I hadn’t understood the incident at the time, and I had failed to imagine that perhaps it contained a meaning. The incident – let’s call it an incident – had transpired thus:
Although I had encountered repeatedly in short stories and novels – and, later, written in my own works – descriptions of the Teesta’s muted roar, I’d never really had the opportunity to listen to the song of the Teesta to my heart’s content. I had heard from folks who toiled along its banks in the months of monsoon and winter about how the Teesta sighed long smothering sighs at noon and at midnight. However, the hurried stops on the bridge to look upriver and downriver and briefly listen to the Teesta during my rushed travels to Kalimpong and Gangtok had left my hunger and thirst for the Teesta’s song unsated. Traces of innumerable pasts drawn on the slumbering sands above the blue-green expanse of water that brought to mind the word “immense”; the reeds and jungles along the banks swaying, fanned by a breeze, and, within that imagined picture, I would recollect, folded within the roar of the Teesta’s song, a separate lapping of waves and distinct gurgles and murmurs…
It was for this reason that I had made up my mind to spend the night by the Teesta on my way home from Gangtok.
Perhaps because the rooms in the Dak Bungalow were being repaired, the room given to me had also been recently given a wash of lime and therefore was disconcertingly bright and white, the odour of the whitewash pervasive. The workers engaged in repairing the Dak Bungalow – the carpenters and plasterers, painters and coolies – were staying in the adjacent room, and they make up the plot of this story. They were making it a day of celebrations, and so they were gathered in the room, eagerly talking over each other. Some were cooking, and that was at the heart of their conversation: they were cooking kheer.
I detest conversations about food. But left without a choice, I continued listening to them. Outdoors was the stunned brightness of an afternoon. By the time I looked out after spreading the bedding on the cot, a different hue of light – as if suddenly a lot more of the evening had intruded – poured through the innermost leaves and branches of trees.
“If you really want kheer, you need two litres of milk for every quarter kilo of rice,” said an assertive voice that suggested a face with deep-set eyes. “For our rice we need about ten litres.”
“How much did you use?”
“How much would it be? Just the four litres…”
“And you’re making a four-litre-milk kheer in a place like the Teesta? Shame!” the voice from earlier said. “Kheer made with four litres of milk!” he added, as if the point he was making was a black rag riddled with holes which he was showing everyone.
“If you really want to make kheer you need many more ingredients,” an older voice boomed. “You don’t have the right kind of rice to begin with. You need the nooniyā strain, fine and smooth…”
“Even the aluwā rice is unaffordable here,” said a voice that perhaps belonged to a reserved man. “And then they pass off local hill rice as Rangoon aluwā.”
“That trash looks just like the bayerni rice from the hills,” another chimed in helpfully.
“I meant, if we really had everything we needed and really wanted to have kheer,” the older voice marched on, “Nooniyā rice, aged, even better if it is the black nooniyā – it is fragrant – cook it in ten or twelve litres of undiluted milk. You’ll need fifteen litres if you use the diluted sort. By the time the five extra litres of water evaporates, the rice breaks up and becomes a paste – mush. But if your milk is thick as a fist the rice grains keep their shape, it becomes the best kind of kheer. The mushy kind sticks to the pot and burns, it will smell burnt to whoever eats last…”
“Taste like cleaning teeth with charcoal,” perhaps somebody else said something similar, but I didn’t hear him clearly.
In a while, another voice boiled over from another corner, “As if it is enough to have just the milk! You need pistachios, raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, coconut, bay leaves, cloves. Cook it at just the right, low heat. Add the raisins at the very end. Too early, and they burst open.”
“What happens if you add all of that?” an enthusiastic, young voice asked.
“Flavour!” “For fragrance!” “Gives you power!” All other voices clamoured at him.
“Don’t get used to it,” a voice continued, as if to deliver the dregs of a collective contempt, “or you’ll wander in your dreams, searching for kheer. That’ll be the only comfort you’ll get.”
“If you cook kheer here in that way, its aroma will hit somebody walking on the road way over there,” another added.
And, just then, I put some effort into trying to smell their kheer, but I couldn’t manage the faintest whiff of it.
“Your kheer! We can’t smell it sitting right here,” the old man also added.
“When I said let’s not scrimp on anything, let’s eat some great kheer, you refused money,” came a response in protest. “Be it by earning it, or through theft, or with leaving debts unpaid, a man should eat well, a man must be able to eat well and live.”
Everybody went silent.
I found that I, too, was attending to that sudden silence.
I rose defiantly and began pacing about in the room. This declaration of my presence acted as a catalyst, as if a large boulder had fallen into the stream of their conversation, and forced it into a new direction.
“It’s not enough just to get everything together – you have to have the skills to cook,” a man started, his voice tepid as pale steam.
“There’s no point in eating kheer willy-nilly, whenever you feel like. It has to be at the right time, under the right conditions,” another added.
“It is hard, then, to eat kheer,” a third voice lamented bitterly. “Impossible!”
I looked out, barely able to suppress my laughter. All seemed ordinary. The dark trees of dusk stood at attention.
“Keep stirring, or even this piddling bit of kheer will burn.”
“It must be ready now.”
“It’s done! Yes!”
“Cooked enough. Yes.”
With grunts of “Yes, it’s cooked, definitely”, etc., the pot was taken off the fire. I imagined men shifting away, perhaps a few picking and occupying favoured spots.
As they ate, someone asked, “Something smells, doesn’t it?”
“It is the firewood. I’ve been noticing it for some time now,” someone else said.
In cycles, doubt died, was resurrected.
“It isn’t sweet enough,” somebody said, walked a few paces to fetch the sugar and sprinkle it over his share.
“If you really want decent kheer,” the same voice which had cooked up the conversation initially spoke through mouthfuls, “it isn’t sugar you should use, but molasses. Gives it colour.”
“And not molasses of sugarcane, but the layered, clean molasses of the toddy-palm – only then is the kheer genuinely luscious,” a second voice supplied immediate editorial correction.
“Who would eat kheer with sugarcane molasses! Disgusting!”
“What is this talk about eating? You get some kheer after so many days and you can’t stop talking about it. I am embarrassed for you.” The man who said this must have aimed to have me hear him and lighten his own shame.
And soon, they busied themselves with eating. “Nothing but sweetened rice and milk,” when the man with the deep voice spoke, everybody burst into laughter. The skilled cook continued to laugh for the longest. And, as he stopped and started abruptly to chortle, his comrades also joined in the laughter.
I understand the significance of that incident now, four years after that evening. The kheer that they cooked is representative of life: our hearts are full of ideals dictating to us that life ought to be lived in a certain manner, that life should be put to work in our service in specific ways, or that a particular sort of utility must be wringed from it, but the errors, absences, insuffciencies and ruinations in the lives that we live in reality colour our experience of life to resemble their kheer, which was but merely a satire aimed at the ideal of kheer.
Can life ever be like the Teesta which, without prejudice to where or how it flows, always remains an ideal?
Translated by Prawin Adhikari for Long Night of Storm, Speaking Tiger, 2018
Photo by randomduck