‘A quest,’ Lalaji continued, grinning widely, his broken incisor more apparent now.
When none of us replied, he looked a little let-down. ‘What! Don’t you want to know what the magic ingredient is? Haven’t you been asking me forever? How many times did I catch you sneaking around to find it, huh, Pappu?’
Pappu Uncle had nothing to say now.
‘What kind of quest?’ I asked him.
‘The quest to find the magic ingredient, and like all great quests it will span multiple locations. There will be hurdles to cross, clues to find, riddles to solve and stages to complete, so you may finally reach the magic ingredient. Whoever gets to it first will earn Lallan Sweets.’
‘What do you mean whoever?’ Pappu Uncle was quick to ask.
‘Well,’ Lalaji began, glancing at his grandchildren and their mothers, ‘since the entire debate here is about who should oversee the upkeep and running of Lallan Sweets in the future, I believe the competition should be between Tara, Mohit and Rohit.’
‘My sons will never compete against each other,’ Aunty said, moving towards them as if to cover their ears. I looked at them, but their expressions were inscrutable. They must already have known what Pappu Uncle was going to suggest, but they probably hadn’t expected this from Lalaji.
Lalaji shrugged. ‘They can do it together then.’
I instinctively looked at my mother. We knew how this would turn out, Pappu Uncle pitting both his sons against me. No sooner were the words out of Lalaji’s mouth that all of us were already planning it in our heads. Classic Taneja.
‘Is this really happening?’ Aunty interjected. ‘A trap route will be set up for our children, so they can fight each other?’
My mother lowered her head with what I thought was guilt. It sounded completely crazy to me as well that such a plot would be thought of, the stuff of Shah Rukh Khan movies, but I was excited too. I could, of course, beat Mohit and Rohit, even though the odds were against me. And if I beat them, if I really could solve this ‘trap route’ on my own, that would be it. That would shut Pappu Uncle up forever. Never again would he think of fixing my marriage with any anadi, any random fellow he chose. Never again would he doubt my business acumen. And Lallan Sweets? It could be a restaurant, a large shop—the possibilities were endless.
‘How do you expect Tara to do it alone?’ Aunty asked and I shot her a look of annoyance. I knew she meant well, but if she hadn’t figured out by now that I was smarter than both her sons, then she never would.
‘Taru will do what she has to do,’ Lalaji said, shrugging once again, ‘like the rest of us.’
Aunty looked doubtful, and that’s when Pappu Uncle stomped his foot.
‘No, I will not allow it,’ he said. ‘Does this trap route involve going to do things alone?’
‘This quest,’ Lalaji re-emphasized, ‘involves travelling far and wide to get to the root, because only when the future generation understands their roots will they be able to—’
‘Travel far and wide, alone! Our little girl? Have you lost your mind, Lalaji? You know what the whole of Siyaka will say? Letting our daughter run wild like that, alone?’
‘I’m perfectly capable of managing myself—’ I began fiercely.
‘I will NOT allow it!’
Lalaji sighed. ‘This is my word. Lallan Sweets has to be earned, and to earn it the children must embark on this quest. Lallan Sweets is neither some corner panwaadi that is to be passed around, nor is the magic ingredient some common ghee or shakar that everybody should know its secrets. It has been in our family for decades and I intend it to stay that way. Tell a person the secret to a business and they will never value it, but make them work hard to earn it and they will take it to their grave. This is a traditional family secret that I shared not even with my wife! My decision is final: to inherit Lallan Sweets, the children must embark on this quest.’
He ignored the rest of Pappu Uncle’s spluttering and walked towards his room, looking suddenly frail. I too found no merit in staying back to hear what Pappu Uncle thought was wrong about the concept, because though he may have tried to convince everyone that his concern lay in my safety and reputation, it was obvious that it was a lot more about his fear that I would beat his sons.
My mother followed me. Neither of us knew what to say to each other. My mind was racing, trying to imagine the possibilities that suddenly lay open. A quest—a quest! I tried to imagine what Lalaji might have been thinking when he came up with this, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like something he would do. Wasn’t he the one who had insisted that all of us take on equal shifts at Lallan Sweets, even Mumma and Aunty, so we all could respect and appreciate what made our life? Of course, he wanted to give all of his own time to managing the magic ingredient, which he didn’t reveal to anyone, not even Pappu Uncle.
And then I realized that if this did happen, I would finally know the magic ingredient. The ingredient that I and the whole of Siyaka had grown up hearing about, the elusive ingredient all the way from what was now Pakistan. Merely heard of, and of course tasted, in the ever-special Lallankeladdoo. If I knew the magic ingredient, I would use it everywhere, in all the sweets, expand the business beyond all that we had ever seen . . .
We barely looked at each other, my mother and I, as we made our beds. I knew that she too was lost in her thoughts. Was she thinking about my father? I wondered what he would think about me knowing the magic ingredient, what he would think about me going on that quest. I was sure he was a logical and understanding man.
I slept, turning Lalaji’s words over in my mind. I woke up still thinking about them, refusing to move out of bed until I heard a shout of ‘Aye, Taru’. Straightening my kurti, I looked down from the window to find Nikku, his hand over his head to block the sun. ‘Will you wake up or should I sing the song?’
I had almost forgotten about Nikku. I grinned as memories of him calling out to me for school, yelling my name for the whole street to hear, came back.
‘What do you want?’ I yelled back, hoping he couldn’t see how pleased I was at being called in the old, familiar way.
‘I thought I’d come hang around with you at Lallan today,’ he said. When I didn’t reply, he added, a little uncertain, ‘Is it okay if I do?’
I nodded and asked him to wait while I got ready.
There was a time when most days I would wake up to Nikku’s shrill call. I caught myself going back many years, trying to remember how we became friends. It had happened when I used to play pithu with Mohit and Rohit, and Nikku used to watch us, swinging on the iron gate of his house. I had hazy memories of him peering at us, his expression giving away how badly he wanted to be a part of our group but too ashamed to ask if he could. I can divide my entire life into ‘Before Nikku’ and ‘After Nikku’, also because it marked a clear division between me being close to Mohit and Rohit, and later drifting apart.
What really sealed the deal with Nikku was when one late evening I wanted to return home from the other end of the street and there were two dogs running around. I didn’t have enough courage to cross them. Nikku, seeing this, ran into his house and got his grandfather’s walking stick. He walked towards me, banging the stick on the ground to make sure the dogs wouldn’t get near him. His own hands were shaking with fear, but we got back to the house safely. This marked the beginning of how I grew apart from Mohit and Rohit. They were always scared of Nikku and didn’t like it that an older boy wanted to be friends with me and not them. And so they stopped talking to both of us, no doubt encouraged by Uncle and Aunty.
I got my Kinetic out from the back and wheeled it towards Nikku who was smiling with his hands folded behind his back. He was wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans again, his hair combed, his eyes warm and happy.
‘What?’ I asked him.
‘Why do you look like Diwali came early?’
‘Just the sight of you,’ he said. When I looked up, he added, ‘And your pudgy little nose.’
I handed him the helmet with a little more force than necessary. He laughed.
‘So you’re going to just sit there all day, troubling me?’ I asked.
‘Basically. I might also have some of those laddoos. Do you still make the kachoris?’