“Can you do a painting of my life,” I ask Ramesh.
Ramesh Hengadi is a Warli painter from India, an artist-in-residence at the V&A Museum of Childhood and a guest in my home.
I have always loved Warli painting – those spindly white figures painted in rice paste with a bamboo twig on a cow dung and terracotta background. They have a mystical, rhythmic quality – swirling flocks of birds, gods making rain, a coiled snake supporting the earth, a delicate spider’s web, a joyous wedding, peasants playing music or collecting wood. The tradition has been passed down through generations of the Warli tribe who live in the mountainous, forested area of the Thane district, north of Mumbai.
But a Warli painting about my life in East London, completed in a few days before Ramesh goes back to his wife and children? Would he have the canvas, the materials, the time or the inspiration? Ramesh nods and beams. He has a commission.
“But you need to tell him more about your life,” says Lokesh, my other guest. Lokesh, an Indian textile artist, has stayed in my house previously. “Tell him about your childhood in Lancashire, your travels, your writing, your photography.”
I tell Ramesh about the bleak Lancashire moors where I grew up with their tapering mill chimneys. I recall some of the countries I have visited – Rwanda and Romania; Burundi, Brazil and Bangladesh. I show him my camera equipment and my photographs of far-flung places.
Over the next few days I spy Ramesh taking in details of my terraced house, gazing at my photograph of a young Indian child, too reminiscent of his own daughter whom he misses. I watch him staring through my kitchen window at the wisteria that has never flowered; the discus throwing stone cherub by my pond, covered in overgrown ivy. And then I leave for Oslo for a few days. The Warli painter has time and space to uncover more of my life, to let free his imagination.
The painting is presented to me at the leaving do of the artists-in-residence in an Italian restaurant along up-and-coming Lower Clapton Road. This stretch of road used to be called Murder Mile. Back in the day several Asian shop-keepers were shot serving local, loyal customers. But now bike-riding, coffee-carrying hipsters have moved in. Instead of greasy spoons there are wine bars, cafes that serve rocket, avocado, lemon juice, ground pepper and Palma ham with poached eggs.
I am eager to unroll my Warli painting but wary of spilling pizza over it. So I wait until I get home and then unroll it over the kitchen table. The painting is peppered with identical versions of me – a torso of two triangles adjoined by a stick thin waist and with sleek hair swinging to my shoulders, travelling through time and space.
I am back amidst the bleak moors of my childhood, camera in hand, photographing the dark Satanic mills. I am playing with my old schools friends in the shadow of those mills, the shadow of those moors.
I am flying in an aeroplane through a flock of exotic birds and a cluster of clouds.
I am tilting my camera to take photographs of a lean, muscular man climbing a palm tree – how did Ramesh know I sat transfixed for hours on a beach in Sri Lanka, straining my neck, fearing for the man’s life as he collected coconuts against the skyline?
In the different rooms of my three-storey Hackney terraced house I am reading a novel, using my camera and leaning over my laptop, searching for inspiration. My lovely neighbours on the corner are busy too, their house snug close to mine.
I have moved to the garden, given up the laptop and am writing pen in hand on my round wire table, a present from my sister who has never left the dark Satanic mills. I am reading at a table on my wooden deck, so wrapped up in my novel that I take no notice of the dragon flies buzzing around me. I am photographing my wisteria that has never flowered, nearly knocking my stone cherub into the pond.
I am walking through the churchyard to the shops on Mare Street; returning with my basket full of groceries. There is a a fierce-looking dog nearby. Perhaps it is after my rump steak.
There is a lovely park with ducks or geese or storks bathing and paddling in the lake. Is it London Fields or Victoria Park, and is that a band-stand or a merry-go-round?
My hair, always swinging through the air, always sleek resisting the damp air that usually makes it frizzy. Always with a stick thin waist despite my increasing girth. Always holding a camera, a pen or a laptop. Oh no! Is that me sitting down, exhausted under a tree, leaning on a walking stick. Not yet, Ramesh. Please not yet.