A lot had changed in all this time, yet a great deal seemed to have stayed the same.
Manvi had not stepped on this ground in almost a decade. The surreal moment of standing on that one-track side-platform did nothing to justify the acrisy she had undergone before deciding to make this trip. She did not even have to look around the railway station to know her next move. There was just one way to exit, albeit tons of entry points existed if you considered the vast expanse of open area around the tiny cemented platform.
To call this a railway station would be an overstatement. The flimsy shed under which she stood now, was the only accompanying infrastructure – no discernible ticket counter or even a single-seater waiting room.
Stepping out, her hometown glowed under the nascent Sun, peeking over the smaragdine blanket that surrounded the place. A gentle breeze, perpetually drenched in petrichor and carrying the faraway early morning buzz of a bustling ruricolous life, caressed Manvi’s cheeks.
Her mind coaxed her thoughts, against her wishes, to feel the nostalgia which the familiar streets evoked. She had been so sure she had left her past life in the past that the onslaught of old memories felt almost like a deluge broken out of a dam.
Once upon a time, her 4-year-old self had strolled down this very street with a skip in every alternate step, hanging on to her father’s big, buffed up arms – the kind bakers obtained with years and hours of kneading and proofing.
“Manu? It’s you, right? Oh, beta!” An elderly, slightly bent-over lady ambled towards Manvi and hugged her waist tightly.
“I told your kaka that you would come this time. How well you have grown. Tribhuvan would have been so happy.”
Manvi flinched internally at the mention of her father’s name while the lady started sniffling and wiping her welled-up eyes with the end of her saree pallu.
“Kaki, so good to see you. I will swing by your house tonight. Let me settle down first.”
“Of course, beta. I will make your favourite dishes, you have to stay for dinner.”
Before Manvi could protest, she had shuffled away. The ‘favourite’ dishes kaki remembered were not her favorites anymore. Indeed, time seemed to have stopped here.
At her house, she found the front door unlocked. She deposited her backpack at the entrance and explored around the dwelling. The faded porraceous green walls of the rooms, once vibrant had now turned lacklustre – the only proof that time had passed by.
Manvi found all the necessary things at their designated places in the house, owing to her neatnik father. She dusted and cleaned the house, took stock of groceries in the kitchen and unpacked her meagre belongings which she had brought with her. After changing into a fresh set of clothes, she made her way to the bank.
In the evening, she slowly walked across the market to get few essentials to last her through the intended one-week stay. Her feet, out of habit – if you could even call it that, since the last time was more than a decade ago – strolled towards the fair grounds.
The Friday fair was in full swing with children of varying age groups frolicking within the enclosure, a few vendors shouting at top of their lungs to attract customers while some were haggling with the potential ones.
Manvi could not stop a smile from curling her lips upwards as her dust-covered memory and the pandemonium in front of her coincided. She was amazed at the clarity with which she remembered her father’s stall at the far end of the fair with his handmade clay tandoor. She used to get entrusted to tend to it, although her 6-year-old mind would be longing to join the other kids at the fair.
Manvi quickly left the place before someone could spot and hold her back – her toned-down city clothes being a dead giveaway.
Later, at Shankar kaka’s house, Manvi took a breath of relief as she noticed the first signs of modernisation her uncle had adopted to upgrade his living quarters.
“Beta, do you remember Bholu? My son? He did all this for us. That’s why it may feel like a city house to you.” Beena kaki, misjudging Manvi’s expression to be of adoration, proudly informed her with a pointed gaze.
Manvi very well knew the meaning underlying that stare but she had steeled herself for far worse. She just smiled and nodded at her aunt.
“Manu beta, how have you been? Didn’t you miss us at all? I would always be asking Tribhuvan to call you but every time he would say you were busy. And now…”
“I’m sorry, kaka, for not calling but Baba was right. I was very busy in studies along with my part-time job and then surviving the corporate life. And it wasn’t possible to call that often on landline.”
“I can understand. Bholu says the same thing and hasn’t visited us in so many years. We haven’t seen our granddaughter as well.”
Skirting past the impending ‘future’ talks, Manvi changed the topic by complimenting on the house and the aroma of her aunt’s cooking.
Noise of firewood snapping in a crackling fire.
Sweet, smoky smell in the air.
An incessant bout of coughing.
That’s how I would begin my day ever since Baba decided to start this bread-making business, some 2 years ago.
Baking, particularly bread, had not been a sought-after profession in those days, especially in our remote village, that hardly comprised of a few thousand inhabitants. People would rather order their wives at home to prepare hot rotis and chapatis than buy a loaf of cold bread to heat it again before eating.
However, Baba once saw a baking facility at the Big City and to quote him, it had been love at first sight. That had been my reaction as well when I first tasted his freshly baked bread – that white fluffy cloud encased in brown cracked, crusty outer layer.
“Baba, I could eat this all my life.”
“I believe you, my pav-pari.”
The sobriquet which Baba had given me fuelled the sandcastles that my 4-year-old mind had built.
We had one handmade dome-shaped clay-tandoor structure at home and another at the fair grounds, and a fire needed to be kindled in them all day long to maintain the optimum temperature. That’s what Maa would be doing early every morning before the first batch of baking commenced while Baba would be busy in the kitchen.
Some days, Maa’s coughs would be so severe that I had to take over the task of tending to the flames, while she rested. It had seemed like a fun activity for a 6-year-old then. I would help her with other morning tasks of cleaning, dusting and preparing breakfast and lunch before heading off to school. I loved studying, well, as much a kid of my age did but may be, a little more.
I dreamt of having my own house in the Big City, getting Maa examined at a big hospital and setting up a fully automated baking facility for Baba. I did not have many friends through my formative years because the time they would play and have fun, I would be busy helping around.
Like Baba, I was fascinated with the baking process. The evenings would see our family engrossed in dough making. We had to knead, proof and rest the dough for hours so the yeast could work its magic. I would feel intoxicated by the smell of a freshly baked bread.
That year was monumental for us since Baba took a very risky decision of letting his fair-ground lot go and renting a small cart and a tiny space beside the highway road. It used to take me more than half an hour to reach the place by foot but Baba was sure this would prove pivotal for his business’ future.
He had not been wrong.
I would spend my weekends at his new workplace. The truckers and the long-distance travellers would find the humble bread-makkhan combination perfect for their snacking needs. I met many Big City people and my fascination towards my city dreams got even deeper.
With time, Baba got more adventurous and set up a small tin-roofed shop at that place. He had also started to experiment with his baking techniques and was now making sweet cream-filled buns. He would give them as lagniappe with the toasts.
At home, I noticed Maa getting sicker day by day. She would not let me tell Baba about it. I did not understand her reasons but I obeyed. The young-me would regret that forever.
Baba got more and more preoccupied with the expansion of his now-flourishing business and had no time left to devote at home or with us. His dreams began to resonate with mine – the elusive big City and our own place there.
For me, he was my hero – a visionary. He took up an otiose craft and kept at it until he succeeded.
He was my hero, until he was not.
Next morning, Manvi stood in front of a small, cosy shop named ‘Manu’s Paradise’ – she still could not believe that her father had selected this cheesy name for his bakery shop.
An estranged memory made its way into her thoughts before she could cross the threshold.
“Here it is! This is going to be ours next week. Need to fix it up a little.”
Baba proudly showed off a small, dingy room with a partition towards the back. The paint was peeling off and the roof looked like it would cave in any minute.
“Don’t worry, this is going to turn out perfect after a touch up.”
8-year-old Manvi was thrilled by her father’s excitement and had declared with all positivity, which only a naive child of that age could muster – this would be her paradise. Her parents had dissolved in cheers at her proclamation.
That would prove to be the last happy picture of her family together.
“Manu beta, what have you decided?”
“Kaka, I didn’t think he would give this shop to me. I haven’t thought of the future yet.”
“Okay. Think over it. In case you decide to sell, I can help you find potential buyers.”
That evening found Manvi perched on a high chair at the shop’s counter, where she was guessing her father must have sat while attending to his customers. A week’s worth of dust had settled over the counter and the shelves. The stale breads and rotten confectionery had left dirt-free patches on them after she got rid of them.
As soon as her uncle left, Manvi set about cleaning and scrubbing the whole shop. She was fervently scouring the whole place down as if to rid it of her father’s traces. At the back of the shop, a huge 12-tray industrial oven stood, which she knew was her father’s prized possession.
Dusting around this area, she came across a thick hardbound book. Glancing through it, her suspicions were confirmed – pages upon pages filled with recipes, noted in her father’s incorrigible handwriting.
She felt an unreasonable annoyance – imagining him sitting and noting each recipe patiently when he could not even write a single letter to his 16-year-old daughter. Stashing the book in the cupboard where she had found it, Manvi locked up the shop and made her way back to the empty house.
That day, at dawn, I ran as fast as my 12-year-old legs could carry me.
“Kaka! Kaka! Open up! Something is wrong with Maa. She wouldn’t stop coughing.”
I banged on his front door and screamed until my chest hurt. Kaka rushed outside, hurriedly putting on his kurta and ran alongside me. An hour later, it became clear to me that Maa would never wake up.
‘If only I had run faster.’
‘If only I had woken up sooner.’
‘If only Baba had been here.’
Baba had gone to the Big City last night. His plans of having his own bakery there was finally coming to terms. There was no way of informing him about the happenings here.
Kaka had to initiate all the related procedures until Baba returned in afternoon. While I had been bawling my eyes off since hours unknown, Baba’s reaction was a blank look and silence. This silence would come to reign our home, our lives and our countenances.
Baba did not apprise me of the reason but he never spoke of moving to the City again. He had become a stranger to me and immediately buried himself completely in his work. I, on the other hand, submerged myself in studies and household chores.
Therefore, it was not a total surprise that Baba immediately agreed when Jai Mamu suggested to take me in for my high school and further studies at the City. While my dreams of living in the City had started to take shape, I did not notice Baba’s stifled aspirations. Or perhaps, I chose to ignore them.
At 16, I was more than eager to leave this place, where everyone knew everyone’s business. I wanted to run away from the pitying look which automatically entered the eyes of our acquaintances when they saw me.
The City had been everything that I had expected and so much more. After schooling, I took up part-time job at a coffee shop close to my degree college as I did not want to be dependent on Baba for my daily allowance. He paid for the tuition and other sizeable payments anyway.
When I landed a job at an MNC, my reasons to head back looked much bleaker. I had not received a single congratulatory message from Baba for any of my accomplishments in life so far. I knew that he was aware of them because I requested Jai Mamu to inform him every time.
An unvoiced deal seemed to have been struck between Baba and me over these years. He understood I was doing fine, without him, and I knew he was faring well, without me. We were good at our own junctures in life – happiness no longer a priority to either of us. Things had been this way until I got the news that Baba had collapsed at the shop and did not make it.
The silence within me deepened further; this time, there was no sound on the outside.
After a long exchange of back and forth emails with my manager, I managed to get a week-long vacation but I missed his funeral.
Next day, Manvi sat down again at the shop’s counter with her father’s recipe book and perused flippantly through the recipes. She could not comprehend the inexplicable pull she felt towards that book’s written words.
Cake for Manu on her graduation
This illegible scribble at the margin of a page caught Manvi’s attention. Her fingers trembled as they flipped the pages in urgency to find if any other similar scribble existed.
For Manu’s 18th birthday
For Manu’s placement
There were many more such side-notes throughout the book. She was realising now that she held in her hands, her father’s meraki; this shop screamed of his meraki.
The silence which had settled down between them over the years was essentially them conversing with each other all this while, like her undelivered letters to him, stowed in her cupboard back at Jai uncle’s house.
“Manu beta, I went to your house but you weren’t there. What are you doing here?”
The tiny bell attached at the end of string on top of the door jingled. Manvi came out from the back of the shop to find Shankar kaka and two more of her unrelated neighbourhood uncles standing at the entrance.
“Sit down, kaka. Taste this and let me know what you think.”
Manvi brought a plate with three pieces of vanilla-frosted cake neatly placed on it.
“You made these? That’s what you been doing since morning?”
Manvi simply gestured for them to try the pastries in reply.
“Mmmmmm.. Manu, this is delicious. Wow. They are really good.”
Manvi beamed at them as her uncle stared at her in bewilderment. Her demeanour had undergone such a drastic change overnight. He was even more surprised at the fact that she seemed to be better at baking than her father – the pastries proved the point.
“And, try this also.” She rushed to the back and returned with three cups balanced dexterously in her hands.
“This is coffee?”
“Yes, kaka,” Manvi proudly answered as the three gentlemen marvelled at the humble latte art that she had created.
Two years at the cafe for her part-time job, had brought Manvi in close contact with the barista of the shop. Fascinated by the masterpieces he created, she had picked up a trick or two.
“I’ve a feeling you have already made your decision, Manu.”
Later that night, after closing down the shop, Manvi sat at the counter with a leftover piece of cake. Word had spread like wildfire – not very uncommon in a village of this size and the old regulars of the shop flocked in to offer their best wishes to Manvi for taking over the shop.
With her resignation letter already at the post office, she savoured her own creation and her heart sighed in contentment – the sweetness of her homecoming moment seemed to be overpowering that of the cake’s.
* Prompt: Cafe owner; Misplaces something valuable; Village
This story is also available at “Pint of a Story” by StudioCacofunny
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