An old folk saying in India has it that there’s something wrong with a man who dislikes sweets. I’ve found it generally true in the case of my relatives and friends. Of my many uncles, for example, just one, Uncle Ram, detests sweets--and he’s an incorrigible cynic who separated from his only wife just two weeks after their marriage.
Indians generally love sweets. In many parts of India, the day begins with sweets, and for most Indians a meal is incomplete unless it ends with a dessert.
I have never met an Indian who doesn’t like mangoes--one of the sweetest summer fruits. In fact, I have seen people devour as many as two dozen mangoes without the slightest pause--a veritable “mangothon” which they conclude by downing a couple of glasses of cold milk in the belief that it aids digestion.
The Indian fondness for sweets probably has something to do with Hindu mythology. Hindus believe sugar is created from the lord of love’s bow and that syrup is the beverage of the gods. It is said that a person who offers sweets to the gods will be freed of all sins.
I have always had a sweet tooth. As a child growing up in New Delhi, I used to sneak laddu (a dense sweet the size of a baseball) and gulab jamun (a cottage cheese-based delicacy) from my grandmother’s kitchen. My brother, Amit, and I would then gobble the sweets on a rooftop terrace.
To our great surprise, however, Grandma always knew what we were up to, even though we took the greatest precautions to evade detection. When we asked her how she knew about our activities, she insisted that she had divine powers, implying that there was therefore no point in ever lying to her. It would be years before we realized that she simply overheard us through the kitchen chimney as my brother and I talked excitedly about how delicious the sweets were.
Our pranks weren’t too dissimilar from those of Krishna, the blue-skinned god Hindus believe is the eighth and most important of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, one of the three deities in the Hindu holy trinity. The son of a king in northern India, Krishna was brought up by a family of cowherds in the countryside. He is represented in folk paintings as a mischievous child who, along with eight companions, stole freshly churned lumps of butter from the kitchen in his home.
My brother and I grew up hearing stories about Krishna’s escapades from our mother, an ardent devotee of the god. His popularity derives partly from the fact that unlike other deities, Krishna appears in all the aspects of life usually associated with childhood, adolescence and adulthood--as a flute-playing trickster, lover of cowgirls and, finally, as a royal advisor on statecraft. What’s endearing about Krishna is not so much his superhuman deeds but his human characteristics, captured in literature and art against the idyllic, pastoral background that still defines much of the Indian landscape.
Sunday, the birthday of Lord Krishna will be celebrated all over India in a festival known as Janamashtami, a word that refers to the god’s birth on the eighth day of the new moon. It’s a joyous occasion when hymns are sung to the blowing of conch-shells and ringing of temple bells. Devotees observe a fast for 24 hours, which is broken at midnight, the time of Krishna’s birth. Then they wash his idols with milk and prepare an array of special sweets.
Because Krishna grew up among cowherds, he loved milk. Indeed, if the U.S. dairy industry ever needs an icon for its “Got Milk?” ads, there would probably be no better choice than Krishna. On his birthday, devotees offer Krishna no fewer than 56 dishes, most of them milk-based sweets.
The process begins at 4 a.m. with offerings of a peda , a roundish milk-based preparation that is a delicacy of Mathura, the ancient cultural and religious center believed to be Krishna’s birthplace. Next come three other delicious milk-based treats: barfi , kheer (a kind of rice pudding) and rabri . Later in the day, the deity is fed different kinds of halwa made from cereals or vegetables and cooked in milk. The most noteworthy of these dishes is gajar ka halwa , a delightful blend of carrots and milk.
Janamashtami is celebrated with great fervor in my ancestral village, which is about 80 miles east of Krishna’s birthplace. I will never forget one particular family celebration in the early 1980s. It began with a havan , a lengthy purification ceremony during which prayers are offered in front of a small fire into which a mixture of holy herbs, uncooked rice and clarified butter are constantly tossed. Presiding over the mid-morning ritual was Ramji Lal, our village priest ( purohit) , who over the years had conducted the wedding rites of just about every married member of my large joint family, including my parents.
After the prayers, everybody gathered for an elaborate feast. It was nearly lunchtime by now and most of us were ravenous. According to tradition, however, no one can begin eating until the priest has first had his fill. All eyes were on Lal, who had a huge appetite. He had never been known to dine hurriedly--at least not when he had the opportunity to eat food as sumptuous as had been laid out that day.
To my surprise, when my mother reverently served the portly Brahmin a large steel platter of food, containing generous portions of about half a dozen savory dishes, he shook his head. “Today I will eat only mota maa (fat stuff),” he declared in Hindi, with a near-toothless grin.
Intrigued, I asked my mother what the priest meant by “fat stuff.” I got my answer when my mother, ignoring me, scurried to the kitchen and returned with a small brass bucket of kheer --at least five liters of rice pudding laden with raisins and the choicest nuts and spices. My mother had cooked the dessert overnight in an earthenware pot over slow-burning cakes of cow dung, following local tradition.
To my utter astonishment, Lal devoured the entire bucket of kheer . “Fat stuff,” for him, was “rich stuff.” The holy man’s rustic rationale for having only kheer ? Why fill the stomach with “lesser foods” when one can eat the queen of milky sweets to one’s heart’s content.
That day, even sour old Uncle Ram ate a whole plate of sweets.