Armed with a charming smile, Irene went to table number seven. “Hope the lemon tart is to your satisfaction, Dr. Swann! And how is the coffee today?”
The customer looked up, surprised. “Oh, you remember me then. This time, no complaints. This is the kind of lemon tart I love and your chef has nailed it. The coffee is great too.”
“Thank you, Dr. Swann. I will pass on the message to the chef.” She smiled and went to the other guests, chatting with them and cracking the odd joke.
Irene Smith had graduated with a degree in English Literature from Presidency College, Calcutta. Her father had started a café in Park Street and had lovingly named it after her. The untimely death of her parents due to a shipwreck on the way to Port Blair had no doubt burdened Irene heavily, but her upbringing and support from friends gave her enough courage to be strong and bring the café nearly at par with others in the vicinity within a few years. Among her close friends was Naren, her college sweetheart, who stood by her all the time.
As she moved around the tables, Irene felt the cool December breeze whistling into the café as the door opened. She smiled on seeing who it was.
“So, how is the beautiful lady today?” The young man bowed down as he neared her.
“Stop it Naren”, said Irene as she hit him with a newspaper. “Why are you so late? You know I cannot handle accounts without you. Now take over, and, no flirting till lunch, ok?”
With a “Yes madam”, Naren went to the cash counter. Irene noticed a mischievous grin as he passed by her.
Naren and Irene had met during a college event and since then, they had been inseparable. He was an orphan but was brought up by his uncle in Cossipore. After the Smiths’ demise, Naren had started to manage the accounts and tax returns of Irene’s Cafe. In due course, they had agreed to divide work among themselves, and while Irene managed the kitchen and the customers, Naren looked after supplies and other statutory works.
As Naren and Irene finished their lunch, Irene poked him again. “Hey, why are you so quiet today? Why were you late in the morning? You never gave me an answer.”
“Well, I had to pick up a few things.” Naren replied, raising his eyebrows and tilted his head to the right. Getting the signal, a waiter brought a big plate containing flowers, champagne and a small box. As Irene gasped with both hands over her mouth, Naren got up, opened the box, revealing a diamond ring, and knelt down beside her.
“Irene Smith, will you accept me as your husband?”
With tears welling up, Irene pulled up Naren to his feet and hugged him tightly. It was as if the world had come to a standstill as she conveyed her reply by showing him her ring finger, and Naren dutifully slipped the ring. In the next moment, all the staff members gathered around them and the celebrations began.
After the wedding, the café was closed for 2 weeks during which Naren and Irene travelled across Darjeeling. All the staff were given leave with pay for the duration, but with a strict warning of dismissal if they did not join on the 15th day.
One evening, a day before their return journey, Irene and Naren decided to take a walk down the Mall Road. As they strolled by the shops and basked in the scenic beauty of the Himalayas, Irene had an eerie feeling that they were being followed. A hooded figure seemed to peek out of corners every now and then.
Naren excused himself as they came down for dinner that night. “Sorry Irene, I have to buy this ointment. Why don’t you order soup at the restaurant? I will be right back.”
As Irene selected a table by the verandah, she heard voices, of which one sounded familiar. Naren. She walked towards the source. Standing behind the tall bushes, she instantly recognised her husband as one of the persons in the conversation. Her heart skipped a beat when she looked at the other person. It was the same person who was stalking them that day.
“You messed up big time, Naren”, the tall, muscular man was telling Naren. “You should not have married that memsahib. What happened to your oath? Do I have to remind you about who you are and what you have promised your motherland?”
“Shankar da, you have got me all wrong.” Naren was almost pleading. “Things went by so fast that I could not explain properly to you before we started from Calcutta. Trust me, I have not forgotten my goal and my first love will always be my motherland. But to achieve my goal, this was important.”
Irene could not believe her ears. She felt her legs trembling, but regained her composure and retreated to the dining hall. By the time Naren joined her, she looked normal.
“So, did you get it?” she asked.
“Huh? What? Oh that. No, the store nearby did not have any stock. I have to go to the mall again tomorrow to get it.”
Irene could not sleep that night. Who was that man speaking to Naren? What was Naren’s goal? Did he marry her to gain something? Didn’t he love her as much as she did? She was lost for an answer.
The days following their return to Calcutta were very hectic. All their staff members, except for one of their pastry chefs, had reported on duty as promised. Irene and Naren joined their team in cleaning the café and bringing it back to normal. Gradually, their business picked up again as regular customers started to arrive. Irene eventually decided to forget those incidents in Darjeeling as a bad dream since Naren appeared as joyful and faithful as before. What else she could do? She was madly in love with that man!
A week later, Naren came in with an Indian man in his forties. “Irene, we needed a pastry chef, right? This is Ratan. I met him through one of our suppliers. Why don’t you test him and see if he fits?”
Irene put Ratan through one of the toughest tests, but he came out with flying colours. Ratan was adept in making all sorts of desserts and soon started making signature pastries for the café. Irene soon introduced a new menu card which became popular among Calcutta’s elite. In due course of time, Irene found out that she was pregnant with Naren’s child. Naren ensured that Irene was kept happy and cheerful during the next few months.
Meanwhile, the second World War had started and India was unwillingly pulled into the war. As the freedom struggle increased its intensity, Naren openly started voicing his support for revolutionaries from Bengal. But Irene managed to quell his anger at home by a simple method.
“Naren, your child is listening,” she would say in a stern voice and Naren would stop immediately.
One day, one of the female staff came to Irene. “Memsahib, there is a white sahib outside. He said he came to meet Naren sahib. When I told him that Naren sahib has gone out and will be back only by evening, he insisted that he needs to meet you.”
“All right. I will meet him. Please send him inside” said Irene. The man was shown into her office.
“Please tell me what I can do for you.” Irene was polite.
The stranger looked around first and then leaned forward. “Mrs. Irene Smith Banerjee, my name is Lieutenant Warren Sinclair. I am the head of Her Majesty’s intelligence services in Calcutta and I report directly to Viceroy Linlithgow in Delhi. Before I begin, can you assure me that whatever is spoken between you and me stays in this room, no one else can hear us and will know about our conversation?”
Irene was taken aback at this. This was no ordinary British official. What could it be about? she thought, then replied “Please tell me what you want to say. I promise you that nothing of this will be discussed outside.”
“Mrs. Banerjee”, he started. “As you know, Calcutta has become the hub of revolutionaries in past several years. Previously, it was easy for us to finish them off. But nowadays, they are adopting very sophisticated methods, which includes luring young British girls, marrying them in order to get inside our circles and carry out assassinations. My job is to find such rats. That’s the name we have given to such people.” He took a deep breath and look straight into Irene’s eyes.
“And, I am afraid, your husband is a rat.”
Irene felt the world around her spin. She started to tremble. She tried to hold on to her chair’s armrest, but they slipped down due to sweat. “Its… its impossible!” she shouted and started to tremble. “Naren loves me! We know each other from college. How can you say such things about him?”
Then, she stood up and addressed the man with a refined tone, “I request you to leave my café right now, Lieutenant. I don’t want to hear anything more on this matter and please don’t try to see me again.”
Lieutenant Sinclair sighed and stood up. “I expected this reaction, Mrs. Banerjee. Very well, I will take your leave now. You can meet me at Government House, if you notice anything or anyone suspicious. You are a British citizen and your safety is my sole responsibility.”
Saying this, he walked away, leaving Irene alone. As she sank back on her chair, memories of that evening in Darjeeling came back to her. “But to achieve my goal, this was important.” Naren’s words reverberated in her head. She could not concentrate on anything. Her thoughts went back to the day when she first met Naren, a bright and charming young man who had rescued her from bullies after the college event. She remembered all the good times she had spent with Naren from then onwards. Could Naren have planned all this? No, No. He loves me as much as I love him. It must be my misunderstanding. Naren cannot be like that.
That night, as Irene got the dinner table ready, she found Naren walking up to her with a big smile on his face.
“Now what is the reason for that smile, Mr. “soon to be father”, she asked teasingly?
Naren quietly pulled out what looked like a pamphlet from his jacket and placed it on the table in front of Irene. “It is an invitation to the food contest at the Government House. I decided that our café should compete. The Governor, himself a food buff, will taste all the pastries on the 15th and select the best café which will supply cakes and pastries to his all guests on Christmas Eve.”
“And you think our café can compete with the likes of Trincas and Flurys?” she asked looking at the pamphlet.
“Hey, come on.” Naren chided her. “You only say that Ratan’s pastries are the best. Our customers vouch for him. We should participate. Even if we don’t win, more people will know about our café and our clientele will increase.”
Irene turned around to face Naren. “All right. Let’s do it. We will go all out. Who knows, we might be the dark horse. Come, let’s have dinner and then we can plan it out.”
Later, as Irene was washing the dishes, she heard patches of conversation from the garden. She let the tap run and tip-toed to the balcony and peeped from behind the curtains. She froze in horror. It was the same man she had seen at the hotel in Darjeeling.
“Trust me Shankar da,” it was Naren, “I have everything planned. Governor John Arthur Herbert will go into a cardiac arrest thirty minutes after he tastes the pastry made by Ratan. Nobody will know what happened. Victory will be ours.”
“Good job,” the man said. “If you are able to pull it off, the British Empire will be shaken from its roots. Vande Mataram.”
Naren repeated after him, “Vande Mataram.”
The floor seemed to sink beneath her feet as Irene tried to fathom what she just heard. But she gathered herself and went back to the kitchen. Just in time, since Naren had followed suit.
“What happened, dear? You are sweating in November?” asked Naren and tried to hug Irene from behind, but she pushed him away.
“Its nothing, I just wiped my face without realising my palm was wet. Silly me,” she replied with a laugh.
“Don’t overdo things. The little one will start kicking otherwise. Here, let me do the rest”, he said and started to wash the dishes.
All the while, Irene stared at Naren. Who are you? What are you? Are you the same Naren whom I loved? Why did you change? When did you change?
She was woken up from her thoughts as Naren splashed water on her face. “Gosh! Look at your sleepy eyes. All done. Come, let’s go to sleep.”
The next day, Irene was surprised when a staff announced that her carriage was waiting for her by the door. I never called for a carriage, thought Irene as she stepped out. As she opened the door, she was surprised to see Lieutenant Sinclair inside. “Get in quickly”, he gestured and she climbed in.
As the carriage moved towards Victoria Gardens, Lieutenant Sinclair addressed Irene. “Someone came to your house yesterday, right? So, do you believe me now? Or do you need more proof?”
“How did you…? You kept your men outside my house?” Irene was stunned.
“Mrs. Banerjee, we had eyes on Shankar Banerjee since the past 5 years. He and his brother Naren have set you up. And yes, I have men tracking all movements of your husband. That new pastry chef you have, what was his name again, Ratan, isn’t it? He is wanted in three instances of arson and dacoity in Asansol and Durgapur.” He looked into Irene’s eyes and continued, “Its is time to show where your loyalty lies – with your husband or with the Queen.”
Irene got off by the Trincas and quietly walked up to her café. Inside her office, she looked up to Jesus and then to a photo of her parents and then prayed silently. Oh Lord, please give me strength to do what is right. She had to take a very painful decision that night.
That night, when Naren came back home, he found Irene standing in the middle of the hall with one hand on her enlarged tummy and another behind her back. “Hello my dear”, exclaimed Naren and started towards Irene.
“Stop right there Narendranath Banerjee”, she thundered.
“What happened dear? Why are you shouting? Is everything ok?” Naren looked surprised.
“No”, she said. “Nothing is ok. This marriage, your love for me, all this is a sham. You married me so that you can use me to kill the Governor General, right? Am I right? Tell me! I want the truth.”
Naren stared at Irene for a few seconds, and then replied with a serious look, “Yes, you are right. This is my motherland and I am fighting for her freedom and I will do whatever it takes to get it.”
Hearing this, Irene brought out her hand from behind and revealed the gun which Lieutenant Sinclair had given to her in the carriage that morning. Pointing the gun at Naren, she screamed, “Long live the Queen.”
Two shots were heard from inside the house. Lieutenant Sinclair, together with ten officers of Calcutta Police barged into the house. They found Naren lying in a pool of blood on the floor. Irene had collapsed on the sofa and seemed to go into labour. A police officer confirmed that Naren was dead. Lieutenant Sinclair immediately ordered his men to take Irene to the nearest hospital.
Shankar Banerjee was arrested as he tried to flee by boat to Chittagong and was sentenced to Kalapani where he would eventually die due to excessive torture. Ratan was shot dead near Esplanade, when he resisted arrest.
Irene delivered a beautiful baby girl and named her Kalpana, which was also the name of Naren’s late mother.
“So, what will you tell her?” Lieutenant Sinclair had come to the hospital to see Irene.
“I will tell her that her father was a freedom fighter and died for his motherland”, was the cold reply.
* Prompt: Cafe Owner; Discovers that a loved one is not what they seem; Pre-Independence India
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