A daughter’s memory of her father’s slow-cooked kheer
[Photos and words - Nirmala Patil]
Rain clouds have emptied themselves, returning the sky to a washed, bright blue hue. Dragonflies fill the air and the unmissable saffron of genda (marigold) flowers sitting in wicker baskets on roadside stalls beckon the most-awaited festival of autumn - Diwali.
As the moon wanes into amavasya in the night sky preparing for the luminous festival, the memory of my childhood Diwalis come to mind. As a little girl, after I’d bathed and dressed for the festivity, the first scene in the morning that welcomed me every year when I entered the kitchen was my father in his crisp, white kurta pyjama squatting in front of an old kerosene stove. A large brass patīlā (cooking pot) on top of it filled with what felt like enormous litres of milk to my tiny eyes, boiling and simmering. He would sit there patiently for well over an hour gently stirring the milk and scraping malai (cream) off the sides of the patīlā. The sweet smell of the condensing milk subtly flavoured with elaichi (cardamom) sauntered through our small house and permeated my little heart in the most special way. To me, to this day, that is the scent of Diwali. That sweet smell of my papa’s slow-cooked kheer.
Unlike other families around us who mostly celebrated the festivities with their tribe of relatives or extended families, for us as a family of four with Ma, Papa, Didi and I, Diwali always meant celebrating with the neighbours. Perhaps because both my parents were orphans since their childhood, their hearts placed remarkable value on the friendships they’d formed over the years with our many neighbours. Apart from their little daily interactions where Ma thoughtfully brought fresh supply of vegetables from the market for the neighbours too while she shopped for us, or Papa sprinkled bucketsful of water to cool off their door-front during hot summer afternoons while he did ours. It was a Diwali tradition to cook my father’s signature kheer, ladle it into banana leaf donnes (cups) and offer it as a token of love to our neighbours, assembled with the auspicious paan and fruits. It was not much. But watching my parents honour this tradition every Diwali during my growing up years taught me how even a simple and earnest gesture accomplished within their modest means became a thing of meaning and joy - both to the giver and the receiver. Because I remember how the next morning, the neighbours would invariably be all praises for the kheer, especially our muslim friends. Some of them secretly admitting to my father how they could never get the exact taste however much they tried and him responding with his shy smile.
At home, my sister and I loved to scoop the delicious kheer into warm puris and relish its sweet, deep taste. Now, papa is not here with us to slow-cook his kheer anymore. And I live in a different state, far away from all my old neighbours, who still tell me over our rare phone calls how they miss that kheer on Diwalis. It is precisely that smell that sealed our house on Diwali mornings, that taste that filled up our hearts and that feeling of community that I am thirsty for every Diwali. So on Diwali mornings, I continue to stand in my kitchen gently stirring the milk and slowly making that very kheer. Its sweetness connecting the past and the present.
And as a mother myself now, I wish to pass on to my little girl the gift of my father’s heirloom recipe. A recipe that I hope will seep into her the essence of all things made slowly and lovingly.