Open 2021 Open Stories - Rrashima Swaarup Verma


White Sheets and Jasmine Blooms
By Rrashima Swaarup Verma


‘Jiya? Are you listening to me?’

The bespectacled, grey-haired English teacher was usually a patient person but today even she sounded exasperated. After all, the girl had been regularly falling asleep in class for the past few months. Truth be told, Mrs. Rodricks actually couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. She always did seem so lost with that confused, almost abandoned look in her eyes after her mother passed away last year.

Then, no sooner had the decent mourning period of a year come to an end, than her father had remarried. Today however, Jiya had been particularly distracted, sitting and staring at everything with those glassy eyes and dazed look. ‘Dear, are you all right?’ Mrs. Rodricks asked more gently this time.

‘I’m sorry Mrs. Rodricks. I guess I didn’t sleep very well last night.’

Same excuse every day. If things didn’t improve, she’d have to speak to her father about it. Deciding to let it go for the time being, Mrs. Rodricks called Jiya to her desk to tell her what she had missed.

The dismissal bell rang a few minutes later. Jiya collected her things from her desk, swung her school bag around her back and walked out of her classroom. It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon by then and the summer sun was blazing down in all its fury, the heat almost pouring down on her as she walked past the open, wrought iron gates of the school and onto the paved road.

The house at the end of the opposite street was being renovated and the path was riddled with dust and construction grime. Otherwise it was a peaceful, leafy street in the middle of Gulmohar Park, a tony neighbourhood in the southern part of Delhi, named after the flaming red gulmohar trees that grew there in abundance. Anyhow, it was a short distance and since she’d turned ten a few months back, her father allowed her to walk home alone instead of insisting that he collect her himself every single afternoon. It was a small, safe community they lived in where everyone knew everyone.

In the 90’s, that was normal. Her father had also relaxed a little since he’d remarried but the one year after her mother had died had been terrible for him. From an easy, understanding father, he’d turned into a possessive, anxious and over-protective parent, always worried that something might happen to Jiya too.

She still remembered the day he’d refused to let her go for her best friend’s birthday, denying her something that would have given her a brief respite from the depressed atmosphere in her own house. That night, as she lay in bed and murmured the bedtime prayer her mother had taught her, she’d wished that something would change in their lives.

The next day he’d announced that he was getting married again. At first Jiya had stared at him in astounded disbelief and then laughed, thinking that he must be joking. However, a week later, he arrived home in the evening with his new wife. Nandini was a divorcee and it had been a simple wedding as was appropriate, given their unusual circumstances.

Jiya had opened the door to them when they’d arrived and admittedly, his new wife was pretty. She had a petite frame, a ready smile and short, wavy hair that she left open around her shoulders. Jiya’s mother had looked different with her stocky frame, slightly stern expression and long, straight hair that she always wore in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. Trying to hold her tears back, Jiya had smiled at Nandini who had immediately stepped forward to put an arm around her.

Her other arm however had been wrapped around the little girl. The little girl with bright, curious eyes and dark, wavy hair just like her mother’s. The little girl who had glanced shyly at her with that small, hesitant smile. The little girl who would now live with them and be a part of their family.

Family members and even her father assumed that it might take Jiya a while to take to her step-sister but that in time, the two girls would bond. That, however, didn’t happen. Jiya resented Amiya from the first moment she saw her, always acutely aware of the fact that Amiya’s presence made it even more difficult for her to adjust to her new circumstances.

Not that Amiya did anything to intentionally bother the older girl but for Jiya, who had been the undisputed centre of attention for both her parents for nine long years, accepting another child’s presence in the house was almost impossible. She resented Amiya’s big, wide eyes and ready smile, her gentle ways and tinkling laughter. She begrudged sharing her room and toys with her and got irritated every time Amiya approached her with that hesitant look to ask her something.

Everyone could see that little Amiya was enamoured with her new elder sister but Jiya just couldn’t bring herself to return the child’s affection. Most of all, she hated it when her father took Amiya in his arms and played with her as he did with his own daughter. Life as she had always known it was over forever, and she was finding it very difficult to accept her new one.

It didn’t take Jiya long to realize that not only did Nandini look completely different from Jiya’s mother, she was different too. Where Jiya’s mother had been a kind but disciplined woman who spent her days taking care of her house and family, Nandini was a fun-loving, vivacious person. She was kind-hearted and affectionate toward her husband and step-daughter but running a house simply did not interest her.

Jiya’s mother had always maintained a diet chart for them, ensuring that her family was given three, well-balanced, home-cooked meals every day. Nandini on the other hand, detested cooking and very often, they were either ordering in or eating omelettes for dinner. Jiya’s mother had been fastidious about the family’s schedule and bedtime particularly, was strictly observed. Nandini took a much more casual approach to everything and within a matter of weeks, the house she had always lived in, seemed strangely unfamiliar to Jiya.

The thing that bothered her the most, however, was the issue of the bed sheets. Yes, strange though it seemed even to her, the bed sheets troubled her the most and kept her awake late into the night, night after night. Sometimes she couldn’t stop the tears as she tossed and turned, trying to get accustomed and trying not to think of her mother and the nightly ritual they’d religiously followed in their house all those years. Even now the image was clearly etched in her memory.

Her mother would come in on the dot at seven o’clock every evening, carrying the folded, pristine, white sheet and matching pillow cases in her arms. She’d gently lay them on the side of the bed and indicate to Jiya to help. Then together, mother and daughter would smoothen out the coloured, day bed sheet before spreading out the starched, white sheet on top of it. They’d tuck it in neatly at the corners, careful not to leave any wrinkles or creases.

Then they’d change the pillow covers, stuffing the feathery pillows into the white cases, the texture soft and downy to their touch. Afterward, Jiya would lie down on the cool sheet and they’d say their prayers together. Finally, her mother would place a single jasmine flower on the side of her pillow. The flower was always as pristine as the white bed sheet, almost as though it belonged there.

Within seconds, its overpowering aroma would fill the room. Jiya would close her eyes and instantly forget her troubles, all the small and big things that had worried her during the day. Her mother would kiss her forehead and Jiya would drift off peacefully into a world of white angels and silver fairies. Her dreams were blessed every night.

Now, it was almost impossible to sleep, let alone dream. When dreams did come, they were disturbed, distorted visions that made no sense to her and kept her tossing and turning on the coloured sheets through the night. After her mother passed away, her father and she had performed the nightly ritual together every night, briefly stopping every now and then to dry their eyes.

Later he would tuck her in and gently stroke her head while she drifted off. Sometimes, on particularly difficult nights, he’d leave her bathroom light on and his bedroom door ajar. But after he re-married, he handed over the running of the house to Nandini who didn’t believe in starched white sheets at night. Jiya had tried to speak to Nandini about it but her step-mother had just smiled and called it an unnecessary waste of time and energy. ‘The day bed sheets are clean enough. We change them once a week anyway. Would you like a cold coffee, my dear? It’s such a hot day.’ Not wanting to press her, Jiya didn’t tell her that it wasn’t cold coffee she needed, it was the starched white sheets with the single jasmine flower.

She accepted the cold coffee but later, she had tried to change her bed sheet herself. The task however had been almost impossible for her little hands and after several vain attempts, she’d given up. Over time, sleep became elusive. Sometimes she couldn’t understand whether it was her mother she missed more or the starched white sheets with the aromatic jasmine flower that had almost been a tradition in their home when she was alive.

Now as she unlatched the wooden gate and walked across the fragrant flower garden that her parents had lovingly planted all those years back, Jiya couldn’t help pausing. Her father had hired a gardener to tend to it after his wife passed away but on Sundays he spent a couple of hours there, pulling out the weeds himself, watering the plants, trimming them.

Today the garden was blooming as usual, bursting with colour and beauty. The roses, the hibiscus, the bougainvillea, all the flowers were beautiful but the jasmine plant had been her mother’s favourite. She used to call it “Queen of the Night”. Raat ki Rani. Jiya turned toward the leafy plant, its branches swaying gently in the slight breeze. Smiling, she recalled how she would often find her mother in the same spot when she returned from school in the afternoons.

She would beckon to Jiya and make her sit down while she explained the properties of the different plants to her. ‘The jasmine flower smells stronger at night,’ she used to say ‘It’s a night blooming flower you see. ‘There were always a few stray flowers lying at the bottom of the plant, the white oval petals caressing the earth.

Jiya and her mother would gather them and put them into a basket before they headed inside. Her mother would then proceed to arrange the flowers in a crystal vase that occupied pride-of-place on their dining table but the best of them all, she unfailingly saved for Jiya’s bedtime.

Now, Jiya knelt down and stroked one of the little white blooms, savouring the feeling of its velvety smoothness against her small fingers. The pot was slightly dry in the heat of the afternoon and Jiya turned on the garden hose for a few moments. As she watered the plant, she closed her eyes, inhaling the sweet scent. At that moment, she could almost feel her mother’s presence, could almost hear her whisper between the quiet rustlings of the leaves. As though, she was bestowing a blessing.

Jiya was surprised to see that it was already a quarter to four by the time she entered the house. She’d been in the garden for over twenty five minutes and the combination of no sleep the previous night and the strong afternoon sun had made her lethargic and drowsy. She poured herself a glass of water and took it back to her bedroom to drink. Inside, it was cooler and the air conditioner made a steady humming noise.

Amiya was sitting on the couch, playing with her doll. She smiled at Jiya as soon as she saw her but Jiya ignored her as usual. Gulping down her water, she yawned before glancing down at the four-poster bed. What she wouldn’t give for a decent night’s sleep! The pink bedspread was pretty with its pictures of fairies and stars but it wasn’t what Jiya yearned for. Sighing, she decided to give it one more try.

Squatting to the floor, she pulled out the enormous suitcase from under the bed. It was a vintage case, a dark mahogany colour with rich, chocolate coloured straps. Considerably heavy for a child, it took all of Jiya’s strength but she managed to haul it out. Thankfully, it was unlocked and Jiya was able to prise open the studded brass buckles. Inside, carefully folded and neatly stacked, were her mother’s saris along with birthday cards, letters and a couple of her recipe books.

Jiya gently shifted them to the side. Right at the bottom were four starched white bed sheets with matching pillow covers. Jiya carefully pulled one set out. She closed the suitcase and pushed it back under the bed. Her forehead was already breaking out in perspiration with the effort and she had to stop for a few seconds to catch her breath. She knew the task ahead wasn’t easy, she’d tried enough times before.

With a sigh, she opened the bed sheet. Holding two ends firmly in her hand, she tossed the other two ends on the opposite side of the bed. The sheet billowed and soared into the air for a few seconds and then as always, settled in a crumpled heap on the bed. Shaking her head, she tried a couple more times but every time the sheet landed in a messy pile in the centre of the double bed. Jiya was blinking back tears, ready to give up, when she felt a slight tug at the other end of the white sheet. She looked up. Amiya was holding the opposite side, a small, hesitant smile playing on her lips.

‘Didi, if you don’t mind, I can try to help you.’

‘You?’ Jiya looked at the little girl in amazement ‘If I can’t do it, why do you think you can? You’re much smaller than me.

‘Yes, but we could do it together. After all, two pairs of hands are better than one.’ Amiya tugged at the bed sheet again, pulling it taut. Rather taken aback but too tempted by the offer to refuse, Jiya pulled from the other side. The white sheet rose up again but this time instead of landing clumsily in a messy heap, it touched down gracefully onto the bed.

The two girls smoothened it out from opposite sides and then began tucking it in at the corners, levelling any creases as they did. Their small, nimble fingers moved fast and soon, the bed sheet was spread out neatly on the four-poster bed. Then, they set to work on the pillows. Jiya had tried on before but hadn’t managed to hold the case and stuff the pillow into it at the same time.

This time, Amiya held the case open while Jiya filled the fluffy pillow into it, silently marvelling at the fragrance that still seemed to linger on the pillow case, even after all this time. Finally, the job was done and the exhausted girls sat down together, wiping their foreheads.

‘Thanks Amiya,’ Jiya said a little stiffly. ‘That was nice of you.’

‘You’re welcome Didi.’ Amiya smiled at the older girl and Jiya couldn’t help conceding to herself that the child really did have a sweet smile.

‘By the way.’ Jiya looked at her step-sister seriously ‘That proverb you were talking about. Well, it’s not two pairs of hands. Its two heads. Two heads are better than one.’

‘I know.’ Amiya laughed ‘But in this case, two pairs of hands are better than one. Right?’

‘Right.’ For the first time since she’d seen her, Jiya smiled back at Amiya and then suddenly, pulled her into a tight embrace. Afterwards, they sat there for several minutes, hands entwined, legs swinging back and forth, almost as though in tune with each other. After a while, Jiya rose to her feet and held her hand out to Amiya. ‘Come with me.’

‘Where are we going?’ asked Amiya curiously.

‘Out to the flower garden.’ They walked out of the room together and didn’t even notice Nandini’s look of astonishment when she saw them making their way to the garden, arm-in-arm. Once there, Jiya led her sister straight to the jasmine plant. It was almost six o’clock by then and it seemed as though the long evening shadows were everywhere, playing hide-and- seek on the dark mossy ground.

In the waning sunlight, the fragrant, blooming jasmine plant looked like something out of a fairy-tale, almost ethereal in fact. Jiya couldn’t help thinking that it’s heady aroma seemed to take over the small garden. ‘This belonged to my mother,’ she told Amiya, who stared at it almost reverently. Jiya bent down and lovingly stroked the leaves.

As always, the bottom of the plant was strewn with the flowers that the plant had shed that day, forming a fragrant semi-circle around the pot. Jiya picked up two of the largest and freshest ones and rose to her feet. Tucking the flowers deep into her pocket, she slipped an arm around Amiya and together, they walked back into the house.

Later that night, as they lay down on the pristine white sheets together, Jiya placed one of the flowers on the side of Amiya’s pillow. The other one she brought close to her face and sniffed. ‘White sheets and jasmine blooms,’ she whispered, closing her eyes ‘Sweet dreams Amiya.’


Rrashima Swaarup Verma from India is a business research professional and writer. She is currently working as Senior Vice President with a leading, US-based business consulting organizaiton. Rrashima writes fiction and poetry and her work has been published across leading national and international magazines and literary journals


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