The Cake Builder

It was a terrible day to start with. It had been a few days at home since Shreya quit her job in a resolution to prove to the world her worth as a homemaker. “Well, what would it entail?” was the nervous laugh that ended the farewell party in the office at Jhandewallan marg. When Shreya came back home that night and began to narrate the details of the party, the appreciation letter, and the parting gifts, it all went well until she remarked, ‘Oh, anyways who builds an office building at Jhandewallan. What is the place popular for - the huge Lord Hanuman statue? Ahhh…now that I have quit, I am sure the professional bliss is waning off at the same speed as the metro trains passing every five minutes cutting that celestial view of the whole statue, visible from the cafeteria-glass window.’ Sameer knew that the illogical blabber was the only consolation Shreya had for herself to endorse her decision to stay at home and look after their four-year-old daughter.  Last week, during the pickup from the creche, Shreya had found her little girl crying with high fever. The motherly instinct overpowered her professional side, and she made the decision. Atleast that’s what she believed. Though half of the office was rife with the rumours of her having a tiff with her colleague who was favoured by the boss, her opponent’s single status had won over the argument devoid of logic during a review meeting. Shreya would have thrown her resignation at that point but then she thought about the years she had slogged for, and how she sacrificed her time post baby to immediately join lest her position would get usurped by someone far more ambitious. Was it worth the effort, Shreya would often think and let go of the feeling. ‘Well, this is what every modern age woman faces!’ Shreya could have been anyone, if not Mrs.Shreya Parida, with a bit of confusion to accompany her everywhere. The young woman who wanted to get her hair straightened yet scared of the damage to her hair with the chemical treatment available these days, continued to live in the doldrums of hiding her hair behind a bun and using the straightener rod every now and then. She was in her early 30’s, though streaks of white had begun to show its colour on the curly top, the fair skin had begun to get spots and blemishes and the sagging breasts and protruding stomach, all courtesy the pregnancy was increasing by the day. Yet, when Shreya decided to get ready for an outing, she looked refreshing, always donning her wonderful smile and heart on the sleeve. Now she wondered if it was her professional pursuit that kept her afloat for so long. Though not so distant in time, when the couple had just bought this house, Shreya had treated it as a pet project. She dusted every object on the table, washed the table runner on Sundays. On certain other Sundays, she would drive with Sameer to home shops and Dili Haat to buy decoratives for the bedside, the side table or the balcony. And none of these expeditions ever stopped the quest for home décor items. It was a never-ending feat, may be kept aside for a while to neatly stock up the grocery inventory given by the housemaid from time-to-time. Then, Pia happened; it was the peak of her professional career. Shreya sailed through the nine months at her lethargic best. Four years down the line, she least bothered for the home; the brown curtains that hung in the hall never changed to match the green of the side walls. The cushion covers stayed on and the showpieces were piled up on the top shelves of different cupboards. "Who cares, I have an office and a child to manage and this marriage... Why do you even bother to ask me... Call Devaki," was a constant reply that came so easy to Shreya in these years. "Indeed, our saviour these days is our housemaid," was her husband’s retort. “The only glitch that the saviour doesn't know this fact of our life,” came in a quick version of the earlier answer. As soon as Shreya decided to stay back and give some time to herself, the home and their child; something else had caught the fancy of the women stationed at home in her circle. There was a whole new bunch of entrepreneurs to compete with, no one was idling their time away with the television or the Netflix. “Do you realize, Jenny has an Instagram account calling herself ‘The Novice Baker’ and she put up the picture with ‘just made Tiramisu for the first time’ and it looks gorgeous!” Sameer could never understand how things boiled inside Shreya’s head, one moment she wanted her career, the next she wanted to become the best homemaker and the very next, which was the present, she was dreaming to become the entrepreneur who bakes.    “How can an Instagram account change your life goals, Shreya?” “No, it cannot. It has just given me a perspective.”  “Well, then…why wait, begin your journey. But I have an office to attend.” That day at home, nothing happened except the search for the cookbook and the manual for the microwave that was purchased some five-six years ago and which was used mostly to heat and reheat food. Devaki had to intervene, “Didi, in today’s time and age, people search on the phone and cook.” Shreya looked angrily at her help and companion, gave her a slight nod and shook her head in a direction where the search had to be initiated. By noon, things were sorted, the manual and the cookbook retrieved, along with the utensils that came packed with the giant machine. Devaki was happy to cook on the gas stove with the recipes she knew, spluttering the generous amount of cumin in hot refined oil mixed with boiled lentils and some rice boiled in a deep utensil.  As soon as the daily chores were over, the two ladies set out. Shreya reached the nearby supermarket that was almost empty at the sleepy afternoon hour. So, she had the freedom to look around the various boxes. She had to pick up Pia from school at 3 pm and there was ample time to look around. A young couple walked ahead of her. She couldn’t help but watch them, young and in love, holding each other’s hand and putting things into the cart with their hearts melting to be with each other in bed at that very moment. Such moments were lost in Shreya’s life now, she could not remember the last time they had been as intimate or laughed as carelessly. Whatever happened between them was now a part of day’s routine and some nights’ routine in a married couple’s life.  A lady came from behind and asked, “Ma’am, do you need some help?” And Shreya understood that the meaning of the sentence was ‘Ma’am, please stop daydreaming and continue with the purchases.’ To the end of the long-stacked case, she found the required flour, baking powder, and the flavour mixes. “I guess I should be done…or…maybe I should begin with the readymade mixes”, she eyed the row with colourful, appetising pictures on the rectangular cartons calling out to her as strawberry cake, chocolate cookies, and puddings. She turned and pictured the store lady heading right for her, and she surely wanted to steer clear of any help. Why was she always so hesitant of the store workers and their approach was incomprehensible to her, but she felt anxious in their overpowering presence.  She took her big bag of baking goodies and headed for the school. Pia was excited to have her mother at home from now on after school hours. Though, she did not expect her to enter the new spree of baking cakes. It had been almost a month to Shreya’s outburst into baking, and with no tangible results. “I could not get a single Instagram worthy dish,” sobbed Shreya. Sameer seemed indifferent to Shreya’s efforts, he tasted whatever she put out and said ‘nice or fine’ as the word came to him. The first cake that Shreya baked had not become fluffy, which she accounted to less quantity of baking powder. The second time, the cake did come up but then in the last 2 minutes, pushed down inside the microwave tin and left a bitter aftertaste that was attributed to an extra teaspoon of the baking powder.  It was February, a pleasant time in Delhi when the schools across the city planned picnics. Pia came home one day and announced to her mother that her teacher has asked for home-baked cookies for the picnic. Sameer was quick to jump in and say, “Well, that means home styled cookies available at ‘The Bake Shop’ down the road.” Shreya understood the hint, but she was frantic to show her baking skills, especially to Jenny who had her daughter studying in the same class as Pia. “You don’t understand darling, its war.” Sameer sighed, “Well, nobody has declared it on the other end. Perhaps the enemy has no inclination for your call. And, you have not baked cookies till now; and I am sure baking cookies must be different from cakes.” But Shreya was adamant and suggested that it was the same dough with less milk and there was only the requirement of an additional cookie cutter.  Shreya had about three days to complete the preparatory paraphernalia. The first day, Shreya baked wheat cookies. In the evening, she served tea with her ‘home-baked-cookies’ to Sameer. This time generously asking Devaki to taste one too, who said she had no inclining for such westernised delicacies and went ahead rolling out rotis. Sameer sided off with his cup of tea and did not budge from his seat on the comfortable sofa infront of the television. Shreya tasted one and went to her bedroom and began to read the back of the readymade cookie dough packet.  For heaven’s sake, “That’s not how cookies are made!” This sounded like a premonition, there were dark clouds hovering above Shreya and she could barely see through the azure light coming from the ceiling. And, then came a loud voice from an old lady, “Why is it so chewy?” She was now crying and saying, “Every time I refer to the cookbook, I try to be perfect, but it never is. I can never be best at anything, Mom. Help me.” And just then, Sameer jolted her out of the nap. “What happened?” Shreya was covered in sweat; she said she saw her mother and how she advised her on baking cookies for the picnic. ‘But she never baked anything, though she was a great cook undoubtedly…’ Sameer just stopped, probably thinking the moment wasn’t right to delve into an argument on accuracies.   Sameer couldn’t understand why Shreya pinned down on such a silly thing. ‘Men don’t understand our wars!’ Shreya would often say. But Sameer had understood her anxiety and perfectionist motto during office days and thought her days as a homemaker would have no such traits of competitiveness.  Next day, at the Hair Bonds Salon, Shreya found herself seated next to Jenny. ‘Hey Shreya, it’s been so long’ gesticulated someone from underneath a translucent hemisphere. Bad luck had really knocked on her door as Jenny started pestering Shreya about her newfound love in baking, demeaning her fall from the professional podium. As Shreya took leave, citing her forgetfulness in leaving her bag behind in the car, Jenny interrupted to say, “We should totally meet in the evening and chat about this new endeavour of yours…I am having my other two friends over as well. Oh, I didn’t realise but this would be great for you to socialise.’ Shreya couldn’t move a single muscle around her mouth but somehow got ‘Sure’ out of her system.  Shreya came home in a bad mood. She couldn't believe that she took the bait and spent her evening with Jenny and her coterie. Shreya found herself overshadowed in the circle of women who were loud and excessively self-indulgent. On top of it, there was matcha tea served with oatmeal cookies and lemon cake. It was an awful time to exist. Shreya promised herself that this was her last outing of the sort.   Back home after the gruesome evening, Shreya was annoyed with pretty much everything. She found fault with Shreya’s drawings, thrown around Lego pieces and Sameer’s laid-back attitude and his coming home late every single day. At night, while others were fast asleep, Shreya went on the internet trying to figure out her situation. A total of six-hours spend at understanding her mental condition through self-help blogs and videos from across the world made things more chaotic than ever before. On top of it, the sleepless night made her even grumpier in the morning.  This was the very morning where her baking skills had to shine, Pia’s picnic day was here. Pia came to her mother all chirpy for the day, but she perceived a tense mood in the kitchen. So, Pia rushed to her father to get through the morning chores. Sameer wasn’t acquainted with the colour of the day concept or which pair of shoes went with which day’s uniform. It was tormenting for him but before he turned to his wife, Devaki came to his rescue. She made sure Pia was immaculately dressed for her happy day and in the same way as her mother would have done.   As the microwave beeped and Shreya took out her mittens to grab the tray, she realised the failure. She refused to send the badly turned-out cookies and immediately called in the home delivery for a pack of home baked cookies. Everything was ready and Pia gladly rushed off to the school bag.  Sitting on the breakfast table with Sameer that day, Shreya wanted to pour her heart out. She wanted Sameer to understand her.  ‘Thankfully Pia is too small to understand any of this but tomorrow, when she grows up and realises, I am not good at anything, what is she going to think. I am no professional or a homemaker in the perfect sense,’ Shreya said as she almost broke into tears.  Sameer replied, ‘Can’t you be at peace with one thing in life…may be just pick your career from where you left instead of having such devastating thoughts.’ ‘It has never been your concern, when I was pregnant…all you could say is listen to your body. But you never understood how I felt in a world that constantly judges you and compares you with others. You remember my mother calling and telling me how smooth it would be, just hire someone after the baby comes and off you can head to work. Since then, every single day, I went to office feeling guilty and internally criticising myself. You again passed it off as one of my phases!’ Shreya took her cup of tea and left the room. She closed the bedroom, she wanted to stay alone for some time and Sameer went to office, the same usual way.  Sameer had called her thrice during the day, but Shreya did not pick up the phone. In the evening, she sent him a message, ‘The Cake Builders’ is going to be a reality. A shop right across the street from where her she lived. She would own a business now! When Sameer reached home, Shreya said, ‘Well…It’s not rocket science. You just need to get a hang of it and learn as much as possible from the internet and cookbooks.’ Her husband couldn’t believe what just happened in a matter of hours. ‘You know you’ll be changing your profession; this wasn’t your life plan.’  ‘I remember but you have forgotten. My life’s motto was to be happy and enjoy my work.’ Shreya had the heartiest laugh in a long time and continued, ‘Remember, I am good at business management…I hired the baker and took over the cafeteria you see there. I am turning it into a bakery, and I know I’ll be fine running this business.’ Sameer had no clue on how this would go but he was happy for his wife.  He also had no inclining that Jenny wasn’t the baker, it was her cook who had to be credited for her meteoric Instagram growth. On one of Shreya’s mundane grocery store visits in the afternoon, she had spotted the bald man from Jenny’s kitchen collecting items from the bakery condiments stack. She was impressed by his precision and dedication. As she picked the baking powder, the man asked her to choose the other brand. He assured her that this simple change would bring her great results. In the next few minutes, Shreya got all that she needed to know and proposed a plan or let’s say a better proposition to the man.   Shreya was elated, this was her venture and ‘best part Pia could be around anytime she wishes to be’. On the day of inauguration, after the initial speech, Shreya said, ‘moreover, every Saturday we are going to have a special bake session with the little bakers.’    Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!