Don’t we all crave for happiness? So, says my florist brain, why care about flowers, which are anyway going to end up into the waste bin?
Suddenly one day, when I saw him after a gap of two years, my doubts about him were confirmed. I had repeatedly told him, Mustafa Kemal, my friend that the bird called true love did not exist. But he, the son of a donkey, was not the one to heed me. His head flew in the air all the time, and his feet were never on the ground. If he became the butt of joke, one was not to be faulted for having a friend like this.
But why would he value the nonsense from a florist like me? Not his fault entirely. After all, my job is not about the brain. And where does advice come from? The brain itself, doesn’t it? I am not a teacher or an intellectual, people who are said to have some good stuff inside their skull. I’m a poor florist. My job involves the heart, not the brain, if I could say so. When people have something in their hearts and they want to express it, they come riding their scooters or driving their cars to me and buy my ware.
The family-minded people or those who want to express their platonic affection buy the mixed bunches or the bouquets. I mean like people who are going to see a patient or going to wish a friend’s wife or sister. They hardly bother about the quality of flowers or their arrangement. They just fancy a bouquet among all the displayed ones, and if it suits their pre-determined budget, they buy it in a hurry as if there is no time.
It is only the romantically inclined who have all the time in the world to choose what they buy. They would keep looking into the contents of the vase and would finally pick up those they find in the healthiest condition, robust enough to carry their message of love.
My friend Mustafa Kemal was one such customer. I don’t know why we became friends. I generally have nothing but sympathy for people who believe that giving a rose to a girl would ensure lifelong happiness. In fact I laugh at their silly notions, their idiocies at heart. If it were so, people all over the world would grow nothing but flowers.
Don’t we all crave for happiness? So, says my florist brain, why care about flowers, which are anyway going to end up into the waste bin? They remain fresh for a few hours. Soon after they start losing charm. Exactly like love. They wilt and die and disintegrate. As do certain emotions and some memories. No, no. One does not mean to say that flowers are totally useless. They provide bread and butter to the empty stomachs of poor folks like us.
Mustafa had been coming to me for a long time now. May be it is this long-standing interaction that opened up windows of friendship between us. In fact, it is very difficult to put it down to a point of exactitude. Can we all honestly explain why we became friends with such and such person? I think we can’t. It is like love. You feel it, you know its warmth, but you are hard put to explain it.
The moment I saw this yellow-cheeked Mustafa I knew he had fallen in love. His hesitation in inquiring about the roses made it clear to me that he was going to express his emotion for the first time. He first surveyed all the flowers and bouquets on display.
I watched him from behind my stall where I was putting together a bouquet on order. His eyes hopped from color to color, now delectably watching the red roses, now soaking in the soothing whiteness of the carnations, now absorbing the delicate beauty of the red and yellow tulips. Finally he kept on staring at the bucket full of rose buds.
“How much are the rose buds?” he asked with a wavering voice.
“Rupee five each,” I said, looking up at him while my fingers gave final touches to the bouquet.
He kept on staring at the roses.
“How many of them do you want?” I asked him.
He was taken aback by my sudden intrusion into his private inspection. He deliberated for a while, and then muttered out of his indulgence, “err, two… in fact, ahem, one is enough.”
“As you wish, Sir,” I said.
He ran his fingers over the flowers, checking the texture and health of the petals. He finally picked up one flower.
“Can you pack it up for me?” I heard him asking me.
“Yes, sure, sir!” I said.
I took the rose from him. I pruned its stem to the right size, plucked out the thorns and wrapped it up with a sheet of transparent cellophane. He handed me the exact amount and took the packaged rose from me. He looked at his purchase with a whiff of pride. Holding it in his hand like a prized possession, he started his rickety Bajaj scooter and vamoosed away.
After a couple of his visits, the wall of strangeness was gone between us. Riding his wobbly scooter, he visited my shop every evening, at the same time, to buy his robust petalled rose from me. Our relationship progressed beyond that of a seller’s and a buyer’s. So much so that on occasions he would forget to pay me for the roses and I wouldn’t mind his slip. I began to know about him.
He was a student at the university. He gave tuitions to support himself like many young men in this city who didn’t come from privileged backgrounds. His love was one of his disciples, the teenage daughter of a rich industrialist.
“She is very beautiful and tender. The only problem is she is too young to…” Mustafa confessed to me one day with a broad grin. He was a little shy of nature.
So it was a case of tender love. Tantrum-laden teenage girl of a rich father. Poor young tutor with dreams of falling in love with a rich girl. I knew where it was headed. Selling flowers, I had seen enough life in the city. May be I did not have brains. But I had experience on my side. I did warn my friend Mustafa to watch his steps time and again.
For me it did not matter if I lost a customer. But who could bear to see disappointment in a friend’s eyes? Yet he was not to listen to me. He thought I was a fool, a peddler. He didn’t reckon he too was a fool, a peddler. I sold flowers. He sold knowledge. The only difference between him and me was that of experience. My experience had taught me something that he was yet to learn.
One evening when I was closing down my little shop, I realized that Mustafa had not come to my shop that day. Taking hard puffs at my bidi I thought about him. May be he was not well, I guessed. I shut my shop and left for my little room in old Delhi.
Mustafa did not come the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I did not see him for weeks. Had he gone to his village in Uttar Pradesh? I wondered. May be his father was not well. May be his mother had died. I had all kinds of thought about my friend. But what could I do? I could only guess and remember him. Weeks became months, and months became years. He began to fade from my memory amid the colorful magnolias, orchids, tulips, violets, roses, carnations and birds of paradise. I did not see him for another two years until today.
He had come riding his same old rattletrap Bajaj. He looked thinner and wearied. He had stubble on his face, something that I had never seen on his face. His eyes looked red, almost bloodshot. Perhaps he was not sleeping well, or crying, or drinking, or a combination of all three things had affected him.
“So glad to see you prince,” I said shaking hands with him. His hand was cold, slightly limp. He wore a thin smile on his lips. He looked down on the ground for a while, perhaps searching for a sentence.
“Where have you been boss? All well?” I asked him. I had to ask him.
“I was here only,” he said. His voice was tremulous.
“Have you changed your florist or you are angry with your friend?” I asked him a little teasingly.
“No, no. It is not so,” he said. He was still a shy man. Perhaps he was bashful about sharing the details of his recent life with me. I pretty much guessed there was something amiss. It must be that damned love thing then, I guessed again.
“So, want your usual rose?” I asked him.
“Yes, but the yellow ones?” he said.
“The yellow roses?”
“Yes, you heard rightly.”
I looked at him in surprise.
“She has come back to India after two years. For a little while only. This is what I know. She studies in Europe now,” he said. He looked away from me, at the swelling evening traffic. Shadows of pain creased his face.
I knew all along this was how it would come to an end. Mustafa knew my advice was not wrong. But more than his, it was the fault of youth’s optimism.
“A bunch of three yellow roses,” he demanded.
He did not even care to pick up the roses by himself. I took out three healthy yellow roses from a bundle and began to dress them.
“You were right Rajkumar Bhai. In the initial few months, she was so passionate about me. She would not even have dinner without me. We would sit for hours together in her room, all by ourselves. She would just listen to whatever I had to say. She would even drink from my cup of coffee… then…” Mustafa almost broke down.
I could well imagine him sitting along with her, in a brightly lit room, decorated with all kinds of stuff, as they show in films. Let’s say, for the sake of convenience, her name is Pretty (for I don’t know her real name). So Mustafa and Pretty sit side by side on a comfortable bed. Or may be he sits on an easy chair, his legs eased over the bed.
Pretty sits facing him on the corner of the bed. Or may be she sits on his lap. Who knows? He gives her a lesson in history or India’s constitution, and she is hearing him out with a rapt attention, like an enchanted princess. Then…
“It’s all right Mustafa, please hold yourself,” I advised him, patting him on his shoulders.
“Her parents sent her to Europe for studies. They did not like our relationship. But then, she too forgot me once she was there. You won’t believe Rajkumar Bhai, she used to call me up every week for the first few months. Then she stopped calling. She even stopped writing to me. She forgot me. She completely forgot me. You were very right Rajkumar Bhai. I was a fool,” he said. His eyes shone with moisture.
The image suddenly changes. No longer Pretty is sitting along with Mustafa. He sits alone in his university dig. He has a glass of liquor in his hands. Tears flow down his face. May be he has even caught cold and so he sneezes now and then. His nose tip has turned red. His heart misses a heartbeat every time the telephone rings in the caretaker’s room. Then he waits for the phone boy to call him out to attend an ISD call. It does not happen.
He takes another swig from his glass. The bitter swill in his mouth reminds him of a happy Pretty in Europe. More tears flow down his face. Another sip, another fragment of memory, another line of tears on his face. Each time he hears an airplane fly over his hostel, he imagines Pretty has come back to India, to walk into his barren life, to embrace him.
I came out of my little stall and thumped his back. The little bunch of flowers was ready in my hands, its transparent cellophane crackling with the whisper of yellow roses.
About the Author: Zafar H. Anjum was born in 1975 in India. He studied history at the Aligarh Muslim University and mass communications at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. He is a journalist and a writer based in New Delhi. He has a novel, ‘Of Seminal Fluids’, and a couple of short stories published to his credit.
This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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