Homemade dahi in our heirloom patili

My daughter recently started making Indian curd or dahi at home from culture. I have never been able to successfully make curd, but was impressed with her success and how that gene had skipped a generation. To celebrate this culinary triumph, I presented her with a small stainless steel patili. She held the polished pot in her hand and squealed with joy to find the inscription “SKK” on the rim. Yes it is old, I told her. A family heirloom of sorts. A vessel of plenty.  It was part of her grandmother’s trousseau; in those days, utensils were inscribed with initials of the owner because multiple generations lived together in a joint family. 

We held the patili in our hands, then washed and boiled organic milk in it. As I poured the creamy milk into my tea, a sweet memory came pouring out with it. 

Ambala’s milk

Six decades ago, we lived in the Ambala Cantonment in the northern state of Haryana, India. I remember it being close to my grandparents’ house in Chandigarh. We took a train to get there, most likely the Kalka Mail, now called Netaji Express,  the oldest running train in India. This ancient city was founded by Amba Rajput in the 14th century CE and is dedicated to Hindu goddess Amba. Ambala is strategically located on the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and longest main roads. It is an important army and airforce base. Now a scientific instrument manufacturing hub, Ambala is Science City. My first diagnostic microscope was assembled here. 

Back then, Ambala was agrarian and had a lot of cows that grazed on the fertile pastures nurtured by the river Ghaggar and its tributary, Tangri.  I have always been fond of milk but I did not know how much care my parents took to procure fresh milk for me as a baby. After I was weaned off my mother’s milk, they switched me to cow milk. Perhaps due to that, I have a propensity for milk flavored with a subtle scent of tuberoses and cardamom. I am partial to Indian sweets made of milk solids like barfi, peda and kalakand. 

Milk and memories

One day, we were watching a show on TV and a panel was discussing the health benefits of cow milk. They said that apart from providing vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus for healthy bones and teeth, cow milk has a growth hormone that makes babies tall. It also boosts immunity, promotes a healthy heart and is food for the brain. My dad chuckled and pointed at me and said we have a living example in our family.  I looked up at him from my cup of frothy milk and wanted to know more. In my haste the milk spilled but with it spilled the sweet story of how he woke up at the crack of dawn to procure milk for me. 

An early morning milk run

Dad worked in pharmaceutical sales and kept long hours. He rarely retired to bed before midnight. My mother was recuperating from a caesarian section and had developed a stitch abscess. My maternal aunt helped with my care. She kept my squirming, colicky body propped up on her chest for comfort because I would screech like a banshee every time she sat me down on the cot. The milkman delivered milk at seven every morning, but I was up at five, hungry for my morning feed. My dad, who normally would not step out of bed without two cups of bed tea, woke up in the wee hours to go bring milk himself, even in the dead of winter.

This is a black and white image of a man wearing a western suit posing with a young girl seated to his right. This is a photo of Monita Soni with her father. (Photo courtesy: Monita Soni)
Monita Soni with her father. (Photo courtesy: Monita Soni)

My tall, handsome father would step out when it was still dark, a flashlight in hand. He would open the creaky wooden gate and step over the sleeping purple thistles and frogs. Dad would wrap his frame in a handmade dove gray Kashmiri coat. He pushed at his thick curls that had a tendency to spill over the promontory that was his forehead, wrapped in a royal blue wool scarf. My mother always embroidered his initials, SKK, onto the scarf with a french knot stitch in golden silk, because my father tended to forget his things. 

A stiff breeze carrying the scent of sleeping wild strawberries, cherries and sweet peas from Shimla, blew past him. A startled rooster offered an early morning cock-a-doodle-doo, a scraggly dog wagged his tail a little and followed him for a distance. On reaching the milkman’s house, dad lit a cigarette and handed his patili for milk. Milkmen were notorious for adding water to their own pail before milking the cow, so my mom insisted on dad carrying his own patili.  As the cow was being milked, my dad watched the first morning light meandering over the dusty path and transforming the neighboring pond into a glittering sheet of sapphire. He thanked the milkman, gave him a handful of coins and hurried back. 

A satiated baby

Back home, my aunt handed a bundled, hungry baby to dad and boiled the milk in the steel patili. Then she filled the sterilized, boat-shaped glass bottle with lukewarm milk and stuck it in my mouth. Both of them sat beside me as I guzzled down my milk, letting out a sigh of contentment with a milky drool dropping down my chin. Dad’s dimpled chin, still covered with a film of frost, would have wobbled and his eyes watered with fatherly admiration. 

I can only imagine all this; but I do have flashes of memory, powered by cow milk. The soft contours of mother, my father’s laugh of merriment as I rolled over and dropped the bottle from my hand, shattering it into a hundred pieces,  the alarm in my aunt’s eye as she collected shards of broken baby bottles… 

Memories pour forth from a patili 

As we lay asleep in my daughter’s apartment, the milk sets beautifully into firm dahi in the heirloom steel patili.

At daybreak, the meadow blooms with a cornucopia of flowers. Sunkissed lemons smile on the kitchen counter. We wake up to the fragrance of almond spiced kheer boiling over. A gentle breeze enters the small bedroom.  My fingers get tangled in my daughter’s curls. My skin tingles with déjà vu. I feel the stubble of dad’s unshaved cheek. Sunbeams sparkle in his kind brown eyes. He smells of cigarette smoke, Amritsari fresh fish pakoras, woody Old Spice and a hint of baby drool.  

I warm milk for my chai in our small patili, and pour it into my freshly brewed tea. I drink deep from the gift that keeps giving

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two...