Jasmine and Sugar Cane

Published on Nov 15, 2010 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: Fiction, India, Microcredit

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In 2005 I let my imagination fly with a short story set in both India and Montreal. It appeared late in 2005 in The Little Magazine, a literary journal published in Delhi.

Naomi sat with Raleigh on the chintz sofa and looked at the sun shining through his granny glasses that perched like a bird on the antique table next to the Versailles wallpaper he was so proud of.

“So?” he said, and gave her an approving once-over. “I think you’ll do, really do,” he added, rubbing his knees as though she was some kind of business decision he’d been considering. ”You haven’t put on any weight. I was worried about that.” He had just brought her back to his place from the Montreal airport.

The smell of roast beef coming from the kitchen drifted into the living room. To celebrate her first night home Raleigh was cooking his favourite roast beef with Yorkshire pudding dinner, and he had invited Rob and Mary over. Rob was a lawyer associate and Mary was a CA. Neither of them had travelled anywhere except London and Paris and the Caribbean and they always stayed in five star hotels.

She wasn’t sure what they’d talk about. They certainly weren’t interested in rural India.  Neither was Raleigh, though he had never come right out with it. Even “Lagaan,” that wonderful Bollywood film that had been up for an Oscar, left him cold. The Taj Mahal would be okay, he’d said, when she’d asked him to visit. “But all those half-naked people dipping themselves into the Ganges? And people sitting cross-legged on the floor, eating on tin plates with their fingers, and believing in monkey gods, and reincarnation?” It was all too much for him.

“Those earrings you’re wearing make you look like some kind of gypsy,” he pronounced. Naomi said nothing. Those earrings, she thought, were now as much a part of her as her watch. She heard a garbage truck grind by on the street outside. She missed the sound of the Indian music that had always been in the air.

Raleigh stood up and went to get himself a scotch and water. His heavy shoes clunked across the floor. Back in the village it was all gentle bare feet. She looked at her watch still on Indian time. Round about now, from the other side of the village, she would hear the sound of the imam calling people to prayers. Later a bell would ring in front of the temple.

Six months before she had left for India, a friend of hers thought she was doing Naomi a special favour when she introduced her to this divorce lawyer of 50 because after all, she was 38, and unmarried. And here was this very eligible man with a beautifully-decorated row house in upper crust Chelsea Place, complete with golf clubs, a tennis racket and a membership at one of the better clubs. In an Indian village, they would have added, “and with a fridge and TV.”

A lot better, her friend Nancy had said, than her tacky apartment house in Rosemount swarming with Indian immigrants whose curry and chilli cooking smacked you in the face as soon as you entered the building. Naomi thought of Nagamma, the seamstress next door who had taught her Telugu and introduced her to dal with hot chillies.
But Naomi had given up her Rosemount studio apartment and let Raleigh convince her to leave all her books and clothes in his basement.

She was “getting on,” Nancy had insisted, and needed someone to take care of her. Yeah, Naomi thought, like those girls of 15 that the people in the village feared were on the shelf and needed a husband. Well, it was all relative, and on that score, maybe not all that different.

She had been away in India for five months researching Dalits, still considered untouchables, for her anthropology Phd in Thimmapur village where she had lived with Punnemma whose husband had an auto-rickshaw business, thanks to loans his wife had taken with her micro-finance circle. He had spent ten years in bonded labour because his father had built up a huge debt to a moneylender landlord.

Naomi was researching jogini women who had been pushed by upper caste elders into being dedicated to the goddess Yellamma, which meant they could never marry and had to consort with anyone in the village that could pay. Punnemma had been the daughter of a jogini. Such “dedications” were now illegal but they still took place.

Naomi had become a good friend of Ragamma who had been a jogini and now headed a dynamic self-help group of former joginis. They had started a thriving tailoring business that made beautiful salwar kameez outfits like the multi-coloured one she was wearing. Their energy was infectious. A store in Hyderabad was taking them, and now there was talk of exporting to France.

Naomi loved everything about the village even though the houses were mostly one-room stone-and-mud habitats with no furniture or inside running water. Most of the living went on in a shaded open terrace next to a thatched area reserved for the friendly milk buffaloes. Punnemma’s patio was always filled with women in colourful clothes telling stories and sharing food even though life was hard. No rains, and no irrigation meant meagre crops and a push to migrate to the slums of cities for work.

The women in the micro-finance circles couldn’t read or write but that didn’t stop them from starting businesses that were pulling them out of poverty. They always looked beautiful even though they owned only a few saris. Barefoot kids ran everywhere. Mothers in micro-finance circles, however, made sure their school-age children were in school, and not working in the fields as child labourers.

Fun to be with, the women got a bang out of teaching her songs in Telugu about drunken husbands and outsmarting landlord moneylenders. Later, at a wedding, just to make some high caste village elders uncomfortable, they cajoled her into singing one of those songs.

For the occasion, they pierced her ears, helped her buy gold ear rings, pinned her into a sari, “so that you’ll look really Indian,” they said, and decked her out in multi-coloured bangles. And while they were at it, inspired her to try things she had never dared experiment with in Montreal.

“You’ll finally get some real food,” Raleigh said in a bored tone, as he piled up a week’s worth of financial papers. Naomi flinched as she contemplated the rare roast beef that would float in blood on a delicate China plate. For months she had sat on the floor cross-legged, and with her fingers, like everyone else, ate vegetarian food prepared by Punnemma over a fire fuelled by cow dung patties.

She came to like dal made of chickpeas and all the different rotis and chipatis. And the yoghurt was heavenly. At night she had slept on the floor on a mat in their single-room house next to Punnemma’s children and listened to the night sounds. It was fine. After all it was hot in India. There was no toilet in the village. But that wasn’t the end of the world either. She had gotten used to going to the fields.

The day before she left, Manjula, a woman from the micro-finance group that worked in the village, had taken her aside. “Look,” she said, “we’re starting a night school in English. So some of the girls who used to be child laborers can eventually try for university. We’d love to have you teach there. You could really make a difference.” And she shoved her cell phone number at her.

The smell of roast beef from the kitchen was becoming stronger. She hadn’t had any meat for months. Punnemma had taught her how to milk the buffaloes and she had become attached to them.

Later she had become friendly with Tanuj, a gorgeous thirty-year-old unattached man who lived in the house next door. He was in charge of a small herd of village milk buffaloes he took grazing every day. The goats and sheep and cattle were the four-footed residents of the village and they weren’t meant to be eaten.

“I suppose,” she said in response to Raleigh’s comment about real food, and squirmed uncomfortably in her salwar kameez pants and tunic. She looked down at the gigantic rip she had had to quickly repair yesterday morning, before she went to the airport, after her last night with Tanuj in the sugar cane field. She shut her eyes and thought of the feel on her face of his huge swatch of thick black hair.

After he started the milk collective he had asked her to help him load all the milk containers every day onto his motorcycle. On her laptop computer she kept track of all the money transactions for him.

It was after she read that story by Rabindranath Tagore about the girl, Mrinmayi, that she got up the courage to go on a ride with Tanuj into the countryside away from the village. The story was called Metamorphosis (Samapti in Bengali) and was about Apurva Krishna who defied everyone in the village and chose as his wife a wild girl called Mrinmayi. Tagore wrote:

“Mrinmayi was dusky. Her short curly hair fell upon her shoulder. Her face exhibited a boyish expression. Her large black eyes reflected neither shame nor fear … her figure was tall, healthy and strong. Whenever an unknown zamindar’s boat anchored in the village river embankment. the women present would pull the veils over their faces almost to their nose tips … suddenly Mrinmayi would appear running from somewhere with a naked child in her arms swaying her curly hair over her shoulders. She would stand there like a fearless baby deer stand in a land where they are no hunters, nor any kind of danger and look around curiously.”

Already she missed Tanuj, even though she knew, and Tanuj knew that it couldn’t go on forever. It had started two months back. Tanuj lived in a joint family with lots of sisters-in-law who had to kowtow to his mother.

Raleigh banged his glass on a side table in order to get her attention and pushed some of his thinning hair over the bald spot in the middle of his head. The smell of laundry soap and bonded paper and scotch that floated off him suddenly snatched her away from the scent of jasmine and sugar cane and mangos that still clung to her clothes. Raleigh touched her hand, tentatively, and for a moment she felt sorry for him, but just for a moment.

“You know, “he said, adjusting his tie, “I think you should change. I put out your black pants and your silk Armani blouse. It would look a lot better.“ She thought of her Rosemount apartment. She had sent postcards to Nagamma. Maybe Nagamma was still there…

“Okay,” Naomi said. She went upstairs and saw that he had put out the outfit on the bed, a bed, she decided that they would never again share. “Never, never, never,” she whispered to herself. She threw on the outfit but knew what she had to do.

“Look,” she said, when she got to the bottom of the stairs where her luggage sat waiting. “I just feel as though I need a little walk around the block, to get some air,” and she shoved her Indian clothes into a zippered side.

“Let me come with you,” he said.

“No I think you should watch over the roast beef, make sure it doesn’t burn.”

She had her fanny pack around her waist and Manjula’s cell phone number was inside on the first page of her address book. She went off to a pay phone on the corner, in front of Holt Renfew on Sherbrooke Street and lifted up the phone. Manjula, she knew, always answered her cell phone. She was going back. And soon. She could write her Ph.D. thesis in the village. That’s if she still felt the Ph.D. was worth it. Maybe she’d write a novel instead.