Jasmine of the courtyard

Usha felt thrilled whenever he stole a moment with her. She figured it was love.

We were excited to have a new bride in the neighbourhood.  We would sit around Usha, touch her jewellery, run our fingers through her brocade sarees; like any eager eight-year-olds would. Soon, she outgrew the ‘new-bride’ status and took up household chores. She learnt to cook Govind’s favourite paneer curry, to iron his black coat just the way he liked the crease to fall and to get the right balance of ginger-cardamom in his cup of tea. 

Her day began at 5 am – washing the courtyard, worshipping the Tulsi plant, and cooking breakfast. At around 9 am, he would start getting ready for court where he practiced. She scurried around like a nervous rabbit, taking the wet towel from him after bath, serving him breakfast, handing him the scooter-keys and the tiffin carrier, after wiping it thoroughly from outside, checking for any spills.

He would be back by 5 pm. Sometimes he would get her freshly-fried samosas from the cart outside the court premises, or jaggery laddoos. He even got her strings of jasmine flowers occasionally and handed them when Ammaji was not watching. She would feel a shiver of thrill run down her spine whenever he stole a moment with her to hand her a secret gift. Usha figured it was love.

Two years had passed. There was still no sign of a child. His mother was impatient, and angry. She often cursed Usha’s parents, accusing them of palming off their infertile daughter to them. Relatives would come from the village and share various child-bearing prescriptions. Usha’s life now revolved around pills, potions, visits to miracle babas and soothsayers. Govind had become aloof. Maybe his practice had picked up. Or, he really had no idea how to deal with all of this. He never spoke on the topic.

Or any related topic, like when Ammaji got him re-married. Usha’s brothers were livid. They were influential zamindaars who knew how to take the law in their own hands. Actually, that would not be needed: they knew the law – a Hindu man could not have two wives. They came over and met Usha privately. “We are taking this to court. Your husband and his mother will be in jail,” they said.

Usha was equally livid. She said she loved him and also wanted him to have children. She sent them away. In the next three years, Shobha dutifully delivered three children – two boys and a girl – and Usha worked twice as hard to take care of them. She now had a new room all to herself at the end of the courtyard. She would sit there in her spare time, repairing the children’s clothes or helping them do their homework.

But, her brothers were back. Usha had been diagnosed with cancer. The doctors had given up hope. They wanted her to have the comforts of her own home, not slave it out here in her last days. “This is my home. A Hindu woman’s last journey is always made from her marital home,” she said and sent them away once again.

And quietly, without any complaints, she died. It was February 14 when her marigold-bedecked cortege left the courtyard. But Usha had never heard of Valentine’s day.

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