The smell and the noise of the city as it rushed by him as he stood outside looking for an auto-rickshaw brought the cold hard facts of reality back to him - thoughts of fear, insecurity and an aching emptiness that he thought he had left behind him in Kurnool. He stood back and felt the noise sweeping into him until his ears were swamped by the clanging of the hawkers as they set up their stalls along the pavement; the honking of the impatient taxi drivers, the anonymous voice on the public address system and he was awash on a wave of homesickness.
Suddenly he remembered the swaying palms that he could see afar from his window, the red flag that fluttered atop the temple on the hill, the jingling anklets that his one time childhood companion , Seetha wore that dappled merrily as she played with the cowries ; the jasmine flowers that lay like diamonds around her tightly pleated hair. He remembered anew the thrill that all experienced that day once a week when the bus from the nearest town came in. On board would be someone's husband, or a brother or even a father and there would be much rejoicing and gladness. And Sham knew he too had to go home, soon.
Very early , Sham had known that one day he would have to make his way to the city. One year, long back into his childhood the rains never came and the cotton crop shrivelled and died. So did the hope of all farmers who had like the years before hoped to make a good sale with the Marwari wholesale merchants who hovered hawk like in the town. But the rains failed the next year as well , and ugly deep ridges appeared in the once fecund earth, the palms drooped and sagged and premature wrinkles appeared. Then the suicides began - as debts were not repaid, mortgages claimed, old Chandra was found dead one day with a letter near him, having hanged himself to the ceiling, he was alone in the world. But there were others more unfortunate - overnight young women became widows, innocent children became fatherless orphans and thereon started the exodus to the cities and towns.
The men left the village one by one - to begin life as a auto rickshaw wallah, a rickshaw puller , a canteen boy or if he was lucky , a waiter in the city's only good hotel. Sham saw his father too leave one day. He had stood by watching silently as his mother filled a cloth bag with a few of his father's clothes, her face denuded of tears and furrowed into tired wrinkles. His father was a peon in one of the government's offices and could manage a visit home every two months.
Every time the bus rounded the corner into the compound of the ramshackle terminus, Sham would run forward, eager to throw himself into his father's arms. The days he would see that familiar much loved figure descending from the bus, a rush of joy would make him dash towards his father and he would be lifted up high into the sky and he looked down to see his father's face wreathed in smiles, while the rest of him looked bony and sunken. Then together they would vend homewards, where his mother would be waiting for them - in a bright red sari that his father had once brought her and there would be a bright red bindi on her fore head. His parents would look at one another, and soon Sham would be forgotten. Only sometimes, his father would playfully ruffle his hair and tell him to grow up fast - for then he could return to the city together with him. Once he heard him telling his mother that Sham was a good boy, sincere in his studies and Sham treasured this within himself.
He immersed himself in his studies, eager to have his father praise him and to take his rightful place by his side as they went back to the city together. So he grew up alone and quiet, lost on most occasions in a reverie or in his books and other boys let him be. As he studied, the radio too would play in the background and the distant events of the world would wash around him. While he studied history and solved difficult mathematical problems, he imagined events in faraway lands as the voice in the radio spoke of things that never touched his village - a village which had no railway station and only one pucca house - he learnt of a battle being fought in India's North east , the elections in Pakistan and of the cricket matches in Bombay. And fanciful thoughts filled his head.
He grew taller, and the day his head began to automatically dip low under the doorway, and Seetha took to wearing the half sarees like the other women, he knew that it was time he left home. He wanted to travel farther away , away from everyday life, away from the humdrum monotonous routine that chained everyone around him, but he balked at the thought of raising his voice against his never complaining mother, he had also never ever even looked his father in the eye, and he knew it was well nigh impossible.
One day, Sham left home, with a note behind him, promising to return, with a little of the money given him by his father. And the promise of a new life beckoned him as the orange orb of the sun rose out of the eastern sky.
It had taken him fourteen years to vend his way to the city of Bombay - from Kurnool, to Hyderabad, thence to Nasik and then finally to Bombay. The dream of success and the thrill of discovery spurted him on, so his wanderlust made him hope onto trains, struggle into crumbling buses and hitch rides with cocaine sniffing truck drivers.
But the smell of the rain was what he would always remember Mumbai by - that and the fragrance of the once familiar jasmine flowers that the straggly urchin girls strung together into garlands as they sat beneath the flyover while the world rushed over them. Every time he returned to the city, drawn back as if by a magnet, he paused to purchase a tiny garland so that as it lay in his pocket , its fragrance would light up the tiny one room flat he lived in at the very end of the city. The smell of jasmine bound him homewards - when things troubled him, he revived from the dregs of his memory, the rich, sickly sweet smell of the jasmine flowers, and all was well again with his world. The need to have the fragrance weaving and wafting around him made him decide to go home.
The next day he spoke of leave to his boss - who raved and ranted but could not refuse. Sham never pleaded nor did he raise his voice . He had merely pushed forward the paper bearing his request and stood by - his face a shade of red that always appeared when he was in a difficult situation and a half smile- half blush played around his lips. His request was granted with a clipped nod and Sham with great trepidation and hope set off for home.
He knew what he had to do next. He went through the motions of buying a ticket, roughly shoved his few belongings into a tatty suitcase and eagerly awaited home.
He would always remember the surge of happiness that flooded his heart when after an agonisingly long wait, the bus heaved to life. Unwelcome tears formed a curtain around his eyes and he closed them tightly, abashed and embarrassed. And as his eyes closed to the word, the much loved fragrance of jasmine came wafting towards him, filling his nostrils with delight and a longing. He knew the fragrance would gradually disappear, back into the familiar recesses of his memory but this time it lingered, and hovered in the air. He opened his eyes - there were no flower girls around - for in front stretched the wide grey road and skeletal trees stood like stark sentinels and then he looked around in puzzlement , for the fragrance persisted, sometimes tantalising close, other times hazy.
He sat still, nose in the air and slowly traced a perfect straight line to where he was sure the fragrance had its origin. There she sat, her back to him but he saw a intricately strung.