We were a monetarily poor but richly loved bunch. Appa, my father, was the only earning being in an extended family consisting of his wife, mother, brother, sister-in-law and the kids, 14 of us in all. We lived in a one-room, 300-square-foot chawl, a single-room unit in a crowded apartment building within the heart of Matunga, Mumbai’s Tamilian district. The kitchen was squished in a corner, the few pots and pans and two kerosene stoves stacked neatly against the wall. A lonesome tap with erratic water supply jutted from the same corner’s wall. We shared a communal bathroom across the hall with three other units, making bath times something of a logistical nightmare. Clothes were washed under the kitchen’s tap and hung on three roped rows outside the balcony, a cacophony of fabrics swaying in the wind.
Kind-hearted and generous Appa was never frugal in showering all his children with love and affection, especially his first-born daughter, my sister Lali. Once a week on his day off from working at the Indian Navy, after almost everyone was asleep, his ritual journey would begin. He would quietly step over the sea of sleeping bodies, clutching a few coins in his right hand, a tall stainless-steel tumbler in his left, his white dhoti tightly wrapped around his nimble waist, and his nine-stringed poonal thread draped over his tired left shoulder, a light Brahmin reminder of his heavy responsibility to wife, mother, children, brother and family.
Bare-chested, a cotton angostram (a rectangular piece of shawl worn among Brahmin men) draped over his left shoulder, with no shoes or slippers on his calloused feet, he would step down the chipped stairs onto the quiet street and go around the corner to the dairy vendor’s stall where a gargantuan wok filled halfway with simmering milk rested on a massive kerosene stove. No words were spoken as coins exchanged hands. The vendor would grab two urn-like brass containers and ladle hot milk into one of them. He’d pitch in some sugar, finely chopped unsalted pistachio nuts and almonds. With one deft motion, he’d poured the mixture into the other jug. The motion would be repeated between the two vases, the milk going back and forth, suspended in the interim like a thick rice noodle, to create a steamy, frothy beverage. He would then pour the milk into Appa’s waiting tumbler filling it to the brim, a halo of fizz that would crown its circumference.
Appa would shuffle back to the room, holding the hot drink with his angostram, careful not to lose even a single drop. Lali would be the only one awake, huddled in a corner on the balcony, poring through her medical books, aided by the light of the moon and an oil lamp that threw a dancing glow across the pages. Appa would gingerly step over the sleeping bodies once again and hand the glass to his oldest pride and joy. As Lali sipped the beverage, the foam would form a white mustache above her lip, the sweetened milk warming her throat.
Then Appa would crawl into a little space next to my mother, Amma, and he’d smile in the dark, proud of his daughter who had fought the odds and was well on her way to becoming a physician. He’d caress Amma’s bare wrists, white rings visible in the moonlight against the tanned skin where her gold wedding bangles used to be. Now they rested in the jeweler’s window display, pawned to pay for medical school. The family sacrifices and the encouragement of the warm, nutty, milk would remain embedded in Lali’s memory — and mine — forever.
Steamed Milk With Pistachios and Almonds
- In a Dutch oven or large, wide-rimmed pan, bring the milk to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Once the milk starts to boil, lower the heat to medium and continue to cook it down, stirring occasionally and scraping the insides of the pan to release any collected and browned milk solids. Reduce the milk to 4 cups, 35 to 40 minutes.
- While the milk reduces, pulse the almonds and pistachios in a food processor until they are the texture of coarsely ground peppercorns.
- Once the milk is reduced, stir in the nuts and sugar. Pour into individual cups and serve warm.