Story 64: White Jasmine

THE ELEVEN A.M. bus to Dhavaleshwaram had only two passengers in it: a young couple who had chosen one corner of the last seat. As he got on at the Palem stop and made for his usual place in the middle row, by the right-hand-side window, Vilas Rao found himself feeling a touch of lightness for the lovebirds at the back. The Vilas Rao of six months ago would have riled and raged inside his mind at them; he would have wondered about the direction the nation was going; he would have convinced himself that there was absolutely no future for the youth of the country if they continued to display such disregard to culture and propriety.

At forty five, Vilas Rao had enough experience in him to make such statements on the state of society. As a school teacher of twenty years, he had a close view of how the children of today behaved and what they were interested in. And as a Telugu teacher, he also had a firm grasp of the nature of India’s cultural roots, and how they were being eroded by forces seen and unseen.

Despite all that, this morning, Vilas Rao allowed himself a moment of levity. As the bus lurched into motion, and Shankar the conductor swung to his feet with a whistle on his lips, Vilas Rao tapped his trouser pocket and felt the heft of his wallet. On the first of the month, he thought, all was right. All was forgiven.

‘What, Rao gaaru?’ said Shankar. ‘Ticket to Dhavaleshwaram?’

Something about the way that Shankar fellow smiled as he said those words gave Vilas Rao pause. Did he know? On his last week’s trip he had made the mistake of engaging the conductor in conversation. With these people you give them an inch, and they think they can take all liberties with you. One of the problems plaguing the world today was that no one seemed to know their place anymore.

He nodded curtly. ‘Yes. You didn’t give me change from last time.’

Shankar winked and made his cash bag jingle. ‘Did I not?’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, today I am full of change. How much do I owe you? Eight rupees, isn’t it?’ He pulled off a ticket from his holder, turned it over, and made a mark on it with his blue pen.

Vilas Rao handed him a twenty-rupee note, examined the ticket. ‘Have the prices gone up again?’

‘Arey, sir, just two rupees,’ said Shankar. ‘I am sure you don’t bargain with the jasmine seller at the bus stop, do you?’

Vilas Rao thrust the ticket into his shirt pocket and looked out of the window. So this Shankar had been watching him. Didn’t these people have any work? And what was it to him whether he bargained with the flower-seller or not?

Cannot believe my taxes pay the salaries of such people, he thought. The girl from the back seat giggled about something, and Vilas Rao shook his head in irritation. At home these kids, he said to himself, tell their parents that they’re going to college, and they do all this stuff in a public place. One of these days I will…

Shankar went back to his seat next to the driver, and they began to talk of the upcoming municipal elections. For a while Vilas Rao kept his jaw shut tight, watching the trees go by. Then he relaxed, and thought of Swarna. A smile returned to his face.

* * *

‘Sir, I know where you’re going,’ said Pratap Reddy. Vilas Rao awoke with a start and found the school’s math teacher next to him, on the same seat. ‘Shankar also knows.’

Vilas Rao instinctively shifted in his seat. Pratap Reddy had the angular features of a film actor, and the build of an athlete. He was tall but carried his height well; he had one of those open, wide smiles that came so naturally to people who knew they were good looking. He had a double-tooth for his right canine, one perched on top of the other.

‘So what if they know?’ said Vilas Rao. He looked out of the window and saw that the bus had stopped for some reason. There was no traffic on the road. ‘So what if you know? This is all karma, I tell you. You deserve this.’

Pratap Reddy was immediately contrite. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said. ‘I have always treated you with such contempt.’

‘And you’re so young,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘At twenty seven you think you know everything! Just because you teach math you think you’re some superman.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy, hanging his head in shame. ‘Whenever I go to a temple, I ask for forgiveness for all the sins I have committed against you.’

Vilas Rao said, ‘Good. Good! Even if the lord forgives you, remember, you cannot escape the karma of your actions. Before anything, you should learn to respect your seniors.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy. ‘From now on I will give you all the respect you want. Shall I touch your feet now, sir?’

‘No, no,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘What are you saying? Respect has to be here.’ He placed his palm on the middle of his chest. ‘I am not someone who likes a big show of things. That is the difference, you know – I’ve seen you talk to Rammurthy. Always laughing at his jokes, always offering him a ride on your bike – you think I don’t notice?’

‘Sir, you know how it is. One has to stay in the good books of the headmaster. If I don’t kiss his ass, how will he remember me when it is time for promotions to be handed out?’

‘Arey Pratap Reddy, what are you saying? You’re a math teacher. You will be promoted before anyone else in the school, you see.’

‘But there is that Matthew Sir, no?’ Pratap Reddy was saying, scratching himself on the lower arm, his shoulders hunched. ‘He speaks such good English.’

‘Oh, come on, your English is as good as his,’ said Vilas Rao, finding to his surprise that he felt pity for the man. ‘But his math is not as good as yours. Listen, I’ve heard that you will definitely get promoted this year.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy. ‘If your words come true, you can visit my home twice a week. I am sure Swarna will like it.’

‘Do you think I enjoy going to your wife when you’re not at home?’ said Vilas Rao. ‘Do you think I am a man with no morals? It wrenches my heart. It wrenches it! It is your wife who has built this web around me – if I were you, I’d put a leash around her, Pratap Reddy.’ He leaned closer to his colleague and cleared his throat. ‘You know, let me give you some advice. I am older than you, I know more about these things. It’s a man’s job to keep his wife under his thumb. All these modern notions about giving women freedom – you know what will happen if you do that? This!’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy. ‘You’re right, sir. By the way, they also know, sir.’

Vilas Rao looked back over his shoulder at the canoodling couple. The girl was laughing and playing with her plaits. She met his gaze and raised her eyebrows at him as if to ask, what are you looking at, old man? And before he could think of a suitable reaction, she winked at him. Vilas Rao turned back to face the front.

‘They know?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy, doubling over in shame. ‘Everyone knows.’

* * *

Swarna sang a song of longing while she dusted her two-bedroom home. She had kept the side gate open; Vilas Rao would come around to the back and knock at about noon. She looked up at the clock; that meant she had a good half an hour to get herself ready.

He liked her in a sari, and his preferred colours were white, blue and yellow. Red was too bold, and any sort of western outfit was too modern. She liked the quaint, old-world charm about the man – he was married, two children, and he brought a bundle of jasmines over whenever he came, tucked under his shirt, wrapped in a brown paper. He liked her to welcome him home, ask him to sit, give him some water to drink, and go into the room to braid herself with the flowers.

‘Who are you dressing up for?’ asked Pratap from his rocking chair. His breath smelled of something foul, and he had his belt hanging off his wrist, the buckle almost touching the floor. ‘Is this why I work my ass off, so that you can dress up like a doll?’

For a second Swarna froze. Cold, slimy fingers gripped her around the throat, and a layer of sweat covered her body. Then she counted up to ten and back again. She reminded herself that she could speak back to Pratap. She could speak back to this Pratap.

‘What is it to you who I am dressing up for?’ she asked him. ‘Is it not enough that it is not for you?’

‘You’ve learnt to speak, you have,’ said Pratap from behind her. A part of Swarna wanted to turn around so that she could keep him in her view. If she could see him, she could react to his movements a second or so earlier, and when he was in this mood, a second or so made all the difference.

Then she reminded herself again. This Pratap would not move fast enough for her. So she went on dusting, treating him as if he weren’t really there. How she wished that she could do the same to him in person!

‘I have always known how to speak,’ she told him. ‘It is you who have beaten it out of me.’

‘Beaten it out of you,’ said Pratap, his voice slurring just a little bit. He was not drunk, not this morning. He had come with his mouth full of brown liquid. Some of it trickled down the corner of his mouth, onto the armrest of the chair. The room reeked of the stuff, the jarda, his saliva, his very presence. Swarna resolved to scrub and scrub the room before Vilas Rao came; anything it took to remove the stench of her husband.

‘Beaten it out of you,’ Pratap was saying. ‘When was the last time I beat you, huh? It has been a while. Maybe that’s why you’ve been dressing up in my absence. Been a little too eager to send me off to school, huh?’

‘Oh, shut up,’ said Swarna. A flash of exhilaration swept through her. Was she really saying these words to him? ‘You think of yourself a big man, beating up your wife when she speaks back to you? Well, I am being loved by a man who knows how to treat a woman right.’ Yes, let him take that on the chin. Let my words kick him in the nuts. ‘He is a bigger man than you are – in all ways!’

The chair creaked behind her, and she turned around with a gasp of fright. Her fingers wrapped tight around the mop. Her mouth parted, and she threw out a relieved arm to settle herself against the window sill as she saw the empty chair.

* * *

At Dhavaleshwaram Bus Stop, Vilas Rao bought his regular bundle of jasmines from the fellow who sat on a cart outside the front gate. As the boy was wrapping the flowers in the brown paper, Vilas Rao thought he gave him a sly glance.

‘He knows too,’ said Pratap Reddy.

‘I will tell you what, Pratap Reddy,’ said Vilas Rao, after he had paid the boy and they were making their way toward Swarna’s house, ‘you need to know the ins and outs of family life in order to control your wife.’

‘Right, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy. ‘What do you do to control yours?’

Vilas Rao laughed. ‘I was a little smarter than you in this respect,’ he said. ‘I married for money, not for beauty.’ He gave Pratap Reddy a sidelong glance. The math teacher seemed confused. ‘I made sure that I married an ugly girl. You know, parents of ugly girls are so desperate. They know their daughter is ugly, so they’re eager to give you whatever you ask for as long as you take the girl off their hands.’ As they walked along the road, everyone seemed to look in their direction.

‘They all know,’ Pratap Reddy was saying, in a half-weeping voice. He rubbed his elbows and hung his head. ‘The whole town knows.’

‘Listen to what I am saying,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘It is not enough to know math formulas, and how to speak in English. These are life lessons – no school will teach you. Are you listening?’

‘Yes, sir, thank you, sir.’

‘So I married an ugly wench who knows she is an ugly wench,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘I got a house, a few acres of land in the village, and fifty tulas of gold. These are gifts, you understand. Not dowry.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And the great thing about marrying an ugly girl – she stays under you at all times. No other man will ever look at her. But you marry a beautiful girl, like you did, huh? You must have used all your charms on her – your intelligence, your English, your height, huh? Love marriage, no?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy, ashamed.

‘Yes, yes, she told me,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘You marry a beautiful girl like that who has all these modern ideas – and she gets bored of you in a year, Pratap Reddy. You know what her problem is? She is bored.’

‘Bored, you think?’

‘Yes, yes, absolutely!’ said Vilas Rao. ‘How else do you explain it? You’re younger than me. Yes? You’re taller than me. You’re more handsome than I am. You’re in a better position. Even at this age your salary is about the same as mine. You speak better English than I do. You know more of the world. You’ve travelled. You speak of current issues with more authority than I can. You’re more charming – what have you not got that I have got?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘Exactly! Nothing! You’re a better man than I am in every respect.’ He saw Shankar pass them on the street, whistling and jingling his money bag. ‘Haven’t given you your change today either, sir,’ he said.

‘Don’t worry, Shankar, we always have next week,’ said Vilas Rao. Then he turned his attention back to his companion. ‘Yes, what was I saying? You’re a better man than I am in every respect. And yet your wife wants me in your bed. Why? She is just bored. She wants something different in her life – even if that something is – you know – something like me.

‘So I give her some of the old, romantic style of love, you know? I bring her flowers. I tell her she looks good in a sari. When was the last time you told her that, huh? I tell her that I like her voice, that I like it when she fusses over me. I tell her off when she’s wearing something modern, you know? Because that’s what she wants.’

‘Yes, sir, I understand, sir.’

‘Here, we’ve arrived. I have to go now. Don’t worry, I will take good care of your wife, okay?’

‘Yes, sir, I know that, sir.’

* * *

Pratap watched Swarna in the reflection of the dressing mirror, as she sprayed some perfume over the crook of her neck. He sat on the edge of the bed, with one leg stretched out, the other folded at the knee. He went tap-tap-tap with the belt buckle on the floor. He was breathing heavily, the way he usually did before he pounced on her. But now, of course, she felt no fear for this Pratap.

‘What are you looking at?’ she asked him.

‘I am seeing what a slut you’ve become. When was the last time you dressed up like this for me?’

‘Well, when was the last time you came home wanting to make love to me?’

‘What does this man have that I don’t have? Huh?’

Swarna laughed, and thought she saw a tiny flicker of shame cross Pratap’s face. She glowed in that moment of triumph. ‘What has he got? He has kindness!’ she told him. ‘He listens to me. He looks me in the eye. He – he doesn’t beat me.’

‘Well, he doesn’t know how much of a whore you are,’ said Pratap.

Swarna did not answer him straight away. She looked at her reflection – a white-and-yellow sari, a matching yellow blouse, blue bangles, purple-painted fingernails. Her eyes were bright with life, her lips curled into a seductive pink pout. She had her hair thrown out loose and free because that was how he liked it. Was this what Pratap was calling a whore? What did he know?

‘He has a wife of his own, a family of his own,’ Pratap was saying, and that made Swarna flinch a little. ‘You’re just a playmate for him. A toy, that’s all. Who would bother beating up a toy?’

‘Shut up!’ said Swarna. ‘You know nothing of him and his life. He is a man you will never be.’

It was Pratap’s turn to grin now, and his face lit up in scorn. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘A man I will never be. What do you know of him, huh, besides that he comes to you wagging his tongue for a few hours every week? You’re only an object for him, a snack to be savoured and forgotten.’

‘Shut up!’ said Swarna. ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up!’

* * *

They were back on the bus, and Vilas Rao was saying, ‘If you ask me, Pratap Reddy, our culture is the best. One man for one woman. One woman for one man. Another man’s wife is like your sister. You follow?’

Pratap Reddy was sitting by him, in the pose of a supplicant. Vilas Rao revelled in this scene, and it made up for all the snide remarks that Pratap Reddy had made about him in the past, in the presence of the other teachers in the staff room, sometimes even in front of the peons. It made up for all the little moments of contempt that Pratap Reddy had thrown in Vilas Rao’s direction. Oh, Vilas Rao sir, that is now how you send an email. Oh, Vilas Rao sir, you’re supposed to say that word like this. Oh, Vilas Rao sir, you don’t know what an encumbrance certificate is?

‘Yes, sir,’ Pratap Reddy was saying now, entirely submissive. ‘I follow.’

‘With all newfangled notions of women’s sexuality and so on,’ said Vilas Rao, ‘you get these problems. Now modern culture does not seem very good, does it? Knowing that I am going to visit your wife every week when you’re back in the school, taking yet another compulsory math class?’

‘No, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy. ‘It does not.’

‘What you need to do most, Pratap Reddy,’ said Vilas Rao, ‘is to have children. Once you have children with your wife, she becomes a bit easier to control, you know? And you have to make sure that she does not work. Your wife – she has a home business, no? She takes science tuitions for the neighbourhood kids, I hear.’

‘She does, sir, yes.’

‘A noble profession,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘Teaching. But it’s no good for a woman. Because when a woman gets money of her own, why does she need you? So two things: one, have kids with her. And during her pregnancy and child-rearing years, you make it very clear to her that she is dependent on you. You will point it out to her every now and then – subtly. Just so she gets it.’

‘I see.’

‘And then you want to make it seem that she is always doing a bad job of it. You don’t want to give her too many compliments. And when she slips up, you want to really ram it home. Let her know in no uncertain terms that you’re the one making all the sacrifices, going to work, slogging it out, while she cannot even cook two square meals on time and look after the kids.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Pratap Reddy. ‘Dhavaleshwaram has come.’


A heavy hand came to rest on Vilas Rao’s shoulder. He awoke with a start and looked at Shankar’s face. ‘Hain?’

‘Dhavaleshwaram,’ said Shankar. ‘Last stop.’ He reached into his money bag and brought out some coins. ‘And here’s your change.’ Then he winked at him again, the sly bastard. ‘Have fun with your jasmine flowers.’

* * *

‘How did we get here, Swarna?’ asked Pratap, as she turned off the rice cooker in the kitchen. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, leaning sideways against the wall. ‘We were in love.’

‘Let’s not talk about it, Pratap,’ said Swarna, wiping the kitchen counter clean with a moist sponge. ‘I don’t have time now for this.’

‘But you can tell me,’ he said in his sombre voice, the voice that he liked to use in the mornings. ‘Just tell me what I’ve done wrong and I will make it all right.’

‘You cannot make it right. We’re way past it now.’

He pushed himself off the wall and came walking toward her. He stood by her side, and touched his lips to the mound of her shoulder. She stopped and closed her eyes.

‘I want to make it right again with you, Swarna,’ he said. ‘I want to be in love with you again. Tell me what I must do. I will do anything. Anything!’

Swarna tried to shake him off, but he held on tight. ‘You’re hurting me,’ she said, but he only squeezed her harder. ‘Let go.’

‘I won’t let go until you tell me what we can do.’

‘There’s nothing we can do!’ said Swarna, and shook herself free. She turned to face him, held his face in both her hands. ‘Do you not understand? There’s nothing we can do. We’re too far long gone.’

‘For that man?’ Pratap was asking. Swarna smiled at him sadly. He did not get it. Even now he did not get it. ‘Yes,’ she told him. ‘For that man. I am certain that he will look after me well.’

‘I told you, he is married. He has a wife. Children.’

‘He loves me. He told me that he’d do anything for me.’

‘That anything does not include leaving his wife and children.’

For a moment Swarna paused, looking into her husband’s eyes, wondering if what he had said might be true. If it weren’t, why was this Pratap saying it? Then he shook her head fiercely.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I asked him again and again if he would do anything, and he said yes, anything.’

‘What will become of us?’

‘What is left to become of us?’ asked Swarna. At once she felt the pity inside her make way for anger, anger at all the times he had come home drunk, had beaten her, had told her that she was a whore. All the times he had promised to give up alcohol and failed. All the times he had promised her a new life, a new beginning…

He was getting angry too; she could sense it. His breath became shallow and hard, his eyes began to blaze. He slapped her away with both hands and reached for his belt. Only his belt was not there anymore. ‘You – I am going to –’

‘Yes?’ she asked him. ‘What are you going to do? You can do nothing. Today I am going to ask him to choose – between his wife and me. I am moving on with my life, Pratap, without you. And I am moving on with a better man.’

Pratap breathed in and out. He muttered curses at her. Then he cried. He cried and swore and beat himself on the forehead. He raised his arm at her and brought it down with a swish.

Swarna closed her eyes and recoiled, expecting the familiar burn on her left cheek.

But what she heard was the sound of the side gate opening and closing. When she opened her eyes she was alone in the kitchen.

* * *

Vilas Rao lay on the bed on his back, with one arm curled around Swarna. He said to Pratap Reddy, who was sitting on his haunches in the corner of the room, ‘Your wife is beginning to go sour in my mouth, Pratap Reddy.’

‘Is that so, sir?’

‘Yes,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘At the beginning she was all passion and lust. Like an animal. I was thinking what you were feeding her, god! But nowadays she has changed some. She wants to talk. She asks me if I love her. And what do you say when a woman asks if you love her?’

‘You say that you do.’

‘Correct!’ said Vilas Rao. ‘And when a woman allows you onto her bed, you say whatever the hell she wants you to say. Right? So I tell her that I love her. She asks me if I’d do anything for her. And of course I say yes. I even recite a Telugu poem for her to that effect. She likes that sort of thing.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But I’ve noticed – she is not as – tasty – as she was before. You know what I am saying? Of course you know what I am saying, you’re her husband. You’ve lost the taste for her long back.’

‘Yes, sir. I know what you’re saying.’

‘So I am going to do the right thing and leave her,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘She is yours. Just remember everything I told you, okay?’

‘Okay, sir.’

* * *

‘Get off him!’ said Pratap, and Swarna only tightened her arms around Vilas Rao’s naked body.

‘I am not,’ she said.

‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ Pratap asked. ‘You’re with another man. On our bed!’

‘So? Not the first time.’

‘My fears have all come true,’ said Pratap, reaching for his belt, and sliding it out with one practiced move of his arm. He rolled it around his wrist as he spoke. ‘What you need is one of these – to remind you who you are.’

‘I am not afraid,’ said Swarna. ‘I am not yours anymore.’

Pratap snarled, and licked beads of perspiration off his upper lip. ‘I am going to have some fun knocking sense into you today,’ he said, still rolling his belt. ‘I am going to make you remember this day, all your life. All your life…’

He placed one hand on the edge of the bed, and raised his arm to strike her. Swarna closed her eyes and told herself that it was all right. This Pratap cannot hit her.

Sure enough, when she opened her eyes a moment later, the room was empty but for the two of them. Vilas Rao’s hand was combing her hair. White jasmines were strewn all over the bed, some crushed, some whole. Their fragrance filled the room, but it seemed to Swarna somehow stale, and she felt a chilly draft pull at her toes.

It made her shiver.

‘Hmm?’ said Vilas Rao. ‘Everything okay, dear? Are you feeling cold?’

Swarna swallowed, feeling small and protected in his hug. She took a long breath with her nose buried in his chest hair, and felt comforted by his presence. Had she ever felt this with Pratap?

‘Can I ask you something?’ she said.

‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, without hesitation. ‘Anything you want.’

‘Remember you said you’d do anything for me, that you love me so much?’

‘Yes,’ said Vilas Rao. Did she sense a slight tensing of his body? Maybe it was her imagination. ‘Yes, of course.’

‘Will you – marry me?’

* * *

‘You may find her crying when you reach home tonight,’ Vilas Rao told Pratap Reddy, and Pratap Reddy nodded and said ‘Yes, sir.’ They were on the three p.m. bus back to Palem.

‘She is a nice girl,’ he said. ‘Very unproblematic. She understood when I told her that marriage is a holy custom. One man to one woman. She just sat on the bed with her hands wrapped around the knees. You know how women sit when they want to make you feel miserable about yourself?’

‘Yes, sir, she always sits like that.’

‘Yes,’ said Vilas Rao, nodding. ‘I told her that I’ve been guilty about meeting her all these months. That I am not going to come again to her house. That this should never have happened, that this is wrong – you know, all that you’re supposed to say in this situation.’

‘Yes, sir, I understand.’

‘She did not say much,’ said Vilas Rao. ‘I thought she’d yell at me or something. Throw some things. But then I also reminded her that this was her town. If she made a scene, it would ruin her name. No? Who would remember me in Dhavaleshwaram? I am never going there again.’

* * *

At around four p.m., Swarna took a long, cold-water shower. She washed her hair. She scrubbed every inch of her body with a rough brush.

At half past four, she went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea for herself. Pratap was standing there, leaning sideways against the wall. For a long time she stood looking straight at him. Then he opened his arms and said, ‘Come.’

Swarna ran into his arms. She cried into his shirt. She told him that he had been right, about everything. He was just an asshole. He had never loved her, had just wanted to sleep with her. Pratap said nothing, just held her. They stood together like that for a while.

‘Were you serious about what you said this morning?’ she asked him at last. ‘You want to work at our marriage?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘More than anything.’

She dissolved further into his embrace, and stopped herself from remembering that this Pratap could not do anything. For a few minutes she allowed herself to sink into the illusion that this Pratap and that Pratap were the same, that she could will the one to become the other.

She counted up to ten, down to one. Up to ten, down to one. Breathe in his scent, the scent of the Pratap of their courtship. No jarda, no alcohol, no belt around his waist. Up to ten, down to one. They stood together by the clean, scrubbed kitchen counter, swaying from one foot to the other.

At five p.m., Swarna heard the front gate open with a squeak. Unsteady footsteps on the pavement outside. Hard, heavy pounding on the door. And a gruff voice calling her name.

She opened her eyes, alone in the kitchen.