The Yellow Tart
“Well, excuse me for being a gentleman and wanting to help you out.”
“Thanks a ton, but I don’t really need any help. I think I can figure out my life all by myself. I don’t need a stinking vagabond to tell me what I should do with my life.”
“Wow. Low blow, son. I’ll just move over to the other bench to wait for the bus, while you figure out your life all by yourself then.” Nikhil lifted his heavy burlap sack, and moved over to the adjacent bench.
Rahim sighed. He knew he had to apologize, but he figured, what the hell. I don’t know the guy, and I didn’t even ask for his help in the first place. At least now he knows his place.
It had been over four days since he had run away from home. He had thought that the whole thing would be easy. He had enough food to last him for over a week, enough money to spend and people who would shelter him if he asked. How hard could it be? But he couldn’t really foresee much of what had actually happened. He hadn’t expected himself to hog on the scanty amount of food he had, and finish it in two days. He hadn’t expected to have his bags and wallet stolen on his third night alone. And he had certainly not expected his best friends turn him, a penniless, hungry him, out without a second thought. Well, he thought, it doesn’t look like I have any choice but to go back home. He would have to let his family have a hearty laugh at his miserable failure, and watch his father’s smirk every day, but it could have been worse. At least he was alive and well, with all his organs intact. He had been sure the man he had met at the Avadi railway station the previous night had been eyeing him for a spare liver or kidney, but then again, he couldn’t be too sure.
He had thought that figuring out his life, and what he wanted to with it would be easy. But the problem was, he- unlike the other million 17 year olds out there- actually knew what he wanted to do with his life. He had known what he wanted to do with his life ever since he was 12 years old. Ever since ‘The Incident’. But sadly, ‘The Incident’ was also the reason why his relationship with his dad had soured. And a major reason why he was forced at every point in the last five years, to become anything but what HE wanted.
He remembered that day like it was yesterday. It was the year 2011, and he had been skimming through his mother’s baking recipe books, when something struck his fancy. He turned back the page to the picture of a beautiful, yellow lemon tart staring right at his face. The sight of that creamy sabayon and that loud, red cherry on top got him drooling like nothing else ever had, even though he had just had lunch some ten minutes back. And the fact that he had spent his morning watching the amateur cooks in MasterChef fight their slightly inevitable chances of elimination by baking an apple tart, could not have been a coincidence either, thought Rahim. He felt like his chores of helping his mother putting together their meals, cooking idlis and dosas for the family when his mother fell sick or even washing dishes at the sink, had all prepared him for this moment. This moment seemed grander than when they had all taken the ziyarat to Mecca the previous year.
And yelling “Let’s do this!” to no one in particular, Rahim started assembling his ingredients and pans. He had had to make two journeys down to the department store next to his house to get some eggs and vanilla essence, but everything else went smoothly. He struggled quite a bit initially while preparing the crust, and had to repeat the whole process over five times until he had it perfected. And once the crust was baked completely, he left it to cool and started with his sabayon. His whole cooking venture came to an end late in the evening, with his little sisters jumping and running into the kitchen, convinced that the yummy smell was beckoning to them from the yonder. He got his entire family to sit at the dining table, and served them the tarts. And to his surprise, every one of them had loved his tarts. Even his father, though begrudgingly, had agreed that the tarts were ‘not that bad’, which he knew was his father’s own way of saying that they were ‘ridiculously delicious’. But no one had expected this incident to serve as a rod of inspiration to him. Had any of them foreseen it, they would have certainly discouraged it from ever entangling his brains, and as his father quotes, ‘turning him into a bloody kitchen maid’.
This incident changed his views on cooking, and most importantly, his life. And hence, the term. It had all been alright the first few months after ‘The Incident’, but then everything changed. Well sure, he loved sitting with his mom and gleefully watch Sanjeev Kapoor cooking appetizing paneer tikka and mouth- watering kheer in Khana Khazana and Nigella Lawson baking her famous Chocolate Fudge Cake, but then again, who didn’t? His parents had had no problem with any of that. But then, his ventures into the kitchen became too often, and the meals on the table increasingly became his than his mother’s. And nothing that his furious father or his relatives told made a difference. And soon, six months after ‘The Incident’, the kitchen became a forbidden spot for Rahim. But this rule just spiced up his interest towards cooking, for the lack of a better pun. At the age of 12, he realized he had some wicked cooking skills. At the age of 14, he realized that he could actually swing a career with his cooking talents. At the age of 16, his dad injured his right hand so he could never use his little finger ever again, all for an attempt to stop him from destroying the family’s carefully built reputation. And at the age of 17, he applied to the top culinary schools in India and America, right before his board exams. And a month after his exams, he ran away from home, nursing an injured arm and a broken nose, and here he was at a bus stand in the middle of nowhere, more than two hours away from home.
“Where did I go wrong?” wondered Rahim. He turned to his right, and saw the guy whom he had offended some time back sitting and munching on a bar of chocolate. His stomach started growling. He hadn’t had a decent meal in the last 14 hours, and he was starving. Gathering his copy of Oliver Twist and his deodorant rolled up in a bunch of newspapers, his only remaining belongings, he traipsed over to the other guy.
“I am sorry. I’ve been having a couple of terrible days, and it was not right of me to take it all out on you.” Rahim said, looking down at him.
Nikhil looked up, munching, “You’re feeling hungry, aren’t you?”
Rahim continued to look right at him, too weary to feel abashed.
“Hah. Sit down man.” Said Nikhil, patting on the vacant spot next to him. “I have a packet of biscuits, if you want. My name is Nikhil, by the way. What’s yours?”
“I am Rahim. Thank you so much for this.” Rahim said, sitting down.
He watched Nikhil rummage through his sack, hunger gnawing at his belly. “Thanks again.” He said, gratefully accepting the slightly crushed pack of biscuits from the stranger.
“That’s okay. You look like a starved mouse. I can tell, I’ve been there.”
“I don’t mean to offend you, but you don’t exactly look any better right now.” sprayed Rahim, his mouth half full with the biscuits.
“True.” Nikhil laughed. “But at least, it’s on my terms now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me guess. That ID card you’d shown the other bus conductor tells me that you’re a school kid. Either finished, or almost finished with school. I’m guessing you want to do something unconventional with your life, but your parents won’t allow it. And hence you ran away. At least that’s what I figured from our previous conversation. Right before you called me a stinking vagabond to my face.”
“Yeah, spot on actually. And I really am sorry about that latter part.”
“Chill man. It’s okay. I will let you in on a secret though -I haven’t taken a bath for the last three days. So stinking seems about right.” Chuckled Nikhil.
Rahim shrugged, “I haven’t taken a bath for four days. But lucky for me, the thieves decided to leave me my deodorant, instead of maybe a couple of notes. So here we are.”
“That sucks, I’m sorry. But as I was saying, what else did I miss?”
Thankful for a person to actually vent to, Rahim ended up narrating his entire life situation, from ‘The Incident’ all the way to the previous day, when his things were stolen in the dead of the night three days after he had run away from home.
“Wow. It truly is a tale of mystery and intrigue.” smiled Nikhil.
“Please. I’m at my wit’s ends. I don’t know what to do, I have no money, the biscuits you gave me are over, and I’m still starving.” Rahim waved his hands uselessly. “I have no option other than to go back home, and I know that that is the right decision. But if I go back, I have two choices. One, I will have to do a business administrations course that my father is bent upon, so I can help him out with his business, or two, I have to convince my father that a chef is what I was meant to be, and what I want to be.”
“Well, there you have it. You know which one of those two you have to take.”
“That’s the point. It’s not that easy. Do you think I would have run away if it had been that easy? I have tried convincing him for the last 5 years. Do you think a ten minute conversation will change his mind all of a sudden?”
“It will, if it is a good enough, convincing conversation. Or guess what the other option is, it won’t. This is just black or white, there is no grey portion. Look, we have all been in your shoes. Almost every single person in the world needs to convince someone or the other on why he or she needs to pursue that certain path. Some have it easy, but most don’t.” Nikhil sighed. “I don’t know if you’ve figured it out from my attire, but I’m a painter. I come from a family of doctors and architects. I was glad when I wasn’t forced to take engineering, but apparently being a doctor or an architect are the only ‘unconventional’ fields that I was allowed to pursue. I remember asking, in what world is being a doctor ‘unconventional’? And when I announced my decision on becoming a painter, my entire household exploded.”
“’A painter?’ My dad had screamed. ‘So you want to go around painting horses, trees and sunsets? Is that your idea of a job?’ It didn’t matter that I had literally won almost every art competition I had ever participated in, it didn’t matter that our home was basically decorated with my paintings and sculptures put up by my proud dad, it didn’t matter that I had won The Glasgow School of Art Scholarship Programme in UK. All that mattered was the family’s reputation that was at stake, and the fact that art was not a well-paying field. And even though I understood where my dad’s sentiments came from, I refused to be pulled into them. I stood firmly by my decision, while my family cut off ties with me one by one. I finished my graduate course in Fine Art using the grant I had received, and with the secret help from my mother, who was one of the very few who believed in me. And even after I got another grant to do my masters’ in Germany, my dad refused to get off his high horse. I had to leave my course in the middle and come back to India, when my mother passed away a year later. And now, here I am, two years later, with an unfinished degree, disappointed family members and a low paying, but amazing job. My job hardly lets me have a two square meal a day or a decent place to live in, but it lets me live. Actually live, because even though I look and seem to live like a homeless man, I enjoy what I do all day. And I think that makes it all worth it. There are times when I don’t get paid, when I have to go hungry for days in a row, and when I actually regret taking an art degree. And which is one of the things my dad never ceases to remind me if ever I go home, only second to how I don’t have a family or a life. But such is life, it will have amazing ups and equally depressing downs, and the latter occurs more often than the former. So the question you need to ask yourself is, are you strong enough?”
Nikhil turned to his right, to see Rahim looking at him with a look of awe.
He started laughing,” Cat got your tongue? I see that look, but let me tell you this, I’m not unique. This is normal life. You’re just 17, so you won’t face the brunt of it until after some more years. Everyone has to go through it. Sure, people tell you that life is love. They just forget to add that you have got to work tirelessly for it to be one.”
Rahim turned away, looking at the myriad of people crossing the road through the large, noisy traffic on either of their sides. He watched the mothers pulling their kids through the crowds, commuters talking on their phones and sipping their hot coffees and the vegetables vendors pushing their carts, trying to sell their wares before the end of the day. He had a huge decision to make. He wanted to be a chef, he knew it. But life was tough. He had no clue what was waiting for him at the end of the next ten years. Should he just do a BBA or do what he actually thought he would be good at? “How does one choose? Does one go for a safe job, or something that one loves doing, albeit a little dangerous well in the future?” he voiced loudly.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” chuckled Nikhil. “I can’t help you there. Here’s something to mull on though- would you rather eat that delicious, yellow, lemon tart or would you rather make it?”