Wild Flowers

Mohar Daschaudhuri

Mohar Daschaudhuri teaches French at the University of Calcutta in Kolkata, India, since 2008. She did her Ph.D. on Francophone Quebec Literature and continues to pursue her research interest on the rewriting of mythology in the works of women writers and filmmakers in Québec and Bengal. At present, she is pursuing a federal project on the fantastic in the works of Francophone women writers in South Asia. She has also translated Marguerite Yourcenar’s Les Nouvelles Orientales from French into Bengali.

The rain beat unusually hard against the window pane. Pebble-sized hail slashed against the rear view mirror. Inside, it was cozy, and a faint lavender smell wafted in the air, making Shehnaz feel warm and invincible. Yet she knew it was a silly sensation. In an hour or so, she would be thrown out into a rapacious world. The BMW sped across quiet, hilly roads meandering into the countryside past neat rows of white, uniform houses with red slanted roofs and manicured lawns. Daffodils lined the roads. Back then, in school, at standard eight, this flower was a dizzy mystery, “fluttering and dancing in the wind”, with a heavenly smell, she imagined. Years later, coming to the U.K., she was surprised to find that the daffodil had no smell. It grew wild, by riverbanks, road sides and bins. Swinging on a thin stem, it sought comfort in the crowd and the whole lot would bend and bow together, blown by the breeze.

She was about to doze off in the warm comfort of the car, gazing at raindrops etching patterns on the glass, memories and wine creeping up her veins. An unexpected call from Emily Kral, her agent, at around 4 a.m. had interrupted her sleep. She would have refused any customer at this hour, but for her dwindling balance at Lloyd’s.

Lighting up a Marlboro she looked at the text message, “Sambhava Gardens, LS9 27RT”. An unusual Indian name, she thought, an Indian surgeon, perhaps, spending leisurely old days in a picturesque English country cottage. Probably a widower or just a rich man, fed up with the vagaries of English ladies.

Before her eyelids drooped from tiredness, she noticed the silent harshness of the rain, twisting and turning the graceful willows. It used to pour down like that in Mumbai. Straddled behind her brother Fayyaz on the bike, she would be drenched in the monsoon showers on her way to college. Sometimes, during weekends, the family of four would gather on the veranda and sip chai and eat fried pakoras, enjoying the sight of cars and auto-rickshaws wading through muddy waters, while by the roadside, vadapao and paobhaji vendors would dismantle their stalls lock, stock and barrel and scurry through the rain. She pictured the guitar player by the Manchester railway station. Rain or shine, he sat under the oak tree with his torn handkerchief spread out on the pavement awaiting a penny. Poor people lived the same way everywhere. They sip tea by the fireside, with fine curtains and clinking china; a romantic picture for the colonial imaginary. It happened in Austen novels. It was not their England.

Where was Fayyaz, she wondered. Since her separation from her husband Iqbal sixteen years ago, Fayyaz had shifted to Dubai, and it had been years since they had last spoken. He had not answered her letters, though she has written thirty-seven of them, their dates and addresses marked in a faded little diary. The scar on her back, where her brother’s chastising belt had split it in two, still carved the shape of a crooked serpent in her flesh. Only, it no longer hurt. Through the years, the sign had changed meanings. She fought it throughout her youth – a symbol of humiliation, subordination to family traditions. Yet she had forgiven Fayyaz for it; now it evoked a faint trembling pain, which still remotely tied her to the past. It was her fleur de lys, similar to the Lily on Milady’s shoulders in The Three Musketeers. Travelling the tortuous paths of love, she now doubted the many masks of D’Artagnan. Perhaps Milady de Winter was not simply a scheming slattern after all. She could almost hear Milady’s voice, a brave one, provoking her to embrace challenges in a man’s world.

When Fayyaz had seen her at the Imperial Hotel, leaning on Ranveer’s arms, he had dragged her home and beaten her hard. She had lied at first, saying that Ranveer Shekhawat and she were just friends. Fayyaz had, of course, guessed that a girl from Sayeed community could not behave so with a male stranger, just as friends. Once home, Fayyaz had flogged her and had threatened to kill her but would not say anything to the family. She had promised him that she would mend her ways, that she would never meet Mr. Shekhawat again. She had tried to be truthful. She meant to keep her promise.

The affair had begun gradually, almost as a tender joke. Ranveer Shekhawat was the Vice President of Tata Motors where Fayyaz worked as a computer engineer. He would often accompany Fayyaz to their house after work and she would serve them tea and snacks. His tall stature, twinkling mischievous eyes, polite yet boyish manners reminded her of a Persian prince, straight out of the Arabian Nights. They chanced upon each other at the Forum mall in Colaba one evening. He looked half his age then, not in formal office clothes, but in a black and white striped Benetton T-shirt and faded jeans. Her friends, Razia and Priyanka, teased her when he lavished attention on her and spoiled them all at the Taj, overlooking the Gateway of India. He was quite obviously in love.

After the two girls left, she was the last one in his car. She didn’t refuse when he offered her a cigarette, her first Marlboro. That wasn’t the first time she had smoked, but it was the first time she puffed before a stranger, a man. As for being in love, she did not like him at all, a married man with a child! He was rich and she just wanted to have a fling, taste the joys of youthful vagrancy.

Mr. Shekhawat owned a house at Bandra and a few weeks later, he invited her and Fayyaz for his daughter’s birthday party. It was a little odd, thought Fayyaz, such a big shot inviting them to a family function. Her heart fluttered at the invitation, but Fayyaz refused to take her along. She was only eighteen and had been engaged a week earlier to her maternal cousin, Muhammad Iqbal, her elder by fifteen years with a huge family to support. That evening, by her sick father’s bedside, she wished to escape her circumstances. She hated poverty, and she could already picture her married life – a dull and uneventful tale told by an idiot. In her teenage mind, compared to Ranveer Shekhawat, Iqbal paled into inexistence. Her mother and uncle had wanted the alliance, and the couple could not but give their consent. Nobody dared question the elders. In their community, the relationship between husband and wife was formal, strained with a sense of duty, respect and obligation. She expected no love.

After their meeting at Colaba, whenever Fayyaz and Mr. Shekhawat came home in the evenings, his eyes would hover around the rooms searching for her. She deliberately avoided him for a while, afraid of her own impulses. Yet, fate knows its ways around the human mind. One day he brought her a beautiful emerald ring; it was a belated gift, he told her parents, for her engagement to Iqbal. The following day he called her up and waited outside the college. She could have simply refused it all, but nobody had ever loved her so much in life, nor bought her so many presents. They met again at the Taj the following Friday. Fayyaz accompanied their father to the mosque for Namaz every Friday, at noon, and could not have kept watch over her. After that, Mr. Ranveer Shekhawat and she began to meet every Friday, using many tricks and subterfuges to deter the scrutinizing eyes of her family.

Those had been the happiest days of her life. Ranveer would buy her white roses. Some evenings, with a nervous fluttering in her heart, she would stroll with him at Juhu beach or watch a movie. It was Ranveer who gave her a gourmet taste for delicacies, such as lobster in bean sauce, beef korma, Thai or Lebanese cuisines. His black Mercedes would speed through Mumbai flyovers, lighting up the wintry evenings and casting faery shadows on a distant buzzing world, while she flew high in the starry skies accompanied by the angel of love. He would insist on dropping her off near the post office, two streets away from home. He would kiss her elbows, wrists, wrap a curl of her hair around his finger or simply stare at her before she finally bid him goodbye. He did not demand much and she found him a safe man to call her “first love” and, gradually, she thought, they would both grow out of it.

Then, she lost count of her prayers, their meetings, her lies. The summer evenings had given them a few extra hours and they went to a villa in Mudgaon. It belonged to Ranveer’s parents but they were away in the U.S. From the bedroom, they could see the sun setting on the Arabian Sea. A tangible current of passion shot through her as he grasped her dupatta and kissed her on the mouth. His long, fair fingers untied her strings, her plaits, and smoothed her curls. She could have never imagined his strong veined hands, which clutched the gear with so much confidence, would tremble so much touching her skin. It was her experience of love, long and deep like the roaring bellows outside.

She said nothing of it to her friends, nor did she take the affair seriously, until he promised to leave his family, marry her and settle in England. He had been kind to her – gifted her pearls and diamonds. They went places together; the Maldives, Bangkok and Dubai. Field trips for her designing course, she told the family. Lying was easy with Fayyaz posted away at Bangalore Tata Motors, as Ranveer took care of his career. Inside the gigantic aquarium at Dubai’s mall, they dived and kissed among myriads of colourful fishes, limbs entangled among the floating weeds. From the fifteenth floor of the hotel, the world appeared a different place. On their return journey, Imtiaz Ali, Fayyaz’s college friend, surprised her at the airport. She introduced Ranveer as her fiancé, and he had already heard of her engagement a year ago. Yet he looked at her with suspicion, for it was uncommon for unmarried couples to travel so far without family or friends.

Ranveer did not like being introduced as Iqbal, though he was not a practicing Hindu. She told him it was a safe name as Iqbal was her paternal cousin and everybody knew of their engagement. Ranveer, recalling the she was promised to Iqbal, felt so jealous that he soon forgot to begrudge for the change of names.

At some point during that year, she lost hold of her resolutions, her values. She missed too many classes and would have been unable to take her second semester exams, had Mr. Shekhawat not intervened with a member of the Managing Board of Directors. Ranveer had been instrumental in transferring Fayyaz to Bangalore, and all of a sudden, Abba, her father, passed away six months before her third semester exams. It worked well for them, as her marriage to Iqbal was postponed for a year. As the impending rituals of togetherness were replaced by those of death and separation, her life appeared more and more bleak, unreal. She was not certain whether Abba’s heart attack was caused by the news of her affair, for he had returned from the Friday Namaz at the mosque and had spoken to no one for hours, until the stroke silenced him into a comatose. She knew that relatives and friends were already gossiping about her. Her mother was quite aloof from everybody, and Abba’s death plunged her even into depression and melancholy and further away from society. Amidst the oppressive atmosphere at home, with Fayyaz away at Bangalore, only Ranveer’s love showered freshness in the small spaces of her daily chores.

Ranveer and she had begun to spend a lot of time together. It was on one of those days, while they were dining at the Café Imperial, that Fayyaz surprised them and dragged her home. He had returned from Bangalore unexpectedly and had discovered her secret. He began to look for a job in Mumbai. It was just after the Black day in December 1991, and Mumbai was still recovering from financial crisis. It took her six months to convince him that she would mend her ways, think of their reputation, their mother’s last days. When her brother’s tearful eyes bid her goodbye at Bombay Central, she really meant to keep her promise. She had to take care of Amma, whose health worsened steadily since Abba’s demise. At the Management Institute, her results deteriorated. She excused herself to her brother, by referring to her running to and fro between the hospital and the home during their father’s illness. He felt guilty for being unable to share the responsibilities. By then, he had resolved to quit his job and return to Mumbai, especially to arrest the tide of her moral downslide and stop Mr. Shekhawat from ruining their lives.

A week later, Ranveer asked to meet her one last time. She gave in. It was on July 25th, her twentieth birthday, that they met. How could she refuse him? They had been together through tough times. She had had two abortions.

They drove over the misty ravines of the mesmerizing Western Ghats towards Goa, six hundred kilometres from Mumbai. She would not reproach destiny if they tumbled down together through the light morning mist into those cavernous depths. She wanted to drink and dance and enjoy each moment of that last day together. They stopped at their favourite joint, the Salsa beach Pub, and he insisted on keeping a sketch of her face drawn by a local Goan artist. They stayed there throughout the day, savouring their last moments of togetherness. She had brought all his earlier gifts, jewellery, letters, clothes. Some of them still crumpled from recent wear. He made her wear them all, one by one, his precious gems and clothes, an amalgam of memories and hopelessness. “This picture of your radiant face will accompany me for years to come. Don’t ruin it with your tears”, he had said. They made love again and again till dusk fell over the horizon and seeped into the room through their tired limbs. Running her fingers over his broad forehead, through the dark mesh of hair, she wondered whether she would ever see him again.

When they drove back home, the streets gleamed in the rain, with a slow and constant drizzle announcing the monsoon. A few weeks later she got married to Muhammad Iqbal, and they moved to the U.K. Even the green pastures of Yorkshire could not soothe her ravings and nightmares, surging like waves of guilt.

Four years had passed, yet she still smelt Ranveer’s semen on her skin. Illness, nausea and depression followed one another. Like an old woman, she felt passive and drained. She wanted to be truthful to Iqbal. This mechanical life was tearing into her thoughts. She wanted to wind time back, to erase the dark slashes of sin that had murdered her babies. Now that Amma had passed away and Fayyaz seemed to have become a faint point on the blue globe, she longed to be at peace with herself. Finally, after almost four years of her marriage, she revealed her past life to Iqbal. He was a scientist, and she had sincerely worked to lessen the burdens of his family responsibilities, having brought up his four young sisters like her own progeny. He was an intellectual and would understand her dilemma, forgive her, she thought. He listened quietly and was neither angered by her confessions, nor moved by the tears. It was against his religion to live with a woman who had sinned, he said. She telephoned her brother, but her calls went unanswered, just as her letters. Perhaps Iqbal had already contacted him about her confession and her brother did not have the courage to support her.

She had failed as a daughter, sister and wife. She would have failed as a mother, too. How cold it sounded – barrenness.

Yet, after so many years, making love to innumerable clients, she knew her job. Without a work permit in the U.K., she would have starved to death if it were not for Magdalene Turner, who had sheltered her and taught her to work. Her innards were always laid open, scanned, molested, wrung out of herself, but it was part of the package of security. She was happy to be far away from Mumbai, from nostalgic reminders of her past life. Sometimes, while she performed her tricks, and it drizzled outside, she could feel the mesh of her dark hair gliding through fingers and the tangy odor of a caressing arm that shielded her from all other smells. The unending waves of the Arabian Sea rhythmically crashed on a distant shore, even while white snow-flakes covered the nights in silence.

The car had stopped outside the gates of Sambhava Gardens. It had been a long, long drive from the city into these fossilized limestone highlands covered with mossy trees and stones. There was hardly any habitation around the bungalow. She looked at herself in the mirror and, quite mechanically, out of cultivated habit, rubbed a little gloss on her lips. The chauffeur opened the door and pointed at the heavy oak door. It opened wide into the salon. In a large dark room by the fireside sat an elderly, grey-haired man, slumped in a wheelchair; an unlikely customer, she thought. Then, she glanced at the photograph above the mantelpiece. There was no mistake – it was the portrait sketched by a Goan artist, of a younger, lovelier Shehnaz, with wild flowers in her hair.

Pour citer cette page

Mohar Daschaudhuri, « Wild Flowers », MuseMedusa, no 7, 2019, <> (Page consultée le ).

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