“Do you remember?”, started an aunt, “how he stuck his hand in the theratti paal * container when the lights went out during Krishna Jayanthi?”
*Theratti paal refers to a heady Indian sweet made of condensed milk, ghee and cardamom
*Krishna Jayanthi – Lord Krishna’s birthday
The story was being related to peals of laughter. The hero of the tale beamed and laughed heartily at his boyhood escapades – it had all happened about 70 years ago after all. We knew the story, but it did nothing to diminish the retelling of it. I already knew my father was the naughtiest of the 9 children borne by Visalam Paati and Kalyanam Thaatha. (Paati – Grandma; Thaatha – Grandpa)
I sat watching the glow on the faces around the table, like an eternal torch lit by the essence of shared times and space of childhood. There was genuine affection, laughter and love there, and it enveloped all those around in its warm embrace. We had been to visit our aunts in Atlanta. The septuagenarian father has two septua sisters who live there, and I went with him to enjoy the siblings get together. I watched indulgently as their laugh lines etched over the years crinkled with every anecdote.
His sisters and nieces had lovingly charted out the menus for a whole week. A week that included all of the father’s favorite dishes. Dishes remembered from childhood, dishes acquired in far off lands, and dishes that made my paternal grandmother, Visalam paati, come alive in the retelling of the process. The delectable snacks and the satisfying compliments such as, “You have your mother’s gift with the art of cooking.” flowed graciously. The brood of Visalam and Kalyanam were known for their sweet tongues, and every meal had a different dessert to go with it.
The sweet of this meal was theratti paal. It’s commercial cousins are called Milk Peda, but it is an unpoetic name and as a sweet is a poor substitute for the Theratti Paal. Theratti paal, when made on the stove with fresh milk takes hours to come to the right consistency. I can imagine how Hinduism came to have the myth of churning the milk ocean. There are so many milk based sweets in the land, and it is quite possible that that particular myth was the gift of the dreamy subconscious thoughts of some person making theratti paal hours at a time. One can go into a sort of meditative trance as the milk gathers its cream, and then folds and bubbles again, and then again and again, till the color changes, the consistency changes, and the sweet smell of condensed milk wafts through the air. In slow measures, one adds the sugar, butter or ghee and the cardamom to send those in the vicinity to realms of ecstatic waiting.
Today the same marvel can be obtained from a can of condensed milk, a stick of unsalted butter, and a microwave in under 10 minutes, and I felt the tongue dance and explode in joy as the microwave theratti paal melted on the tongue. The ghee, condensed milk, and cardamom all tickled the nostrils.
I remember listening to stories about her children from my grandmother, Visalam Paati. (Visalam means vast, and the name suited her. She was generous with her time, attention and her servings, and when one wanted to play with the jiggling oodles of arm fat, there was plenty of that too and she never once got irritated when we teased her about her bulk. ) Feeding and taking care of a brood like that makes me shudder, but Visalam paati seemed to have done it with love, competence and skill.
The tale being narrated was the one on Krishna Jayanthi. Krishna, Lord Vishnu’s avatar, is said to have loved theratti paal.
Apparently, the evening pooja was ready to start. Bowls of snacks: (mysore pak, payasam, thattai, seedai, murukku, theratti paal), butter and ghee were all placed in front of the Gods, and just before the offering to the God was complete, the electricity went out plunging the little village house in South India in the 1940’s, into a darkness lit just by the flame of the small wicker lamp near Lord Krishna’s deity. Visalam Paati having the kind of prescience that comes from raising nine children immediately placed her hand covering the theratti paal container. True enough, within seconds, a small hand struck at the theratti paal container – Visalam paati caught the hand, and waited for the lights to come on again. Just as she thought, the malefactor was none but the naughtiest of her brood, my father.
“I knew you will reach for the theratti paal. Little rascal! “ she said.
We all laughed heartily while spooning in some more excellent microwave theratti paal ourselves.
The smells and scents of ghee, condensed milk and cardamom cut across decades and the siblings sat there giggling like school children again.
Isn’t it marvelous how regaling our pleasant memories often transforms the bleak horizons of time to become as brilliant as the Milky Way studded with the shining moments of our memories?
Next week is Krishna Jayanthi, and I will go about the joyous task of drawing tiny Krishna feet from the doorstep to the kitchen. I shall make the microwave theratti paal, and think of the children in the 1940’s who shared the adventure of theratti paal, and waited the whole afternoon for the exotic taste of it in the evening. I shall regale the children in the twenty-first century with the story again, and smile indulgently at the fact that his sisters remember their naughty brother every time they eat theratti paal.
Love takes various shapes. Ours is sweet. Theratti paal sweet.