The Scent of Mangoes
When pretty cousin Najma got married in the Dhaka of the late sixties, Tamara was still just a teenager and not allowed yet to wear saris to public functions like weddings. The tailor master was called at home to measure her for a new shalwar-kameez ensemble. Tamara groaned to her mother. “Why can't I wear one of these….” She ran her hands over the luscious silk saris spilling from the hangars of her mother's wardrobe.
“Na, baba! No saris for you yet! You are well developed as it is,” Amma gave Tamara's bosom a disapproving look. “Pull your dupatta down! If it's always hanging around your neck like a rope, what's the point of the scarf? As it is, people think you are older than your age, and the sari will make you look even more…mature, more marriageable!” Her mother used the word 'mature' as if it were a Bengali word, pronouncing it 'match-your' in a prolonged and relishing way that made Tamara think of a ripe mango. She shuddered: a mango being plucked and assessed for the marriage market! Amma was right, no sari for her, thank you!
Najma herself came one afternoon to deliver the simple white and gold card for her wedding and the hand made, pre-nuptial 'Holood' ceremony card. Tamara hadn't seen her in almost a year in spite of living in the same city. They not only lived at opposite ends of Dhaka, but were not very close as cousins either. This was not due to the five-year age difference between the girls, but to the contrast in the family's social backgrounds. Najma's mother, sister of Tamara's father, lived a tradition-bound existence in the older, narrower part of the city. Tamara's mother, a fashionable woman who used modernism selectively, meaning she was conservative with her daughter but westernized when it came to her own life style, made sure the family lived in the modern residential area of Dhanmondi. Thus except for a vague family loyalty Tamara had little in common with her cousin Najma.
That day, she had borrowed an LP record of Simon and Garfunkel from a school friend, and dressed in cotton bell-bottom pants and mini-kameez, she lay on her stomach on the bedroom rug listening to 'I am a Rock' for the tenth time. With her face close to the portable record player she was ready to move the needled arm back to the starting groove of the song when her mother peeked through the door. “Tamu, come and say hullo to Najma and organize some refreshments for the tea.”
Tamara sighed: Oh! To be just an island or a rock and never to have her daydreams interrupted for the mundane business of fixing snacks for guests who dropped by at odd hours. “A rock feels no pain, an island never cries,” she sang soulfully as she made her way to the kitchen. Later, pulling a loaded trolley of crisp onion pakoras and thin slices of cake from Olympia Bakery she entered the living room. Before Tamara could see the bride-to-be properly, Najma looked up and shrieked a bit exaggeratedly, “Oma! Can this be our Tamu? So grown up! Haaye Allah! You cut your hair?” Then turning to her aunt she scolded, “Chuchchi, you shouldn't have allowed her to. Such long, long hair! Eeesh!”
Tamara's mother pulled a face, “As if she would listen to me! Headstrong like your uncle!” Tamara stared at her cousin, awe struck by the luminescence on Najma's skin. Amma noticed her gaze and chucked Najma under her chin, dripping with the contrived affection of an aunt by marriage, “Eeesh! Just look at our Naju glowing! She will make such a lovely bride.”
It was true. Tamara had never seen Najma look so alluring. The last time Tamara saw her, Najma had been in a baggy cotton shalwar-kameez slouching at her study table memorizing something for her forthcoming college exam in English, which was her weakest subject. Tamara had picked up the prescribed textbook of Prose selection, which she had read from cover to cover over the holidays for a lack of reading material. “So tough, na?” Najma made a face and giggled, and then proceeded to sway and read aloud in a singsong voice from the copy of a commercial study guide in her lap. Even as she mouthed words she didn't understand, Tamara only noticed the sulky fullness of her cousin's womanly mouth and the plucked arch of her eyebrows that gave her a knowing, 'match-your' look. Still, Najma hadn't been as beautiful then as she was today in an orange sari, with a stick-on teep on her forehead, and her eyes smoky with kohl. Yes, Najma-apa gleamed like a plucked, just-ripe mango, ready to yield its sweetness. Najma seemed happy at the prospect, too!
“You must come to my 'holood' ceremony, Tamu. We will do it the old-fashioned way, dousing with coloured water, and dabbing of turmeric paste on everyone, especially the groom's family and friends. So Chuchchi, don't wear any of your glamorous chiffon-tiffon!" Najma giggled excitedly. Tamara quickly extricated herself, “Oh! Najma-Apa, I'm sorry but on that day I have a stupid exam….”
“Oh! What a shame, but can't you come afterwards? There will be cooking in massive pots in the garden… this new Chef Fokhruddin has agreed to come and make his famous Kutchtchi Biryani…” Tamara's mother thankfully took over at this point asking about other catering arrangements. Tamara sat in a corner observing her cousin and wondering how Najma could enthuse about a nuptial ceremony, which would lead to her being wedded and bedded by a man she did not know at all.
She asked about her brother-in-law to be, “Najma-Apa, tell me truthfully, other than seeing his photograph have you actually met 'dulabhai' my groom-brother, yet?” Najma said. 'Dhat!' biting the tip of her tongue in a show of coyness and actually blushed. “Why not?” Tamara was horrified. Najma plucked at her sari muttering, “Jaah! My parents have seen him, that's enough.” Her mother turned momentarily un-modern as she hugged Najma, “What a good girl! May God bless you with a doting husband.” Tamara got up in disgust and started to remove the teacups and plates.
Tamara doesn't remember the wedding, nor the last time she met Najma-Apa after that event. It must have been at least six years later, when Tamara came home for summer from her sophomore year at Boston University. Amma had dragged her to a family 'milaad.'
The scent of incense from the agorbatti sticks, the drone of the maulvis reciting hymns and Quranic verses, the press of bodies sitting close together on the living room floors spread with white sheets, all played on Tamara's senses. She looked at the various kinds of feet all around. This could well be a gathering for a musical performance with a singer sitting with her harmonium and tabla players to perform before an audience reclining on voluptuous pillows. Except that here the audience was mostly women in pale coloured saris and dupattas covering their heads, the strain of concentrated piety on their faces. The scent of rose water in elegant silver sprinklers, the chanting, and the forced segregation of males and females, painted as primal beings in the sermon, created a repressed, almost erotic, mystery to the gathering. It all crystallized in the figure of Najma-Apa who suddenly materialized, slithering across the sheet close to Tamara and whispering excitedly: “Oma! If it isn't our Tamara! How dark and thin you've become. And your hair is even shorter! So, when did you return from America?” She pronounced it Am-rika.
“Just a week ago. And how are you, Apa?” Tamara smiled in genuine fondness. America had made her miss family, made them all seem so vivid and authentic and thus more acceptable.
“Don't ask!” Najma giggled in mock exasperation. “This monkey doesn't allow me a moment's respite!” She lightly slapped the tiny paw of a little boy with a pacifier in his mouth busy trying to rip up a string of prayer beads. “Your son?” Tamara asked unnecessarily. Najma-Apa managed to actually blush. This reminded Tamara to ask, “And how is my dulabhai?”
“Oh! Him? All day, its business, business, business…..”
“Apa, do you know, I haven't actually met him properly since I last saw the two of you as the bridal couple on the wedding stage."
Najma giggled and then quickly covered her mouth with her hand when a lady glared at her. She whispered, “Come and see us sometime, Tamu. Do.”
But another two years passed before Tamara got around to visiting her cousin and her 'groom'. Meanwhiles Tamara had graduated and was working at a firm that dealt with books on tapes near Maryland. She was home on vacation. Although she was now ripe for marriage, and ready for plucking as she joked with her friends, she was aware that many other younger girls had now flooded the marriage market. She didn't mind this but Amma did. She had started to nag. Tamara took exception the day Amma broke down and said, “Look at Najma! In spite of not being good at her studies, look how well she has done! She is settled down with a prosperous husband, a child, a secure future….and look at my destiny! A daughter who is still single! Sometimes I wonder if it's worth educating girls beyond a certain age….”
“Oh! Amma. Stop this reactionary nonsense! It's awful……”
Now she was convinced, she had to go and visit Najma-apa in her paradise. So, dressed to project to the hilt the carefree, trendy, unmarried aspect of her, she set out.
Dulabhai came into the gigantic hall-like drawing room designed and decorated like a hotel lobby, dressed in a silk dressing gown. Tamara almost laughed aloud. Oh! My God! This is out of some popular Bengali film. She waited for the 'successful business man' to light his inevitable pipe. Thank goodness it wasn't forthcoming, and unpredictably his eyes crinkled in a boyish smile. “So finally I get to meet Tamara. Your Apa can't stop talking about you.” Tamara took her time in dropping her guard but soon they were deep in discussion, talking about a range of subjects from the political history of the country to its literary and cultural roots. They were enthusiastically into a discussion about theatre when Najma came in with a trolley piled with food and proceeded to load Tamara's plate.
“I don't eat sweets….” Tamara protested.
“Have just one……where will you find such fresh-fresh roshogollahs in Am-rika?” She turned to her husband, “Ayee, why don't you tell her to eat?”
Dulabhai clicked his tongue in mild irritation, “Don't force her.”
“Then have one more samosa, you are so thin,” Najma continued undeterred.
After tea they continued with their conversation. Tamara was surprised to learn that Dulabhai had once taken a film course at NYU. He got up to show her one of his books, by Truffaut on the art of Hitchcock, which she herself had on her shelf. They leaned their head over a detail from a frame of 'Rear Window'. He suddenly looked up, “That's it, from certain angles you look like Grace Kelley.”
Najma came in carrying some albums.Looking over their shoulders she grimaced, “Not at all. Our Tamara's face is not so square. Oh! Look, Tamu, here is a picture of my Shomu on his first birthday. And here we are at Cox's Bazaar beach…Eeesh! The waves were so scary, I ran into the hotel. He had to half carry me out for these pictures.” Najma-apa giggled as she put other albums into Tamara's lap.
When, finally she made a move to go, Dulabhai pleaded. “What's the hurry? Stay! Najma, why don't you ask your cousin to stay for lunch?” Then turning to Tamara he grinned, “Your Apa cooks the most excellent king prawn curry with coconut.”
Najma clapped her hands with joy. “Yes, Tamu, do stay.” And before Tamara could respond Najma got up saying, "I'll call Chuchchi and tell her. You chat with your dulabhai.” She glided out of the room graceful as a goddess, the long plait swaying over her curvy hips. Tamara looked at her receding back, but Dulabhai's eyes did not follow Tamara's gaze. Instead, when she heard a sigh and turned to him, she found his gaze fixed on her face. In a spontaneous way, his eyes crinkled in a smile,
“Tamara, you are lucky to be in the world of books. Instead of joining my father's business I should have done my Masters. It is difficult at this age not to look back and regret some decisions……I'm sorry if I embarrass you by talking so much…..I feel I can open my heart to you. You have a bright mind, very appealing.” He spoke half to himself.
Najma brought a bowl of cut-up mangoes for dessert. “These are from my in-law's own mango groves in the country side.” Later she interrupted their conversation on new Bengali writers with a plate of betel leaves and condiments. Tamara smiled, “No thanks, Apa. Just some of the fennel.” Najma laughed. “You are just like him!” She nodded in her husband's direction. “I and my mother-in-law are the only ones who eat the stuff in this house. I'm becoming quite addicted!” She gave a small giggle. Dulabhai looked at her with anguish, “Wish you would kick this habit. It stains your teeth.” “I'll brush them for tonight, don't worry.” Turning to Tamara she said, “There is a party to attend this evening. Wish I didn't have to go!”
Dulabhai looked at Tamara: “Why don't you come with us? You'd enjoy this party for a poet and critic from Kolkata.” His eyes had a yearning that made Tamara look down flustered.
“Oh! Yes, Tamu, please join us. I won't be bored then.” Najma's eyes gleamed.
Tamara said gently, “Not tonight, Apa.”
Dulabhai looked on silently. Tamara nodded to him by way of farewell. Only a small sigh escaped him. For some reason, Tamara didn't look Najma Apa in the eyes again. Dulabhai moved forward, perhaps to hug her, but Tamara slipped away to the other side of Najma.
The cousins walked down to Tamara's car in the portico. “Your Dulabhai really liked you Tamara. Please, come again. He doesn't have many close friends, and I am no company for him, no head for his kind of intellectualism.” She giggled as the driver opened the door. “Here are some mangoes in this bag, for Chuchchi and you. But you must eat them quickly for best taste. Nothing worse than over-ripe fruit!"
"Or fruit plucked before their time and force ripened, like the bananas these days."
Najma nodded absently. "Oh! Tamu, remember the sweet-sour green mangoes that we used to pick in Granny's garden, devouring them with salt and her famous kashondi-mustard? Those were the best times!” Najma apa's face had a sweet-sour expression. Tamara hugged her fiercely.
As Tamara's car backed out of her cousin's life, the memory of a sigh and a giggle passed through her, as oppressive as the scent of 'match-your' mangoes that filled the interior of the car. Just before they arrived home, Tamara addressed her driver, “Dilu Miya, please take these fruits for your family.”
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