“Madam…tut tut tut….this will not look nice” The young man shook his head solemnly. “It look good here but it in real life, it not look good!!!”
My interior designer was not only uncomfortable with English, he was also patronising about my requests. My mother was trying to reason with him calmly, holding a standard-issue roll of Asian Paints colour spectrum, while I sat on the kitchen steps with my head in my hands. The entire apartment was coated in a fine layer of sawdust. Newspapers covered the windows, half-empty cans of paint lay in corners and the floor was littered with compact machine-gun drills.
We were getting our house decorated for the first time ever. 26 years of my life I’d spent moving from one military base to another. The longest I’d ever stayed in one place was 4 years, after which I’d be pulled out of one school and dumped in another. Every house that I grew up in had been on rent. I’d never hung up any posters. I’d never strung out fairy lights. I didn’t own any furniture except the military grade straight-backed wooden chairs. All our ornaments were stored in steel trunks which had my father’s name and rank in peeling letters which was lugged from one posting to another. The beds were hard, unyielding, with absolutely no personal touch. Some of the mattresses had coils poking out of them. The porch always had a table-and-chair set made of bamboo. We were always comfortable, because the military takes care of its own, but it was never home. Some of my friends had lived their entire lives in the same town. I’d barely begin to memorise the names of streets before we had to move to another city.
So after I finished law and we finally decided to settle down and get a place of our own, you can imagine my excitement. I could have my own walk-in closet. An antique mirror. A wall-hanging of the Buddha. All my law books neatly stacked on a bookshelf. A Sakura bed and a set of fine china for my evening tea. A bonsai tree. Wind-chimes on the balcony. A prayer wheel, dragon show-pieces, deep red walls and a Japanese room screen. (In case it isn’t clear, I was going for an Asian theme). I still had my mother’s silk Bakhu for crying out loud, so it’s obvious I couldn’t wait for this.
My parents, who were not little children, were going for subtle tones of wine and pink for the master bedroom. The living room was to be done in a honey-beige combination and the guest room a pleasant lavender. Clearly we had our druthers as far as the dream house was concerned.
Not according to our slightly mad decorator.
“Wallpaper!” He said, his eyes gleaming, the corners of his mouth wet with spittle, gesturing wildly towards the walls. “Need wallpapers madam! Everyone doing it! Looking drab without wallpaper!”
My mother looked back at me, exasperated, while I rolled my eyes.
“We don’t want wallpapers. We aren’t wallpaper people. We like to decorate our own walls. My husband served in the military for years, he has medals and honours that need to be displayed. We have family photographs that need to be framed and hung up. And a dog!”
“The dog doesn’t need to be framed and hung up” I said wryly.
The decorator blinked at me while my mother frowned. “What I meant was, the dog will scratch off the wallpaper in seconds. He’s a big dog” I loved how my mother was expressing so well with her hands. The wild paws and the sheer bigness of our German shepherd. As if words simply failed to get through his thick skull.
“But Madam, please! I have stacks of wallpapers! Choose anyone and I put it!” He was wheedling us the way a 5 year old wheedles his parents for candyfloss.
“We don’t want the extra expenditure. You know our budget”. My mother stared reproachfully at him. We all knew he was trying to get a big commission.
“I no charge extra!” He shook his head innocently. “All in budget!”
“What about the kitchen?” I got up from my perch and rejoined them.
“Ahhh” He seemed to have gone intro a trance as he closed his eyes and swayed. “Bar counter! Wine glasses hanging from the top! Mirrors! Floor lights! Coloured marbles embedded in glass! Plywood laminate counter tops!” He breathed into my face and I took two tiny steps back.
Have I mentioned he had a bad case of halitosis?
When we first hired his services, my mother had given explicit instructions to prioritise functionality over everything else. She was almost fanatic about the kitchen. She wanted space. She wanted air and light and ventilation. Our kitchen was an open plan so she wanted it surrounded with a honeycomb wall. She wanted it to look classy and neat. She wanted-
“Rows of closets!” He said, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Closet for cutlery. Closet for spices. Closet for snacks. Closet for wheat, lentils and flour! Closet for-“
“Your head in a little jar” I muttered under my breath. “Look if you have so many closets all over the place where are you going to put the chimney?”
The chimney was an idea he had come up with when he first saw the kitchen. The problem was, the chimney was blocking the windows. So the kitchen was going to become a little gas chamber and my mother was going to suffocate in there. She’s a tiny woman. Feisty, but about as scary as a pixie. That’s until she starts screaming.
“We’ve talked about this” My mother said patiently. “Look I’ll show you!” She went to the kitchen sink and pretended to rinse some plates and then banged her head against the overhanging closets. “Ouch!” She acted as if she’d hurt herself. “See?”
“Madam you can duck a little?” He suggested.
I left them to it and took a walk around the apartment, trying to get my bearings. When I’d asked my mother why she was being so damn calm while this man wreaked havoc in our house she’d replied furtively. “I don’t know what his background is. Maybe he knows some thugs. What if he decides to knock one of us off if we don’t listen to him?”
My mother thinks everyone is connected to the underworld. It was either that or the fact that our interior decorator dressed like a hitman.
The first time we got an inkling of his talents was when we agreed to the wallpaper. We had to choose a wallpaper and then a colour that would go along with it. We did that and told him our decision. The next day when we turned up at our house, my room was a ghastly baby pink while the master bedroom a sombre mint green. Apparently, our choice of colour didn’t matter. Once we chose the wallpaper he would colour-code it with any paint of his choice. My mother was devastated when she saw what he’d done.
“Our bedroom looks like an institutional facility for the mentally insane!” She wailed into the phone as she spoke to my father. So we ditched the wallpaper and chose a new set of colours. But the older paint needed to be painted over first, with white paint, dried off and then repainted with fresh colours. It was maddening.
Over the next few weeks, the house came along slowly. It was easier to hold a conversation with the labourers rather than the decorator. He’d never pick up his phone and he’d never reply to texts. He would take weeks to find the paints we asked for. The labourers would get tired and move to another project. Sometimes the carpenter would bring in things that were not ours to work on just to while away the time. The bathrooms were being used like public toilets and my mother was afraid we’d never get them clean enough. He tried very hard to put wallpapers wherever he could. When we refused it in the bedrooms, he tried for the living room. When that didn’t work, he gave up entirely on looking for the right paints so the living room looked quite bare and sad for a long time. It was a battle of wills.
The labour-force was a whole another story. One day I walked in on them, having a meal together like a large Turkish family. There were pots and pans everywhere. Sacks of onions and potatoes sat in one corner. A phone charger was hooked to a socket and various manly underthings were lying conspicuously on the floor. I closed my eyes and backed out. That was the day I realised that the labourers were camping out. I couldn’t blame them. The way things were moving, this would be their home first before being ours.
Finally, on one of the last days, when we’d come in for a final check, the decorator walked in on me while I sat on my bedroom floor, contemplating what it felt like to be home. The ceiling lights illuminated the deep red and vanilla walls of my room.
“What?” I gritted my teeth. No. Please. No wallpaper.
He offered me a box of cashew Barfi as is customary in India at the end of a successful job and winked at me. “Congratulations on the new house!” He smiled through yellowing teeth that had chewed one too many betel leaves. His breath wafted towards me and I felt I died a little inside.
“Oh.” I said. I took a sweetmeat and thanked him for his work. “You’ve done a marvellous job. The house looks beautiful.”
“Ah-” He said, hesitantly, “But-“
“Even without the wallpaper” I grinned.