The day I was born, the priest looked at my horoscope and said, “Mark my words. This boy will conquer the world.” My ecstatic parents named me Biswajit (one who has won over the world). Despite having such an illustrious name, nothing in my lacklustre life had been evidence of any kind of success. My parents would say, “My son? He will become a doctor or an engineer!” It was soon clear to them that I had neither the inclination nor the talent.
I used to watch my mother whip up tasty dishes for me and my brothers. Occasionally, I would assist her. “Nobody can beat the taste of the Paneer butter masala that Jithu makes,” Naani would say proudly. “Mera, Beta Baawarchi Banega?” Pithaji would snort. But even he couldn’t deny the fact that I worked magic in the kitchen.
In the evenings, I would roam around Chandni Chowk, snacking on street food. Delicious, wholesome Paranthas dripping with butter, crispy crunchy Chats, and scrumptious Jalebis. My relationship with food was special. Food communicated to me in a way that no one else could. My dream was to open a restaurant of my own. I hoped to collate enough capital for that. I did odd catering jobs to work towards my dream. Dreams are wonderful, aren’t they? Sadly, they don’t pay the bills.
I finally landed a catering contract for a wedding at R.K. Farms. I put my heart and soul into the job. If I could impress the hosts, I could break into the big league. The function was a success. The guests spoke highly of the food. I was on cloud nine.
And then, my eyes fell on her. She was a foreigner, dressed in traditional clothes, but looking out of place. Her silky black hair was left open. Her eyes were a piercing blue and her skin, snow-white. I walked up to her and said, “Madam, please try this sweet. You will like it.”
She smiled, revealing a dimple on her gorgeous face. She bit into the Gulab Jamun and made the sweetest of noises. “It is delicious! Did you make this?” She spoke English, but with an accent. I kept nodding like a lovesick puppy.
Her name was Natasha. Natasha Pavlov. I spoke to her in my broken English. She was a rocket scientist and worked for the Russian Space program. She was on holiday in India. I was mesmerized by her.
However, I realized the rift between the two of us was huge. Me, the cook from Chandni Chowk. Her, the rocket scientist from Moscow. But the heart wants what it wants! I was already in love with her, however hopeless it may have seemed.
I offered to be her tour guide. I followed her everywhere. If she had asked me to jump off a bridge, I would have. I glared at all the men leering at her. I pampered her with the tastiest delicacies, I had ever made.
What she saw in me I don’t know, but to my astonishment, she revealed that she reciprocated my feelings! This had to be an illusion. We were like oil and water in a cup. Always together but could never mix.
On her insistence, we did a day trip to the Taj Mahal, the epitome of everlasting love. I told her that I wanted to marry her and be with her always. She looked at me, her eyes wet, and said, “YES”. I couldn’t believe my ears. How could someone so perfect, fall in love with a loser like me? I lifted her in my arms and swung her around as she giggled. I was the happiest man in the world.
I told my parents immediately. As expected, they had misgivings. Love makes you blind. I paid no heed to them. We were married in a traditional ceremony. Natasha looked so radiant in a bright red lehenga that my mother had selected for her. Since she was an orphan, there was no one from her side attending the wedding. I tied the Mangalsutra around her neck. My wedding day was the best day of my life.
Natasha returned to Moscow, soon after. She promised that I could travel as soon as my documents were ready. A month passed by. Everyone started making fun of me. “Did your new bride run away?”
One day, the call came. “Baby! I have found a job for you. It’s at the Russian Space Center, as a caterer. There are foreign delegations from Asia visiting us for short projects and diet is a challenge for them. I have convinced my bosses to award you that tender!” I couldn’t believe my luck.
For the next few weeks, I prepared for my trip. “Russia is freezing, how will you survive winters there?” my family worried. I packed jackets and loads of winter clothing. I was confident that the harshest of winters would not stand in the way of my love. My family loaded spices and pickles into my bag. “Who knows what food you will get there?”
I boarded a flight from Delhi and landed in Moscow, seven hours later. I was excited. Perhaps the prophecy was coming true. I, Biswajit who had barely stepped out of Chandni Chowk was now on foreign soil, a feat that no one in my family had accomplished.
It was cold. There were signs in Russian everywhere. Natasha had promised to teach me the language. I had gone through some learning tapes. “poZHAlusta (please) YA ne govoryU po RUSski (I don’t speak Russian).”
I cleared immigration. And finally, the moment I was looking forward to, all this while. There she was! My wife! I was finally reunited with Natasha. She drove me back to her home. Our home. The apartment was much smaller than I had envisaged.
“Love. I suggest you settle down for the next two weeks. Learn the language. You should do some sightseeing.” I was a little disappointed that she couldn’t accompany me. But then, she was busy with work.
“We are working on a new project for the I.S.S. It’s an Indo-Russian partnership.” “What’s I.S.S?” I asked innocently. Natasha explained as she would to a three-year-old. “It’s a space station on a satellite orbiting the earth. We use it for research purposes, to do experiments and studies on our launches. We are planning to send Indian scientists up to the ISS for a training program.” I was fascinated. The word ‘Indian’ invoking my patriotic feelings.
I slowly got used to the sub-zero temperatures. I went around Moscow. I visited St Basil’s Cathedral, the Red Square, and the Bolshoi theater. I did a tour of the Kremlin and took pictures to send to my family. I learned a new word Lapochka-sweetie. Natasha was amused when I called her that.
I sampled Russian foods like Solyanka, a thick soup of vegetables and meat, Pelmeni, meat-filled pastries, and Blini, wheat crepes. I had never eaten this much meat in my whole life. My dream of opening the restaurant had temporarily paused. But that was OK. When one dream ends, yet another starts.
I wondered why Natasha had grown cold and distant, of late. She left early for work and came back late. Even on weekends, she would disappear. When I asked her, she would just shrug her shoulders and say, “busy!”
I was to start work in two weeks, something that I was looking forward to. I didn’t want to be a freeloader, dependent on my wife. My wife, who had used all her connections to get me into the Russian Space Agency.
Finally, the first day of my job! Natasha had told me that she worked in a different office and that I wouldn’t see her much. She insisted not to mention her name, lest she was accused of using undue influence to secure me a job. She gave me a peck on the cheek before I left for work. The first sign of affection in weeks.
This buoyed my spirits considerably. I filled in all the documentation. The space agency building was true, state-of-the-art. I had completed my onboarding and security clearance. And from there, straight to the kitchens.
I was assigned to a section that catered to the Indian contingent. I got to work, making dal, pulao, and masalas. Lunch was served at the huge canteen hall. I stood behind the serving tables with steaming curries and rice, wearing my gloves, uniform, and plastic hair guard. I met Dr. Ashok Mehta, a senior Indian scientist, and a member of the team being sent to the ISS. “You are a godsend, Bishwajit!” he complimented me. I met the rest of the team too. It felt good to meet someone ‘Indian’ in a foreign land. We cemented a steady
friendship over the next three months. Things had fallen into place.
The launch of the space shuttle to the ISS would be from a special facility in Kazakhstan. The team would work out of there for two weeks before they would be launched into space. Imagine my joy, when I was told that I could travel with them, to take care of their dietary needs. My special permit was arranged for. Pride surged through me. Access to the launch station was very restricted- not even Natasha was allowed in there.
Natasha waved me a fond goodbye and promised that we would go on a holiday once the launch was over. It was with a joyful heart that I flew to Kazakhstan. I adjusted to the new routine. This facility was much smaller than the one in Russia and had high security.
The day before the launch, I was working in the kitchen. I was stirring the soup for the scientist’s lunch. Who should I see, but my beautiful wife? “I missed you, darling!”, she said, as she pecked me on the cheek. I was thrilled. “How did you get clearance? “Oh, I managed”, she waved airily. “Darling, can you go and get my bags? I can watch the soup for you.” I got her bags and kept them in my quarters. When I came back, the soup was bubbling. My wife had disappeared.
I served the soup in bowls to the scientists. They slurped it up in contentment. I was on my way to the kitchens when I thought I saw someone slip into the restricted section. This section led to the launch pad and control room. I wasn’t allowed in there. Something in my gut told me that it was Natasha. “What was she doing there?”
As I passed by the canteen, I was shocked to see most of the scientists, slumped by their bowls. The soup! Something was wrong with the soup! I tried waking up Dr. Ashok by shaking him. He just wouldn’t respond, despite my best efforts.
I panicked and rushed back into the restricted area, to alert security. To my horror, there was a trail of blood and dead security guards. Was Natasha in danger? I followed the trail of blood, it led to the control tower, that was right in front of the launchpad. On the launchpad, was the shuttle, towering majestically above us. I saw Natasha in the control room, typing into the giant screens. Near her lay two dead bodies. “Natasha?” I screamed. She looked up at me bored.
“Oh, dear husband. I see you found me.” I was lost for words. Why are you doing this?” “I’m on a mission! I am going to activate the controls – the shuttle will launch unmanned and crash into the ocean.” “What did you do to the scientists?” “I poisoned them,” she said without batting an eyelid. “Stop!” I scream. The cries are filled with anguish; I had married a deranged criminal and worse, had become an inadvertent accomplice.
There was something that awakened in me- something raw and primal. I tried to grab her forcefully, but I was no match for her. She kicked me in the groin and knocked me out cold with something hard. I lost my consciousness. When my head cleared, I was alone in the control room. I could see Natasha climbing up the spiral staircase towards the space shuttle.
She was going to activate the controls in the shuttle and launch it into nothingness. I had to stop her. I got up with great effort. My head was reeling, and I had a gash on my forehead. I climbed the stairs up to the launchpad unsteadily. She was leaning over a digital screen, typing away furiously. I caught hold of Natasha in a chokehold. We fell over the railing and right into the shuttle. I tried lunging forward and catching hold of Natasha. She pushed me back with force. I landed on one of the control panels. Under my weight, something got activated and started beeping. “Damn!” swore Natasha.
She took out her gun and pointed it at me. At this exact moment, there were vibrations in the shuttle. She was startled. I used that opportunity to grab the gun from her hand. She screamed profanities at me in Russian.
“The launch sequence is activated. We need to get out of this shuttle now!” I ignored her. She tried to bolt to the shuttle door. “Stop”. I had no choice. I shot her. She collapsed, with a look of surprise. I grabbed her bleeding body in my arms. “Was anything real? Tell me? Lapochka!” She smiled and then, she was gone. I didn’t get my answer. The doors of the shuttle had shut tight. It was preparing for blast off. I felt the pressure increase. I collapsed, unconscious.
The shuttle had begun its journey to the ISS. I was being propelled into outer space. I opened my eyes slowly. My head hurt. I could see the earth, a distant blob. I was engulfed with a sense of wonderment and yearning. The ISS hovered above me. I had achieved my destiny! I had conquered the earth. Suddenly, the black surrounded me, and I lost consciousness.
When I woke up, I wasn’t on the ISS; turns out the shuttle hadn’t even left the launchpad. The launch sequence had failed. The oxygen deprivation made me hallucinate. I was there in the shuttle for a full forty minutes before they found me. I recovered in the hospital.
After several weeks of interrogation, we pieced the story together. Natasha was an ex-scientist who was fired on grounds of suspicious activity. This was even before she came to India. She had links with a terrorist organization and had taken huge sums to sabotage this mission. She knew about the catering contract. A chance meeting with me, and she had found the perfect scapegoat. Someone who would be gullible and yet serve as the perfect implant to get her the restricted access to the launch center. Once the mission was accomplished, she would disappear forever to some exotic island in the Caribbean, leaving me to my fate.
She had replicated my access card and gotten into the facility. To the security personnel, she was just a visitor, a relative of a facilities management employee. Access to the kitchen ensured that she had drugged all the scientists and rendered them immobile. I had inadvertently destroyed her mission and caused her death. Ironically after deceiving me throughout her marriage, what had killed her had been her trust in me, that I would not shoot her.
The Russian Government was thankful for my role in stopping Natasha. The Indian scientists had received treatment on time and had survived. A major diplomatic crisis had been averted. They awarded me with a gold medal. I no longer wished to continue in Russia. With my wife gone, there was nothing left for me there anymore.
I returned to India, with a broken heart. For the first few months, I refused to eat properly or sleep. My family was worried. Unable to see me in this state, my father loaned me the money for my restaurant. It was a dream come true, albeit after a tragic journey.
I named my café, “IndoRussia.” A fusion cuisine of European and Indian styles. I designed my café to have dome-like towers, just like the cathedrals in Russia. It was a reminder of my lost love. The restaurant did well. Probably because of its unique theme. On the wall of my private office, is a framed certificate and a medal, awarded by the Russian government to me, for my bravery. Along with the medal, is yet another relic I treasure, Natasha’s Mangalsutra.
There are days when I look out of the window at the stars, wishing Natasha and I were something real. Sometimes I dream of her. In my dreams, she isn’t a spy or an assassin. She is just a loving wife. I lie on her lap and we look out into the horizon and glance at the stars.
Nowadays, I focus all my energy on my passion, my restaurant. I have stopped believing in destiny. This time, I will script my own destiny.
* Prompt: Restaurant owner; finds out that a loved one is not what they seem; International Space Station
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