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October 10, 2016

Kiran Manral Gets Nostalgic About Kaju Katlis This Festive Season

Illustration by Surasti Puri

Celebrations take on a contemporary turn as earthen diyas and boxes of sweets are nudged out by colourful fairy lights and hampers of cold-pressed juices, chocolates and crackers

It crept upon us, slowly and insidiously as all invasions do, and one fine day last Diwali I realised with a sinking heart that we had received no kaju katlis. Not one beribboned box with gold foil print. Not one ‘sugar-free’ labelled container in deference to my broadening girth and the diabetic in the house. It took me a long stunned moment to digest this. I sat myself down heavily on a sturdy seat to assimilate the development, rather than risk crashing on the floor and cracking the marble.

We had received, in overflowing bountiful abundance, hampers. These  contained imported cheeses, crackers, cupcakes in colours so heartbreakingly delicious one couldn’t bear to bite into them, macaroons, wine bottles, dates, dips, sauces, moist gooey brownies, assorted pralines, home-made ‘artisanal’ cookies, caramelised almonds or cashews, exotic coffees, and so much more that one cannot quite prod the ageing brain cells to recall it all. But no kaju katlis!

As a concession to the festivities, some of the hampers included four token decorative earthen diyas, themselves an anomaly in this age of electronic switch-on-and-off celebrations. One of the hampers contained, very thoughtfully, a selection of cold-pressed juices, subtle reminders of the consequences of the hedonistic gluttony we were to embark upon. A gift hamper from The Taj, I read, has a single malt Talisker, a Lord Ganesha idol, white wine vinegar with herbs, Olea Europaea, pure olive oil and sea salt crackers, organic green tea, a Taj chocolate box, apricot and almond jam and potpourri. No kaju katlis.

It almost made me sob. Kaju katlis were a sacred Diwali tradition. After I had raved a full 10 minutes about this blasphemy and shaken some plaster off the ceiling while at it, I sent off a minion to procure a kilo of the cold-shouldered cashew-based sweet to assuage my angst and took stock of why this had come to pass.

When did it begin? When did we start gradually doing away with the traditional and embracing the global with an unseemly fervour? It all began, I realised, in the not so distant past, when chocolates muscled their way into what was traditional sweet gifting territory — dripping with ghee and laden with enough sugar to send recipients into instant sugar highs. Once the floodgates were opened, what was to stop Mediterranean-sun-grown olives in a jar from making it into a Diwali hamper? The times, they were changing.

In the good old days when the offspring was born, gold foil and gold-tissue-wrapped boxes containing the best ghee boondi laddoos in the city were sent to everyone we knew. An accompanying note announced that, after much delay, we had indeed fulfilled our marital duty and increased the population of the country by one. The birth announcement we received the other day was through a wicker basket painted in a pretty robin’s egg blue, replete with a blue teddy bear and rubber duck, a print of the new baby’s foot and a beautifully calligraphed note stating that its senders were now proud parents of a hearty boy, mother and son were doing fine (we were not informed as to how the father was doing). All visually very appealing but of absolutely no use, given that my offspring has long outgrown teddy bears and rubber duckies and for heaven’s sake, I haven’t saved my own child’s baby foot imprint; it would be a stretch to expect me to save someone else’s. But worst of all nothing sweet or edible. No mithai. The traditional concept of mooh mitha karo — of cementing good news with something sweet — had gone for a toss. In this age of watching what one ate, this aberration might be thoughtful to those on perma-diets but for us perma-gluttons, I was left feeling short-changed and irate at being deprived of a legitimate opportunity to indulge in some well-earned gluttony.

Another nail in the coffin could have been when we stopped putting out oil diyas at Diwali and replaced them with little mirchi lights to signify the triumph of convenience over tradition. Clay diyas with their cotton wicks and oil were always messy affairs, infernally prone to being blown out by gentle breezes, setting errant curtains on fire, and causing blisters while lighting if one wasn’t careful. These were quietly consigned to the realms of the dearly discarded in favour of tea lights and scented candles — much better behaved, requiring no constant monitoring to ensure they were lit and handling themselves quite well in open window situations. Never mind the symbolism of the act of lighting — the oil or greed, jealousy, lust and other negative traits within us burned by the cotton wick signifying the self attempting to reach the supreme.

It happened in my home one evening pre-Diwali a couple of years ago. The mater-in-law, a fervent advocate of all things traditional, had me gobsmacked when she landed up one evening after a regular walk around the neighbourhood, laden with enough tea lights and scented candles to start a mini spa business. And, gasp, plastic diyas on a wire, with tiny bulbs for wicks. Plug in and light up. No all-round cussing of the wind for blowing them out mere seconds after lighting and setting them in position along the periphery of the home. “These are for Diwali, no more oil diyas except for the mandir,” she declared, all practical efficiency, having struggled enough with many an errant diya in her time.

In further damnation, essential oil vapourisers have now crowded out agarbatti stands. After all, their nasty ash by-product was something that the decor could always do without.

Even religion has gone online, with online darshan from the pyjama’ed comfort of your home computer, like skype satsang for the geographically disadvantaged. Brides are now wearing white and ivory and pastels, and the cocktail party is de rigueur for pre-wedding celebrations. The happy expedient of recycling gifts  one did not want has taken a hard knock with the unseemly wedding registry finding its way into marriage invitations, all in the name of practicality. But what joy is there in getting exactly what you want rather than 10 sets of the exact same lemonade set, when you hate lemonade to begin with? What else could give you that delicious post-wedding gift-opening angst that sets the tone for the rest of the marriage?

But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Now, not only are we fast adapting Western norms to our own culture, we are also happily reimporting our own. Take the humble kurta pyjama that had to make it to the international runways as loungewear before we welcomed it back as a prodigal son with outstretched arms and tears in our eyes. Or even yoga, for that matter, which needed to go around the world, and make itself ‘legit’ in the West before we rubbed our blinkered eyes and decided that yes, if it was good enough for them it was good enough for us. Now if you would kindly excuse me, I need to go sip my tumeric latte.

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