It was the sixth day leading to Herath. Tikaram had still not returned from his annual leave. Rishi Vihar was looking all cleaned up and beautiful – ready for the big festival ahead. The new matting, the embroidered rugs and curtains in the sitting room and the other rooms that were used by the ladies looked dazzling and everything looked spick and span.

From this day onwards a thick, large and beautiful Kashmiri carpet was spread in the main sitting room, transforming the room into an opulent one, which gave the new furnishing a royal feel. Carpets were occasionally used on festivals, but were otherwise rolled and packed safely. It felt good to bring out the best for Maha Shivratri.

In the evening the house would come alive with the excited sounds, laughter, and chattering of young and old family members playing cowries or poker together. All the new and relatively younger daughters-in-law too were encouraged to play all the games and participate in the enjoyable pastime.

In the kitchen, some dishes were being cooked under the guidance and firm control of Benigashi and Dulabhabi. The other, older daughters-in-law, Benji and Sati, were also trying to be helpful. Benigashi was assessing the taste of the dishes that had been prepared by Kantha Ram in order to ascertain which spice may still be needed to give the dish its perfect taste. When she took a spoonful of the big pot of fish, which was boiling on the fireplace, she found that the salt in the preparation was less.

Benigashi looked at Kantha Ram and asked – “Haven’t you added salt to the fish yet? There’s no salt in this. Have you forgotten to put it in?”

This was enough to provoke Kantha Ram. By the time Benigashi was looking for the salt container, Kantha Ram – in a huff – took the boiling pot of fish off the fireplace and put it outside of the clean and “purified” kitchen space. In utter disregard for the ritual norms of hygiene, he deliberately placed the pot on the floor, in the space that was meant for keeping one’s shoes.

All the ladies, the few children around, and the helpers who were witnessing this scene were aghast and shocked at Kantha Ram’s behaviour. One of the ladies shouted, “What has happened to you, Kantha Ram? Oh! Oh! The fish has now gotten çhyoṭ [impure]!”

Sati was pale with concern.

“Oh! Oh oh, the food has become impure, çhyoṭ! What are we going to serve the family? What will they eat tonight.” Sati sounded genuinely frightened, and was angry at the wilful and grave error committed by Kantha Ram.

“He is shoda and a fool! He doesn’t even know what he’s done.” Benji was shouting at Kantha Ram too, scolding him.

Benigashi and Dulabhabi were giving vocal explanations to their elder sisters-in-law that they had said nothing out of the norm that would have provoked him so. By now the other helpers in the house had gravitated to the kitchen. Sidha, Sarva, and Prema got there to witness the unwonted scene. While the women were beating their chests in despair, Prema quickly got hold of a big kitchen twill that was meant to pick up hot and heavy vessels, and in a swift move, picked up the large fish pot and brought it back into the kitchen.

He then took out a wide-mouthed, but shallow, earthen vessel, which contained a mixture of fine whitish-brown clay (usually procured from sacred hills and sold by vendors) which had been soaked with water. A small wet rag, dunked in the smooth clayey mass was also handy. This clayey mixture was used to smoothen the surfaces of the clay fireplace in the kitchen at the end of the day, when the cooking was over. The process served the dual purpose of keeping the clay cooking place (dān in Kashmiri) clean, and making it look shiny white and flush the next morning.

Prema’s presence of mind was evident that eventful evening. Before Mother or any other member of the family could come to know the drama in the kitchen, he took the rag from the shallow vessel and scooped liberal amounts of the wet, gooyey clay from it. Then as swiftly as he had brought the fish pot back into the kitchen, he applied the wet clay on the outside of the hot vessel that had the cooked fish in it, and declared emphatically that the pot had been purified and was as clean as ever before.

The concept of “purity” and the performance of purity-related rituals amongst Kashmiri Pandits have been important customs for the community.

In this day and age many of the concepts related to shroçar or cheçar (purity and defilement) might seem unscientific, but there was a time when the ideas were considered a vital aspect of being a Pandit.

The concept was extended to foods and even animals, sometimes in ways that were downright hilarious. So if a pet dog entered the kitchen, the place would have to be purified by cleaning it with holy water and using the white clay mixture to smoothen the clay floor and the cooking hearth. However, if a stray kitten got into the kitchen and helped itself to some foods, that was fine and the kitchen was not defiled!

Prema’s presence of mind, and the trick of using the purifying mud appropriately, seemed to cool everyone’s tempers. But Sati, Benji, and some of the other helpers were still extremely annoyed. Pointing to Prema, Sati asked – “Do you want to fool everyone? How has the fish become pure after having been placed outside?”

“If he hadn’t done what he did,” Dulabhabi piped in, “what would we have served for dinner tonight? It will take us another day to clean and cook the fish. Not to mention the wrath of Mother.”

Dulabhabi’s perspective set the two older ladies thinking.

“But I cannot kill my conscience. At least I won’t have it,” Sati said with a grin on her face.

“You want to save your dharma, Sati, but what about the others?” Benji asked, irritated.

The conversation about the pot of fish continued for a while longer between the children, the ladies, and the staff that had assembled in the kitchen. Most of the children had no clue as to what had happened. At the same time they were smart enough to guess that something was amiss, and that fish may not be on the menu that evening.

My younger brother, Sardar, being the youngest of the children who were in the kitchen at the time of the event, went into the sitting room where Mother and other members of the family were having a conversation.

Very innocently he looked to his grandmother, Māl, and shared with her that his mother Benji and Sati would not be having fish for dinner that night.

Māl, thinking that Sardar was joking, was amused.

“And why aren’t they going to have fish?” Mother asked Sardar lovingly. “Of course they too will have fish, as will we all because these are the days of Herath. Nobody can say ‘no’ to anything good these days.”

While Mother was having a conversation with Sardar, Sati came running to the room lest Sardar, in his innocence, spill the beans before all the others.

“I was just joking with Prema,” Sati said, panting. “The fish was of a good quality and it’s been cooked well.” Sati was doing her utmost to divert Mother’s attention from Sardar’s innocent prattle.

“Jan Mohamed, our vendor, said that the fish was a mahseer and the best quality in this season. It must be really sweet and tasty.”

Mother’s words were reassuring. She obviously had not heeded the child’s words. Sati breathed a sigh of relief.

When she left the room, she and Benji called all the children together and exhorted them not to tell anyone what had happened in the kitchen. Benji gave an eight anna coin to Sardar and said, “Don’t divulge what happened to anyone. We have to keep this a secret between ourselves.”

Sardar had no clue about this episode. But since Benji had bribed her son, the other children too began to blackmail their mothers.

“We’ll tell everyone about this secret if you don’t give us some money too.” The poor mothers gave in lest the children reveal all to Māl. So, reluctantly, they all began to give two, three annas to all of them.

At dinnertime that evening, when all the members began to eat, all the children were conspicuously watching their elders relishing the fish. Not knowing what had actually happened, all they knew was that it had to do with the fish that had been cooked.

The body language and the behaviour of the kids must have been odd, because Mother noticed something.

Looking at us all, she said loudly, “What’s the matter with you all? Why aren’t you having your dinner?”

The elders, and especially the mothers of the children, glowered at the kids. This was all that was needed. Without further ado, all the children began their dinner and relished the fish.

A Kashmiri Century: Portrait of a Society in Flux

Excerpted with permission from A Kashmiri Century: Portrait of a Society in Flux, Khem Lata Wakhlu, HarperCollins India.