1970s Archive

An Indian Reminiscence

Originally Published October 1974
Life was a banquet for one young girl in Delhi.

I grew up in a large family, where my grandfather presided over about 40 people. There were his sons and their wives and children. There were his unmarried or widowed daughters, and there was always one family of visiting relatives. Then every weekend and vacation his married daughters showed up with their husbands and children. Needless to say, my grandfather had designed his house with these numbers in mind. The house stood by the Yamuna River in Delhi, its long veranda graced by Grecian pillars, its rooms sized to function either as Brobdingnagian parlors or as dormitories for the smaller folk.

On cold winter evenings a wood fire was lit in the drawing room, where three upholstered benches encircled the fireplace. Here the children—about two dozen of us—would sit, munching freshly fried puffed lotus seeds, cashew nuts, and Kashmiri walnuts (which we were never allowed to eat without raisins, as this, we were told, would give us the sorest throats imaginable). Occasionally my grandmother would send over from the kitchen various kinds of pakoris, crisp fritters made by coating cut vegetables in a thin batter of chickpea flour and water, deep-frying them, and then dipping them in Chinese parsley and mint chutney.

Behind the benches for the children there was another semicircle, composed of overstuffed chairs. One was reserved for my grandfather, and there he would sit every night puffing on his hookah, the tall water pipe that his servant filled with his special tobacco. Below him, on a dark red Persian carpet, two ladies, often my mother and an aunt, would sit playing chaupar, a game rather like Parcheesi. My grandfather would puff his hookah, sip a Scotch and soda, and imperiously direct them as to their next moves.

Once dinner was announced, Grandfather, accompanied by the ladies, would amble slowly toward the dining annex, and as soon as he had left the drawing room, we children would line up behind the hookah. Each of us would take a quick puff, look around furtively, and move on until Grandfather's servant heard the gurgling of the pipe and rushed in to shoo us away.

During the cold winter days, my favorite food was game: black deer meatballs, roasted wild Siberian goose (a bird that flies all the way to India in the winter), and stuffed duck or quail cooked with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, and nutmeg. We ate the game with either an aromatic rice or roomali roti (handkerchief bread), flat whole-wheat bread as fine, soft, and large as a man's handkerchief. Another specialty was something called daulat-ki-chat (the snack made out of wealth), a rare treat that was served at breakfast. Early in the morning an old lady in an immaculate ankle-length skirt and a well-starched white muslin bodice and head covering appeared at our gate. On her head she carried an enormous brass tray, and on the tray were mutkainas, partially baked red clay cups containing the frothy ambrosia. The recipe was—and always has been—a mystery. I remember cornering the lady in white at about age 11 and begging her to tell me how she made it, but she shook her head, saying, "Oh, child, I am the only woman left in the whole city of Delhi who can make this. I am so old and it is such hard work that I only go to all the trouble because your grandmother and I have known each other for so many years. How do I make it? It needs all the right conditions. First I take milk and add dried sea foam to it. Then I pour the mixture into clay cups. I have to climb up to the roof and leave the cups there overnight in the chill air. Now the most important ingredient is the dew. If there is no dew, the froth will not form. If there is too much dew, that is also bad. The dew you have to leave to the gods. In the early morning, if the froth is good, I sprinkle the cups with khurchan [milk that is boiled until all the liquid has evaporated and the sweetened solids have peeled off in thin layers]. Then I sprinkle pistachio nuts over that."

The lady in white is gone now, as is her recipe, but the taste of that cold daulat-ki-chat lingers still. The cups were placed in front of us at breakfast time, and instead of spoons we were given flat pieces of bamboo. Each "spoonful" consisted of a heavenly froth dotted with bits of khurchan and pistachio nuts. The aroma held the scent of clay and freshly cut bamboo and gave a hint of what food the angels might consume.

The beginning of summer inevitably meant the coming of examination time, a period that fell, inexorably, during late April and early May. This was when the hot loo winds blew with the ferocity of furnaces gone wild, picking up sand from the deserts of Central India and scattering it over North Indian cities.

The end of exams meant an increase in our moviegoing. We saw many, many films—American, English, and, of course, Indian. The Indian movies were the most conducive to whetting one's appetite. They generally lasted about four hours, and whole families, including infants, would come to view the mythological-historical-tragicomic musicals. There was a great deal of yelling, crying, getting up, singing along, and sitting down in the audience throughout the show, and certainly no one minded the noisy unwrapping of paper cones, favored snacks that contained pressed chickpeas to which cumin, red pepper, sour mango powder, and black salt had been added. We would munch the cones while we watched Hanuman, the monkey god, fly across the indigo sky dotted equidistantly with hundreds of five-pointed stars, all cut from the same stencil.

Summer vacations saw us in the Himalayas, where the British, during their 300 years of colonial rule, had built hill stations. My grandfather was a great believer in the health of his children and grandchildren, and he insisted on making this long journey every year. All relatives would meet in Delhi, and half a train would be booked to take us from Delhi to the foothills of the towering mountains. A fleet of cars was hired to transport us from there to six, seven, or eight thousand feet above sea level, where several houses were rented to accommodate us.

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