Canvases of Dreams
She couldn’t wait till her little son at home was old enough to paint. She’d teach him all about colours and shading and which brushes to use. And to use his talents for doing good in the world. But most of all, she thought as she put the finishing touches on her piece, she prayed he grew up in a world where women could paint for the sake of it and not for raising money for victims of abusive marriages.

It was the first evening of winter in the rain-washed coastal town. Simran finished handing out the last of the flyers outside her college gates and headed to the bus stand, hugging her sweater closer around her frail frame.

College students loitered around chai addas. Some trudged their way to the masjid for Maghrib prayer.

Simran boarded the bus and made her way home as dusk enveloped the palm trees and concrete rooftops.

She got to bed early, Whatsapping her colleagues for last-minute confirmations and check-ins before falling asleep. The last thought on her mind was, “I sure hope the geyser’s working tomorrow; I really don’t have it in me to take a cold shower so early in the morning…”

“Remember, it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you, alright? You may begin now!”
There was initial chaos as the participants shuffled to get their canvases propped upon their easels and arranged the necessary equipment. Soon, the session was in full swing. The room was a riot of colours. Some began immediately swirling paints into cups of water. There was constant dipping of paint brushes, and occasional clattering sounds of tubes and palettes being dropped nervously, while some stared at their blank canvases struggling to come up with a concept.

One hour later, Simran took a quick survey of the participants’ works. To say she was blown away would be an understatement.

Amira decided to go for a multicolour presentation. She mixed every colour in her set except blue. Avoiding even the faintest hint of blue at any cost. She wished it wasn’t such a big deal but she couldn’t help it. Blue had been the colour of her wedding dress. It was that same shade of blue in which the marriage counselling centre’s room was painted. The same room in which she had just months ago, made the most painful decision of her life. Once her favourite colour, she now could not stand it. The sky outside seemed to be mocking her sentiments by displaying the most delightful shade of blue after a long monsoon spell.

As she painted, she found herself becoming melancholy rather than cheering up. Anxiety kicked in. This activity was meant to help her with her ruminations but instead, it was only bringing those painful memories back again.
She forced herself to focus on the task at hand and on completing the piece. She was here for a good cause and she would make it worthwhile.

Muskan was having the time of her life. She couldn’t remember the last time she had painted while being so relaxed. She was even humming to herself as she worked, mixing all hues of green in her mixing palette; fern, jade, emerald, lime, and then darkest green, the colour of the foliage outside. Peaceful. That’s how she felt at that moment. She remembered when Simran had asked her to participate in this art therapy session at the women’s shelter.

“I never thought I would ever be able to enjoy painting again.”, she replied. “I’m glad I made the choices I made. Mixing colours on a canvas to raise funds for women who’ve been through the same stuff as me? Way better use of my time than playing house all day for my in-laws’ entire extended family! Sign me up!”, she exclaimed.

She couldn’t wait till her little son at home was old enough to paint. She’d teach him all about colours and shading and which brushes to use. And to use his talents for doing good in the world. But most of all, she thought as she put the finishing touches on her piece, she prayed he grew up in a world where women could paint for the sake of it and not for raising money for victims of abusive marriages.

It was one hour into the session but Taskeen still hadn’t begun. She just could not figure out what to paint. This used to happen whenever she was in a disturbed state of mind and the past few months had been nothing short of, well, disturbing. She looked around the room. The session was in full swing and most of the women were almost halfway through their pieces. In the centre of the room, the tall lady had just finished her piece and was calling the coordinator, Simran, to come have a look. The latter turned the easel around so the entire room could take a look. Gasps of admiration filled the air then applause. Taskeen was in awe. It was a beautiful rendition of a large tree in a green monochromatic palette. But she also felt a slight tinge of bitterness. Why couldn’t she paint like that? “Dear participants, we have only an hour left. If you need any help please do let us know.”

Simran walked up to Taskeen.
“How’s it going?”, she inquired helpfully. Taskeen now felt even more embarrassed. “I…well… I just can’t seem to understand what and how to paint today. I’m worried it’s not going to turn out great at all.”

Simran felt for her. Expecting perfection was something she’d struggled with in her life as well. “You know, this session is intended for you all. It’s for you. Please don’t worry about the end result. This is a safe space. Nobody is going to judge anyone else.” She took a pause. “Perhaps you could paint the sun. I don’t think anyone else has painted that today and also, you seem to have a good selection of orange and yellow colours.”
Taskeen looked down at her station.

“Come on, try. You can do it!” Simran encouraged her.’
“Fine, I’ll try.”

She picked up the brushes and began. It was very difficult for her to let go of the notion that her work had to be perfect. She’d faced first-hand the consequences otherwise. She laboured on, mixing and applying broad strokes and swirls on the canvas.

By the end of the session, she’d managed to draw an impressionist rendition of a brilliant sun against a vibrant blue sky. It hadn’t quite turned out the way she’d imagined it, but it was still better than nothing. Warmth. That’s how Taskeen felt. Life wasn’t perfect but it was still beautiful.

“Thank you to everyone for their enthusiastic participation today! Your gorgeous work will be displayed next week at the fundraising event for the shelter. Of course, if you prefer to keep your work to yourself and not have it displayed, that’s also fine. Thank you all once again.”

There was applause once again and brief chaos as everyone hurried to put away their tools and head to the mess for refreshments.
Simran and the volunteers went around cleaning up the room and putting everything back in its place.

“That went better than expected! At first, I was worried that no one would show up! But there were almost 15 ladies. I think our campaigning worked!”

Shaheen was sombre.
“I mean as great as this session was today, I can’t help but keep thinking all the time about the reason. And some of the ladies here, we know personally. Their stories are just… I can’t believe this is what women have to put up with…”

Simran hummed her agreement.
“As long as we have ways of surviving, like channelling our pain into something as beautiful as art, I think we’ll be alright.”

“Yes.”, Shaheen replied. “But I wish that this wasn’t what it came to. I wish the people who are the reason this shelter exists, would realise what their actions have done.”

One of the other volunteers called them for assistance. Their conversation was cut short and they both rushed to help out.

On the way back home, Simran was still thinking about what Shaheen had said.
She put away the painting she had carried with her from the session which was given to her for safe-keeping by one of the new volunteers.
She propped it up against her bedroom study table. It was a lovely piece of raindrops falling into a vast ocean.

One day, Simran mused, the collective actions of young women like herself would form an ocean of change for society. Hopeful. That was how she felt as she fell asleep after a long but blessed day.

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