Munaf Husain

Queen´s Necklace


A whisper woke me
up this morning. The voice seemed familiar but I could not recognize it.

I delayed the
first sip from the cup full of fresh coffee in my hand, afraid that the touch
of the hot brew to my tongue would erase any remaining memory of the dream.

I kept trying to
connect that sound, wondering what had brought it back from where it might have
laid asleep for many years. I tried to remember the image that had accompanied
the whisper. A blurred street sign…like a reflection on liquid. I knew that
language of the faint indigo letters upon old wood. But before that there was
nothing.

Wait. There was a
wood-and-plaster fortress from a school play. With an orange flag fluttering on
top. I remember this play. It was in my seventh standard.

It was hard to
tell if the voice was male or female. It was caressing yet urging, as only a
woman’s voice could be…like that of Jasmine. It was her…that whisper had to be
Jasmine’s.

More than
twenty-five years ago she had once come to watch my school play. I saw her
smiling widely every time I glanced at her in the audience with her trademark
Jasmine buds in her hair.

My mother and she
had been close friends even though Jasmine was almost eight years younger.

She was always
ready for a game of table tennis. We snatched a game at the old table in our
storeroom whenever she was at our home. Even if it was only for a few minutes
while mother was getting ready. Jasmine became a young girl each time she
kicked off her sandals, tied up the loose end of her sari around her waist and began playing.

I remember her
applauding with a passionate gusto when I came out on stage with the rest of
the cast to take a bow. Mother would not have been so uninhibited in her
admiration.

Jasmine
lived with her parents as her husband was away trying to save some money
working as an accountant in oil rich Kuwait. The women in the community frowned
with disdain that she did not live with her in-laws as all married women were
expected to. It was not if she had not tried doing so. But less than five
months after Jasmine had started to live at her in-laws’ house her father
received a surprise one early morning as he was just stepping out to get fresh
bread and milk for the family breakfast. He stared in disbelief for a moment as
his daughter got out with a suitcase and a shoulder bag from the taanga – one of the single-horse driven
carriages that ran on the streets of Bombay in those days. She dropped her bags
and hugged her father, looking with fondness and relief at the building she had
lived in since the last 19 years. She told him later that she would not go back
to her in-laws’ till her husband returned.

As
Jasmine and I came out from the auditorium building into the night, we felt a
light spray of August rain on our faces. It was not a heavy rain but had a
refreshing energy because of the strong breeze that carried it. The reflections
of the streetlamps on the wet road kept getting swished out by passing cars
every few seconds.

From the
entranceway of a tenement building wafted out the melancholy strains of a tune
from the Hindi film “Paper Flowers”. As we passed from there I saw that they
came from a portable radio. Beside it lay a man stretched out on a cloth mat on
the floor of the entrance, trying to lull himself to sleep. “Have seen the friendship of this world; they
all left one after the other…” went the sigh of the singer.

Jasmine and I
walked on sharing her red, white and orange umbrella. A thought struck her and
she asked me if I felt like taking a ride home in a taanga. That came as a surprise. I had already been looking forward
to going up to the upper deck of a ‘45 number B.E.S.T’ bus and going to the
seats right in front. Those were the only seats with windows right in front of
them, which I would leave open and let the spray hit my face as the bus freely
sped along streets that were free of daytime traffic.

But I loved taanga rides too.

We began heading
towards the taanga stand at the
southern tip of the sea-touching Marine Drive. Jasmine decided we would ride
through the full length of the ‘Queen’s Necklace’, as the glittering arc of the
waterfront drive was often called.

When we were a
few feet away from the first waiting horse-carriage, she looked at a street vendor set up with a pile of corn-on-the-cobs
and a barely breathing charcoal stove. A large, heavily worn, black umbrella
rose up modestly from his little makeshift table. He immediately noticed her
interest and with a cardboard sheet made a few powerful fanning movements at
the stove, which woke up the coals in a fury of crackling orange. Without
thinking longer Jasmine went up to the hopeful vendor who started picking out
fresh and large corncobs.

As the
two carefully picked out cobs lay roasting on the obliging coals I saw Jasmine
staring at the mist-laden darkness over the Arabian Sea. Through the veil of
the resolute drizzle the jagged outcrop of the Malabar Hill skyline appeared
distant and mysterious like something from a faded story of ancient myth. She
closed her eyes and smiled as a strong breeze lashed her face with a spray. The
vendor stole a glance at her and quickly looked back at his stove. I felt a
shiver run through me. I had always been very fond of Jasmine but at that
moment, for the first time, I felt a sharp awareness of her being a woman.

The vendor sliced
a fresh lemon into half and picked up the well-roasted cobs from the stove. He
then dabbed the sliced face of a half lemon into a little bowl of
salt-and-spice powder and rubbed it along the cobs. As we took the cobs from the
vendor’s hands it occurred to me to take the umbrella from her hand and hold it
myself. When I raised my hand offering to do so, she hesitated for a very brief
moment then gave it to me, smiling with bemused affection at my awkward
gallantry. That smile triggered another shiver through me. We started walking
towards the first one in the row of waiting taangas.

I don’t know if
it was my bewilderment at the feelings I was experiencing or my fumbling to
hold the umbrella over her, but something made me drop my barely eaten cob on
the wet footpath. Jasmine looked at me for a moment and then raised her cob to
my mouth for me to take a bite from it. We stood there in the monsoon drizzle,
at the edge of the sea, sharing an umbrella and a spiced corncob.

The canvas hooded
taanga coach had two seats facing
each other and two people could sit on each seat. There were no doors to the
coaches and one simply stepped into them from either of the open sides. During
the monsoon season however they had canvass flaps attached to them that
somewhat closed the sides and prevented the rain from drenching the passengers.
The middle part of the flaps had a patch of transparent plastic that formed a
little window.

Till I was ten
years old my grandfather used to let me sit next to the taanga driver, up on his high raised seat just in front of the
coach. It was a position that offered an unrestricted view of the ride and made
me feel more connected to the horse trotting away just in front of us whose
reins I was allowed to hold.

I held
the umbrella open till Jasmine stepped up on to the little wooden floor of the
coach and sat in the front facing seat. That disappointed me a bit. I had hoped
to sit facing front.

As I shut
the umbrella and was about to sit down on the seat facing her she held my hand
and with a playful tug pulled me to sit beside her. Although the seat could
take two people when necessary I had not expected this. It must have been the
great spirits she was in that filled her with such affection. Sitting so close
to her with the sides of our bodies touching, I felt a sensation again that I
had never felt before.

As soon as both
of us were seated and the canvas flaps fastened in place on the sides, the taanga started its clip-clop rhythm.
Jasmine asked me to hold her still unfinished corncob, picked up one end of her
dupatta and dabbed her rain-moistened
face and hair. She saw that I was wetter than her and wiped my hair and face
too. Then she held my hand, sat back and closed her eyes for a moment. There
was a tiny smile on her face. She
may as well have
forgotten I was even there. But the feeling in my hand in hers left me with no
doubt that she was deeply aware of my presence by her side.

She suddenly
turned her face away from me and looked towards the little window, staring
through it at the Bombay monsoon outside. I found that a bit strange,
especially since the dull plastic did not offer a clear view through it.  But it did not bother me too much.

It was probably
the touch of her hand over mine, added to her perfume that now floated inside
the coach like a tantalising mist. Or it may have been the few loose strands of
her black, glistening hair, sticking to her neck just below her ear.  I suddenly wanted to put both my arms around
her, move those strands of hair with my finger and kiss the side of her neck.

Of course I was
too terrified to act out this fantastic urge. My body was frozen with confusion
and an aching desire. I could barely control or even understand the raging
storm within me. In this tormented state I sat wondering how to act. While
Jasmine kept staring through the window of the taanga, I tried to draw
strength and encouragement from the touch of her hand. Through those clasped
hands I tried to convey to her the force of my confused agitation. I soon
realized that she had gone into a world of her own.

All my efforts to
break out of this suspended state seemed hopeless.

As I waited for
something to happen to break this I felt her shudder and take a deep breath. It
was only then I noticed she was weeping.

Even as the tears
flowed from her eyes I had no idea how to react to her unexpected turn of mood.
She had seemed in such high spirits till just a moment before. Something she
must have tried to keep shut inside a crevice of her mind had burst out without
any warning and overcome her. I could now see that the deceptive calm on her
face even amidst the flowing tears was her effort to contain and shut back the
feeling that had caused this disruption to her joyful state. But in spite of all
her efforts she had been unable to prevent the shudder that had betrayed her
condition to me.

Looking at
Jasmine beside me who till this moment I had always seen in a cheerful mood, I
suddenly found myself lifting my arm and putting it around her.

As soon as my
palm touched her shoulder she let go of her struggle, turned towards me and
buried her face in my shoulder, submitting to the relentless surge of emotion.
Not quite prepared for this I felt overwhelmed. I was sure my adolescent
shoulders would be too weak to absorb this outpouring.

She stayed like
that with her head on my shoulders. Her tears showed no sign of abating. I
could feel the front of my shirt getting wet rapidly from the shoulder
downwards. I feared that something in her might have burst so terribly that it
would never heal itself again.

Then, quite
strangely, the feeling I was experiencing began to change. I imagined that the
unending flood of warm wetness emanating from her face and spreading across my
chest was starting to make me feel stronger. I could almost feel as if I was
growing bigger while Jasmine had shrunk in my embrace. I felt I could hold her
tightly and let her tears seep into me for as long as they kept flowing.

All these
sensations I felt during those moments inside a taanga on a city promenade were so intense that I imagined I was
not just in there but also some place else. With the woefully limited
experience of my thirteen years of life I had no hope of understanding what was
happening to me, far less what was happening to Jasmine. At that time I only
found myself following the dictates of something that was beyond me.  I had no real way of knowing whether any
manner I acted in was the appropriate one. Many years later when I was
recollecting that evening once again, I wondered whether it was my imagination
that had provoked my feelings or whether my feelings had indulged my
imagination.

Although the
moment when Jasmine let her deepest feelings pour out seemed like a long
suspended period, in reality it was closer to two or three minutes.

Having stilled
herself now, she picked up her head from my shoulder and looked at me. She
pulled me closer, kissed me lightly on my lips and held my face against hers.
For a moment that was torturously brief Jasmine let me stay in her embrace.
Then she pulled herself away and opened the canvas shutter on her side of the
coach. She stayed with her face held out into the monsoon night till the
lashing rain had washed away all traces of her tears.

Almost as
suddenly as she had given in to her release, she reverted back to her usual
zest and cheer. As if nothing much had happened. But although she had regained
her composure I noticed that there was something broken about the look in her
eyes.

During the next
few minutes she attempted to chat about various things. Mostly about me, the
school play, the other actors in it. She asked me questions about these and
then about my relentless efforts to get into the school cricket team.

My disposition
however had completely changed. I did not know how to look at Jasmine, racked
apart that I was, between a great anger towards her and a great desire for her.
I fantasised about overpowering her and holding her in a clasp from which she
could not hope to escape.
 
Seeing
that I was not in the mood for conversation she gave up trying get me talking
and for the rest of the ride sat back with a fond and patient smile, humming a
film tune almost to herself.

When she asked
the taanga driver to stop outside the
apartment building where I lived, I felt I could never forgive her for causing
such a storm in me and then leaving me in this torn and confused state.

It turned out
that after that evening I never saw her again. Three months later we came to know that Jasmine’s husband had been able
to obtain her visa and residence papers for Kuwait.  She was to leave in two days.

My anger towards
her had subsided in just a few days, but I could not erase her face and voice
from my mind for a much longer time. I wondered many times whether she still
remembered me and how she was doing.

One day, after
another three years had passed and I was preparing to begin Junior College in a
few weeks, I went to the kitchen and overheard my mother and two other women
talking about Jasmine. Pretending to continue searching around inside the
cupboards for something I stayed as close as possible to the window to the
drawing room in which sat my mother and her friends. I strained my ears for
news of her.

“…the way her
parents indulged that girl…sooner or later something like this was bound to
happen.” I heard one of the women pronounce.

“Does not know
how fortunate she is to have a husband like Kader.” Said the second woman.

Then someone
noticed I was just behind the curtained window to the kitchen. There was an
uncertain pause and they changed the topic. All I could learn about Jasmine was
this brief cryptic exchange. A few days later after not being able to suppress
my curiosity, I attempted to casually ask mother about her. She simply told me
she was all right and showed no inclination to say anything further. So I had
to leave it at that.

It was many more
years later, after much had happened in my own life thereafter, that Jasmine
had began to recede from memory. Till before today I had completely forgotten
about her. Or so I had thought anyway, for even if memories get buried deep
beneath I guess they never quite go away.

 
© 2002 Munaf Husain

 

All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Munaf Husain.
Published on e-Stories.org on 10/08/2011.

 

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