The Mute Painter

A version of this post, The Colour Blue, appeared in The Hindu dated 30th January.

I had written in an earlier post about how the daughters room looked like the Flying Zoos of Babylon. It was time for a radical change.

Multiple trips to the hardware store had yielded one decision: the room was to be painted in shades of blue. It is funny how an unassuming speech-impaired mute painter influenced our choices three decades on, on the opposite side of the world.

Years ago, when I was about the daughter’s current age, we were having our house painted. Regular readers know that I lived in a small mountain village nestled in the Nilgiri Hills. One of the advantages of a small place like that was that everybody knew everybody else. The local barber came home to cut hair, the tailor stopped by our place on his way home from work. The maid knew the milkman’s wife. The train driver waved to my mother and waited while she skated down the slopes to catch the train. When the postman’s daughter wanted to marry the station master’s son, the mediating talks for the cross religious marriage were willingly handled by all of the above people.

Therefore a matter such as painting the house was just handed over to a genial pair of fellows who everyone knew did a good job. One of whom was mute – not being able to speak hardly deterred him however, and he used guttural sounds, shakes of his head and hand gestures to communicate. And when we finally got the import of what he was trying to say, he gave us one of his beaming, innocent smiles that made you want to smile too.

My father, always had a soft spot for those less abled, partly because he was hard of hearing himself, and used a hearing aid. Consequently, all of us have developed somewhat loud voices in the house: When we ask for the cereal to be passed across the table, cereals are passed across tables in all houses in the neighborhood.

When the  painter and his assistant showed up to paint the house, they asked us the colors to use to paint the house.

Cream was boring, and it showed dirt. Maybe the living room could have cream, but all other rooms could use a different color, the father said in his stentorian tones. The  painter nodded indicating that it was sound logic and that he approved of it.

Yellow for one bedroom (nod from painter.)

Light brown (beige) for another room (nod from painter)

Light pink for girl’s room (vigorous head shaking and bah-bah sounds with his hands gesturing NO)

Clearly, he did not approve of pink for my room.

‘Why?’, said the father and I in unison.

Gesturing and loud interpretations followed. Anyone who did not want to listen to what the other man had to say could simply have wrung his hands and given up. The easiest route would have been for the father to say ‘Pink it is!’ since the choice had been mine in the first place, and for the painter to just shrug and paint it since that is the way we wanted it. But all of us wanted to hear the other’s viewpoint, and even though it was difficult and somewhat hilarious to a casual observer, it was well worth it.


The father was wearing his favorite Navy blue striped suit. The painter used that for starters. Bah – bah, he said pointing to the dress.

‘Navy blue? Too dark pa. We want the child’s room to be bright.’ , shouted the father.

More frustrated nods greeted us at this, and the painter went and brought in a tin of white paint which he carried with him at all times by the looks of it.

He took the paint and indicated painting white over my father’s navy blue suit. I can’t say that pleased my father very much, but he managed to leap back from the paintbrush and crack a joke.

He tried several other things to make us see reason. It took a while but the painter finally huffed out towards the door, and we quizzically followed him. It was not like the good-natured fellow to huff off like that. He opened the door, braving the pouring rain outside, and he pointed up at the grey, cloudy sky and the wall and then me.

‘Sky blue?’,  I asked.

He stopped, look at me and gave me one of his beaming smiles that blessed my intelligence when it should have been doing just the opposite.

Sky blue it was. Ever since, almost every house we moved to within the campus had at least one room in light blue.

I noticed that as we were looking out color choices for the daughter’s room, I was gravitating towards the light blue, and maybe I managed to convince the daughter too, for she too was leaning towards that. In today’s world, the painter would whip out an app and show us the room in light blue, and we would have nodded our assent, the whole thing from start to finish taking less than a minute.  But, I am glad we didn’t have an app. That smile he bestowed on us would not have been half as wide had we not tried that hard to understand each other, nor would the sight of a light blue wall have any meaning.

Sometimes, hard is good. Life is after all a string of memories held together by strands of time, and the strength of the emotions in our interpretations and recollections.


I do not know whether the painter remembers this, but I remembered him in the room that day as I regaled the tale to the family. We dabbed on the first stroke of sky blue paint to test the color, and smiled at each other, as wholeheartedly as if the silent speech-impaired painter had convinced us.

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