The Scent of Jasmine

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a story about growing up - about a boy learning to be an adult in a world of adults, and wanting to be a child in his own world...

Submitted: July 29, 2008

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Submitted: July 29, 2008

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THE SCENT OF JASMINE
 
 
A mynah swooped down to fly two inches away from Sharat’s nose. His eyes followed its swift, smooth, gliding movement. There was something naturally uplifting in watching birds fly. It forced you to be cheerful. It pulled up your heart from the depths of your chest and made it touch the sky. It was then that Sharat decided that, no matter what, he would always feel happy whenever he saw birds fly.
 
Sharat was lying on his back, arms and legs spread wide apart, on the terrace of his home. He breathed deeply a few times, trying to relax. He couldn’t hear his parents screaming anymore, but it didn’t matter – the voices were in his head.
 
“You son-of-a-bitch,” his mother had yelled at his father.
 
It was the first time he had heard his mother abusing, but it didn’t sound harsh and crass, like the way Samar said it. Samar was his House Prefect at the Signet Boarding School for Boys, where Sharat studied. Sharat had come upon Samar and his classmate smoking in the loo and had complained to the Headmaster about it. Samar had cornered him during lunch time and had called him a son-of-a-bitch and many other unpleasant names. Sharat had been genuinely scared when Samar had abused him like that.
 
Sharat hated to see his parents fight. He hardly spent more than two months a year at home, and he had never seen them this angry at each other. He presumed they fought – quietly, in their bedroom. They were like roomies at his hostel – there are bound to be differences with the person you eat, sleep, live and spend every moment of your life with – even he knew that. But he didn’t like the fact that they didn’t even care to whisper when he was around.
 
Sharat had often heard his relatives refer to him as a “late-born child”. Late for what, he had always wondered. It was their way of saying that he was born seventeen years after his parents’ marriage. All his friends at school had much younger parents. He was the only eleven-year old whose father has grey hair and mother never wore jeans. But he had never found this strange.
 
Crash!!! That was the third vase his mother had broken this week in a fit of rage. He tried to think about his mother differently by remembering those many evenings that they had spent together on this very terrace – talking about various things. It was mostly his mother who did the talking, almost as if he wasn’t there. She never thought of him as a child, and told him the most unusual stories about herself, whether he really understood them or not. He would simply watch her – a beautiful lady, her radiant, expressive face revealing the life that thrived within her.
 
Saheb, gajra for wife. You buy?” he heard a shrill, sweet voice say. He got up and went towards the railing. Looking down, he saw Laxmi trying to convince a passer-by to buy the string of jasmine flowers from her. The man went past her, ignoring her. She muttered something under her breath, frowning at him, and then walked on.
 
“Laxmi, wait! I’m coming down,” Sharat called out. She looked up and smiled at him. He waved and then rushed downstairs. On his way down, he peeped into the hall to see if his parents were still fighting, but they weren’t there. He went out into the garden and saw Laxmi standing outside the gate.
 
“Hello, Sharat,” she said, her pitch-black eyes glinting and a wide grin on her face.
 
“Hi!” he said, feeling happy that some things hadn’t changed. Sharat had known Laxmi since they both were five. Her father kept a small flower and vegetable stall nearby. They had played together as children, whenever Sharat came home for his vacations. A few years back Laxmi had started selling the jasmine-strings full-time. She left behind the sweet fragrance of the flowers wherever she went. She attended a night-school, where she also learnt English. She spoke to Sharat only in that language for practice, she claimed, but Sharat knew that it was also to show-off what she had learnt.
 
“I’m taller than you now,” she teased. Sharat noticed for the first time that she had grown taller than him, because of which her frock hung over her knees. The tight pigtails had also given way to a loose ponytail, tied up with a ribbon of shocking pink.
 
Sharat chose to ignore her observation on their relative heights, and opened the gate.
 
“How much for the gajra?” he asked.
 
“Two rupees for each. If you buy five, then three,” said Laxmi, in her business-tone.
 
“You’ve increased your rates since last time. Why?” said Sharat, searching his pockets for three rupees.
 
Arre, what to do, baba? Everything rate going up, “she said.
 
Sharat resisted the impulse to correct her English and handed her the money. She picked out five of the freshest and most fragrant strings of jasmine and gave them to him.
 
“Come for a walk?” he asked her.
 
“Okay, chalo,” she said, with a sideways jerk of her head.
 
“Happy, na, now that you are home?” asked Laxmi.
 
“Umm…,” said Sharat, not knowing whether to tell her the truth or not.
 
“What? Not happy?”
 
“I’m happy to be home but… well, Mamma and Papa have started fighting a lot.”
 
“Fighting? Your father hit your mother?”
 
“No, no,” said Sharat horrified by the casual way she asked the question, “they just fight. You know, abuse each other and all.”
 
“Oh... just abuse, no? My father hits my mother sometimes when they fight.”
 
Her matter-of-fact tone shocked Sharat even more. He wasn’t sure if she would understand his problems, but in the past whenever he had confided in her, she was able to offer sound advice. She had quick one-sentence solutions for everything, which always made him feel better. She suddenly stopped to face Sharat. Stepping dangerously close to him, she flicked away a tiny yellow leaf from his hair. He inhaled several whiffs of the jasmine scent she gave off, feeling blissful and uncomfortable at her proximity at the same time.
 
“Not to worry, baba. Not to worry, okay?” she said, blowing away his troubles with her reassuring grip on his shoulders. “Now I go, okay? Father waiting. Bye bye!”
 
She turned around and started walking away. Sharat had a strange impulse to go after her and pull out her ribbon so that he could watch her dark hair slowly unravel, the way they showed it in shampoo commercials. But he was sure it wouldn’t be right to do so.
 
The sky had turned a watery red and the clouds looked like huge tufts of candyfloss – pink and orange in colour. His parents might worry if he didn’t get back home in time. He started walking back home, forcing himself to think of his parents and their fights. Anything to keep him from thinking about Laxmi in a new and very awkward way.
 
 
 
Dinner was a solemn affair. Nobody spoke. Nobody even acknowledged anyone. His mother had prepared the food half-heartedly – there was very little salt in the vegetables, making them tasteless and the chappatis were singed in places. Nobody else seemed to notice that and Sharat didn’t bother mentioning it. All through the meal he fed on memories from school to keep from getting bored. He recalled going trekking with his classmates through the hills behind their school, carrying tiffin of clumsily prepared sandwiches which they had made themselves. He missed his secret pet lizard Fredrick. He had hidden it under his bed in a cardboard box and was hoping nobody would notice it. He had brought it home last time, but his mother had hated the sight of it and recoiled whenever she saw it. So he had decided to keep Fredrick back in school.  He thought about Samar, trying to figure out if his Prefect liked him or not. Sometimes he would give Sharat a friendly thump on his back when he passed him in the corridors, but there were times when Samar would scowl at him angrily, probably remembering the cigarette incident. He would never know what Samar really felt about him, and he was too scared to ask.
 
Finishing dinner, Sharat faked a yawn and stretched all his limbs. Going to bed meant he didn’t have to see his parents ignore each other. He ran upstairs to his room and quickly changed into his kurta-payjama. Lying on his bed, he could smell the gajra-strings kept on his bedside table. They worked as a soundless lullaby, putting him to sleep, infusing vivid images in his head. He saw Laxmi, her hair braided with the flowers, swaying away from him. Then came his father eating his food with a soft phoosh-phoosh sound. He saw his mother come closer to him – she seemed more real than the others. She was tucking him into bed, humming a soothing tune. She ran her fingers through his hair and kissed him on the forehead. Then she went away noiselessly. He wanted to open his eyes and look at her, but his eyelids felt like led. He was already drifting into a world of fantasies.
 
 
Sharat awoke with a start, adjusting his eyes to the darkness and the room. For the first few days at home he always woke up abruptly, as if an alarm had sounded inside him. He expected to hear soft snoring sounds and then the trooping in of Samar and his cohorts to yank them out of their beds. It took Sharat some time to realize that there would be no Samar and no snoring for the next couple of months.
 
He got up from the bed and stood at his window. The sun was just rising. He looked at the cuckoo clock on the wall. It was almost five. Sharat waited for the cuckoo to pop out of the little door and trill the hour. He had never liked this clock and had a strange sadistic urge to strangle the bird’s neck every time it cooed at him in its mechanical way. He fought hard to suppress the urge as the bird screeched five times.
 
Nobody would be awake in his house at this hour. His mother woke up only around six and his father a little later. But he couldn’t go back to sleep and felt hungry now. He went down to the kitchen to get himself something to eat. He glanced casually into the drawing room as he went past it and saw his father asleep on the sofa. He was huddled up, with his mouth slightly open, snoring softly. An ashtray lay on the floor with at least a dozen cigarette stubs in it. His father had been promising to quit smoking for several years now and hadn’t been successful yet. When Sharat had asked him why he liked to smoke, his father had shrugged and said, “It’s to reduce stress. But promise me you’ll never start smoking okay. It’s a bad habit.”
 
The frequent fights with his mother must really be causing him a lot of stress, thought Sharat. And now they weren’t even sleeping in the same room.
 
Sharat went into the kitchen and was surprised to see his mother there.
 
“Good morning, Mamma,” he said.
 
His mother turned to look at him. “Good morning, Sharat,” she said, in an early morning slur. “What are you doing up so early?”
 
“Nothing…I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
 
“Oh. And I was thinking of bringing you breakfast in bed. You’re favourite French toast.”
 
Sharat smiled shyly. His mother always looked lovely in the mornings. She was wearing her pale orange nightgown with the tiny fairies on it. The rays of the sun that had found their way into the room enveloped her in the most magical way. With her orange nightgown she looked like a piece of the hazy morning sun herself, thought Sharat, feeling the colour rise up in his cheeks.
 
 “Come, we’ll have tea together,” she said.
 
Sharat sat down on the dining table and watched his mother make tea. The hot cup of tea burnt Sharat’s tongue, but he loved it. It was a million times better than the brown, watery liquid that they called tea in his hostel. Everybody hated it, but he hated it even more because often Samar forced him to drink his share too.
 
“Where did the gajras come from, Sharat? The ones on your table?” asked his mother.
 
“I bought them from Laxmi. You know that girl who comes to sell them,” replied Sharat.
 
A serene smile was appearing on his mother’s lips slowly. Her eyes were far away, where her mind was, a wistful look in them. After a while she spoke. The smile still floated on her lips, but she didn’t look directly at Sharat.
 
“Your father… he would bring them for me…the gajras. Whenever we had a fight…they would be there…lying on my bed …or the sofa….or in the kitchen somewhere… . She paused awhile to look at Sharat, and then continued, “He would never say sorry, you know. Never. The gajras meant sorry. And when I saw them I would melt… I wouldn’t be angry anymore... I couldn’t…they were so fresh and nice ….and they smelt so good. He would put them in my hair and then we both would be happy…it’s was so simple to be happy….”
 
Sharat saw his mother drift into the past, fading into the memories and then suddenly she was back. She seemed to realize where she was and she sighed. She picked up the empty teacups and started to wash them.
 
Sharat got up and went outside into the garden. He leaned over the gate in anticipation of Laxmi’s arrival. She would be on her morning round, with the freshest flowers ever. An idea had struck him while hearing his mother speak and she was the only person who could help him with it. He saw her gliding down the road after five minutes. He opened the gate and ran out calling her name. But she had stopped to woo a customer with her English. She gestured impatiently asking him to wait. The customer haggled with her for a while. Finally she handed him a huge bunch of flowers, and then came towards him with a triumphant grin on her face.
 
“What it is, baba? Why are you getting up early and then jumping like this outside your house?” she said, shaking her head.
 
“Laxmi, I have a plan. And I have a really good deal for you,” said Sharat.
 
“Deal? Mins?”
 
Means …that I want to buy flowers from you regularly. On a daily basis.”
 
“Flowers? Everyday? For whom? Girlfriend?” said Laxmi, her eyebrows bobbing up and down.
 
“I don’t have a girlfriend, Laxmi,” said Sharat.
 
“No girlfriend? You hide her in school then?”
 
“It’s a boys’ school, Laxmi.”
 
Laxmi was stumped. She could not continue her barrage any further, and Sharat was relieved to see the beaten look on her face. She came back with the best recovery she could.
 
“So then, for whom.”
 
“Well, for my mother.”
 
“Ohhhh…so sweet,” she gushed, “but why?”
 
“Well…I’m going to put them in her room every morning. My father used to give her gajras when they fought and then she wouldn’t be angry. She’ll think they’re from my father and then they won’t fight. Good plan, no?”
 
“Hmm,” said Laxmi, slowly nodding.
 
“So I’ll buy two gajras from you everyday, okay?”
 
Laxmi didn’t reply immediately. She was probably calculating the profits, thought Sharat. She put out her hand and patted Sharat’s shoulder.
 
“I’ll do it for you. For free.”
 
“Thanks, Laxmi. But why free? You could earn a lot of money on this.”
 
“Free because you’re very nice,” she said, and then added hesitatingly, “and also because plan will not work.”
 
Sharat felt annoyed at this. He had asked her for her help, not her opinions. He felt like telling her this, but then changed his mind. He didn’t want her to get angry, especially since she wasn’t charging him anything. They decided it would be best if Laxmi left a packet containing the flowers at the gate every morning at about six. Sharat could get up by then, sneak down and get the flowers and then put them somewhere where his mother was sure to see them. Then she would be nice to his father since she would think he was being nice to her, and the fights would stop. It was a foolproof scheme, thought Sharat, as he went back into the house.
 
 
 
Two weeks later, Sharat was still not sure whether his scheme had worked or not. His parents hadn’t fought since then, but then they hadn’t spoken to at all. He wasn’t sure whether that was good sign or not.
 
Sharat remembered the time when Samar had stopped speaking to him about two summers back. They had fought over the stupidest thing – Sharat couldn’t even remember what it was. But they didn’t speak to each other for two whole months. In spite of the fact that Sharat dreaded Samar a little, he still found himself missing his overbearing company for those two months. He knew even Samar missed him from the hesitant smile and sideways glance that he gave him when they passed each other in corridors. There were many things Sharat could talk to Samar about – his studies, his friends, the boys he didn’t like, quirky teachers, and football. During those two months Sharat had to make do with talking to Fredrick. It was weird talking to a lizard with bulging, beady eyes and he was never sure if he understood or not.
 
Then just when Sharat had started to feel their friendship had vanished forever, Samar came up to him one day, slapped him on his back and said,
 
Kya, yaar? You don’t talk to me now days?”
 
Sharat remembered feeling hugely relieved at the time. He was so happy that he could have hugged Samar, but he was sure Samar wouldn’t have appreciated that much. So he just stood there, grinning widely at him.
 
Sharat wondered why the same thing couldn’t happen to his parents. Why couldn’t his father just out his arm around his mother and ask her why she wasn’t talking to him? And the flowers? They hadn’t even been mentioned. Laxmi’s prophesy seemed to be coming true.
 
She had asked him a few days back, in her flippant way, “Your parents okay now?”
 
“No,” he had replied, with an air of disinterest, hoping she wouldn’t pry anymore.
 
“What happened?” she persisted.
 
“Nothing. I don’t’ know actually. My mother just roams around the house as if she’s haunting it. And my father…he’s mostly not at home. And when he is, he just sits in front of the T.V. smoking away like a chimney. They don’t seem interested in even looking at each other.”
 
“The flowers?”
 
“I don’t know. I’ve been keeping them in my mother’s room everyday. But I never see them after that.”
 
“Hmm…but you should keep trying. Try for one more week. This time I’ will take money but I’ll give discount, okay?”
 
 
 
A couple of days later, his father came home at dinner time. He not only looked tired, but also looked drunk. He walked in just as his mother was laying the table and sat down at his usual place. His mother set a place for him as nonchalantly as she could, but he could see her gritting her teeth under her tightly pursed lips. They ate in silence, each one chewing hard on their morsels so that nothing inappropriate would be said. Finally his mother spoke up.
 
“Why did you come home for dinner tonight?” she asked, as his father was getting up to go.
 
His father glanced at her drowsily, not offering any explanations. She repeated her question, this time louder. His father met her eyes and said in a deep whisper,
 
“Why do you care?”
 
“I don’t but you can’t just walk in and out of the house whenever you please.”
 
“If you can walk in and out of the neighbour’s house whenever you want, then I’ll do as I please.”
“Please, don’t bring that up now. Not in front of Sharat.”
 
Sharat wondered what it was that they were hiding from him. He was angry with his father for accusing his mother like that. He looked at his mother who was wringing her hands in nervousness.
 
“Why? Why shouldn’t he know? He’s a big boy now, aren’t you?” his father asked, looking directly at him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to answer that but he wanted to tell his father that whatever it was he wanted to know what had happened between his parents, whether he was old enough or not.
 
“Please, don’t,” begged his mother, crying softly.
 
“Why should he not know that his mother is a cheat? That she’s having an affair with someone else and has been lying to both of us about how much she loves us? Tell me, why shouldn’t he know?”
 
All of a sudden, his mother lunged at his father with all her fury screaming, “Shut up!” again and again. Sharat didn’t wait to see what happened next. He ran as fast as he could to his room and shut the door. He felt numb all over but there was a sinking, nauseating feeling in his stomach. He knew what all those words meant – affair, cheat, liar. He was old enough. But he wasn’t old enough to know what those words would mean to them – his father, mother and him. Suddenly he didn’t want to be their son. He wanted to rush back to his dormitory, be one of the forty odd boys who slept there. He wanted to be bullied by Samar, meet Fredrick and play football for hours. He wanted to be any place but this.
 
And he wanted to know what had happened to the jasmine flowers.
 
 
 
The next morning, Sharat didn’t wake up with any misconceptions about the events of the previous night having been an unpleasant nightmare. He opened the door of his room, not knowing what to expect, and went downstairs. A small stool was upturned in the drawing room, indicating nothing except that someone had probably bumped into it and forgotten to put it back. He heard noises in the kitchen. He entered to find his father preparing coffee. Sharat pulled up a chair and sat down at the table. His father looked back at him and smiled. Despite his haggard appearance, the smile made him look quite pleasant. His father came and sat next to him and put an arm around his shoulder, still smiling.
 
“It’s just us now, Sharat.”
 
Sharat wasn’t sure what he meant.
 
“We fought a lot yesterday…Mamma and I. And then…she left,” his father said, with a hint of guilt.
 
Sharat felt like crying out loud. And after a few minutes he did. He wailed like a baby. His father hugged him tight and soon the front of his father’s shirt was soaking with his tears. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind – what did this mean? What would he tell his friends? What would he do without his mother? Would his father be able to cook as well as her? The comfort of his father’s embrace made him feel a little better. But he knew that after this moment of comfort was gone, those questions would hound him again. His father spoke again,
 
“Mamma loves you a lot, Sharat. But everything has changed now. We had started fighting a lot along time back. And yesterday …when I said those things to her in front of you she felt very bad and left. But don’t worry…I’m here and I’ll take care of you, okay?”
 
Sharat looked into his father’s eyes, and saw the truth. They looked tired. Very, very tired and devastated. Yet, here he was, with his arm around him, telling him that things would be fine. In another couple of weeks Sharat would go to school and then his father would be all alone. He was afraid of what would happen to him then. But it was just them, and they would take care of each other.
 
 
 
They had been sitting next to each other without saying a word for twenty minutes now. Laxmi had followed him unasked to the bench in the corner of the park – a much sat upon, old looking bench, which people referred to as the “Love Seat” for obvious reasons. Laxmi hadn’t said a word, but Sharat knew that she was dying to say something. “I told you so,” she would say, in that all-knowing end of hers. And that was exactly what Sharat didn’t want o hear.
 
“I was thinking…” she began, a few minutes later. She stopped as a young girl and boy came giggling arm-in-arm towards the bench. There was an awkward moment as both couples looked at each other, after which the girl and boy turned around and left.
 
“Whatever it is that you have to say, just say it and leave. Please,” said Sharat, not looking at Laxmi.
 
“I was just thinking what happened to the gajras,” said Laxmi.
 
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask,” said Sharat.
 
Laxmi obediently got up and left, with the scent of jasmine lingering after her.
 
A sparrow hopped around Sharat’s feet, and then fluttered its wings in a sudden flight to perch on a tree a little distance away. For Sharat, happiness would never be as easy as watching birds fly.
 
 
 
 
 
 


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