Of ice cream and secrets

Last night, Agastya, fourteen and rather tall now, informed me after dinner, “I am going out for ice-cream.” 

I ran after him.  “Are you meeting a friend? Why are you getting ice-cream now?  Don’t buy ice-cream just for yourself – can you bring some back for me.  Don’t spend too much.”

A few minutes later, he called on my phone.  “What flavor do you want – they have…” He rattled off a long list. 

“Strawberry,” I said, thinking of strawberry sticks and two-in-one vanilla and strawberry cups from my childhood.

***

My first memory of ice cream is of a milky strawberry stick that Johnny sold to me from his ice cream cart.  I must have been five or six, newly awakening to becoming an independent person.   

Johnny was lean, dark-skinned and curly haired.  He wore matching blue shorts and a shirt that said “Kwality” embroidered in curly red letters.  He would pull his cart into the school yard each day during recess, parking himself under the shade of a balcony away from the searing sun.  He would be immediately surrounded by chittering girls in white asking for ice cream, thrusting money at him. Break was only fifteen minutes from 11.05 to 11.20am.  When my turn came, he handed me a perfectly frozen strawberry milk popsicle that came magically out of the square wooden cart. wrapped in paper, and shaped like a rocket.  

As I unwrapped it and bit into the icy tip, the heat dissipated from my body and all my senses gathered in my mouth.  Then there were the triangular sides to contend with – which should be eaten first.  My tongue dissolved into the experience of chasing dripping pink strawberry cream, sticky and sweet, while I tried to hold the stick away from my body, lest my white dress hold tell-tale pink streaks.  

Johnny did not allow any of us children to come too close, guarding his wares from our grasping little hands.  And unlike the Britannia Biscuit factory that allowed tours for first grade students to show us how their chocolate Bourbon biscuits emerged in neat rectangles on conveyor belts, the smell of warm baking and vanilla suffusing the facility, we never visited the Kwality ice cream factory.  Both treats, being the stuff of my girlhood dreams.   

So how the ice cream remained perfectly frozen and how it tasted so good, always remained a mystery.  

The money to buy ice cream at school came not from my parents, but from my indulgent grandmother, Amma.  My mother was strictly against uncontrolled and unsupervised eating of food outside the house.  But Grandma was clever.  She surreptitiously slipped the money to our driver Ram Narayan, who brought us back and forth from school in the car every day.  It was Ram Narayan, bespectacled, kindly and responsible, who gave me the money to buy ice cream.  “This will be our secret, this is how you will remember me” Amma would chuckle, her robust belly heaving behind the sari that she wore.  So my mother never found out, although I suspected that she knew.  My mother, despite being busy with the household, knew all sorts of things, she had the nose of a bloodhound. I dared never to lie to her.  I was ready to spill everything should mom ask.  But in all those growing up years, she never did.  And no one revealed it – none of these adults.  

These were the days before Kwality became Kwality Wall’s and ice cream turned into something that didn’t resemble ice cream any more, and before the days of large freezers and ice cream pints at home with their lingering taste of paper carton.  Before aisles of frozen treats in supermarket stores that I could buy whenever I wanted.  Before I went to Rome with a list of must-eat gelato.  Before I visited every craft ice-cream shop in the New York city area.  

What was I searching for?  Could anything ever taste as sweet as a forbidden treat, as sweet as a secret kept safe?

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