Authors: Bharati Mukherjee
The Tiger’s Daughter
The Middleman and Other Stories
Holder of the World
Leave It to Me
The Tree Bride
Days and Nights in Calcutta
The Sorrow and the Terror
Copyright © 1989 by Bharati Mukherjee
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Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jasmine / by Bharati Mukherjee.
eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9635-4
Designed by Paul Chevannes
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
For Jim Harris, ardent Hawkeye
The new geometry mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked, and broken up, the twisted, tangled, and intertwined.
ago, under a banyan tree in the village of Hasnapur, an astrologer cupped his ears—his satellite dish to the stars—and foretold my widowhood and exile. I was only seven then, fast and venturesome, scabrous-armed from leaves and thorns.
“No!” I shouted. “You’re a crazy old man. You don’t know what my future holds!”
“Suit yourself,” the astrologer cackled. “What is to happen will happen.” Then he chucked me hard on the head.
I fell. My teeth cut into my tongue. A twig sticking out of the bundle of firewood I’d scavenged punched a star-shaped wound into my forehead. I lay still. The astrologer re-entered his trance. I was nothing, a speck in the solar
system. Bad times were on their way. I was helpless, doomed. The star bled.
“I don’t believe you,” I whispered.
The astrologer folded up his tattered mat and pushed his feet into rubber sandals. “Fate is Fate. When Behula’s bridegroom was fated to die of snakebite on their wedding night, did building a steel fortress prevent his death? A magic snake will penetrate solid walls when necessary.”
I smelled the sweetness of winter wildflowers. Quails hopped, hiding and seeking me in the long grass. Squirrels as tiny as mice swished over my arms, dropping nuts. The trees were stooped and gnarled, as though the ghosts of old women had taken root. I always felt the she-ghosts were guarding me. I didn’t feel I was nothing.
“Go join your sisters,” the man with the capacious ears commanded. “A girl shouldn’t be wandering here by herself.” He pulled me to my feet and pointed to the trail that led out of the woods to the river bend.
I dragged my bundle to the river bend. I hated that river bend. The water pooled there, sludgy brown, and was choked with hyacinths and feces from the buffaloes that village boys washed upstream. Women were scouring brass pots with ashes. Dhobis were whomping clothes clean on stone slabs. Housewives squabbled while lowering their pails into a drying well. My older sisters, slow, happy girls with butter-smooth arms, were still bathing on the steps that led down to the river.
“What happened?” my sisters shrieked as they sponged the bleeding star on my forehead with the wetted ends of
their veils. “Now your face is scarred for life! How will the family ever find you a husband?”
I broke away from their solicitous grip. “It’s not a scar,” I shouted, “its my third eye.” In the stories that our mother recited, the holiest sages developed an extra eye right in the middle of their foreheads. Through that eye they peered out into invisible worlds. “Now I’m a sage.”
My sisters scampered up the slippery steps, grabbed their pitchers and my bundle of firewood, and ran to get help from the women at the well.
I swam to where the river was a sun-gold haze. I kicked and paddled in a rage. Suddenly my fingers scraped the soft waterlogged carcass of a small dog. The body was rotten, the eyes had been eaten. The moment I touched it, the body broke in two, as though the water had been its glue. A stench leaked out of the broken body, and then both pieces quickly sank.
That stench stays with me. I’m twenty-four now, I live in Baden, Elsa County, Iowa, but every time I lift a glass of water to my lips, fleetingly I smell it. I know what I don’t want to become.
didn’t want me to run away to Iowa. How can anyone leave New York, he said, how can
leave New York, you belong here. Iowa’s dull and it’s flat, he said.
So is Punjab, I said.
You deserve better.
There are many things I deserve, not all of them better. Taylor thought dull was the absence of action, but dull is its own kind of action. Dullness is a kind of luxury.
Taylor was wrong. Iowa isn’t flat, not Elsa County.
It’s a late May afternoon in a dry season and sunlight crests the hillocks like sea foam, then angles across the
rolling sea of Lutzes’ ground before snagging on the maples and box elders at the far end of ours. The Lutzes and Ripplemeyers’ fifteen hundred acres cut across a dozen ponds and glacial moraines, back to back in a six-mile swath. The Ripplemeyer land: Bud’s and mine and Du’s. Jane Ripplemeyer has a bank account. So does Jyoti Vijh, in a different city. Bud’s father started the First Bank of Baden above the barbers; now Bud runs it out of a smart low building between Kwik Copy and the new Drug Town.
Bud wants me to marry him, “officially,” he says, before the baby comes. People assume we’re married. He’s a small-town banker, he’s not allowed to do impulsive things. I’m less than half his age, and very foreign. We’re the kind who marry. Going for me is this: he wasn’t in a wheelchair when we met. I didn’t leave him after it happened.
From the kitchen I can see the only Lutz boy, Darrel, work the ground. Darrel looks lost these days, like a little boy, inside the double-wide, air-conditioned cab of a monster tractor. Gene Lutz weighed nearly three hundred pounds and needed every square inch.
This is Darrel’s first planting alone. The wheels of his tractor are plumed with dust as fine as talcum. The contour-plowed fields are quilts in shades of pale green and dry brown. Closer in, where our ground slopes into the Lutzes’, Shadow, Darrel’s huge black dog, picks his way through ankle-high tufts of corn. A farm dog knows not to
damage leaves, even when it races ahead after a weasel or a field mouse. The topsoil rising from Shadows paws looks like pockets of smoke.
Last winter Gene and Carol Lutz went to California as they usually did in January, after the money was in and before the taxes were due, and Gene, who was fifty-four years old, choked to death on a piece of Mexican food. He was so heavy Carol couldn’t lift him to do the Heimlich maneuver. The waiters were all illegals who went into hiding as soon as the police were called.
Gene looked after everything for me when Bud was in the hospital. Now Bud wants to do the same for Darrel and the Lutz farm, but he’s not the man he once was. I can look out Mother Ripplemeyer’s back window and not see to the end of our small empire of ownership. Gene used to say to Bud, “Put our farms smack in the middle of the Loop and we’d about reach from Wrigley to Comiskey.”
In our three and a half years together, I have given Bud a new trilogy to contemplate: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. And he has lent me his: Musial, Brock, and Gibson. Bud’s father grew up in southern Iowa, and Gene’s father came from Davenport. Ottumwa got Cardinal broadcasts, and Davenport got the Cubs. Baseball loyalties are passed from fathers to sons. Bud says he’s a Cardinals banker in Cubbie land. He favors speed and execution: he’ll lend to risk takers who’ll plant new crops and try new methods. Gene Lutz went with proven power: corn, beans, and hogs. After a
good year, he’d buy himself the latest gadget from the implement dealer: immense tractors with air-conditioned cabs, equipped with stereo tape deck. A typical Cubbie tractor, Bud would joke, all power and no mobility—but he approved the purchase anyhow. Gene even painted an official Cubs logo on its side. I thought it said
Darrel painted the Hawkeye logo over it.
Darrel has a sister out in San Diego, married to a naval officer. Carol moved to be near her. With all the old Iowans in Southern California, she does not think she’ll be a widow for long. Darrel had a girl living with him last fall, but she left for Texas after the first Alberta Clipper.
Darrel talks of selling, and I don’t blame him. A thousand acres is too much for someone who graduated from Northern Iowa just last summer. He’d like to go to New Mexico, he says, and open up a franchise, away from the hogs and cold and farmers hours. Radio Shack, say. He’s only a year younger than I, but I cannot guess his idea of reality. I treat him as an innocent.
Yesterday he came over for dinner. People are getting used to some of my concoctions, even if they make a show of fanning their mouths. They get disappointed if there’s not
Indian on the table. Last summer Darrel sent away to California for “Oriental herb garden” cuttings and planted some things for me—coriander, mainly, and dill weed, fenugreek and about five kinds of chili peppers. I always make sure to use his herbs.
Last night he said that two fellows had come up from Dalton in Johnson County with plans for putting in a golf course on his father’s farm. Bud told me later that the fellows from Dalton are big developers. With ground so cheap and farmers so desperate, they’re snapping up huge packages for future non-ag use. Airfields and golf courses and water slides and softball parks. It breaks Bud’s heart even to mention it.
Darrel’s pretty worked up about it. They’d have night golf with illuminated fairways. Wednesday nights would be Ladies’ Nights, Thursday nights Stags Only, Friday nights for Couples. They’re copying some kind of golf-course franchise that works out West. The plan is to convert the barn into a clubhouse, with a restaurant and what he calls sports facilities. I’m not sure what they’ll do with the pig house and its built-in reservoir of nightsoil.
“If you’re so set on sticking with a golf course,” Bud said, “why don’t you buy the franchise yourself?”
“I couldn’t stand watching folks tramping down my fields,” he said.
“So, what’ll you call the club?” I asked Darrel. It didn’t seem such a bad idea. A water slide, a nighttime golf course, tennis courts inside the weathered, slanting barn.
“The Barn,” Darrel said. “I was hoping you’d come up with a prettier name. Something in Indian.” He started blushing. I want to say to Darrel, “You mean in Hindi, not Indian, there’s no such thing as Indian,” but he’ll be crushed and won’t say anything for the rest of the night. He
comes from a place where the language you speak is what you are.
The farmers around here are like the farmers I grew up with. Modest people, never boastful, tactful and courtly in their way. A farmer is dependent on too many things outside his control; it makes for modesty. They’re hemmed in by etiquette. When they break out of it, like Harlan Kroener did, you know how terrible things have gotten.
Baden is what they call a basic German community. Even the Danes and Swedes are thought to be genetically unpredictable at times. I’ve heard the word “inscrutable.” The inscrutable Swedes. The sneaky Dutch. They aren’t Amish, but they’re very fond of old ways of doing things. They’re conservative people with a worldly outlook.
At dinner, Bud snapped Darrel’s head off. “What farmer is nuts enough to golf three or four nights a week around here?” he asked.
Darrel tried to joke about it. “Times change. Farmers change. Even Wrigley’s getting lights, Bud.”
Bud’s probably right. Most times he’s right. But being right, having to point out the cons when the borrower wants to hear only the pros, is eating him up. He pops his stomach pills, on top of everything else. Blood pressure, diuretics, all sorts of skin creams. Immobility has made him more excitable. Later that night I tried to calm him down. I said, “Darrel won’t have to sell. You’ll see, it’ll rain.” Then I took his big pink hand, speckled with golden
age spots and silky with reddish blond hairs, and placed it on my stomach. His hair is bushy and mostly white, but once upon a time he was a strawberry blond with bright blue eyes. The eyes are less bright, but still a kind of blue I’ve never seen anywhere else. Purple flecks in a turquoise pond.