Edge of Desire

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.

Rich-Plum-Cake

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

31 thoughts on “Edge of Desire

  1. The cakes sound like works of art. I would be torn between admiring the art work and the desire to eat them! Sadly, in the UK baking is very much the preserve of a minority with most people, including me buying cakes from the supermarket. Home made cakes taste so much better than shop bought ones unless, of course they are made by me! I remember having what used to be called domestic science at school. One day we where given the ingredients to make fish cakes. Everyone else produced tasty fish cakes while I, instead of adding flour used sugar instead! I can not remember whether this was an act of naughtiness by a small boy or if it was a genuine mistake. In any event the cookery teacher was not best pleased but my fellow pupils laughed. Don’t ever accept a cake from me as it will probably contain vinigar rather than sugar …!

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    1. They really are quite beautiful. My colleague is from Mumbai and when he was describing them to me, I was awestruck. Here in Bangalore, we have small bakeries left over from the British times that still bake amazing personalised cakes and they taste just as they do if made at home (Indian households don’t really have ovens). A lot of independent bakers have evolved as well. I love your fish cake story. I’d give it a try though, what if you mean to add vinegar to sabotage it but put sugar instead? I will tread cautiously though 😀

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      1. When I visit India, which I mean to do soon, I will definitely try out some of those independent bakeries. I adore freshly cooked bread and try to buy it, in the supermarket. It tastes wonderful especially when fresh from the oven. With the fish cakes I might, totally by accident actually add flour and produce something half edible! Enjoy the rest of your day here. It is cold, I am sitting her wearing a jumper dreaming of the summer! Kevin

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        1. There really is nothing as good as freshly baked bread. You most definitely come to the South in the winter. Everyone’s in their jumpers and mufflers but to you, this would be a pleasant summer’s eve.

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          1. The winter weather in the south sounds like my kind of weather. When I visited Sri Lanka in 2001, at the end of the monsoon season, it was hotter than I am used to but the rains cooled things down and the scents from the damp earth where absolutely wonderful. I remember getting drenched while sitting on an elephant. However about five minutes after the rain had finished falling, the intensity of the heat meant that I was completely dry again.

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            1. It isn’t like that in Bangalore. We’re know to be the Brits of South East Asia cause we whine about the weather all the time. We’re higher than the neighbouring states and so we get rains if touches some part of India that has nothing to do with us, and it gets as cold as 10 degrees at night. It used to be called the Garden City and Pensioner’s paradise cause we never needed air conditioning. Your Sri Lanka experience sounds AMAZING! I want to go some day!

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  2. Thank you for writing which is quite good, best wishes always for writing and best wishes always and greetings
    kindness blossoms in your heart

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  3. Great story…my mouth was watering!!! My dream was to go to India for 3 months…but as I get older I doubt that will ever be a reality…I love your stories…I feel I get a small taste of your homeland. I am a chocolaholic you know {smiles}

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