• Aditi

Baked with Love

Rani stayed buried under her thick blanket on a numbing wintery morning in December. The cold breeze that gushed in through the gap in the window made her want to lie snug in her bed, but it was her father's happy singing in the bathroom that was a chilly reminder of the need to forsake her warm bed. 'It's already morning! Great!' she thought to herself and covered her head under the blanket, waiting for him to come out and expectedly make more noise. She knew that he was purposefully noisy - it was a ruse to get her out of bed. Her father or Baba, as she called him, was set in his ways, and repeated the same routine every day during the winter.

"Rani! Come on! Get up!" said her father as he walked out of the washroom. He was shivering.

"Baba, it's 5:30 in the morning," she mumbled.

"Come on! We need to reach the shop and open the shutter," Baba repeated the same words every morning, even as he combed his hair.

Five minutes more," Rani pleaded and tossed and turned in bed. She stole a glance at the clock on the wall - it was 5:35 am.

Baba ignored her as he was aware that she would be up in the next few minutes. He knew his daughter, and sure enough, Rani was already out of her bed and headed to the washroom. Rani was a lot like her father.

"Come on, chop, chop!" Said Baba unnecessarily. To Rani, the words 'chop, chop' meant 'buck up.' Baba began preparing their breakfast and packed lunch for both of them.

They set off at dawn. Rani hopped on behind Baba on his old cycle as father and daughter left for their tea shop. As he cycled through the smog that predictably engulfed the city, in the semi-darkness, both could smell the acrid air as the cold hit their faces.

"Many customers are going to come today," predicted Baba. "It's bitterly cold, all the more reason for people to drop in for tea."

Rani quietly clung to Baba, protecting herself from some of the direct breeze, but shivered throughout the ride to their shop. She had spent eight years of her life following the same routine.

Baba had started his tea stall twenty years ago. It did exceptionally well since he had made his mark by churning out a particular cup of tea. Baba made every cup of tea with utmost love and brewed it to perfection, using a concoction of herbs. His tea stall was their sole source of income, but he expanded it into a small tea shop that allowed customers to sit and enjoy his tea over time. His demeanour was mild and endeared him to his clientele; the location in the city's busy heart made matters easy for people in search of a refreshing cuppa.

He halted Rani's education as he needed her help in the shop. It also saved him from paying a salary to a helper. Rani, however, wanted more than spending her life making cups of tea. Her work had made her street smart. Like any youngster, Rani had her dreams; looking at the clouds, she allowed her imagination to take her to a different world. She dreamt about a better life somewhere and about marrying and having a couple of children running around in a smart house. Her reverie was often busted by Baba, bringing her to reality; this day was no different. Baba's prediction proved right. The day flew by and was busier than usual. The cold weather made people seek warmth in Baba's tea. Rani did not have a minute to relax. She worked nonstop, wiping tables and serving tea accompanied by biscuits or fan, a favoured crispy snack throughout the day.

It was late, and they were ready to close the shop for the day when a customer dropped by. He was tall with a thick moustache and asked for a cup of tea. Baba, exhausted, told the tall man, "I'm sorry, but we are about to close." Rani spoke up, "It's ok, Baba, it's the last cup of tea for the day. One more happy customer, let it be." Rani served him a cup of tea, and enquired, "Biscuits or fan?"

He smiled at Rani and said, "Nothing. Just tea is fine."

Rani blushed, for his smile, seemed to take away all her fatigue. There was no further conversation, but as he exited, the tall man thanked Baba and said, " I’m a taxi driver on night duty. Your cup of tea seems to help."

Baba grinned and sighed. Deep down, he was happy he could help someone survive the cold night. After all, he knew how hard it was to make a living. From that day on, Baba always welcomed the tall man at their shop. He became a regular, coming just before they closed and invariably was alone and was usually the sole customer at that time. Rani found herself waiting for him to arrive, and at times mock scolded him if he was a few minutes late. The tall man accepted her scolding good-naturedly and was contrite. A slow and gradual friendship began.

One night the tall man did not appear. Rani found herself missing him. But he reappeared the next day at his usual hour.

"Why didn't you come yesterday?" she asked.

The tall man was bewildered, not anticipating questions. "It was my day off. I was at home," he fumbled for words.

As the months passed, he took to coming early just to see Rani. They would share a sentence or two and a smile. It was enough to make her glow.

One day Rani had to leave early to do the household shopping. To her surprise, she bumped into the tall man buying vegetables. He helped Rani with her shopping bags.

"Why aren't you at the tea shop today?" he questioned.

"I needed to buy a few things for the house," she answered.

"Let's have a cup of tea?" he suggested.

Rani followed him to the nearest tea stall, and they sat at a table.

"I'm Ashish," he said, smiling. It was the first time that she learnt his name.

"Rani," she replied blushing, adjusting her navy-blue kurta.

Ashish took a sip of his tea and said, "This isn't as good as your cup of tea."

Rani smiled. Deep down, she could feel the butterflies in her stomach and could feel the chemistry between them. Ashish suggested they meet regularly, and Rani agreed.

Baba observed the radiant look on her face and noted that she took great care to dress well. He had a feeling that she was meeting the taxi driver whom he liked as well but maintained his silence. He trusted his child that she would do no wrong.

When he spotted Rani and Ashish chatting in front of his shop one day, he seized the moment to have a word with Ashish.

"Go in and check on the tea," he ordered Rani. She left them alone.

"Ashish, do you love my daughter?" Baba fired as he looked at him straight in the eye. Baba did not believe in small talk. "You need to tell me the truth. I can't see Rani heartbroken. My daughter is all I have." Baba was a man who called a spade a spade.

Ashish caught off guard by his direct question, said, "I love your daughter. And I want to marry her," as he fiddled with his car keys. Baba, thrilled, hugged Ashish. "When can I speak to your father?" Baba questioned.

That night, Ashish called his Papa in Kolkata. His sister had married two years ago, and ever since, his parents had been pressurising him to marry.

"Papa, I would like to share some news!" said Ashish.

"What is it, son?" his Papa replied with concern in his voice. "But before you say anything, I have good news; your mother has found you a beautiful bride. And she is ready to move and settle with you in Delhi."

"But Papa, I called to tell you that I have found someone here I want to marry," Ashish said, sounding worried.

"Oh! But is she Bengali? She has to be from our community.” Papa insisted. "We will not accept any other caste. Why don't you come home for a couple of days and meet her? You will forget about this other girl. Ashish, she is beautiful; it will be love at first sight! I can assure you that! Besides, your mother is not keeping well at all." Ashish agreed to return to Kolkata for a few days to see his ailing mother and convince his parents to accept Rani as his bride. The next day Ashish informed Baba that he would be leaving for Kolkata to talk to his parents about his marriage to Rani. He touched Baba's feet and sought his blessing. However, his farewell to Rani took more time than that!

Ashish found his mother quite sick, and when he learnt that the treating doctors had uttered the dreaded 'cancer' word, he felt his world collapse. His parents were insistent that he marry Priya, a girl that belonged to their community, and no, there was no question that Rani would be welcomed as their daughter-in-law. His father held the impending demise of his mother as a weapon of blackmail, and Ashish had to succumb. The nuptials were rushed through, and barely had the henna on the hands of his wife begun to fade, his father was a widower. The newlyweds left for Delhi, with Ashish married to a woman he barely knew. Priya was phlegmatic about her chosen mate. Though she was of the same caste, her family was poor, and her father could not afford a grand marriage; Ashish's papa was willing to forego that provided the marriage was conducted before the death of his wife. Priya's father had readily agreed.

Priya was indeed beautiful and good-natured to boot. She found Ashish handsome and promptly fell in love with him. She looked forward to starting a new life in Delhi with him - it was a city where much happened, so her giggling friends had informed her.

Ashish was nonplussed about the changes in his life. He realised that he had been coerced and manipulated into a marriage that was not of his choice. He decided that he would do the honourable thing with Priya. He would be a good provider and a good husband to her. Who knows, over time he may come to love her as well?

Rani waited for him; she called him every day but could not connect, and it soon dawned on her that Ashish had changed his cell phone number. She, nor Baba had his address or knew any of his friends or relatives, and there was little they could do. Ashish had mysteriously vanished from their lives.

Life with Ashish for Priya was hard. There was no emotional bonding, though Ashish tried his best to make her feel comfortable. He never told her about his genuine love for another woman. He thought she deserved to know the truth, but kept postponing it. It was a Sunday afternoon when Ashish finally gathered the courage to meet Baba and Rani, but at the last minute failed to take Priya with him.

Rani's eyes lit up when she saw Ashish standing in front of the tea shop. He looked tired and worn. Rani dropped everything and rushed out to meet him. Their eyes met, but all Rani could see was sadness.

"My father didn't agree to our marriage; I'm sorry, Rani," He said softly. Rani's eyes filled with tears. Living without Ashish was not the life she wanted; she had much to say, but the words choked her.

She locked her hands in his and squeezed them tightly. That is when she felt his wedding ring on his finger. She stood shocked.

"I'm married!" he said in a shaken tone. "Papa disagreed. He got me married."

Tears welled up and rolled down Rani's face. She "Get out! Just leave. Now!" she cried and ran back inside the shop. Baba had come out, with a welcoming smile, which disappeared when he saw Rani cry. He knew that something terrible had happened and Ashish was responsible. Baba caught him by the collar. Ashish offered no resistance. He sadly narrated the whole story and apologised wholeheartedly.

Baba was speechless and wanted to punch Ashish, but he controlled his anger. He spat between Ashish's feet and said, "Stay the hell away from my daughter. If I see you wandering around here, I'll break your legs."

Later that night, Baba tried his best to console Rani over dinner. Rani just stared at the food on her plate as she had no appetite.

"Rani," Baba said lovingly. Tears began to roll down her face.

"Baba, what did I do wrong?" she howled and covered her face with her hands.

"Nothing Rani. You just fell in love. And I let you. You didn't do anything wrong," Baba said and held her tight.

They both sat in silence, lost in their thoughts; they could only hear the fan whirring above their heads.

"I thought maybe for once I can give you a better life,” Baba said and broke the silence. “I took away your childhood, education, and made you start work at such a young age. At times you reminded me of your mother," Baba explained lovingly as his eyes welled up with tears.

"How did you move on after Mother passed away? Rani asked cautiously.

"I haven't. I miss your mother every day. Although just so you know, you are a lot like her," said Baba. "But you're stronger than you think, Rani. You're my daughter! I can assure you everything is going to be OK!"

"Now finish off the food left on your plate. You need your energy," suggested Baba as he picked up his plate and went to the kitchen.

“You can take a day off tomorrow,” Baba called out from the kitchen.

Ashish reached home at midnight. He was determined to reveal everything to Priya. She was awake and let him in; the look on his face worried her. "What happened? Are you OK?" Priya questioned him, concerned.

"We need to talk," he said as he sat down.

Priya rushed to get him a glass of water as she sat in front of him and placed her hand on his knee, waiting for him to speak up. Ashish had his head hanging low.

After a long pause, Priya broke the silence and said, "Ashish?"

"I can't love you. I can never love you," said Ashish and looked at Priya in the eyes. "I'm sorry. You don't deserve this, but you need to know the truth."

Priya's heart was pounding. Ashish slowly narrated the entire story. He told her everything, right from the beginning of how he met Rani and how they fell in love. He explained how Papa was so insensitive and manipulative and married him off.

"But what about us? What about me? Why did you drag me into your complicated life?" she questioned in a high-pitched voice.

"It was not in my hands. I can't change anything now," Ashish screamed.

"What do you think I am? I've left everything for you. My family, my hometown, my life!" she bawled.

"I know, I understand, if you want to go back to Kolkata, you can, I'm not going to stop you," he said softly. "I could have hidden everything from you. But I didn't. Because I felt you needed to know the truth."

Priya slowly moved back into her room, "I need some time to myself," she said and slammed the door.

After that night, Ashish and Priya were husband and wife in name. They hardly spoke to each other. Ashish kept driving his taxi, and Priya stayed home feeling lonely and incomplete. She had learnt that in a nearby locality was an ashram where The Holy Mother or Maa as she was simply called, held prayer and meditation meetings each morning. She decided that she would attend. From the very next morning, she became a regular at her ashram, and despite her doubts began to feel at peace even as she entered a large hall where a number of women were present. Priya discovered over time that all had suffered emotional distress, and some had endured much more.

Priya found a seat next to a young lady who was about her age. They smiled at each other but did not strike a conversation, each wrapped in their own cocoon of misery, crafted by the common chord of failed relationships. Maa usually began with discourse and followed it with an hour of meditation. She had seen a lot of the seamier side of the world and had suffered much abuse. Instead of letting it warp her, she had channelled it into a more constructive route; she offered alternatives, mainly to women, and these were positive options with much healing.

Rani too had joined the ashram and inspired by Maa, enrolled in an online teaching program and completed her education. Next, she completed a course in baking. Some kind friends at the meditation centre pulled a few strings to enrol in a year-long internship program to gain practical experience. Rani somehow managed to juggle the internship and help Baba at the tea shop.

Rani worked hard, as she had bigger dreams and began selling her bakery products at the shop; she almost immediately achieved success. Her products simply flew off the shelves. The clientele gradually transformed into high-end customers who were ready to spend as the bakery products were worth the money.

Baba was thrilled with her success. Together they expanded their menu and moved to a larger shop. They hired staff to help serve and a chef to cook. It was a turning point for Baba and Rani. Baba had never imagined that she could come this far. They specialised in cakes and confectionery, and Baba continued to serve his masterful cups of tea. He grumbled that the cook they had hired could not make a decent cup! As the earnings went up, Rani did not forget her humble origins and began contributing to the charity run by Maa.

Now and then, Baba would pester Rani to get married. She was ready with an excuse, "Who will look after you, Baba?" or "Who is going to look after the shop if I get married?"

One day, Ashish's taxi stopped in front of Rani's shop to drop off a customer. He spotted Rani through the window. His heart ached as everything started coming back to him. Rani looked surreal. She was having a good laugh with one of the customers. He kept staring at her till the honking of the car behind jolted him to reality, and he drove off.

Later that night, Ashish was restless. Sleep eluded him, and he tossed and turned under the sheets; Priya woke up in the middle of the night and found Ashish sitting on a chair in the dark. She was startled and turned on the lights, asked, "Are you OK? What are you doing out of bed?"

"Nothing," he replied in a deep voice and took a sip of whiskey.

Priya thought his behaviour was strange, for he was usually tired at the end of his shift and snored peacefully on his side of the bed. She persisted with her questions.

"Rani! I saw Rani today," he shouted in irritation at Priya.

Priya began to tremble with fear. After all these years, it was all about Rani again. She felt insecure, as her mind was racing with all sorts of emotions. She stood there in the hallway feeling numb. She didn't utter another word and went back under the covers, where she lay awake for a long time. "Rani, Rani, bloody Rani! I hate the bitch!" were her thoughts as she finally fell into a troubled sleep.

The next day, Priya was at the ashram and sat at the feet of Maa. When she looked at her, a haunting peace began to dawn in her troubled mind, and when Maa put her hand on her head, she burst into loud sobbing cries of rage and frustration. Maa calmed her with a few words, and she began to feel better. Maa seemed to understand her mind and said, "You still have a stormy sea to cross, and after that, you will be sailing in calm waters." Maa would say no more, but Priya oddly felt better. A young lady who was sitting nearby gave her a sympathetic smile but did not utter a word. Priya was drawn towards that smile and had a premonition that their paths would sooner or later intersect. She left the ashram in a calmer frame of mind, more sure of herself. That was the day she realised that she was pregnant.

When she returned home, she was cheerful and told Ashish to take her to the doctor who confirmed that indeed she would be a mother very soon. Ashish received the news with mixed emotions - there was joy, but there was a whiff of sadness. "If only..." he muttered to himself. No one heard that cryptic incomplete sentence.

Priya needed a few things now that they were going to be three instead of two. She began to buy her requirements from the supermarket. Ashish would drive her there, and they would do the shopping together and return. Their preferred day was Saturday because the Supermarket invariably had some items available at a discount. On the advice of her doctor, she followed a strict routine and took her medicines religiously. She began her day with a prayer for the safety of her husband and ended it by cursing the unknown Rani who had left her husband bewitched and who cast a long shadow over her happiness. There was sheer undiluted hatred in her heart towards Rani.

Her tummy had grown as time passed, and when she had her next ultrasound, the doctor told her dryly that instead of planning for three members in her family, she should prepare for four! She was carrying twins. She was deliriously happy and could not wait to tell Ashish when he appeared at night after his shift had ended. Ashish was overjoyed, and after a long time, Priya and Ashish felt that they belonged to one another. "Well," said Ashish, when the news had finally sunk in, "You will just have to visit the Supermarket more often!"

Few can resist a bargain, and Rani too was no exception. It was on a hectic Saturday, in a crowded supermarket, that Ashish spotted Rani, and it was sheer coincidence that Rani spotted him in the same instance. She saw him with a good looking pregnant young lady and suddenly realised that this was the same lady who she encountered at the ashram. There was no escape, and Ashish and Rani met for the second time since his marriage.

"Priya, meet Rani", said Ashish introducing them, and became quiet when Priya and Rani hugged. "You mean you know one another?" he managed to blurt out. Priya did not know whether to like her or hate her. "Why don't you come by for a cup of tea sometime? It would be nice to get to know you," suggested Priya. Deep down, she wanted to know Rani as a person and how Ashish could have feelings for her after all these years.

"Sure!" said Rani as they exchanged phone numbers and bade goodbye.

Rani dropped in the following afternoon with a dry fruit cake that she had lovingly baked. Priya accorded her a warm welcome. Over cups of tea, they bonded well and chatted about Ashish without any rancour. They discussed her pregnancy, the bakery, Baba, and how difficult the last couple of years have been for Priya.

Priya said, "It's not your fault." In her heart, she began planning her revenge for the years of unhappiness.

Priya and Rani would go shopping, catch a movie, cook together, share recipes, talk about life, laugh together. "Nothing like disarming the bitch before I strike," was the thought that drove her. But first, there was the matter of her pregnancy, and it was not long before Priya gave birth to twins. A boy and a girl. "Your family is complete," Rani chucked as she held them both in her arms.

Rani pampered the children with clothes and toys, and soon she was a favourite in Priya's house. She timed her visits when Ashish was out, but even so, their paths crossed. Now that he was a father, both kept their thoughts and feelings concealed. Priya kept a watchful eye on both Ashish and Rani but carefully hid her thoughts. She had made up her mind that she would poison Rani and had done her research carefully.

She had collected a hard to detect poison, called Thallium sulfate, which was used as a rat poison. It was not difficult to acquire. From the supermarket, she had purchased exotic coffee beans and had them ground. The coffee would mask any taste from the thallium. When Ashish was away, she invited Rani over and carefully prepared the coffee in her kitchen. In Rani's cup, she carefully mixed a spoonful of the poison, and laughingly, with complete abandon, gave it to her. She kept her cup of coffee separate. The advantage of thallium was that it would not have an instant reaction. And sure enough that same night Rani had the most awful pain imaginable in her abdomen. The pain was so severe that Rani had to be rushed to the Emergency Ward of the local hospital. She lay there groaning in pain, while the doctors were totally confused as to the cause.

The Emergency ward was a scene of absolute bedlam with patients with various problems being brought in. Rani was put on a cot and moved to a corner where she quietly lay, trying to endure the agonising pain. Just then, a victim of a road accident was rushed in. From where she lay, she could discern that the newly arrived patient, whose face was covered in blood, was being revived by the doctors. Rani closed her eyes, unable to bear the sight anymore, and murmured a small prayer for the unknown man who was fighting for his life. He was immediately taken to the operating room to undergo surgery.

A little while later, she heard a familiar voice, that between sobs said, "Someone, please tell me my husband is still alive." The police were there, and they did their best to calm the distraught person, but clearly, they had their task cut out.

Rani recognised that voice she could hear from the corridor. It was Priya, and that's when it hit her really hard - the patient had to be Ashish, who had been fatally injured in an accident. Despite her pain, Rani got out of bed and went where Priya had created an uproar and was sobbing uncontrollably. Priya was so startled, seeing Rani that she collapsed. The doctors revived her, and as she came around, she realised that instead of Rani dying, it was Ashish who was lying on the operation table. Unable to bear the enormity of what fate had dealt, Priya blurted that she had poisoned Rani.

The doctors immediately administered the antidote to the poison, and gastric lavage was carried out. In a few hours, Rani was much better and discharged from the hospital. Priya was arrested on a charge of attempted murder.

The very first thing that Rani did was to go to Priya's house and bring the twins to her place. They had spent a terrible night, all alone and clung to Rani. She fed them and put them to bed where both fell into an exhausted sleep.

Baba kept a watchful eye open and took over babysitting the twins as Rani rushed back to the hospital to attend to Ashish. The doctors performed successful surgery and put Ashish on complete bed rest for a month. Rani took charge. She single-handedly looked after the twins and somehow managed to run the show at the bakery. Rani stated to the police that Priya had accidentally confused sugar with thallium and ingestion had been an unfortunate accident. The police were not inclined to believe her but faced with this statement of Rani and a lawyer’s assertion that whatever the distraught Priya had said that night was due to the effect of her husband's accident. The lawyer was slick and soon had Priya freed.

The twins were overjoyed to see their mother. Priya was pathetically grateful to Rani and fell at her feet, seeking her forgiveness. Rani knew that she had suffered enough and forgave her. She helped Priya find a job as a caretaker for two children in a wealthy family as Ashish was forbidden to drive for the next couple of months. The family was one of her regulars at the bakery. "It's a small start but at least something to pull you through," said Rani. Priya was speechless.

Rani ensured that the twins went to a private school and graduated in Hotel Management. Both began their careers at her patisserie. By then, Baba and Rani had opened a chain of bakeries scattered all over the city. The bakery was named 'Baked with Love,' which was soulfully run and managed by Rani and the twins as Baba enjoyed his old age. As time passed, Priya often dropped into Rani's bakery for a chat over muffins and tea. Priya regarded Rani as she considered her own mother. It was only true love and friendship, which gave them a feeling of togetherness. It was more than enough for both.


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