A fictionalised account of my own journey into publishing but set in the artworld. Nina 28 has her life turned upside down. Let down by a spiritual guru, finding her boyfriend with someone else and sacked from her job, she takes refuge in a secret passion of her own - painting. Everyday, she puts on a suit and pretends to go to work but goes to a studio where she paints. But when her work is spotted by a major player, she panics. Pretending to be the artist's agent, she fabricates a name, an identity, an entire life for her client, and propels him towards ever-increasing international acclaim. To add to the complication, she finds her heart pulled in an unexpected direction. Having become adept at the art of deception, she must try to keep her two worlds apart. But as they threaten to collide spectacularly, she must question who she really is and what really matters ...
An extract from the beginning:
2nd December 1999
I know now that hurtling a saffron-stained coconut over London Bridge at six-thirty in the morning should have set some alarm bells off. The tramp peered up at me from his cardboard box as if to say that I would be joining him very soon. But the Guru had said that it would remove the stagnation from my life, me being represented by a hairy coconut and the water representing flow. The Thames did not glisten at me. Well, it couldn't really as it was pitch black and probably frozen, but I believed it was glistening, shimmering even, and leading me to better things.
Looking back, the only bit the Guru got right was the symbolism. Brown woman thrown further into murky waters.
I had met this Guru the previous day. I'd like to say that I met him at the foothills of the Himalayas or somewhere exotic but I bumped into him outside Pound Savers on Croydon High Street. It was one of those really cold December days when everything comes at you from all directions; the wind, the rain, puddle-slush, the odd hailstone, and anything else nature can find to throw at you. It had been a really hard day at work and almost unbearable to get through: my best friend, Kirelli, had died exactly a year earlier. Sorting out the contract of some egotistical artist and checking the provenance of a painting for a client seemed irrelevant, so I told my boss that I had a headache and was leaving early.
'Two aspirins will clear it,' he said.
'Right, I'll get some on my way home,' I replied, with absolutely no intention of stopping off at the chemist's. I was good at pretending; it had become second nature to me because of the distinct worlds I lived in.
Having said that, there were certain parallels between the art world and the Indian subcontinent ensconced within our semi: both worlds were seemingly very secure with an undercurrent of unspoken rules and codes of conduct that were made and manipulated by a dominant few. One set fixed the price of art and the other fixed up marriages. The main difference was that the ones in the art world didn't have centre-parted hair and weren't dressed in saris, grey woolly socks and sandals. The only way I was able to make the cultural crossover from the Hindi songs wailing from the semi to the classical music played subtly at the reception area in the law firm where I worked as an artist's representative was by pretending. Pretending to be someone I wasn't. 'Nina, Boo Williams is coming in tomorrow,' my boss reiterated before I left. This was his coded way of saying, 'Make sure you pull yourself together by the morning.'
Boo Williams was one of the artists we represented at the firm. Her sculpture of Venus de Milo made from dried fruit and vegetables had failed to win the Turner Prize so she would be needing much consolation and bullshit from me in the morning. Forget the sickie, forget grief; Boo and her heap of fruit and vegetables needed me more.
'Right, see you tomorrow then,' I muttered, grabbing my coat.
On the way back home there were no commuters hurling themselves onto the tube. The carriages were almost empty and I was relieved, because if I had had a group of wet strangers pushing against me, vying for space, that would have just about done it. I sat opposite an old lady with wispy white hair. She had the kind of eyes that made me want to tell her that my best friend had died in my arms at exactly this time - two-thirty, a year ago - and that since then I had been lost, truly lost. The old lady smiled at me and a lump began to form in my throat. I got up, moved seats and sat down beside a soggy copy of the Guardian. The page it was turned to showed the Turner Prize winner, Maximus Karlhein, trying desperately to pose seriously. He was standing next to one of his pieces exhibited at the Tate - an old wardrobe stuffed with his worldly possessions.
I pushed the paper away feeling exhausted. It was all nonsense; people posing in front of wardrobes, passing it off as art and making headlines. Where was the feeling? The passion? And that crap - that the relationship with his wardrobe was imbued on his soul and that he had no option but to express it - which PR person had thought of that line? Art was supposed to be passionate and full of emotion, not contrived, not like an Emperor's-new-clothes scenario where a group of influential people said that the work was good and therefore people believed it was. What had happened to art? Paintings done by artists who didn't even care if they weren't known, not some hyped artist giving a convoluted explanation behind a pile of dried fruit or a heap of junk. A year on, and despite promising that I would be true to myself after Ki's death, I still participated in the circus.
Tomorrow, no doubt I would have to console Boo. What kind of name was that anyway? Knock, knock, who's there? Boo. Boo Who? Don't worry, love, your apricots didn't win the Turner Prize this year but you can sell them for at least five grand. That's what I would want to say, but what I would probably say was, 'Ms Williams, Boo, it's an injustice, I just can't see how you didn't win. Your concept, the use of colour is simply ... simply inspirational.' Was that what happened to you in life? You started off with such high hopes and ideals and then got sucked into all the bullshit and you pretended that that was reality. No, I didn't think that was the case with me - I knew deep down that life was too short to be doing anything other than what I really wanted to do; Ki had shown me that. But that wasn't the problem - there were the occupants living in the semi to consider. I had a duty to make sure that they were happy, and keeping my job as a lawyer was fundamental to their all-important list system.
Mum and Dad's short list was devoid of any kind of love or passion. Thinking about it, the Turner Prize short list and my parents' own were not that dissimilar: although the criteria was seemingly clear and transparent, the subject produced was, at times, truly baffling. In their case, the subject was a man and the objective of the list was to find me a husband. Like the art world, much went on behind the scenes that nobody really knew about. Favours were exchanged, backs were scratched and tactics employed so that the prospective candidate was over-hyped to an influential few in order to persuade them that he was the right man for the job.
The long list was drawn up by a group of well-connected elderly women in the community, whose demure presence betrayed what they were really capable of. The criteria that had been set to filter the candidates were that they had to come from a good family background, be well educated and have lots of money. One of my mum's roles was to whittle down the long list, but her primary task was to set the PR machinery in motion; to cover up any negatives, then to promote and hype the candidates and make sure they were shown to me in a favourable light. This week she had managed to get the list down to three potentials whose vital statistics were presented in the form of handwritten CVs. There was a doctor, another lawyer and an accountant left on the dining-room table for me to look at. The hot favourite (who had been put to the top of the pile) was the accountant, because he had his own property: 'Beta, this candidate was imbued on my soul.' She wouldn't use those words exactly, she would just draw my attention to his flat. So, although it was seemingly my decision to choose one, go on a few dates with him and agree to marriage, the system was clearly rigged.
However, the panel had overlooked one very important thing: an outsider was trying to infiltrate the system. A man of whom they had no knowledge had just asked me to marry him. The judges were going to have a problem. At best there would be an uproar: my dad would pretend to go into heart failure and my mum would do her wailing and beating on the chest routine. At worst I would suffer the same fate as my sister, who had run off with her boyfriend and who they had not spoken to since.
I didn't know what to say to Jean Michel when he asked me to marry him. It wasn't a question of not loving him enough; it was a question of making a decision and then facing all of the consequences, and I was too tired for all of that. So for a while I hadn't been making any decisions; not even daring to venture slightly outside my routine. There was a certain sense of safety in catching the tube to work, dealing with clients, going back home to Mum and Dad and seeing the CVs on the table.
I hadn't been thinking about anything too deeply except on days like that when I had been forced to. I mean, I knew Ki was dead, I had watched her disintegrate before me and then be scattered into the wind, but for me she was still there in some kind of shape or form. She had to be. Pretending that she was still there, looking out for me, was the only thing that had helped me hold it together, because otherwise ... otherwise, everything was pointless.
Her death was senseless. Good people weren't supposed to die young. I had bargained hard with God and promised to do all sorts of things if He let her live, and although He didn't listen I held steadfast in my belief. It was the only thing that I could really cling to. I don't know how best to describe what this belief was, but it's the feeling that someone out there is listening and responding; that there's a universal conversation going on where forces of nature conspire to look after you and give you strength. Occasionally you'd get a glimpse of the workings behind the scenes and these were termed by others as coincidences or luck. And then there were signs. Signs were things like accidentally finding a twenty-pound note when you most needed it; a song on the radio that comes from nowhere and that speaks to you directly; words or people that find their way to you at just the right time. Ki promised she would send me a sign. A year had passed and she hadn't. Or maybe she had and I'd missed them. I had become far too busy to see any signs. I got off the underground and waited for the train that would take me home.
The High Street looked tired and depressed, like it too had had enough of being battered by the rain. Among all the greyness, the windswept umbrellas and the shoppers scurrying home, I suddenly spotted colour, a vibrant bright orange. I walked in its direction to take a closer look. It was a Guru, standing calmly in the rain amid a flurry of activity. I stopped momentarily, thinking that the scene would have made a good painting, and stared at the strangeness of his presence. He was wearing a long, orange robe over some blue flarey trousers and over his robe he had a blue body-warmer. As they walked past, school children were pointing and laughing at the enormous red stain across his forehead. The red stain did not strike me as much as the open-toed sandals on his feet. It was freezing, and as I was thinking that he must be in desperate need of some socks, someone called out to me.
'Nina, Nina,' shouted the man as he came out of Pound Savers, clutching his bag. He knew my dad, I had met him a couple of times but I couldn't remember his name.
'Hello Uncle,' I said, thankful that calling obscure friends of your parents 'Uncle' is an Indian thing. Any random person that you've only met once in your life has to be bestowed with this title. 'How are you?' I asked politely.
'Just buying the socks for his Holiness,' he said, looking at the Guru, 'he's finding the weather here a little colder than Mumbai. Guru Anuraj, this is Nina Savani. Nina, this is his Holiness, Guru Anuraj.'
The Guru put his hands together in a prayer pose. If I was a well-mannered Indian girl, such an introduction and the use of the word 'Holiness' would be my cue to bow down in the middle of Croydon High Street and touch his 'Holiness's' icy feet, but instead I just smiled and nodded.
The Guru held out his hand. I thought he was angling for a handshake so I gave him mine. He took it, turned it palm up and muttered, 'Been through much heartache. Don't worry, it's nearly over.'
'He's very good, you know. For years Auntie was becoming unable to have baby and now we are expecting our child,' acquaintance man interrupted eagerly. 'Guru Anuraj was responsible for sending child,' he beamed.
The Guru's warm smile spun out like a safety net as he told me my life would improve greatly in two weeks. Although his smile was warm I chose to ignore the fact that it was full of chipped and blackened teeth. If I had paid attention to his dental hygiene it could have given me some indication towards his character and all that was to follow without having to take his palm - 'cleanliness being next to godliness' and all that - but as he made promises of being able to remove the stagnant energy which was the cause of much maligned obstacles, I chose not to see the warning signs. I wanted him to tell me more but the Guru had his socks to put on. He'd also spotted the grocer roasting chestnuts, and indicated to acquaintance man that he might like some.
Before he left, he delved inside his robe and handed me a leaflet. 'Call me,' he said, staring intently into my eyes. 'You must call him, his Holiness only gives out his number to the very special people,' added acquaintance man. I took the leaflet and said goodbye to them both.
When I got home, Hindi music was blasting from the television set and both my parents were doing their normal activities. My mum was in the kitchen making rotis and my dad was in the sitting room, with a glass of whiskey in one hand, newspaper in the other, looking like an Indian version of Father Christmas with his red shirt, white beard and big belly. He was the only person who was not engulfed by the enormous Land of Leather sofa.
'Good day, Nina?' he asked, turning back to his newspaper.
'It was really crap. Crap day, crap client, just awful.'
'Good, good,' he replied. My dad had very selective hearing and only chose to hear the words he liked or words that were of some threat to him. 'Home early, no?'
'We were all made redundant.'
He put his glass down, threw his newspaper to the floor and looked at me. Redundancy was his worst nightmare. I had to be a lawyer; years of both time and money were invested in this and it was pivotal to the list system (the spin on candidates worked both ways so I too was lying on someone's dining-room table). That was what he sold me on, the fact that I was a lawyer working for a reputable firm, and also that I was tall and quite fair-skinned, but he omitted the fact that I had one humungous scar down my left arm and that I couldn't really cook.
By my parents' standards, twenty-seven was far too late to be getting married, and my mum was truly baffled by it, saying to my father that I was one of the prettiest girls on the circuit and there was a queue of men waiting to marry me. But I had managed to fend them off so far by telling them that things were changing and men were looking for women who were settled in their careers; it wasn't like the olden days when they just wanted to know your height, complexion, and if you had long hair down to your back. It was, however, getting to a stage where this argument was wearing thin. As my dad said, at this rate I would be heading towards retirement: hence more and more weekly CVs.
'What?' he shouted.
'I said I had a headache.'
'I thought you said redundant.'
'No, just a headache.'
'Thank Bhagavan,' he sighed, glancing up to one of the many incarnated god statues. My mum came out of the kitchen, rolling pin in one hand. 'What headache, beta? It's because you are not eating properly.' 'I think I'll just go to bed, I'll be fine, Ma.'
'Not eating with us?' she asked, looking over at the dining-room table and fixing her gaze on it. 'Rajan Mehta. He's thirty-one, an accountant. He's got his own flat in Victoria'.
My heart sank. I turned my back and began walking up the stairs as she shouted, 'three bedrooms and two bathrooms.'
I couldn't put off the inevitable. I had to tell them about Jean Michel, and tell them soon. He was away on a business trip in New York and as soon as he got back we had to sort something out. I picked up the phone to call him and put it down again; he was having back-to-back meetings so it probably wasn't the best time to call. I flicked through my address book to see who else I could phone. I had friends, of course, but nobody I could open up to. Since Ki's death I had kept all my other friendships on a superficial basis: nobody knew what was really going on inside my head as I refused to go through that kind of closeness again only for it to be snatched away. I flicked through the pages once more. No, there was no one, no one who had an inkling that anything was wrong. Anyway, where would I start?
The fact that I did not allow myself to cry, that I was desperately missing Ki, that I hated going into work, or that I didn't know whether to marry Jean Michel?
Suddenly, a thought occurred to me.
'Did you send that Guru for me, Ki? Is that what you meant when you said you'd speak to me? Was he a sign?' I pulled out the leaflet and read: 'Guru Anuraj, Psychic Healer, Spiritual Counsellor and Friend.' I dialled the number. He gave me an appointment to come and see him the very next morning. I had a shower and went to bed.