In the gray of dawn, lured by the aroma of crushed cardamom, I would unlatch the rickety old door and stumble into the cabin to find Aai hunching over a large pot on the chulha, stirring the milk with drained rice on a low flame. That was how the savory Indian pudding, kheer, was born daily at Aai Ki Rasoi, a shabby inn owned by a charming spinster I fondly called Aai.
Every summer, I spared a few hours daily to help Aai make her signature mousse. Tottering after her, I listened attentively as she animatedly detailed the recipes of umpteen dishes. My curiosity and impulsivity led to broken eggs, burnt bread, and spilled milk more than once, yet we fit together, like two peas in a pod. It wasn’t an experience that brought me laurels or leadership status or service hours; it surely isn’t an experience that I can pad my resume with. Yet, it’s my most revered one. Aai was an artist who adorned the milk with strokes of cardamom; this experience adorned me with poignant memories, lessons on lost love, plus cooking skills that fire alarms cheer on.
A year ago, Aai’s husband died. Within months of her husband’s demise, she sank into dementia’s claws; even her prided recipe was untenable against its wrecks. That summer, the ritualized rigors of the morn ceased. I kept asking her frantically, “Aai, who am I?” and each time she peered at me uncomprehendingly; I was a stranger to her.
When I paid my final pilgrimage to the old cottage, I half expected Aai to rush over to wrap me in her warm embrace. But looking at her disheveled hair and blank face, I realized it was an elusive dream. As I stood there, staring into space, I discovered a newfound clarity. I fully fathomed the brutal progress of her malady, yet I knew that she was very much alive, only in another realm. Gazing into her eyes, I held her hands in mine. I caught a faint whiff of the luscious cardamom and took a deep breath, fully aware that the moments of the soft sunny mornings will remain ingrained in my mind forever.