Roja

Yashasvi Arunkumar

Flowers meant death—garlands with roses and jasmine flowers, their petals plucked and dropped to decorate the road where the procession would go, leaving behind the nauseating scent of roses and death. When you cycled to the beach, you would come across one of these roads on the way to the crematorium. If you were lucky, you would escape the procession and not have to smell the roses. But more often than not, you had the pleasure of cycling on a road that stank of roses, your cycle wheels crushing the fallen rose petals and releasing more of their repugnant smell into the air.


When you passed the procession, you would turn back once to make sure the scent
did not follow you like the procession did. Your father always commented that you
had the worst road sense. As soon as you smelt the procession, you would pedal like
your life depended on it, not caring about the others on the road. Your reckless cycling got you the scathing scorn of drivers, and cries similar to “You dog! Couldn’t
find any other vehicle to die in front of or what?” would pass over your head as you
sheepishly mumbled an apology and cycled away with double the speed. You were
familiar with horns—they had the tendency to honk specifically at you. But lights were a different story—there wasn’t enough light for everyone on those roads. The flickering orange shadows would clamp down on passers-by. When you would pass by an especially desolate road, it would feel like the light illuminating the top of your
head emanated not from the bulb but from some eerie otherworldly place.


The first time you travelled on that road was when you were seven. It had been a breezy evening and you had accompanied your grandfather on his usual walk to the
beach. You had just learnt to cycle, and you would use that time as monitored practice hours, pedaling alongside your grandfather, hoping you didn’t lose balance
and fall in the middle of the road. You would struggle when your hands lost control,
zigzagging on the side of the road, sometimes moving perilously close to the green
bushes by the side of the beach road, or close to the overflowing dustbins and the
strays they attracted. But your grandfather was always nearby, ready to catch you.
“Don’t be afraid, Panchami kanna,” he would say, “this road is yours as much as it is
others’. Follow the rules but do not ever be afraid.”


Your grandmother had passed away when you were five and your grandfather lived with you ever since. Even months after her death, he kept their tradition of walking to the beach every morning and evening alive. You only vaguely remembered her cold body in the icebox, and the countless rose garlands that every visitor felt necessary to place on top of it. Your house had been filled with the smell of roses and even after the body was removed, fresh garlands adorned your grandmother’s portrait every other day. You remembered the few days immediately after her death, the times when your grandfather would stand stonily by the portrait’s side as your mother sobbed nearby. You had not known your grandmother very well, so the pain of her death had not hit you like it hit your elder brother or your mother. But you knew that the kind old lady who had fed you mashed rice and curry in small balls was never coming back again, and it had drawn a few tears.


Your grandmother always wanted to learn to ride the cycle, your brother said, but she was always afraid that the pallu of her saree would get caught in the wheels. So when you finally learnt to ride your cycle, your whole family came to watch you ride it around the apartment complex. Your mother had tears in her eyes when you came back after one round, and your grandfather picked you up in his arms and swirled you around.


He was a caring man—he always made sure to stop by Raghavendra Bakery near your house to buy you veg puffs and carrot cake after his evening walks. Whenever you accompanied him, you would both stop by the bakery, and after a snack, start your journey back home in good spirits. But on the way, the smell of roses on the road would hit you, making you momentarily lose your balance as a horrible fear froze your heart. In those moments, all you could do was close your eyes against the flickering light and pray that you wouldn’t have to face the painful reminder that life ended and that some family was mourning their loss like yours had.


When you were nineteen, you finally confessed to your grandfather that the smell of roses sickened you because it reminded you of death. He had been in the hospital then, breathing what you later realised were his last breaths. You never forgot that conversation because it was the last coherent conversation between you and him. You had gone home for the night and at four am, your mother had called you, in tears, and said that he had passed away in his sleep. You did not go to college that day and when your friends came for the funeral, a bouquet in their hands, you had raged and thrown the bouquet at them, stamping it until the smell of roses filled every pore of your body, letting out the rage that had boiled inside ever since you had seen the roses on his icebox. Your brother stopped you before you could do anything more and you collapsed on his chest, finally shedding the tears you had held for too long, the realisation that your fears had come true, and the rage that your last conversation had been wasted on roses.


You stopped going to the beach for a long time. The roads and the smell of roses they carried reminded you too much of your grandfather. You stopped buying the veg puffs and the carrot cake—nothing was safe from your memories. A few days after the funeral, you received a message from your friends saying that they were
sorry for your loss. You were sorry, too. You had brought up the conversation about
death, you had brought on the tragedy, and that guilt gnawed at your insides until
you could feel the rotting inside your own body. You did not have the courage to tell
anyone ever again that you hated those flowers—your fear had always been irrational.


Every procession reminded you of your grandfather’s body inside that icebox, reminded you of the garlands, and that god-forsaken smell. Every petal that was
destined to be roadkill reminded you of the ones you had stamped at the funeral.
Every turn of the cycle’s handlebar reminded you of the countless trips to the beach
and while you no longer zigzagged on the road, some moments would seize you. Your hands would lose control and for a second, crashing would not sound like that bad an idea.


But you never crashed, for it would be an insult to the years of care you had received. When you finally got the courage to traverse the road to the beach a year after your grandfather’s death, his smile flashed in your mind. It had been late in the evening and the lights seemed to blink with a special intensity, the roads flooded with the after-effects. The road was surprisingly free of the odour of roses and the buzz of vehicles. Once in a while, a car or a scooty would pass and you would ring your bell with all your might in a vain attempt to assert your presence. Most of the time, your incessant ringing only got you a few curious looks, but sometimes a vehicle would move away to let you pass and you would smile in glee.


You were on the road for a while, mindlessly pedalling, humming an old cinema tune to yourself, when you came across Raghavendra Bakery. You had passed it a couple of times already but that time, you felt overwhelmed with the urge to go inside. The bakery was probably closing down for the day, but you had a sudden craving for their veg puff. One moment you had crossed the bakery and the next, you were turning back and pedalling as if your life depended on it.


Anna!” you called out as you locked your cycle and ran inside, frantic, hoping they had not shut down. “Do you have veg puffs?”

 

“Sorry ma, we just closed—”


“Please anna, I want to buy just one. It is okay even if you cannot heat it, just pack one please?”


The anna probably saw something in you, or maybe he heard the desperation in your voice, because he nodded and packed one puff into a brown paper bag. When you moved to pay him, he stopped you, “Illa ma, I cannot take money, I didn’t even heat it for you. You don’t pay, it is alright. One puff—no one will notice”


You took the paper bag gratefully, holding it close to your chest like a prized possession, smelling the familiar flaky maida crust and the masala in the potato filling. But after a while, it gave way to the smell of Parachute coconut oil and Pond’s powder that your grandfather always used.


Your grandfather was a man obsessed with looking presentable—he would spend hours in front of the mirror, carefully oiling and combing his hair until it formed glistening curves and rubbing his face and arms with Pond’s power until they turned white. You took great joy in ruffling his hair after his ministrations, using your fingers to pull the oily strands up, while he swatted at your hands with his red comb. But that never deterred you. His hair would stand up in all directions, and he would glance at himself in the mirror, give you an exasperated smile, and once again set it back in place. When you made an attempt to get near him again, he would sound a simple “eyy,” forcing you to withdraw and accept defeat.


With the paper bag in your hand, you walked back to your locked cycle, only to find that it had toppled over and scratched a car next to it. Raghavendra Bakery was
located on the main road, close to a block of apartments whose occupants thought
they owned the road on which their apartment complex was built. This insolence led
them to park their vehicles in the middle of the road, proving a nuisance to everyone
else on the road. And today, one of those unsuspecting vehicles had become the
beneficiary of your cycle’s fall. You knew you should have taken better care while
securing your cycle, but it had been an act of desperation that had propelled you
towards the bakery. This desperation had been blind. The damage was done, and
your only option was to cycle away as quickly as possible.


When you moved your cycle away from the car, you got a chance to look closely at the scratch it had left on the vehicle. It was ironically flower-like, and the sight filled you with an instantaneous rage. You grabbed a stone lying by the side of the road and carved a straight line down the middle of the flower. Satisfied with your artwork, you took your cycle and your brown paper bag and cycled away, as if afraid that the flower on the car would follow you. But it did not and you cycled away, a smug smile on your face.


But the satisfaction faded away into the nothingness when the light from the streetlights stopped flickering and went completely off. The lights had flickered for
years, ever since you had first passed by them on one of your evening rides. But they
had been shrouded in an illusion of immortality, never betraying their own fragility and you had taken them for granted. When they flickered their last, it reminded you
of your grandfather. You had been secure in the belief that he would remain forever.
But life was short and passed quickly, leaving only trampled roses in its wake.


When you came to the familiar turn that would take you back to your apartment complex, you caught a whiff of rose petals and Pond’s powder again. It was ironical, you used to comment, that the pink talcum powder box you loved prided itself on trying to smell like flowers. Your grandfather would only laugh in response, walking past you, the garland for your grandmother’s portrait in his hand leaving behind the distinct scent of Pond’s and roses. “Sometimes things, they try to match up, behave like one another, but it doesn’t work always, so they find beauty together in their difference.” You finally understood—the roses didn’t stink anymore in opposition to the fragrance of Pond’s. They played a harmony together, a harmony of veg puffs shared, hair dishevelled, and cycles rode. The sound of your bell, as you made your way inside the gate, only added to that harmony.


Your apartment complex was not very big, but it was where you had made your first successful trip on your cycle. You could still remember the feeling of being swirled around and the joy of flying, or at least living the farce of flying. It felt good until you had to be placed back on the ground. Back to the ground where everything fell and crashed—but you had not crashed, you had been placed. People said you always landed on a bed of roses—the irony was probably lost on them, but it came to prick you every time.


The complex was filled with greenery on all four sides, the iron gates were menacing but they still obliged at the sound of your bell. The guard anna knew you, having had taught you to ride your cycle all those years ago. Whenever you went for your morning ride with your grandfather, he would wave at you while you waved back enthusiastically, “Bye bye, Charlie uncle!” When you cycled around the complex this time, your hands did not fumble, your balance did not falter, the bag in your front basket did not crumble or crinkle, the cycle moved smoothly. It was like you had imagined the smell, but as you slowed down to park your cycle in the carpark, it
wafted past you once again. This time, it came from near your car, the silver Volkswagen that had carried your grandfather to the hospital after he’d collapsed in
your living room.


You remembered that day vividly. You had home from college and you had asked him if he was ready for his evening walk. He had walked out from his room in his jogging pants and shirt and sat on the white sofa in your living room. You had sat down on the floor to tie his shoelaces, like he used to when you were a little child, but as you tied them, he collapsed on the sofa. In panic, you had called out for your mother, and the both of you had carried him to the car and hurried to the hospital. Heart attack, the doctors said, expected at his age. But nothing could have prepared you for the despair that settled in your soul as he was reduced to painful helplessness. Reminded of how he had caught you while you cycled, you would stand nearby as he walked, ready to catch him when he lost his balance. But his mind had remained as sharp as ever and during the evenings, you would look out at the sunset and reminisce about the orange-gold waves. It didn’t last, you had to part with him and it had hurt.


Your house was on the second floor, low enough that taking the lift seemed
unnecessary, but high enough that climbing up the stairs was a chore. As you climbed
up the stairs to your apartment, a sudden fatigue overwhelmed you and you almost
dropped the brown paper bag. When you reached your door, you fumbled around in
your bag for your keys before you finally found them and opened the door. When you
stepped into the hallway, the smell of Pond’s and roses assaulted your senses.


You placed the paper bag on the dining table, and your mother came from the kitchen asking if you’d eaten dinner. You shook your head as your eyes moved to the portraits—your grandfather and grandmother were smiling back at you. The rose
garland was wrapped around both the portraits, but the roses appeared unmoving,
harmless, even. When you sat at the dining table to eat dinner, the paper bag captured your attention one last time. All that remained inside was the lone veg puff.
The scent of roses had dissipated away, and somehow, it didn’t stink as much
anymore.

Yashasvi Arunkumar is a third-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University, India, majoring in English with a minor in Creative Writing. She writes short stories and poems, using them as mediums to depict the sights and sounds she experienced growing up in south India. This is her debut publication.

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