It is the only house in the sparsely vegetated West Knoxville cul-de-sac that is completely hidden, by trees and a stately row of tall shrubs. In the late April drizzle, the strands of multi-colored Christmas lights drooping over the bushes next to the house add a bizarre whimsy to Dr. Malik’s place. Maybe he has forgotten about them. And yet, they are still twinkling.
Taped to the door is a greeting card that reads, in shaky print, “I am upstairs. Ring the doorbell. Bang on the door. Come in and yell.” Another—an afterthought perhaps—reads, “Welcome, most welcome.”
Despite the salutations, it feels creepy walking into the house, which smells strongly of cardamom and something else that’s indistinguishable and exotic. There is a soft cacophony of music; coming from the kitchen is a flowery classical movement, from the living room bounces an Indian pop number, and in a second living room, a talk-radio station drones. Intrepidly inching up the stairs, it feels like anything could happen—scary movie style. “I am coming,” chirps the dark figure in the dark bedroom, the blue sheen of the TV screen the only light. “Go on down and have a look around.”
There is not a lot of furniture in Dr. Anand Malik’s house. However, the place feels overstuffed because of the abundance of art, which covers every wall, in neat rows. There’s a place for every painting and a painting for every place. A bright depiction of the Brooklyn Bridge imagines the gray landmark in an amalgam of spring colors—shades of pink, mostly—and is accompanied by a Jack Kerouac quote.
Nearly all of Malik’s works have quotes, and many are his own. Like Malik, they are simple yet wise. “I hope I never feel superior to children because I’m not,” says one. Another proclaims in cake-frosting cursive, “Why walk, when you can dance, dance, dance.” On the other end of the spectrum, there are more mature subjects like a turquoise-colored woman clutching her breast, thinking, “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm” (a quote by Colette).
At age 82, Dr. Malik is a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at UT, but his passions are more Epicurean: art, music, food and wine. Having been shipped off to a refugee camp in London as a teenager, when his parents feared his native India was becoming too violent, Malik learned early in life to appreciate small tactile pleasures.
“Come and have some strawberries,” Malik says and appears. There is a small Alice in Wonderland-style table filled with carefully prepared food; glossy strawberries, bowls of blueberries, unsalted almonds, cashews and bars of expensive dark chocolate. Dr. Malik hosts these art soirees every Saturday and Sunday, open to anyone and everyone, but today, I am the only visitor. The strawberries aren’t quite ripe, and their tartness spreads across my tongue as Malik starts in, unprompted, “When I was in the refugee camp I had to make some money, so I found some scrap wood and began doodling on it. People liked it, and I was able to support myself to go to school. Although I was a refugee, I had a good time…. We are all refugees from time to time, you know.”
Dr. Malik’s accent is strong, with that innate lilt of bubbly optimism characteristic of the Indian in English. He offers many blanket statements on the state of the world today, but usually sounds more like a wide-eyed child rather than a cynical “those were the good old days” codger. “People are not happy because they keep on looking at their past mistakes,” he muses. “Who cares! Live in the present! The past is gone. There’s no use regretting it.” Everything Dr. Malik says might be found on one of those inspirational plaques in a doctor’s office, but he says it with such pixilated energy. It’s obvious that he actually lives it.
Done chatting for the moment, Dr. Malik stands and scuffles out of the room, oblivious to the fact that he’s bumping into the randomly placed balloons that he’s hung upside down from the ceiling. His shaggy black hair hasn’t been cut in a while, and there’s a curious white spot where a man might normally go bald. His overall air is mystical, but Dr. Malik’s face is stern and nearly unwrinkled, with a Roman nose and chiseled cheekbones surrounding droll, oil-leak eyes.
In the kitchen, there are signs on the fridge offering tea, beer, wine and soda; the “help yourself” instructions furthering the Alice in Wonderland parallels. It seems entirely possible, for example that a sip of wine might shrink an unsuspecting visitor to a size enabling him or her to traipse across one of Malik’s vivid bridges.
The kitchen is also Dr. Malik’s studio, where he’s working on a series of paintings of two chairs with a teapot between them, each with a long dialogue printed below. One complete painting reads, “You think too much. Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything. Thinking with no action leads to nothing. Seize the day. Go get them tiger. On the way back from the office, bring me a flower. Put it behind my left ear. I might surprise you.” The text represents conversations between two people whom he imagines sitting on the chairs, he explains. These two, perhaps, are husband and wife. Malik was once married, but he steers clear of the conversation, preferring to talk about his three sons who are scattered across the states. “One of them works with Bill Gates,” he says, suddenly the proud father. “He organizes all the computer programs in India.”
In the next room are more paintings, like the splashy rainbow-hued rendition of a church in Moscow, which, one guesses, is more drab in reality. Another black and white sketch depicting a woman giving birth on hands and knees is accompanied by Mark Twain’s quote: “Nature knows no indecencies. Man invents them.”
The house is a jumble of religious influence, from the miniature Christmas tree set up in this room (“To me, every day is Christmas,” Dr. Malik says, quite earnestly), to the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads quotes in several paintings. But Dr. Malik himself does not subscribe to any particular faith. “My only religion is to be nice to people and to be passionate. It’s very simple,” he says.
But Dr. Malik’s kindness goes further than just being friendly; it’s more of a curious social experiment. He recalls leaving leftover quarters in the Coke machine at school and standing by to observe students’ reactions to finding the coins. “You should see it! Just for the quarter, they feel so happy! I think it’s worth it.”
The last room of the house is the garage, which has been converted into a blinding white studio. There is a Madonna tune blasting, and disco lights in two corners of the room shoot colored rays in circular swoops through the air. One wall is covered in Raku masks, a technique of gnarled clay that Malik recalls learning while traveling in Japan. He calls the opposite wall his “History of Art.” It’s a massive collage of famous art prints along with photos and quotes of artists.
While Malik was never formally trained, he says he loves spending time in galleries all over the world, studying the techniques of the masters. “If you are trained, you can become a slave to that training, but if you are not trained, you are free. Your heart tells you what to do,” Malik says, adding that this advice applies to all areas of study. “A teacher can help, but a teacher can also restrain.”
Madonna’s crooning becomes a white elephant, as we are straining to talk above her begging the DJ to put a record on; she wants to dance with her baby. So, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, Dr. Malik tells me to put down my notebook and takes my hands. The room is a dancehall and we dance, briefly, as a father and daughter do when she is very young and thrilled by it all. That incandescent child-joy that I can hardly recall is evident in his eyes.
Afterward, Dr. Malik wants to return to the sitting room to push more refreshments, and he gingerly takes a spoonful of blueberries for himself. He points out a painting in one of the rows that a patron bought the prior week. He has already produced a replica, along with a sign in his now-familiar print, “Wet Paint!”—as if there were going to be a slew of visitors putting the work in grave danger. You never know.
As to the motivation behind his art parties, Dr. Malik says, “I have been painting all my life, and I just think I should share it. If you have something to say about the world, you should say it. To change the world you have to do something.”
An afternoon at Dr. Malik’s house centers around his art. But for all his aphorisms and philosophy, you also come away with a metaphorical pocketful of fortune cookie papers. Before stepping back into the real world, there’s a mystical pang similar to the one you get when you pocket a particularly intriguing fortune—anything, for the moment, seems possible.
Dr. Malik’s art parties are held Saturdays, 4-7 p.m. and Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., at 7709 Sussex Circle. Call 693-7892 for more information and directions.