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The Scent of Jasmine

Jasmine on a hot afternoon smells, like rotting fruit, sweet and fetid. Not quite a stench but still a smell, unlike jasmine which is fragrant in the cool of the morning or evening. I knew this thanks to the flower seller who was parked outside our home with his cartload of flowers for the devotees of the temple, just a few doors away from my home. He would arrive around six in the morning when the jasmine was still fragrant and stay there the whole day as the scent became a smell and then a scent again. It was that same smell that pervaded the air on that day Hanif came to see me, through the backdoor.

He slipped in when he thought no one was watching. I watched for him from my window and as soon as I saw him get off the bus and walk up, I ran downstairs and left the backdoor ajar. It was sheer madness for him to do that. I lived in the most crowded part of the Indian area where one could buy just about anything. Spices, clothes, flowers, incense, utensils, you name it, it was there. Anything and everything that an Indian household would need, or even desire, it was there. Shoppers crawled everywhere like ants, constantly coming and going without respite. Sometimes if we forgot and left our front windows open, we would have them peering into our darkened drawing room. Thankfully, light was not something that flowed in freely into our home, mostly because of where it stood, one among a long row of shophouses, facing the street and another row of shophouses across the narrow street. The brightest part of the house was in the back, an open courtyard, open to the elements. When it was sunny it was bathed in light and when it rained, the rain fell hard and beat a constant rhythm on its concrete floor. I loved that part of the house, at least until Hanif ran there for his life, clutching the back of his neck, blood streaming, as I watched in horror gasping for breath. I watched screaming soundlessly as he fell looking at me with eyes glazed with pain and surprise. 

On that day when Hanif slipped in through our backdoor, my heart was beating so fast and so hard in my chest that I felt lightheaded. It was only when we were safe in my room upstairs with the door shut and latched that I could speak. But I was still perspiring and breathing heavily, fearful that I would hear the heavy footsteps that my father was known for, coming up the stairs. We were planning Hanif’s return in the evening, through the front door, when my father was home. We were going to make everything right. Our secret meetings, our secret phone calls, everything, everything was going to be put right. My one fear was that Hanif didn’t belong to the right religion for him to be my father’s son-in-law. But our prayer was that if we did everything else right, my father would forgive this one wrong.

But when I think about it now, as I have a thousand times since that day, that day was a day of madness. Everything about it was lunacy; from the time he slipped in through the backdoor to the time he walked in clutching a box of sweets through the front door, smiling at my father who opened it, and to the time he fell in a heap in our sunlit courtyard. The idea that my father would forgive the one wrong, which was to him the most important, was madness. The idea that Hanif could walk into my home through the front door and expect to be accepted was insane. I watched with trepidation when Hanif walked in, his smile as always reaching his eyes and making them shine and exude the warmth that I loved him for. His outstretched hand clutched and firmly shook my father’s reluctant hand. My father smiled too but his was a thin and hesitant crack in his solid expressionless face. But that was the face I was used to and so I didn’t think it was odd. My father said little and his expressions rarely revealed his heart and mind. I watched the odd pair from where I was, half way up the stairs, half fearful, half excited.

My father was swarthy and short but strong from the years of loading and unloading heavy sacks of potatoes, onions, grains and pulses for his grocery store boss. His dark beady eyes were sharp from the years of calculated effort he had put into buying the grocery store that he had worked for. His hands that shook Hanif’s were calloused, rough and strong from the work that they were used to doing. He rarely smiled even at his wife and children. The years of toil and hardship from the time he had stepped of the Rajullah onto the shores of the little island had weakened his memory of joy and happiness. But he loved his wife, my mother, and tenderness would creep into his eyes when they rested on her. He was possessive and protective about me and my sister. It wasn’t that he didn’t love us. He just believed that sternness was the best way to reign in frivolous young female minds. My sister was content to live with this, and never attempted to test the waters. But I was always trying to wriggle free, “...from the day you were born,” my mother was fond of saying. She was laughing then and her eyes that rested on me glowed with indulgence and love when she said it. But after that day when Hanif walked in through the front door, she stopped laughing forever and she never had a smile for me till the day she died. When she did talk about how I had always wriggled, her hardened eyes studiously avoided me as if they spied something that evoked an unpleasant memory and her voice that had once tinkled with laughter was generously cynical.

Unlike my father, Hanif was tall and light skinned. His parents’ years of education and inherited wealth and his own years of education, abundance and plenty had softened his speech and his manner. He walked lithely and quickly as a result of sports, his passion. He had everything and so work was an indulgence. When I first saw him, I felt so removed from his world that I could not muster a response to his easy, “Hello.” He frequently said that it was love at first sight for him. My large eyes that revealed all that I thought and felt and my hair that cascaded down to my waist in large black waves were what he said he loved most. I had not known that I was beautiful before I met Hanif. No one had ever told me that, not even my parents. My father believed that vanity could only bring about dishonor and my mother believed him. So when Hanif drew me into his arms and gently brushed my hair away from my face and stared into my eyes and told me how I took his breath away, half of me was disbelieving but I wanted to believe, and I slowly did. What was there to doubt? Everything about Hanif was right. And I knew that when he invited me to his home and I sat down to dinner with his parents and sisters. I never invited him to my home before that one day when he came to meet my father through our front door. He would not have been welcome. And, Hanif was so right that he wanted to meet my father if we were to marry but that was all wrong. He was not welcome as a guest, so what more as a husband for me.

What was wrong was that I did not have the courage to speak to my father before Hanif arrived that day. I rarely spoke to my father even otherwise. While I don’t remember my father ever really having a harsh word for my mother, sister and me, I don't remember him having any kind words for us either, especially for my sister and me. I also don’t remember talking directly to my father after I became a teenager. If I asked him anything, his response was always the same, “Ask your mother.” or, “Tell your mother.” He preferred to use her as a medium to speak to us and for us to speak to him through her. My mother’s reason for this was, “That was the way it was in his family.” We stopped questioning this after a while, accepting it as a way of life, and that was all wrong. If I only I had spoken to my father on that day as always through my mother, perhaps Hanif  would have been spared. I chose that day to approach my father on my own and he chose that day to not tell me to ask my mother. My mother, always dependable as a rock, had gone on her weekly visit to the temple with my sister in tow on the day Hanif and I chose for his visit.  I didn't go pretending to be unwell. My sister knew the truth but my mother didn’t. And that is the reason my mother stopped speaking to me or even looking at me after that day. “If only you had trusted me,” was her repeated anguished cry for the first few months after that day and before she fell into silence whenever she saw me.

I listened to their conversation, my father’s and Hanif’s while holding my breath fearful that I would be heard. It was quiet at first but not so quiet after a few minutes. Their voices became louder. I then heard Hanif pleading and was about to run down the stairs to give him my strength when I heard shouting. I heard furniture crashing and footsteps running. And from where I was I saw Hanif running towards that sun-filled courtyard which had given me hours of pleasure in the past. I ran towards him and my father shoved me aside. My head hit the wall and I screamed both with pain and shock at what I saw glinting in his rough hands. Hanif was holding the back of his neck from which streamed his blood. He had been surprised that my father was ready. My father had known that he was going to have an unwelcome guest that day. He had seen the way Hanif had held me in a long embrace that afternoon and the way I had held his outstretched hand as he had started to leave. He had heard our promise to see each other in my house in the evening as he had stood in the shadows of our hallway. Unknown to me he had come home to pick up some forgotten receipts while I was upstairs in my room looking out for Hanif. That was always the trouble with living in an area where noises of comings and goings were so constant that they were ignored. What was also wrong that day was that I came down too soon to wait for Hanif at the backdoor. If only I hadn’t been so hasty, my father who had been about to leave would not have been prepared. He would not have been curious about the lightness in my step. He had stood in the darkness watching, his anger and shame growing and his resolve hardening. If only there had been more light streaming into the front of our home perhaps Hanif would have been spared. But there was a lot of light in that courtyard where Hanif fell, his pained eyes resting on me one last time before they died. And, in that light I saw the hatred in my father’s face and the rivulets of sweat that erased the ash that he religiously and generously smeared on his forehead every day after his moment with the divine.

What happened after that was an unending torrent of blood, cries and regret. I don’t really remember much as I spent several days moaning and crying, strapped to a hospital bed. I never saw my father again as he did not ask to see me, even on the day before he was to be hanged. He asked to see my mother and my sister but not me. And my mother and sister did not invite me to go with them. I don’t know if I would have wanted to see him. I still don’t. What would I have said to him? Sorry? Or, would I have asked him why? That would have been silly. I think even he would have been forced to chuckle. My father who rarely smiled would have definitely chuckled at my silliness. My mother had answers for me. Answers that she thought she had raised me to know. “We were not same kind. Your father loved you but he loved his kind more and you were not going to destroy that. I raised you all wrong or else you would have known,” she cried.

Our lives changed forever after that, obviously. We could not live in that house, the house that my father had scrimped and saved to buy, working in that grocery story, carrying sacks of grain, potatoes and onions, from trucks, all day on his back with beads of sweat on his forehead, the same sweat that I saw when he struck Hanif. We sold the house for a song, a sad one, because no one wanted to buy a house which had an ugly story. With the little that we got we bought an apartment right across the island where we hoped no one would know us. But this was just more silliness since we lived on an island. My mother was never the same again. She did what she had to do for my sister, and less willingly for me. She never laughed with us again. She used to do that a lot in that house. I missed those days when my mother, sister and I would sit in that sun-filled courtyard and laugh at silliness. My mother would be tickled by the way we mimicked our father but chide us for our irreverence. “He is a good man whose whole world is about us,” she would say in that gentle voice of hers. And, he was a good man. He was just wrong on that one day.

I saw Hanif’s family for the last time in court when my father was sentenced. My father stood as usual expressionless. He did not look at us and he did not look at them. He just stood staring straight ahead of him as the judge read his fate to him. I stole a glance at Hanif’s family. They looked tired, all of them. They too just sat expressionless, staring at the judge. There was no sign of jubilance. But what was there to be jubilant about? We had all lost. I wanted to speak with his family, say that I was sorry and cry with them. But I didn’t think I would be welcomed as I was on that day when I sat down to dinner with them with Hanif. I remember that day. There was so much light in their home. It was like the sun took pains to lovingly caress each and every article in that home as it streamed in gloriously. Hanif’s father laughed as his sisters talked about their day and his mother teased Hanif about his widening waist and his overfilled plate. I watched happily and half enviously. I liked my life but I wanted a bit of theirs, just a bit.

Today, forty years later, I was meeting his sisters, Latifah and Saira. They had reached out to me, on Facebook. I had opened an account after much cajoling from my son. The minute I saw their request, recognition flooded back bringing with it a rush of memories, each one tumbling over the other. I was both elated and afraid. I wanted to meet them and forgive myself but I was afraid. I felt my husband’s firm, strong hand squeeze my shoulder gently from behind. He had been there all along. I looked up into his blue eyes as he patted my shoulder and smiled. I felt strong then but I wish he was with me now. My stomach churned a little as I waited, three streets away from where I once lived with my father, my mother and sister, three streets away from where Hanif had looked at me for the last time. The place didn’t affect me as much as it should have. My life was now thousands of miles away. My mother was gone without saying a word to me for forty years and I was in town for her funeral. My sister handed me her bangles that she had wanted me to have. They were gold but a little tarnished and bent in places. They were the only bangles she had ever worn because she had liked them very much. My father had bought them for her when he had come into some money for the first time. As I held them in my hands and looked at them, they still shone and winked at me in the sun, despite their age. My heart sang with joy as I held them to my face that was wet with tears.

I was early. Our meeting, Hanif’s sisters and mine was not for another hour. I walked around in an area that was familiar and yet not as much anymore. There was still the same constant stream of people, the same noises, just louder now, and the same smells. I smelt the jasmine and wrinkled my nose. It was a hot afternoon. No one knew me. And I didn’t know anyone. Nothing had changed. In those days when I lived here, everyone knew my mother, my sister and me as my father’s wife and daughters. We didn’t have names to them then, and I am nameless to these people now.

I saw them at a distance. I knew them instantly and as soon as I caught their eyes, they knew me too. We waved to each other and hurried towards each other, as fast as our older bodies would let us. We stood facing each other for a few minutes with hesitant smiles. And then the younger one, the one who was even then a little bit more chatty and bubbly reached out and touched my arm. Her smile that had widened reached her eyes and for a fleeting second I saw Hanif them. The older one followed suit and I felt the warmth. Then we turned around to walk to the restaurant that we had agreed upon. As we walked together, I felt the cool evening breeze gently touch my face as it carried the scent of jasmine.

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