It looked like a roomful of glass. If there is anything that I will always remember in the house of a film star it will be the sheer khorma. There was a big gathering. My uncle S had gone to wish the person, as was the custom. He had taken me along. I was quite unimpressed by the chandelier that covered almost half the ceiling, the rugs at choreographed intervals, and the plush carpet. The night seemed pink – perhaps it was the upholstery, or the blushing cheeks, or the rose sherbet glasses, or bloodshot sleepless eyes.
A khadim (servant) went around with an ornate silver tray on which there were silver bowls. Someone urged me to take it when he came and stood before me. I was scared. It was silver, metal, but it seemed so fragile it would break. Just as I thought that chandelier would fall down and crush us. I was sitting on a sofa that was too deep and large, so I was quite at the edge of it. A couple of women were next to me, but except for the occasional smile or “Kiske saath aayi ho (who have you come with)?”, after which they would pat my head, there was no communication. What could they tell a girl who seemed so lost?
I swirled the spoon in the bowl. The sheer khorma was thick, as though all the milk had dried up. There was an overdose of dry fruit. I sniffed the fragrances of the women who walked past. Strong scents, beautiful faces. One day I would be one of them; I was quite certain I’d have copious hips and eyes curved with kohl at the edges. And I would laugh after every spoonful of the delicacy in a language that sounded sweet but distant.
Dressed in silk, I was sweating. The drizzle of perspiration reached my thighs and down my legs. When we got up to leave, I thought the spot where I sat was wet. What would people think? Would they even bother to think when I had been quite invisible?
I was also concerned about the bowl of sheer khorma, half consumed. I could not finish it and had left it on a side table. Each time I have sheer khorma anywhere, I feel cheated. No one makes it like my mother. No one makes it the way I like it. The milk simmering for hours to turn into the colour of sand, the sevaiyan (vermicelli) roasted just right, and garnishing that does not overwhelm but stands out silently like thoughts to be chewed.
Over the years, the quality has remained unchanged, much like its smokey flavour that comes from a steady flame. What has altered is the quantity. The large pateela (vessel) got reduced in size as the joint family spread out. Today it is a small one.
I was asked to chop the pistachios. “Why can’t we just pound it?” I asked in a lazy middle-aged manner. It is travesty to powder it or even have large rough pieces. They need to be cut into shavings. I brought out the knife. It turned out to be blunt. I had to apply pressure and precision. The easy way out would have been to get another knife. This process was a good test. I did not even cut my finger, although it got a bit sore. At the end of the exercise, it looked beautiful, like confetti. It was sprinkled over the mix.
The aggarbattis (incense sticks) were lit and circled round the bowl. A bit of ash fell in. It was as though suddenly everyone had reappeared, the old days relived. Ash is so alive with nostalgia.
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Have you ever scene Eid greetings without the crescent moon or a minaret or calligraphy or two men hugging or something out of miniature paintings?
These are the standard themes. I have already written about childhood memories and my filmi moments, but I find the ‘Muslim socials’ fascinating. Rather than stereotypes, they were creating an old-world romance.
Even if the theme was contemporary to the period, the homes, the clothes, the demeanour harked back to something quite out of history. I did not think of any of this as regressive. I am glad to be exposed to this cinema in later years because it gave me a sense of comparison. In the 90s the guy woos the girl with the words, “Khambey jaisi khadee hai, shola hai phuljhadi hai (She stands like a pillar, she is a flame, a firecracker).”
Flashback to this song. It is a tad long but wait till the scenes come alive. There are subtitles. The woman is in naqab – and there is the perfectly-poised books falling scene! – but she is not weak. The man, so entranced, needs her eyes to support his vision:
A better quality video is here for those who understand the language.
Movie: Mere Mehboob
Singer: Mohammad Rafi
Music Director: Naushad
Lyricist: Shakeel Badayuni
Actors: Rajendra Kumar, Sadhana
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