“Let me get something to drink. Do any of you want anything?” Rajkumar asked us. When he left with his friends some of the women circled around me, chit chatting. I could get used to all this attention!
It was funny to watch that college kid flinging his hand like a cobra ready to strike, his face all contorted. Oh! That’s Nirav!!! And He was pointing to something past my head. I turned. Oh no, no, no! The clock face showed 11.45!
After the briefest hesitation, I picked up my ghaghra and ran and ran, past the entrance and past the cars. I flung myself into the auto. A shape ran after me, but I didn’t wait. Good thing too for just ten minutes later, I found myself wobbling on top of a pumpkin in the middle of the road. The cat meowed pitifully and rubbed against my leg. Oh! This was embarrassing, but at least I was not in the maidaan! I picked up my auto driving cat and inched to the shadows. A few minutes later, a cycle bell clanged. It was Nirav!
I plopped my bottom onto the backseat, cat, and all. I needed some answers.
“So, who was that woman? How did she come to my aunt’s house? Did you bring her?” I hurled the questions at Nirav’s back, but he laughed like he was crazy. Part 3 ends.
“What you believe in a Rajkumar, but you see an old woman and can’t accept that she could be a fairy?”
“A fairy? Looking like that?” I snorted.
“Hey, you can’t complain! She did the job, right?” Nirav pedaled steadily.
I was catching up on my beauty sleep when my aunt and cousins returned.
I got to the market in the morning, and there was Nirav.
“You are a good dancer, Soundarya!”
“Okay, why is that so surprising?” I said crossly.
“Arre, stop being so prickly! I know you didn’t take classes. That’s all. So, did you like the Rajkumar?” he calmed me down.
“You know what, you are almost as interested as my cousins in the Rajkumar! That’s all they talk about at home.”
“Really? I thought they’d rather talk about the mysterious stranger’s ghaghra, bangles, necklaces, anklets and jhumkas…” I laughed and hit him hard! When I told him that Rajkumar was not a real Rajkumar, he laughed harder.
Back in the kitchen, the moong dal mixture was ready for the kachoris. I went about stuffing the atta with the mixture and rolled it into a thick disc. The oil was hot enough to begin the frying. Ruchi mami was my lifesaver once again for all five hundred kachoris were ready when Sonal’s driver came to collect the food.
That evening, I waited until my aunt had gone. Then I went to the grill door and stood there. But nothing happened until Nirav joined me. Once again, the woman appeared from nowhere.
This time, the water drops changed my old skirt into a red bandhini lehenga. “Oh, it’s Kundan jewellery today,” I whispered to a bewildered Nirav as bangles jingled in my hands to match my red necklace and jhumkas. I tapped my feet gently and a hundred bells rang aloud.
“Go bring a pumpkin,” said the woman.
“Nirav, get an orange pumpkin this time,” I whispered.
I held my breath as the woman sprinkled water on the orange and dhadaam!
“Oh, it’s still an autorickshaw!” I mumbled.
“So sorry we couldn’t get you the latest Tesla, your highness,” Nirav rolled his eyes!
The neighbour’s cat looked at us with disdain. It sprang in the air as if to fly away from us but the water drops were quicker. My driver was ready.
I was torn between excitement and fear. I got lucky last time but would I make it back on time tonight?
“Honk,” the cat autodriver brought me back to the present. I took a deep breath and slid into the seat.
Now, I am sure of it. There was a lull when I entered the maidaan. I felt everyone’s eyes on me-my clothes, my hair, and my jewellery. I could get used to this. I almost feel like a princess, a Rajkumari.
The music started and the lines formed. I lost myself to the rhythm of the dhol. I was in my circle with Rajkumar and no matter how the other girls tried, our circle stayed small and intimate. Sonal walked by a few times with my aunt. I knew she was checking me out. Was my jewellery real? Which designer made my lehenga? When we stopped for a break, she brought some plates over. “Beta, our chef has made the best kachoris. You and your friends must try these,” she gushed. Her chef? A seed of doubt planted itself in my mind.
The problem with having friends is that you want to make sure they don’t do anything stupid. I really wanted to finish studying for my advanced calculus paper. But this Soundarya, she gets so engrossed in the dancing, what if she doesn’t leave by midnight? So, I followed her to the maidaan. I meant to warn Soundraya at 11:30 but the line for the kachoris was too long. Can you believe it, when I got the chutney, it was 11:50!
“Pssssst, Pssssst,” I waved at her. Oh, Thank goodness, she got it right this time. She bolted out of there like a bullet.
I raised the kachori to my mouth and dropped it. Why was that group of men and women staring at me, as if I did something? Oh, oh! Time to go. I made it like I was going towards them and ran to the side exit. Luckily for me, a row of dancers swung their sticks and cut me off from the others. That Rajkumar fellow was finally free, and they meant to enjoy his company!
Tonight, I found Soundarya cuddling the cat and pumpkin much closer to the maidaan. We rolled the pumpkin to a side and went home.
Monday morning began as usual. Ma was boiling potatoes for the samosa. So, I left for the market.
“Didn’t your cousins say anything about the dandiya?” I asked Soundarya. “Sure, they did! They told me that the everyone loved the ragada Patties and the Kachori! Sonal told everyone that the chef was really talented.”
“You mean they actually said something nice about you?
“No! They had a chef in a fancy uniform. They said that HE made it!”
“You mean the guy who looked like he could rent out the empty room in his brain? He couldn’t peel a potato right!”
Sonal sent her maid and chauffer to collect the samosas for the evening. Once again, Nirav and I waited by the well for the old woman. “Can we talk to the old woman and find out more about her? Do you think she could be my secret protector?” I wanted to asked Nirav. I kept quiet because I knew what he would say.
“Why don’t you learn to protect yourself?”
Today I dazzled in pink and gold.
“Doesn’t it look beautiful?” I spun to see my skirt puffing up. “I bet it is the most beautiful skirt there,” I said smiling.
“Uuuuu, be careful! You sound like two sisters we know.” Nirav pushed his glasses up his nose.
I saw red! “You don’t have to come! I know you think I’m silly. You don’t have to come!!!” I swept past him and got into the auto.
“What did I say?” he stood there scratching his head.
I walked into the maidaan as if I owned the place and the crowd parted for me. What was that niggling thought in the back of my head? Oh, I’ll think about it after the dance, I quieted myself.
I stepped and swirled, and danced with Rajkumar and his circle of friends until Sonal smiled at me. That niggling thought bubbled up all over again. And this time I couldn’t push it down.
Why did she tell everyone that the chef had made the snacks? I had been the one who slogged in the kitchen. Oh yeah, and Ruchi mami of course! (But they didn’t know that.) When we walked over to the snacks table I couldn’t let it go. “The samosas are so delicious…so crunchy on the outside and the spice is just right,” I said.
“Isn’t it? My chef made them,” her smile grew bigger.
“Yes, mummy searched high and low until she found the perfect samosas. He is the most amazing chef ever. My mummy is…” added Rajkumar.
“He?” The samosa stuck in my mouth.
And before I could stop myself, Nirav’s word spilled from my lips. “You mean the guy who looked like he had vacant space in his brain? He couldn’t peel a potato right!”
Aaah, that look on Sonal’s face made up for all the frustration of the past week. “What are you saying? My mummy is …” That’s when I caught sight of Nirav jumping up and down. You could say that I was on fire for I blasted out of there. But this time, footsteps dogged me. “Wait!” came a cry. Uh uh! I ran faster. Drat those anklets! He can hear me! I bent down, undid the tie and was off again when I heard a clink. Something fell hard on the road, but I didn’t stop to look.
Thing is, when you do something night after night, you get into a routine. My cat auto driver started the engine as I leapt in. I swear I saw him smile as we swept out of there. Cars roared to life, but autos are good for weaving in and out of tight spots. Soon, I found myself in a quiet gully. The cat and I waited in the shadows as people ran past us. It was a silent night once more when a cycle bell rang softly. Nobody gave us a second glance as Nirav and I rode home with the cat.
I opened the bag to return his ma’s anklets. “Oh no! I dropped an anklet!” I cried.
“I think it’s okay but let’s see what ma says, okay?” Nirav consoled me. My friend, who can always be trusted to speak his mind.
The next morning, the telephone rang all day long.
“Ma, Ma! Did you hear that? Will they come to our house?” My cousins were in a frenzy.
That evening, the house was full of people. They included Sonal, Rajkumar, and many others I didn’t know. “I’ll try it, I’ll try it,” the shrill voices told me that we had guests. I peeked at the goings on from behind a door. The ‘it’ was my anklet, rather Ruchi mami’s anklet!
“Oh, it’s too small for your ankle. It’ll fit me,” her sister pushed her aside. Alas, no such luck! The anklet was too small for her as well!
Rajkumar saw me looking from behind the door. A cloud of doubt passed over his face. “Do you want to try the anklet?” he couldn’t hide the embarrassment in his voice.
“Arre, na na! She was not there last night. That’s just Soundarya,” my aunt stepped up. Sonal too waved me away. “No, no beta! That poor child, she doesn’t go out of the house at all,” she turned her son away from me.
It was so tempting to go out there and put the anklet on. Sure, Veena and Meena would tear me limb to limb. But the look on my aunt’s face would be worth it. My ragada pattice, my kachoris and my samosas (Okay, okay, partly mine but the other part was not some chef with room to rent in his brain). No, I was not going to be nice to someone so they would like me nor was I going to let someone else take the credit for my work. Absolutely not! And so, I stepped back into the storeroom.
My aunt can go search for another ‘chef’ for soon, I will be old enough to leave this house. Maybe I should ask Ruchi mami if she wants to start a catering business with me. Nirav can be the delivery boy after classes. Or I can have a food cart outside Nirav’s college. I can do so many things. I will buy mami another anklet exactly like the one I lost. She will understand that it was the price of my freedom.