Once we went to visit our grandparents at our ancestral house at the tea estate. Right next door lived a kindly middle-aged lady we all affectionately called aunt or Nini in Rai language. Whenever we visited our grandparents we were welcomed with such warmth by all the neighbors.
“Apuii kaile aayo?” when did you arrive? they asked with genuine happiness leaving their chores for a while. There was always an air of festivity, it warmed the heart, this warm acceptance and pure unselfish love.
For a kid, skipping in and out of the neighbors open styled tea-estate houses were considered normal. So one morning I woke up early and was running from one home to the other and eventually I went to Nini’s house. She was roasting some corn kernels over the open fire in a contraption that looked like a rickety guitar made with wood and wire netting.
“Come here” Nini gestured, I complied. She got up and filled a tall steel glass with some milk and shoved it in my face with gusto. It immediately smelled strongly of cow, smoke and the grass. It assaulted my over sensitive nose and made me want to throw up so bad I had tears in my eyes. Those days I was a weird kid and any animal product made me run a mile away.
“Drink up and be strong! “Nini suggested, grinning from ear to ear adjusting her lungi with a red dragon design and went back to roasting the corn kernels. I nodded meekly, not taking my eyes off the milk, which was thick and yellow with colostrum. The family cow had just given birth a few days ago. I looked up at Nini and then down at my heavy glass of milk that was getting heavier by the second. Me, a town girl had never seem milk like this, I was so used to drinking the watered down milk from Ramcharan, our Bihari milkman. He was known to refresh his milk with fresh mountain spring water diligently. Anyway, he was on top on my mother’s most hated list, erratic in his delivery but prompt for his monthly payment. He didn’t have many fans, naturally.
That being said, I was still standing very still holding the huge glass of milk afraid to spill it. I didn’t know whether to drink it or make an excuse to take it outside and toss in the flowerpot. I weighed my options; if I tossed it and Nini found out, she would be devastated! Maybe even a bit miffed at me. Even my ten-year-old brain understood that that was the best she could offer. She wasn’t rich and worked hard picking tea-leaves all day at the plantation as a laborer. I couldn’t bring myself to hurt her feelings. On the other hand, I had been holding my breath for a few minutes at a time trying to avoid the warm wafting animalic scents rising from the warm glass of milk. Nini was smiling encouragingly as she fed the chula mudstove with wood. I did what I had to do, held my breath and put the glass (which was bigger than my face) to my lips and bravely proceeded to drink the milk. To my astonishment, it was delicious! I could still smell the cow though so I quickly fished in my pockets and popped a hard jaggery candy in my mouth to camouflage the scents of nature. Nini smiled at me and taking the glass from me said, “Shyabash!”
I felt fuzzy and proud.