Time of the year was June, better known as ‘Summer vacations’ time. Official travel time in India. At 40 degrees, Delhi was at it’s unpleasant best. The place was my grandparents home. The home to so many people always had space for the extra nuggets, that means my brother, two cousins and I.
Sweltering heat meant playing indoors. Cooler evenings made the park downstairs our play area. Every section of 12 flats within a block had a common park situated exactly in the centre. “Our” local park, a staple in all Delhi colonies, was a square portion of land marked by thick low cast iron fence and lined by multiple small flowering plants. The one that I can still distinctly picture is the pink-flower bearing bergenia plant. It was taller than the rest and bore beautiful pink flowers, which I was very fond of. There were two entry gates on two opposite sides of the park that had a fixed zig-zag way, one side of which was broken, so that only one person could enter at a time unless one chose to jump over the fence. There used to be a single terrazzo white flat wide bench that we used more to stand and jump from, rather than for sitting. No wonder it was perpetually dirty. The square park had a circle inscribed inside it, formed by the kids who ran amok. Grass could hardly ever survive under those small running feet. The corners of the park were less frequented which is why there was ample mossy growth there, that used to be lush, green and yucky in rainy season, and cracked and dry in summers. I remember it all for it was a special place. Other than playing, it was also a place that we retreated daily for our 5 minutes of kulfi-time.
A couple always sat out in their terrace to watch over us, on two white metallic chairs with knitted plastic seats. The figures of my grandpa and grandma, babaji and maaji. Their faces carried a constant expression, that of a smile. Long chain, short chain, gallery, stone-gallery, were amongst few of the games we played. Sometimes neighbouring kids joined us. Sometimes we would go for a stroll and check the new cars on the block. Most of them were Maruti 800’s, most of which were dark blue or white, that used to have a button with company logo on their bonnet. Someone told me once in a low whisper that pressing that button would cause it to blast. “Oh God!! Would that really happen?” Naturally we had to check. We pressed it and waited with scared yet excited faces. Thankfully , nothing happened and then a guard came to shoo us away. The exploration did not end there. We discovered that the common road that ran in front of all the blocks had eucalyptus trees on one side at a little distance from our house. These trees used to shed small conical caps, along-with dead leaves, that used to line that part of road on one side. We would collect these operculums and use it like a lattoo (spin top) to play with them. Such were our days. Late mornings, late baths, but always fresh faces and fresh games. Sometimes one of our uncles, our father’s brother, would join us; usually for a game of ‘bhoot-bangla‘,where he would drape a sheet on himself and turn off all the lights while we hid from the ‘bhoot‘ (ghost). Anyone caught would become a ‘bhoot‘ himself till there was only one kid left, who would be the winner. Exhilarating!
My grandfather was a strict disciplinarian, and I hardly interacted with him due to unfounded fear. But there was one thing that he did, which reflected that he wasn’t as strict as he appeared on surface. Every day before leaving the house my grandfather gave my grandmother four 25 Paise coins to give to each of us to buy kulfi or ice-creams. It was our daily treat and his daily gift to us. It was an important part of our summer vacations, a memory important enough to find its place amongst other memories from those times. Of course we had ice-creams back home but this was special, for reasons more than one. This was the highlight of our vacation, an event around which our day revolved. Around noon we would leave everything and sit at the terrace or hang our faces from the bigger gaps between the white grills of the little window or clenched the horizontal part of the grill between our teeth, unknowingly licking the dirt off it. This was a game in itself – who can squeeze out his or her head between the grills. One small routinely thing gave birth to so many associated games and other things that are better known as memories.
The kulfiwala bhaiya, a familiar face like his kulfis, usually came around 1pm on his daily round. He called out to his loyal customers by a loud tann-tann-tann, by banging a spoon against his metal container. He must have been in his late 20s or early 30s, a simple man who wore old clothes, probably cast aways. His day started around 9 am and blocks A & B of the colony were his areas while other blocks were someone else’s. He had a small cart and he probably made just enough kulfis to complete his daily round. He probably wasn’t very ambitious and was satisfied with whatever little he gathered daily, which was enough to get by.
He had a small cart that had a big round bellied earthen pot, always covered with a red cloth that he kept sprinkling water on, few other steel utensils one of which was filled with water, and a big spatula. The cart had a sort of lid that never closed, but was used to keep the contents under shade. He had kulfis in two sizes, the big one for 50 Paise and small one priced at half. We normally took the smaller one. The kulfi extraction was like a magic trick. In 25 paise we got a plain kulfi and a magic trick. Such a bargain! He would remove the red cloth, put almost entire length of his hand inside the pot and extract four small and thin metallic cones. These metallic cones would have a layer of ice deposition from being kept inside the pot surrounded by ice. He would then dip these frosty cones in plain water, bang the cone against the metallic vessel to loosen the kulfi, and swipe the kulfi out of its metallic cones. It was beautiful- extract, dip, bang, swipe and present. The kulfi had a stick to hold it. It had a square cross section instead of round, and it tapered down to the top. The kulfiwallah bhaiya had become our friend, again just like his kulfi. He waited for us all year for that one month and I suspect he made extra kulfis for us. Naturally, he knew us by our faces and knew where we lived. If we didn’t hear the ‘tann-tann’ or took longer to come, he would wait. I never thought back then if he also came in winters when the sale was perhaps not as good. If not, then what did he do?
Cold milk kulfi on hot days was phenomenal. The kulfi used to be off-white in color and rigid, with flecks of pistachios all over. The kulfi stick in the middle was rarely ever in the middle. Unlike the flat icecream sticks, these used to be soft round and chewy birch wood sticks. It was a game to finish the kulfi before it would fall off the stick due to imbalance and the rapid melting of the kulfis. But it was never fun to be the first one to finish it off and look at others relishing theirs. Our feet automatically directed us to the park near which he parked his cart. We stood in the shaded area to greedily finish the kulfis till it was reduced to a stick. During this kulfi-me time we had little to no conversation and only looked up to see how much has the other finished. We entered home with only a sticky stick, which we chewed till we got the last drop of kulfi out of it.
One day it happened out of sudden, the routine disturbed. My grandfather got a call on the landline and he hurriedly left earlier than usual. The house got busy with the mundane. At 1 pm we heard the usual tann-tann-tann and ran up to our grandma and extended our palms with happy excited unaware eyes. She looked at us four and stood confused. Babaji had left without the important 25 paise transaction and she had only 75 paise of loose change. That would have gotten us only three kulfis. My brother, elder to the rest of us, understood the problem. He was a mathematical genius and could easily add, subtract and deduce. He smiled and said that he didn’t want one that day. He said that he didn’t feel like but he will take the kids to get kulfi for them. At first we didn’t understand why wouldn’t he want one but we realized it. We told our grandma that we didn’t feel like having either. My grandma stood stunned, unable to grasp what just happened. We ran up to the kulfiwallah bhaiya, who we knew stood waiting for us. We told him that we can’t have one today and said sorry to have kept him waiting. He asked why and if there was anything the matter and what should he do with the four kulfis that he was paid for. We didn’t understand. He told us that he has already been paid for the kulfis and was waiting for us to take it. With that he did his magic trick and gave one each to all four of us. We thanked him and walked back confused, the forgotten kulfis stood untouched till we reached the house. Our grandma was surprised on seeing the kulfis and asked us what happened, which we narrated. The kulfis looked bigger too. Today he gave us the bigger one by mistake.
Our Babaji was told what happened and he called my brother and asked him to recount. We were slightly scared. We were scared because we didn’t know how will he react to it. Upon learning the story he just smiled. We breathed again and ran away. On Sunday, instead of sleeping as usual, he waited. At 1 pm he went along with us to the tann-tann kulfiwallah and handed over one 1 rupees coin and two 2 Rs currency notes. The kulfiwallah bhaiya just smiled and they conversed without words. Babaji thanked the man. The kulfiwallah bhaiya did his calculations and gave back some money, which my grandfather asked him to keep. He then said that even after deducting for last time there was still a little amount left and gave smaller change this time to babaji. He shook his head sideways in a no, pointed at the earthen pot and signalled two. Four pairs of watchful eyes, the little white window overlooking the park, and the park witnessed something.
6 big kulfis were bought that day, one for each one of us, one for babaji and one for the kulfiwallah.
A big warm thanks to my sister-in-law, Dhara and my teacher, Anshu ma’am for being my true critics, personal editors and for displaying immense patience with me and my drafts of stories.
This doesn’t end here. 😀