By Sarah Swatridge
“Wow,” thought Surabhi. “If I had to choose a man for myself, then Raghav Gupta would be there at the top of the list.” He was handsome with the dreamiest eyes and a dazzling smile. She’d watched him with his cousins and decided he’d made a good husband.
He treated his mother and sisters with respect, showing himself to be a true gentleman. What’s more he had an important job, with prospects, and he had a generous nature.
“Too good to be true?” wondered Surabhi as she combed her long dark hair. “He can’t possibly be perfect, can he?” she asked her mother.
“More to the point, are you perfect for him?”
“I will make sure I am,” said Surabhi staring at her reflection in the mirror. “I am determined I will make a good impression on him.”
“You certainly have what it takes,” replied her mother. “What will be, will be.”
Unbeknown to Surabhi and her family, Vanya also had her eyes on the young businessman Raghav Gupta.
Surabhi and Vanya knew each other from their school days. They shared a mutual respect for each other, but were not what you would call friends.
Surabhi and her mother visited ‘Sari Mahal’ the classiest sari shop in town. It’s stock featuring the work of many top designers.
The first inkling Surabhi had that she had a rival was at the sari shop when she overheard Vanya and her mother discussing what colours brought out the best in her. Surabhi knew Vanya was out to impress a man and as soon as she heard Raghav Gupta’s name, she knew she had a fight on her hands.
From the back of the sari shop Surabhi was able to study Vanya and her mother. She had been told she, like all daughters, she would grow into her mother.
Vanya’s hair was perfectly trimmed and as glossy as an Indian blackbird’s feathers. Surabhi looked at her own hair, although long and dark, it was wavy, and however hard she tried, the wind would play with it and make it untidy. Her curls could be so unruly. Whereas Vanya’s hair was thick and looked neat, and always looked as though she’d just stepped out of the hair salon.
Surabhi glanced at her own mother. She was still talking to the sales assistant. There were at least half a dozen materials spread out for her to feel. Surabhi loved her mother. Somehow she effortlessly ran the household, brought up her family and always had time to entertain and to be at her father’s side. She made being a good wife look so easy.
“I won’t let you down,” whispered Surabhi. Just then her attention was drawn back to Vanya who was helping her mother choose her sari. They were nearly ready to make their purchase.
In an instant Surabhi was at her mother’s side. She felt the fabrics and listened to the pros and cons of each of the colours and designs. She did her best to ignore Vanya and to concentrate on the matter in hand.
It seemed everywhere Surabhi and her mother went, Vanya would have been their first.
Her father had often bought her gold charms for her bracelets whenever he’d been away on a trip but this year he hadn’t travelled so much so he suggested they went to choose a piece of jewellery for her to wear at the next party.
Surabhi saw the earrings as soon as she entered her favourite Designer Jewellery store. There was something dazzling about them.
“I’ll wear them with my new sari,” she told her mother.
“They are beautiful,” her mother agreed. “I love the way they catch the light.”
As they were leaving the shop who should enter, but Vanya, closely followed by her mother. Vanya smiled a smile of recognition rather than friendship. Her lips were full, her teeth white and even. Surabhi knew her own lips were thin but her teeth were good.
“Could I ever look as charming?” she asked her mother.
“It is not you who is making the choice, but Raghav Gupta. I shall not hear another word about Vanya. She is a good daughter, but then so are you.”
“I know you will make him a good wife if he gives you the chance. It’s him we need to convince.”
On their way home they were aware of new advertising posters being plastered up all around the city. Something big was happening.
Nadiya Hussain, the British born Bangladeshi woman who was on the television for winning ‘The Bake Off’ – a cookery programme, now had her own TV show and was here on tour, tracing her roots and discovering ‘The Tastes of India’ for her new TV series.
“Can you roll round chapattis?” asked one bill board. Surabhi’s mother looked at her daughter.
“Now that’s something you can do. There’s going to be a big cookery competition. I’m going to put your name down. That will get you noticed.”
Surabhi was at her happiest when she was in the kitchen creating delicious smelling foods.
One day they were having family round for a birthday celebration. Surabhi was to help her mother but then she was called away to the telephone. Surabhi’s aunt and uncle had moved to the USA many years ago.
Surabhi knew that once her mother and aunt started talking it would be a long call. They were loving sisters and were still just as close despite living thousands of miles from each other.
The phone call went on for ages. Surabhi had prepared all the food by the time her mother returned to the kitchen.
“I just know you are going to win the competition and be the next Bake Off winner.”
Surabhi wasn’t so sure. She spent many hours practising and playing with new ideas. She tried out some different recipes. Some were a success while others were disasters.
Her aunt kindly sent her an American cookery book full of unusual ingredience.
As luck would have it, Surabhi’s father had arranged for Raghav Gupta to visit and to meet Surabhi. The message had not been delivered properly and Raghav Gupta arrived several hours early. Under normal circumstances this would not have been a problem but on this occasion Surabhi was busy in the kitchen. She had flour in her hair and earlier on had burnt some sugar. The smell of burning caramel hung in the air.
She did her best to present herself but wasn’t aware of the flour dust that had settled on her hair giving a grey sheen to her jet black mane.
Raghav Gupta was polite and even more handsome close up. Surabhi knew that tonight she would be dreaming of Raghav’s dark, but smiling eyes.
He seemed genuinely impressed by her kulfi and wished her well in the competition.
There was no surprise that Vanya too was entering the competition along with most of the female population in the area.
The town was alive with excitement. No one was talking about anything else.
Far too many people had entered, hoping for a chance to be on the big screen. To filter out the best ones, various heats were held and the winner would then go through to the next round.
Surabhi made it to the semi-finals which impressed everyone she knew and would have satisfied her, but Vanya got through to the final, although she didn’t win.
Vanya’s grandmother told her that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. This may not always have been true or medically correct, but it worked for Vanya, and she won Raghav Gupta’s heart.
Surabhi was the first to congratulate the girl. She genuinely wished them every happiness, but was pleased to return to her own kitchen. She’d not felt comfortable under the spotlight.
Back at home her mother was on the telephone once again with her aunt but this time she had a smile on her face and kept laughing as she listened to her sister.
“I am acquainted with quite a lot of suitable boys who work in my husband’s office.” The aunt was saying. “They’re all highly qualified but don’t get the time to look for a suitable bride,” Surabhi’s aunt paused, “Send the girl over here to do a cookery course and leave the rest to me.”
At long last the call came to an end and her mother explained what all the conversation had been about.
“I told your aunt about your interest in cookery and she told me of a cookery school nearby in New York City. They’re running a year’s course. With a qualification like that you could come back to India and open your own cookery school. You’d like that wouldn’t you?”
“More than anything,” said Surabhi.
“Your aunt said she, and your uncle, would be happy to host you for one year.
“In New York?” Surabhi could not believe her ears.
“Although she loves her life in America,” said Surabhi’s mother quietly, “I think she is a little lonely, and wishes she had a daughter.”
“I have been telling her about you and Raghav Gupta. She was impressed by your determination, and by your cookery skills, and finally by the way you were the first one to congratulate your rival.”
Raghav Gupta might have had gorgeous eyes but even he wasn’t as exciting as travelling to The USA to study at The Institute of Cuisine in New York City.