<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 113 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 11, 2003

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- 5% Text Table--%>


Neeman A. Sobhan

The jasmine season is almost over in Rome, and the hedges that swarmed with the buzz of the tiny scented buds, no longer make the suburban neighbourhoods hum with their dizzy fragrance. A stale, residual smell, the after thought of scent, lingers forlornly on the covered terrace where I sit writing at my laptop near a half withered jasmine vine. Its hesitant perfume reminds me of its Bengali relative, the double-petal beli, and myself as a girl making garlands for a young aunt's wedding, listening to love songs and eavesdropping on love stories.

Indeed the whole secret and undiscovered world of love and romance and marriage, especially of the much whispered and intriguing 'wedding night' (or the entire 'man-woman thing' as I called this extension of my youthful ignorance-innocence, reinforced by the gossipy tales we swallowed in great gulps from friends who had the distinction of knowing romantically involved or newly married women), all seemed strung with this pure yet thrillingly charged flower.

Those were pre-teen years when my friends and I had said goodbye to skirts and discovered femininity. We hung around beautiful older women, and in fact, all around me I only saw beautiful women; plain women just didn't register. Even men, I thought, were created as the necessary thread to string her blossoming.

Beauty was the lode star of love, and love, that great corollary to beauty, that mixture of palpitating looks we saw exchanged by movie stars or between older cousins when they spoke of their crushes, was surely the essence of life, the very extract of jasmine! I couldn't wait to grow up and wear the jasmine of love and beauty in my hair, which I started to grow to fairytale lengths!

My hair is much shorter now, and my olfactory memory of youth's jasmine is slightly faded and altered; however, a particular memory reminds me of the association of jasmine with beauty and love, or rather with the beauty of love. Of course, the association is made now, for the incident when it occurred only baffled me as a girl.

The Dhaka Cantonment Modern School no longer exists, at least by that name. I spent three years there, and in spite of being the studious 'first girl' of my class, I spent less time with books than in studying the bigger girls whom I admired for making even the dull school uniform look exciting, and the beautiful women teachers whom I imitated at home wearing my mother's high heels and saris and modulating my voice to: 'Girls, turn to page 25 of your Brighter Grammar...'

My friends and I also spent an inordinate amount of time speculating whether the only male teacher, the rather hen-pecked, but passably good-looking 'Math-sir' had something going with Teacher Rubina, the youngest and loveliest of the female staff. We spent so much time deciphering the looks and words exchanged between them and so certain were we about a flourishing romance here, entirely on the basis of the pinkness of Miss Rubina's cheeks every time Math-sir came into her English class to borrow the blackboard duster or asked her something, that when she glowingly handed us her wedding card announcing her nuptials with a cousin living in Canada, to whom she had been engaged for years, we were stunned at the failure of our miscalculated 'romance'. We felt betrayed by both and I decided that this 'man-woman thing' was a subject to be avoided as much as was Math, that cold, calculating, unrewarding mystery not unlike its unfathomable male teacher. And any recondite crush we may have harboured for him, now vaporized with our vicarious representative in this collective romance, Miss Rubina, so heartlessly crushing our expectations of fantasy with her surprise fiancée.

We were broken hearted for days, though this did not stop us from gushing over the groom at the wedding. 'Oh! He is so handsome!' Math-sir was demoted to history by now. And all our senses were concentrated on the bride, decked in jasmine and jewellery, half fainting in the heat; and when the gallant groom put his steadying arm around his swooning bride, we, too, swooned at this exquisite marriage of love and beauty, our hearts jointly thudding like a giant tabla.

After Miss Rubina's departure for Canada from where she sent us pictures of her marital bliss, and after Math-sir distributed sweets on the occasion of the birth of his much awaited son ('Imagine! Sir was married all these years...Chee!), my friends and I cringed for a while, and then went back to the comforting boredom of school.

The monotony of assembly, the loitering arm-in-arm on the grounds at Tiffin-period, the chatting and singing during the last free period and the rushing to get into the bus at final bell had a rhythm that sustained us. The bell was sounded by the peon, the scowling Siraj. Had we been called upon then to describe him we couldn't have done so, but in retrospect I see him as a dark, middle-aged man with a well-built body. At the time we only noticed his reassuring presence in the school, sitting on a stool near the headmistress's door or going around the grounds and scolding us when necessary, especially the non-Bangla speaking girls: 'Kya karta? What doing? How many-many times telling, this wall kuccha, fall down, tengri toot jayenga, break legging.' Or 'Baby! Again picking green amrood, destroying school property!' On rare occasions when boys from Adamjee School and the Modern girls got to meet, he was our watchdog to keep the chokra logh away from the baby log.

Siraj was married to the flamboyant, loud-mouthed sweeper woman, popularly known as paagli, the madcap. Even Siraj called her that. At the end of the day, after Siraj sounded the gong, Paagli would go around beating on the bus doors announcing 'city bus!' or 'cantonment bus!' while spitting out a stream of red betel juice, laughing and joking with the bus drivers and singing snatches of songs in her brash voice. Siraj was too dignified to openly disapprove of her behaviour, but every now and then he shouted from the veranda: 'Oyee, paagli! Ekhaney aaye!' And when she came over he would take her by the hair and shake her: 'Thappor diya daat phelaye dimoo (I'll knock off your teeth with a slap)'. When we looked at them from the corner of our eyes as we sat at the bus window we would hear her laugh out loud.

The next day, we would forget her until one of us had to visit the toilet with its phenyl smell, and there she would be, in another raucously patterned sari with a broom at her feet, untying a pouch of tobacco-filled betel leaf from her shapely waist jingling with silver belts and ornaments. She had a dark, pockmarked face, and the public opinion was that she was ugly as a witch, but whenever she cocked us an arched glance from her kohl-ed eyes or gave us a betel-stained smile that flashed brighter than the silver nose ring, we felt a curious fascination. We watched her swaying as she swept the front yard before the P.T class came out. Miss Naheed had a supple figure too, but paagli had something, which we later learnt was called grace.

And her laughter rang out all day, all over the school. Some days, the headmistress had to send the head girl, the lovely Ruhi to shut her up. Once, Ruhi had to go for a different reason. I remember it was during the mid-term exam. I was deep in my geography test when the crystal silence of the classroom clouded with unclear sounds. They slowly resolved into someone crying in the distance from the building housing the 'baby class' and nursery school. We saw the headmistress walk past our class, with Siraj following. For a while, the jagged sounds of Paagli's hysteria and Siraj shouting and beating her, rose and fell then died down into the silence of our uneven breathing and the scratching of our pens. After we finished our paper and came out, no one wanted to talk about the Paagli affair; it was out of our depths. I stayed back with some of my friends, one of whom was going to be picked up by her brother, rumoured to have a marked resemblance to Cliff Richard, our heartthrob of the moment. So we stayed on to verify that and be dropped by her.

The school buses had left, the school building was almost empty, except for a few staff who were army officer's wives and waiting for their husbands. At one point, I left my friends to go to the toilet. Before I reached it, I heard murmuring and sniffling. I peeked into the room outside the toilet and saw Siraj sitting on a stool with Paagli sitting weeping at his feet, her face against his leg. Siraj was stroking her head and saying over and over 'Amar paagli rey...torey niya ki kori (My madcap, what to do with you?) ' Paagli lifted her teary face and blowing her nose loudly into her sari said thickly: 'I want my baby boy back. Give me back my khoka….' Her voice was spent and she was whimpering. Siraj cupped her face in his hands and said, 'You know very well, what dies never comes back, paagli. One day we will have another. You will see.' She shook her head, whispering distantly: 'That new child, the new baba in nursery looked exactly like my khoka...' 'I know, I know...' Siraj's voice was soothing as he wiped her eyes and then from his pocket he took out a less than fresh sprig of jasmine and tucked it into her oily hair.

The schoolgirl that watched the scene thought, 'Aha! Siraj you hypocrite, caught you! Plucking flowers from the school garden, destroying school property!' But somewhere in her uncomprehendingly thudding heart, the unique unexamined moment lodged itself in a new configuration of a familiar scent, whose shape across the years comes to me in the dark fragrance of phenyl and hair-oil and sweat and the unmistakable fragrance of the flower that can only be jasmine to those who believe in the beauty of love.





(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star