Veeru chased her across the courtyard.
She stuck her tongue out. “I don’t want to. You’re too fat.”
Veeru slowed down. She vanished, flinging the string of jasmine he’d got her on the ground. He pressed the flowers inside his heavy maths book and entered her house. Most boys from the village went to Professor Sanyal for maths tuition. He had the reputation of making successful men out of boys. He also had great aspirations for Veeru, for he was smarter than the rest. He didn’t know of Veeru’s ambition to make his daughter, Shalini, his bride.
Shalini: who could outrun most boys and skim pebbles furthest across the river. Whose mental maths skills surpassed those of her father’s students. Who always wore jasmine in her hair and chewed her nails down to the skin.
Sometimes he’d get her a string of jasmine, sometimes a stolen mango from the orchards behind the house. She’d laugh and run. But later, on his way home, a mango-stone would come skimming down from a tree followed by laughter soaked with the sweetness of the stolen fruit.
Veeru grew up and lost interest in the professor’s daughter. He had exams to sit, a career to make, a bride to find, parents to please; those lazy summer days in the tutor’s garden brought only an indulgent smile on his face. Shalini grew up too. She was not a temptress anymore. She was now too dark to be attractive. Too thin to be fertile. Too intelligent to be a home-maker. Veeru returned home on holiday from his London-based job. His parents had lined up six suitable girls for him to inspect. If he accepted, there would be a wedding that summer. He went to pay his respects to his old tutor. He was told that Shalini was in Oxford, studying chemistry and maths.
So, girl selected, Veeru returned to England. He landed outside her door one winter morning with a string of jasmine in his pocket. Just to tease her, he thought. She let him inside her tiny bedsit. It smelled of stale cigarette. Her eyes were darker and her smile tighter. Her hair was chopped into little spikes poking out of her scalp, tinted deep red. She smoked constantly and talked of experiments and her thesis. She was having an affair with a professor, she told him. He told her of his upcoming marriage. She laughed and asked, so you don’t want to marry me anymore?
In the morning, when Shalini wakes up, she will turn on the radio and call her lover; hang up when his wife answers the phone. She will light her cigarette and drink strong coffee. Then she will discover a familiar fragrance. From another world. Another lifetime. And she will find, tucked under the cushions, a string of jasmine. Wilted. Broken. But still with a promise of its heady fragrance.