The tenacious hold you gripped the knife with would fluctuate with the first impact. Always. As you braced for the collision, you hoped the knife would slide into the heart of it. When it did, the cracks would vein out over the surface anointing your victory.
This was not a crash course in first-degree manslaughter but a lesson in how to make my grandmother’s homemade kulfi yield to our childhood gluttony.
It took effort to lay hands on that summer dessert. We cut through the dusty town of Bhiwani, now made famous because of the crop of pugilists it spews out like a combine harvester, sat on the pockmarked seats of a rickety state transport bus, and began our prayers. Spilling forth from the edges, thanks to the voluptuous bottoms that smothered it to a sheet, and the gaping holes in the rexine-covered seats was the ochre sponge. It was the plaything of a bored seven-year-old, the crumbs of which you would find strewn across the aisle along with snubbed-out bidis and stray pellets of roasted chana. These buses were piloted by men high on testosterone and low on forbearance. They had massive moustaches that proliferated on either side of their sun-burnt cheeks. You couldn’t look in their souls – one, because you lacked that kind of courage. Two, also because they were locked behind the veil of the latest Ray-Bans’ imitation.
Much like the folks from these parts, the roads are hard-backed, straight, honest – you get what you see. The good bits announce themselves as do the potholed versions that could set your teeth chattering.
The town would petter out and I would get lost in the bright green fields punctuated by gurgling tubewells, ancient banyan and mango trees that had outlived generations, the cattle leaving home with the cowherd and the sun still rising in the azure sky. The conductor, a rugged version of Clint Eastwood (if that is even possible) with a bidi hanging at the corners of his mouth and a gamcha wrapped around his head, would ask our destination. He was always addressed as tau, chacha, or bhai depending on where he featured on the age scale. He would punch the tickets and we’d settle in for the ride of our life. Indisputably, we got our money’s worth.
Just shy of an hour, we would reach my grandmother’s house. And with my cousins, I would take the dibs on the lacteous kulfi sitting snugly in a steel tiffin in my grandmother’s sky blue Kelvinator fridge. It was her version of an English pantry storing her hoard of milk, tonnes of mangoes, and a freezer full of her rather popular kulfi.
That ice cream was more ice and water than cream. Yes, it was sweet but there was nothing that set it apart. The local kulfiwalla with his cart of three matkas covered with a wet vermilion cloth, made tastier kulfi, a fact that even my heat-addled brain could fathom. Were there some elaborate rituals to make it, some sorcery that I knew not about ? I had asked my naani once.
“I cool down boiled milk, mix sugar, add a pinch of cardamom powder and shove it in the freezer”.
“That’s it?” I had asked flabbergasted.
“Yes”, she had answered unapologetically while straightening her starched, lilac cotton saree over her shoulder. She had sprinkled no fake frills of fairy spells and stardust or even garnished it with a conspiratorial wink to humour me.
Perhaps the magic of that kulfi was not in its ingredients but in its potential to bring the aunts and uncles, kids of all ages and sizes spilling into the courtyard from our rooms. We would find our charpais to laze in, fight for the ones closest to the desert coolers, while naani with her choice elf (usually one of the elder cousins) of the day would carve up the frozen milk that went by the name of kulfi in that household.
Those evenings were anecdotes and unbridled laughter. I can yet find an echo of those laughs if I shut my eyes and listen hard. There my uncle slid in a joke slyly in the softest of voices and there’s a pause of a breath and then the loud explosion of laughs in various crescendos and styles, from concealed giggles to unbridled guffaws. Those evenings were an unexpressed hug – willingly offered, joyously received. They were as special to us kids as to my mother and her siblings. Such was the abandon in their selves that I could imagine all the elders as kids-my aunts with their two braids and my uncles with their steadfast catapults.
Those evenings were relived again at night as we lay under a luxurious blanket of stars, our days the stories of our nights. Our lives were as opulent as the skies – we had laughter and people to share it with – could we get any richer? Those evenings were the proof of a love that I have never known since – that of a shared childhood and a simple recipe that lost its magic when its maker died.
The piece was first published at LiveWire