. Fuck men instead. Learn a few tricks from us Indians. Blame every bad thing that happens to you on one of these three divine factors: God’s will, fate or maya. And then get on with your life.’

I was having a hot shower when she entered the bathroom. She had forgotten her towel in there. It was a nice one, with bold pink and red checks. She was worried that I may use it.

I dropped her off at an ashram that was pleased to admit her. We hugged. She expressed her happiness about the fact that we met, and kept two of her favourite sketches. I gave her my contact details and invited her to stay with me when she was in Delhi. ‘I will drop you to the airport,’ I offered.

I never saw or heard from her again.