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Behind her closed door, Sumana was disappointed. With her flowers. They had simply submitted their fragrance to his rank odour without so much as a quarrel.
Familiar. So familiar. Sumana closed her eyes, gripped her shoulders with her arms crossed over her firm breasts and took a few steps backwards. There! She inhaled deeply again. The fragrance filled her nostrils and sizzled into the caverns of her generous curves, awakening wisps of memories that were hibernating cosily in those little crevices within her. With each breath, they rose up in delicate spirals and burst into Sumana’s arrested awareness. She stood rooted to the spot enveloped in the fragrance that held her captive, reluctant to open her eyes and let the world in.
So perfectly formed. Merely five creamy white innocent petals. Gently overlapping. Dutifully following each other around as though frozen in their phere around the burning yellow centre that held them together. Sumana twirled the frangipani flower between her thumb and forefinger. Back and forth. Back and forth. And the petals seemed to move! The sight always delighted her. Today, like many days before, she wondered as she continued twirling them, if the petals would march away one after the other, the promise of their phere broken.
Trance broken. Door opens. Closes. Slurred speech. But Sumana was used to it now. It did not disturb her. It was a part of the evening. Faint and distant. A part of the backdrop. She put down the flower and fished out five more from her lunch bag. Singing to herself, she arranged them in a row on the narrow windowsill. Then in a circle. Then a half circle. Then a rigid column. The fragile frangipani flowers were becoming more and more crumpled as Sumana touched and retouched them. But she did not see it as she was intoxicated by its sacred scent that filled the tiny room, merged with her soothing voice and caressed every part of her. In an invisible corner of her self, she knew that time was ticking away which made the ritual all the more deliberate and sacred.
Lifetimes later, her door abruptly flew open. She turned to face papa with a hopeful smile that seemed weighted down with… sympathy. “Hi papa!”
Papa did not seem to notice the sadness that made itself at home in her tone nor her forced cheer. The stench hit her hard when he asked her how her day had been with eyes so loving that she had to steady herself to endure the blow. Instead of answering, Sumana remarked how tired he looked and gently suggested that he go sleep. She worried when for a moment papa went slack, numbed by the relief that flooded in at being sent away with his dignity intact but it also blinded him to fact that Sumana was a mere child with white school ribbons snaking up her thick long plaits. He steadied himself against the door and shuffled out unsteadily, closing the door quietly behind him leaving behind in his wake, fragments of a million unspoken conversations that lay about in disjointed heaps in Sumana’s room maimed by his mindless retreat.
Behind her closed door, Sumana was disappointed. With her flowers. They had simply submitted their fragrance to his rank odour without so much as a quarrel. Now the tiny room was full of papa’s stark absence and his stench. It reached out with its ugly gnarled fingers and stifled her breath. She opened the window to let in the heavy, loud air from outside, then threw the flowers beneath the bed. They were soiled now. She laid down and closed her eyes with a smile on her lips, already thinking of the next day when she would pick more frangipanis on her way back from school.
In the restful silence that followed, Sumana could pick out the familiar movements of mamma’s busy-ness beyond the door. Sometimes she wished mamma would come to sleep earlier; before papa came home. Then she could also be swept away and be pleasured by the flowers along with Sumana. And that might even bring back mamma’s soulful voice. Then mamma might start teaching music again. Then there will be all sorts of people at home, there will be laughter, there will be life… Then….
But she knew it would not happen. Just as surely as she knew that their marriage was steadily unravelling, one step at a time like the way she imagined the petals marching off. An involuntary prayer escaped her lips; at least the petals remained unchanged and Sumana could always hear their song in their sweet scent.
Years later, when mamma and Sumana moved to a flat with a balcony, she convinced mamma to grow the tree in a pot but even after several years, it never flowered. Not a single bloom. No scent. No song.
The phone rang, jolting Sumana from her reverie. She uncrossed her arms immediately and silenced it while looking to see where the Frangipani tree was. The paved sidewalk she was on, suddenly seemed so alien! The cracks and creases in it that she walked on every day and knew so well threatened to trip her up. Sumana felt totally disoriented yet raced home on autopilot as fast as her athletic legs could carry her. Home. Somehow being in a confined space, her space, allowed her to trap the remnants of that wispy scent within her, stopped it from being snuffed out and blocked the world from confusing her.
In the dimly lit lounge, Sumana ran her hand over the familiar furniture, and it calmed her down. She tentatively opened one heavy curtain to let in the late afternoon sun, then reached behind the TV stand and took out a faded photo album. She sank into the sofa, her fingers hurriedly seeking the comforting grooves of the well-worn photographs until they rested on her favourite photo. Outside ammamma’s tharavad, mamma the blushing bride beside a dashing papa both dressed in creamy cotton and golden yellow looking ready to conquer the world, surrounded by a host of relatives with expressions ranging from awkward and amused to serious and even fierce. But the most benevolent smile belonged to ammamma; herself so young, standing tucked behind a small frangipani tree. Sumana always struggled to imagine ammamma (whom she hardly ever saw) as the revered matriarch of a huge family, bringing forth divine music amidst all the messiness and chaos around her.
But now Sumana wondered about mamma. More and more these days as she grappled with mamma’s absence, she tried picturing mamma’s life. Growing up with a dozen cousins in the tharavad, the yard littered with frangipani and jasmine and guavas and mangoes, then in the lonely life with papa in a crowded chawl in Mumbai with shared toilets, then in the sedate apartment in Pune with its own balcony where she nurtured Sumana, in the boisterous student quarter in Paris where she mothered any friend who dropped by, finally in this quiet condo in Lyon where she allowed Sumana to nurse her through several pain-filled years. So much had happened. In all those years, so much had happened. Her eyes rested on a candid photo of mamma reaching across to serve fruit bowls across a huge table to a bevy of eager kids. She looked at it as though for the first time. Mamma’s loose dark hair framed her face in profile as it crawled down her broad back beyond the band of exposed skin beneath the fitted blouse, resting on the creased cotton cloth tied low at her waist on the soft flesh of her tummy and carelessly pulled tight across her strong, round buttocks. Mamma’s abundant body beckoned, her raw sexuality barely bound.
At home. The words leapt out at Sumana. Mamma had always been at home in her body. She stared at her own toenails shining with paint, then at her hard bony ankle, arching up to the sinewy calf and at her darkened knee on which rested the album. At that moment, her body felt alien to her. It did not make sense. Sumana’s restlessness welled up within, more intense than ever and threatened to breach her beleaguered body.
Resisting the sharp edge of panic, Sumana jerked her head up to look at the photo on the ledge. Mamma and herself. Taken long ago on their trip to the nearby Jura mountains. It was encircled by the golden glow of dust motes lit by a single fierce sunbeam, moments before its death. Magical. But then the real magic was in the smile that lit up mamma’s eyes. It dawned on her – In all these years, as much as the Frangipani fragrance that she treasured, that intangible quality embodied by mamma’s perpetual smile had been the one constant, the single beam of hope in her own life. Mamma’s smile was her well of peace; the one thing that would never go dry, never disappear, or crumble or need repairs. It was perfect and boundless the way it was. No matter in which place she unpacked, she now knew she could stash away her cares with her clothes in the wardrobe, for she knew mamma’s smile was within her. It will forever warm the recesses of her soul as it always had. The way the warm sun made the frangipani bloom.
Wait a second!
Sumana knew her favourite flowers could not bloom in France! She felt so free when for the first time that thought did not bother her one bit. She was home. And realised she had always been, for home was everywhere and nowhere. Home was mamma’s smile inside her. Peace flooded into her and pulsed through her veins as she felt complete. Finally. As the world darkened outside Sumana hugged herself, instinctively feeling for the familiar welts and dimples on her arm and slept soundly on the sofa dreaming up fragrant frangipani flowers.
*phere: circumambulation especially done around a fire to solemnise a wedding.
*ammamma: maternal grandmother.
*tharavad: Ancestral home in the state of Kerala.
This story was shortlisted for our June 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Our juror for the month Kiran Manral says “Interesting musing on making peace with one’s body and its sensuality.”
Image source: marcovannozzi on pixabay
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