Ankita was apprehensive about her new stepmother. To add to her fears, her friends had told her some horror stories of stepmoms from hell!

Ankita stood beside her stepmother watching the porter unload the suitcases from her grandparents’ car. Her father and stepmother touched the old couple’s feet.

Ankita hugged her grandparents. Her grandmother’s eyes filled with tears.

“Talk to me on the phone every day,” grandma said.

“Hurry up, we are late,” her father said impatiently.

Ankita had confided in her grandmother that she was worried whether she would get along well with her stepmother Radha. Her mother had passed away last year and her father had remarried two months ago. Ankita’s mind was filled with stories her friends had narrated about how badly stepchildren were treated by their stepmothers.

“Ankita, please hold my hand,” her stepmother said.

She reluctantly held her stepmother’s hand as they followed her father into the Ratnagiri railway station. The platform was swamped with people and passengers jostled them in their hurry to follow their porters. The porters, faces beaded with sweat, balancing heavy suitcases on their heads, strode down the platform.

“Tea, coffee, tea,” voices rang out.

In the sea of human bodies, Ankita momentarily lost sight of her father as a crowd surged between them. The familiar smell of onion bhajjis filled the air making her mouth water. She stared longingly at the crispy brown snacks cooling on large plates. Unfortunately, the money her grandmother had given her was in the suitcase with the other gifts. She had only chewing gum, a pen and her diary in her purse.

She was sure her stepmother would refuse to buy her the bhajjis. Passengers waved to their family and friends from the window as the trains moved out of the station. Ankita’s eyes widened. A dog stood in her path. She felt her stepmother’s arm circle her shoulder reassuringly and nudge her to the other side.

“Shoo,” her stepmother said. The dog raced away.

Their train, Mayuri Express that was to take them to Chennai, stood on the tracks. Faces peered out of the window as the train filled up. The porter carried their luggage into the train followed by her father, her step mother and herself. After their luggage was stowed under their seat, her father paid the porter.

Temptation

Ankita started writing in her diary. Passengers moved up and down the aisle. She moved her legs as her stepmother left her seat to visit the restroom. The onion bhajji man strolled toward the window. Ankita smiled, she had found a few coins in her purse.

As she stood up, she heard a distant whistle. Her father was talking on his mobile phone and nodded absentmindedly at her. She bumped into her stepmother in the crowded aisle.

Jumping down from the train, Ankita raced toward the man selling bhajjis. He wrapped the bhajjis in a piece of newspaper. Ankita’s eyes widened in alarm as the train started moving.

“Run, you can still catch it,” the man selling bhajjis told her.

Ankita ran beside the moving train. A few people loitering on the station ran beside her. A young boy helped her get into the train. As he grabbed her hand, the packet of onion bhajjis slipped out and fell into the gap between the train and the platform.

“Do you know your seat number?” the boy asked.

Ankita shook her head.

“Sit here,” he patted the seat. “The T.T. will guide you to your place.”

Ankita sat stiffly beside him. Trees flew past as the train picked up speed. Suddenly the train stopped. People shifted restlessly in their seats.

“She is here,” a familiar voice said, a few minutes later.

Ankita stared into her father’s angry eyes. Tears shone in her stepmother’s eyes. She hugged Ankita. “We were so worried when we found both the rest rooms empty,” she said in a choked voice.

Thanking the boy who had helped her, they led Ankita back to their compartment. The train started.

“What was the need to leave the train?” her father asked angrily.

“I wanted onion bhajjis.”

“Don’t you have any sense?” her father said furiously. “I had to pull the chain to stop the train and search for you.”

People from the adjacent seat watched them.

“Rajan, please don’t create a scene in the train,” her stepmother said, placing her arm around Ankita’s shoulders.

“You keep out of this,” her father said.

“She is my daughter too,” her stepmother snapped. “We can discuss this at home.”

“I’m going to lie down,” her father said and climbed to his seat in the top berth.

Ankita stared at her stepmother. She had the perfect opportunity to get her into trouble, but she had preferred to save her from her father’s ferocious temper. Her friends were wrong. Her stepmother was not cruel!

Her stepmother took out a wrapped packet from her large hand bag. Onion bhajjis!

“They are my favourite too,” her stepmother offered her the packet. “I saw you eyeing them hungrily,” she smiled. “You should have asked me, instead of getting down from the train.”

“I won’t take such a risk again, mama,” she said as she snuggled close to her mother.