Eid at Abaji’s

 

“Sugar?” Amaji hands me the little copper cup containing square translucent grains. “My mother used to say that the most delicious kahwah is so sweet that it should stick your lips together.” Her enthusiasm cajoles me into adding a full spoon of sweetness into my China cup and reminds me of my own mother’s Algerian mint tea, so full of flavour. From the large samowar, the father serves cup after cup to our little assembly. All of us sit in padmasana, the lotus position, around a blue flowery tablecloth, our lips savouring the warm Kashmiri beverage. Deliciously scented steam escapes from the massive copper kettle, an object reminiscent of Russian nostalgia, while inside, hot charcoal brings the water to boil. Green tea, cardamom, cinnamon and sugar blend into a tasteful combination, with an additional pinch of saffron to warm the heart during cold Himalayan winters. A round salty bread called tchot, fresh from the local bakery, comes to well balance this family breakfast. Ayan invited me to celebrate the Eid-ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, in his Kashmiri home, without telling me what to expect. It was my third trip to North India, I felt confident, at ease, ever curious. The first steps into Srinagar comforted this spontaneous feeling, and on the morning of Eid, the city adopted me.

Breakfast brings together family and friends around the old memories of past celebrations. In the soft fumes of the samowar, grandfather Abaji and his wife Amaji break their fast, marking the end of the holy month. They have opened their door to foreigners with joy and welcomed in Christians, Hindus, Agnostics and Atheists without notice. To each of us, their children for the day, they offer an anthology of Kashmiri poetry, reminiscent of the money they used to be given when they were younger. Every year, the rituals are the same, but the faces surrounding the tablecloth change. My mind wanders and I remember past Christmases in Brittany, a young child awakening from a dreamy night full of anticipation, for the gifts I would soon receive. If I close my eyes, I can nearly smell the orange blossom cake my mother would religiously cook for us. Today, kahwah and zoot have a similar taste.

As the older generation embraces the younger, Amaji looks at me and suggests. “Why don’t you stay with me to see how I make my yakhni?” Staring deep into my eyes, she elects me to pass on her immemorial knowledge. A thin line emerges between us, pulling the old Kashmiri woman with authoritative wrinkles nearer to me. I am accepted into the intimacy of the blue kitchen, the most inner room of the house. For once, I see the chance offered by my position as a woman. In a patriarchal society, certain doors, closed to my fellow male travellers, open before me.

 

 

As the others leave us, Amaji hands me a wooden instrument to whisk the yoghurt. “Do not stop,” she says, “until it boils, do not stop, not stop.” Intimidated, I nod, I shall respect the orders. My right arm is up to the job, then the left, and the right again. Minutes flow on us, as I whisk, stir and mix. Amaji moves about restless, supervising the making of the dishes, the washing of the heavy copper bowls, called kienz and kaabs, in which we will eat the sweet mango cream we will have for dessert. Nothing is left to hazard and as she comes near me every now and then, she repeats mechanically “do not stop, not stop.” When the daring Abaji makes a foray into the kitchen, teasing her on her own ground, he recommends that I pause for a minute, sparking off her immediate indignation. “If you stop, I do the yakhni.” Threatened, my brave arm decides to pursue, until the first bubbles of the boiling water appear, relieving the pressure. Pleased, Amaji smiles at me. “At first, I thought that you looked like a Kashmiri woman, now you have become one.”

When I put my first yakhni on the blue tablecloth, I do not utter a word, I wait. Dishes are passed around before hungry eyes. We start with a combination of steamed rice and spicy dishes, tomato paneer and turnips. Then a handful of white rice for the intermission, to clear the taste of spices before starting the sacred and delicate mutton dish, pride of the Kashmiri woman. Hands grab the pale mixture, and for a moment, we eat in a religious silence. Then, someone exclaims, “this yakhni is delicious,” sparking off a cavalcade of compliments. A beaming smile appears on Amaji’s face, as she glows with pride. The magic of the meal has worked and brought us all together. Abaji glances at me and whispers a kind “Eid Mubarak” to my ears.

 

 

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