Amma told us at dinner that Agnes Aunty had started baking cake again. We didn’t have calendars in the house, just an old time piece on the shelf behind God’s photos and all our old hand-me-down text books. Agnes Aunty was our season clock. We knew it was summer when mother would bring home nimboo paani, we knew it was the start of a new year at school when we got her son’s too big uniforms. We wouldn’t complain – they were the only ‘new’ clothes we’d get all year and we wore it with pride. Who doesn’t want to look like a Saahib?
But the best season of all was when Maalkin would start baking cake. Every year we would hear of her meticulous preparation. She’d buy the raisins and currants in bulk and lay them out in the sun to dry. She’d then put them in a giant ceramic jar and pour in a bottle of daaru (something with the name that sounds like our god, Ram) and some cinnamon. These were luxuries we were excited about even if we never got to see it.
When Agnes Aunty was done soaking the raisins for 2 days, she’d start her painstaking work of art. The way Amma described it, it was like Agnes Aunty was an artist, a sculptor who slowly, painstakingly worked on every aspect of the cake till it looked like a winter wonderland. I don’t know what a wonderland is but I have seen posters of these firangis in their Santa hats and so much snow – I assume that’s what it means. Winter snowland. We never have snow in our shanties. In fact, when Amma was telling us the story, we were sitting shirtless, wiping off the sweat from our brows every two minutes.
I looked at my plate and smiled, the season of magic was upon us. Our cold gruel now had vegetables in them. Yesterday we had biryani. Agnes Aunty is always very generous this time of year. Amma says that maalkin is only cleaning the fridge and wants to get rid of the filth but I am thankful. My ever grumbling stomach is thrilled during this season and full. It’s such a good and underrated feeling.
Every year during Christmas we also get Rs.1 a day. It usually buys you 4 chocolates in the Kaaka shop. Sometimes if we help him take out the garbage, he gives us a chocolate free. Candy, the maalkin’s son calls it. Chocolate, apparently, isn’t as sweet and fruity flavoured. I stuck to ‘chocolate’ though. Ganesh and gang would tease me terribly if I used any other term.
My worn out purse had Rs. 10 now and I drifted off into fantasies once mother started complaining about her workload. I feel for her – to take care of us, she worked in 3 houses and cooked in 2. But it was the same story we heard every day for a year and so I thought it would be okay to dream for a day. She wouldn’t even notice, I told myself.
Agnes Aunty would assemble her cake, she made so many, and she would give it to her sons to go sell it to the bakeries. It was amazing to me how much money she made from Rs. 80 daaru and raisins. Every family wanted to some for themselves and then some more to gift to their friends and family. No one I knew practiced tradition but every year we got to secretly be part of it. The bakeries would take the cakes and cut off the edges and decorate the cake anew with an old man in a red suit, sometimes a tree and sometimes something that looked like snow and silver balls.
Now, I didn’t care about what the cake looked like. No one I knew did. We cared about the edges of the cake that were cut off. Some were burnt, some were apparently too dry, as if there was such a thing. Every year I thank god for our smriti because none of us like to waste anything. Not even the rich bakery bhaiyas. In fact, they cut the edges into nice square chunks and would wrap it up in plastic and sell it to smaller bakeries closer to our homes. Rs. 10 for a big pack of melt in your mouth, sweet and rich cake edges. And just after Amma leaves for work tomorrow, I know where I would go.
“Wipe your mouth, you’re drooling like a dog again” said Amma. I didn’t even lose my temper this time.
It was, finally, Christmas.
Based on a colleague’s personal experience