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Winter 1998, Volume 15.1

Essay

 

Bapsi Sidhwa

A Puff of Air


Bapsi Sidhwa, a recipient of a 1994 Lila Wallace
Reader's Digest Award, is the author of four novels, An American Brat, Ice-Candy-Man, The Bride, and The Crow Eaters. She was on the advisory committee to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Women's Development and has taught at Columbia University, Rice, and Mount Holyoke College, among others.

 

Proust bit into a tiny French tea-cake and reeled in a cache of childhood memories so expansive, it required 900 pages of print to contain them. Very few of us have the capacity to unleash anything as heroic as A Remembrance of Things Past, but epicurean indulgences that recall the moments of childhood bliss still determine the flavors we favor, and retain if not their capacity to transport us to a state of grace, to at least consign us to a satiated torpor that very closely resembles it.

My childhood favorites were not candy, but doodh-na-puff (milk froth) and kharya-ni-jelly (sheep-trotter jelly). For some obscure reason doodh-na-puff was a winter delicacy. Mother asserted that the milk had to be exposed to chilly night-dew in order to froth, but the rational remained arbitrary and suspect to me. The milk could, of course, be induced to froth also in summer, provided we drove 7,000 feet up into the Murree Hills. This British-built Himalayan resort, where were rented sundry dangerously listing summer cottages, was cold enough during the monsoons to warrant log-fires.

When the right confluence of circumstances prevailed—whether we were down in Lahore in winter or up in the hills in the summer—the gallon pot of sweetened, stir-boiled and thickened milk was placed in an elevated wire-mesh dolee, and exposed to night-dew beneath the stars. On these occasions, Mother would alert us to the forthcoming treat and retire early in order to get up at dawn.

The next morning we awakened to the metallic jangle of the whirring egg-whisk, and a dazzling display of glasses bulging with foam crowns, arraigned on the window-sill. Mouths salivating, teetering with sleep, we wobbled over to the window and carefully guided the frothing spoonfuls from the glass to our wide-opened mouths. It was the distillation of happiness. And if a mist had crept among the pines outside the window and the whiff of wood-smoke lurked about our nostrils, the promise of indoor games further suffused us with a sense of cozy well-being. If it was a clear day, and the haze from the plains had spared the intervening distance, we looked for the dawn-tinted dome of the Nanga Parbat through the window and planned on a day of adventures outdoors. Following the clamor of Mother's whisk to the kitchen, the verandah, or wherever in the house she happened to be, we squatted on a level with her stubby cane stool while Kalay Khan, our cantankerous cook, transferred the froth into the waiting glasses. We watched as Mother expertly twirled the tiny handle on the whisk and churned the pot of milk into airy mounds of 'puff.'

But it was a cultivated taste, its savor dependent on mystic star-lit, dew-drenched rituals, and on the renown it enjoyed as a community delicacy. I discovered this many years later, when, commensurate with her elevated status as a wealthy and hospitable widow, Mother ascended to an altitude of 8,500 feet to our summer cottage in Nathyagali. Separated by private drives and sloping lawns, our hewn-stone house forms a square with three other houses belonging to friends. They are no ordinary friends; like treasured heirlooms, they've been handed down from one generation to the next.

Nathyagali sculpts itself along the flattened tops and ridges at the apex of a cluster of sheer, fir-laden mountains. Only an hour and a quarter's zigzagging drive from the crowded bazaars of Murree Hillsor fifteen minutes away as the Frontier Governor's helicopter flies—Nathyagali is still remote: safe and quiet for most of the week.

But the weekends are now giving way to minibus loads of transient Punjabi louts with blaring transistors. Ever ready to leer at young girls, they prowl, on the lookout for honeymooners, and ambush them with catcalls and jeers, until the shy newlyweds let go of each other's hands and walk, one before the other, as if they are strangers. Honeymooning Pakistani men look like all other men, but the brides, decked out in gold jewelry and high heels, the flaps of their burkas thrown back from their faces if veiled, shyly flaunt their post-nuptial splendor.

So the doodh-na-puff continued to be made by Mother, and continued to be devoured, the ritual now followed also by our children.

One afternoon, when gusts of rain smote against our windows, and we sat holding out our hands to the small fire crackling in the ancient cast-iron stove in the living room, Basharat, whose sprawling house overlooks ours, confided: "Ever since I was a child, I've been hearing about the famous doodh-na-puff. I finally persuaded Baijee to make us some. Bambi and I set the alarm clock to wake us up early," he leans closer and, careful not to be overheard, almost apologetic, whispers wryly: "It was such a let down. There was no substance to the thing. It was like swallowing flavored air—almost a fraud." Basharat looks bewildered, and upset. "There was an inch of residual milk at the bottom of the glass. It was the only substantial thing. After eight glasses we were still famished. I told Kalay Khan to make omelets."

Basharat is pale. It's the first time he has spoken even remotely critically of 'Baijee,' my mother.

I was appalled by the confession, unable to accept that anyone could reject the delectable offering. But Basharat's confusion and mild reproach turned the doodh-na-puff into something in need of secrecy and protection.

It took me an entire day to accept the truth of his judgment—to realize that what was communal manna for the Parsees was nothing but a "puff of air" for someone not brought up on the surrounding myths.

Not that the realization has lessened the magic of doodh-na-puff for me one whit.

 

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