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The crowd went wild. Kalpana could hardly breathe as her family half sobbed, half hugged, half high-fived her. She felt Vishakha’s arm around her, guiding her to the stage to receive all her awards.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Where Your Dreams Take You”. The story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The first winner of our October 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Shraddha Niphadkar.
“Wow Aai, this baingan bharta is out of the world!,” exclaimed Vishakha. She licked her fingers as she went for a third helping of her mother-in-law’s delicious stuffed, small brinjals. She loved having her in-laws visit her and Ninad in the U.S. She was as close to them as her own parents, and got to be royally spoiled by her mother-in-law on each visit. Additionally, it meant that she could turn over the kitchen to her mother-in-law, who loved to cook and experiment with new flavors.
“Aai, have you thought about going on Masterchef India?,” asked Vishakha. “One of my friends’ brother participated in the most recent season, and he now owns his own restaurant in Chandigarh.”
Kalpana, her mother-in-law, burst out laughing. “Beta, you exaggerate my skills now,” she said affectionately. “No Aai,” Vishakha insisted, “I am dead serious about this. Baba keeps himself occupied with his yoga-related work, Naina is now established in her music career in Chennai, and Ninad and I are settled here. You have more time on your hands now, with no responsibility of either kids or in-laws. So, why not seriously explore your interests?”
“It’s not that simple Vishakha,” said Kalpana, “Naina has also suggested multiple times that I try out for Masterchef. But, I don’t cook non-vegetarian food, and most of the contestants are much younger than me.”
“Oh come on Aai,” Vishakha continued, “one of the season’s winners was a completely vegetarian chef. They give you a lot of options to choose from for each challenge. And, you are a skilled and extremely fast cook. Age is not a barrier at all. Some of the participants have been much older than you. You are meant to participate in such competitions!”
“Ok, ok, I promise to think about it,” laughed Kalpana. “Now how about having some of my jackfruit kheer?”
6 months later at the airport
“Aai, did you think about what we had discussed when you first got here?”, Vishakha asked.
“I did, but I am nervous beta,” said Kalpana. “I even discussed it with baba, who is on board with me participating, but I have never done something like this. People might laugh and think I have become too narcissistic in thinking that I could take part in a big competition like this, without any kind of formal training. I won’t even know how to use most of the equipment that they use in those kitchens.”
“Aai, I understand your nervousness,” Vishakha soothed. “It is scary to do something for yourself for the first time. You have given your whole life to your family always- first, to your parents and siblings, and after marriage, to your husband, in-laws, and children. You are 56 years old, and there has never been anything that you have ever asked for yourself. You were a bright student but were married straight out of college, and then not allowed to work outside the house by your mother-in-law because she felt that a woman’s job was in the house. This is your time to shine Aai, to explore where your dreams can take you. Let people laugh or say whatever they want. If we women started paying too much attention to “society”, we will never be able to make any progress.”
Kalpana’s eyes welled with tears. She knew that what Vishakha was saying was right. Excitement, and age-old conservative traditions battled within her. Could she really take this big step?
“Just promise me that you are not closed to this idea,” Vishakha pleaded. “Ok beta, I promise that I will seriously consider applying for the next season,” Kalpana said, both laughing and crying at the same time. She hugged Vishakha close. “Love you beta, come soon to India.” “I will Aai,” Vishakha promised and kissed her mother-in-law on her cheek.
A few more months later
The doorbell rang. Kalpana and Mahesh had just finished their lunch. “I will get it,” said Mahesh, “it must be the postman.”
Kalpana started clearing up the dishes. Mahesh came in to the kitchen with a bunch of mail that he was sorting out. “Kalpana, this one’s addressed to you,” he said. “To me?”, Kalpana was surprised. “Who is it from?”
“What?”, Kalpana exclaimed, “are you serious?”
“Yes, it says here that you are invited to participate in their next round of auditions taking place in our city, Pune, next week.”
“But…but, who entered my name in this?”, she asked feeling surprised, “did you do it?”
“No, it was not me. You told me you weren’t sure and I didn’t want to force you. Maybe it was Naina?”
“No, I don’t think it was Naina. Something like this is what Vishakha will do,” Kalpana said laughing. She could feel the excitement building within her, as new recipe ideas rushed through her head. “I will call her tonight and discuss this with her.”
Vishakha picked up the phone on the first ring, when she called her later that evening. “Did you receive the invite Aai?”, she asked with girlish excitement. “I did beta. I am supposed to feel mad at you for doing this without asking me, but I am beginning to look forward to this.”
“I told you Aai, you are a natural. They are going to love you and your cooking. Just don’t forget to keep making my favorite dishes even after you become a hotshot chef,” teased Vishakha.
“Silly girl,” Kalpana said giggling, “let’s see if I even make it past the auditions first.”
“Oh, I have no doubt you will. Anybody who can taste and smell, tends to fall in love with your food. You got this Aai!”
Kalpana felt encouraged by Vishakha’s words. She decided to give this a try. Even if she didn’t make it through, at least she would know she had tried. And, maybe she might learn some new cooking tips because of this. Oh, she had a lot to prepare. It felt like taking a test when she had been in school and college, and Kalpana had always over-prepared for them. Now, more than 35 years later, she could feel the same sense of competition returning to her.
The final episode of Masterchef India
Kalpana felt like her nerves were frayed. Here she was, a 57-year old woman, going into a “final food showdown” with a 20 year-old boy. The last 8 months felt like a dream. She had taken it lightly at the beginning, but once she had made it through the auditions and was actually selected to be one of the contestants on the show, life had become somewhat surreal. Her own mother-in-law had started referring to her as her “favourite daughter-in-law” out of all her four daughters-in-law. . She had not only become adept at using the equipment used by professional chefs, but she had found out that her knowledge of Indian food was actually much greater than what she had originally thought. She also found several of her own gender biases being confronted throughout the competition, and felt happy to see that men could be as passionate about cooking and housework as women.
She hadn’t thought that she would actually make it to the finals. With every episode that went by, every elimination challenge that she had survived, she discovered that she was receiving more respect from everyone around her. It still felt uncomfortable for her when she was recognized by strangers on the road, and when people asked her for her autograph. A few people had made snide comments about her starting a career so late in life, but it seemed to come out of jealousy for her success.
“Aunty, best of luck to you,” said a grinning Jimit, her 20 year-old competitor.
“Best of luck to you too beta,” she answered with a smile, “irrespective of whether I win or lose this, I have loved spending time with you and learning from you.”
“Same here aunty. Also, in all honesty, I am glad it’s the final episode. I am quite tired.”
“Me too beta,” she responded.
The anchors, Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, Chef Vikas Khanna, and the famous filmstar, Akshay Kumar, walked into the kitchen. “Aaannndd, Action!”, yelled the director.
One last challenge, one final task to know whether she deserved that title. She suddenly felt unsure. What was she doing here?
“Contestants,” said Akshay Kumar, “before we begin today, we have a surprise for you.” She felt her heart sink. She was already feeling shaky. And now, a new twist?
“Please turn around to see your surprise,” he announced.
Both she and Jimit spun around. Her face broke out into the broadest smile, as her eyes brimmed with tears. Walking into the kitchen were Mahesh, Naina, Ninad, and Vishakha, as well as Jimit’s family. Her loved ones, her strength. Her family engulfed her in a long hug. “We are so proud of you Aai!”, her three children exclaimed. Mahesh had a proud expression on his face as he beamed at her. “I told you Aai, you have got this. You ARE the Masterchef,” Vishakha said, hugging her again. “Go and cook the best dish of your life. Your cheerleaders are here now and we will make sure you don’t experience any self-doubts.” Wise Vishakha. She had picked up on her dark mood. Kalpana felt like a weight had been lifted from her chest. She felt ready for this final challenge!
Two hours later
The three judges stood on stage with the plaque and the other awards, about to announce the winner.
“And the next Masterchef India, the winner of the brand new Tata Nano, Rs. 10 lakh, and an internship with Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is……Mrs. Kalpana Paranjape!”
The crowd went wild. Kalpana could hardly breathe as her family half sobbed, half hugged, half high-fived her. She felt Vishakha’s arm around her, guiding her to the stage to receive all her awards. “Kalpana, or should I say, Chef Kalpana,” said a grinning Akshay Kumar as he placed a brand new chef’s hat on her head, and a new chef’s coat, with her name on it, around her shoulders, “how are you feeling now?”
Kalpana spoke hesitatingly, with a voice choked with emotion.
“Vishakha, technically my daughter-in-law but in all aspects my daughter, was the one who entered me in this competition. She believed in me, and it was that belief that gave me courage. I am fortunate to have always had family that loved me. However, till this competition, I had never really felt that I had an identity of my own. I was happy when my family was happy. Their comfort, their desires, their dreams mattered. I had never been taught or allowed to dream. I had thought that getting to participate in this competition was a dream come true. However, now I realize, that this is just the beginning. Thanks to Vishakha and my lovely family here, I can finally spread my wings now and truly explore where my dreams will take me.”
The newest Masterchef received a standing ovation.
Shraddha Niphadkar wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
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