As a child in the sixties and seventies, growing up in Army Cantonments in India I loved festival time as it meant lots of exclusive dishes cooked for the occasion. Some of these were annual recipes and Janamashtmi also has its share of unique recipes. Sweetmeats ( barfi) made of coconut and thickened milk, musk melon seeds (meeng) and thickened milk or sweet balls ( ladoos) of (Cholai)and Jaggery were and are simply too good to miss. The reason for the annual cooking was dependent on the harvest time and availability. Today our options of buying stored and packed farm produce is not seasonal in nature.
Preparations began much before the actual Janamashtami celebrations and created a certain anticipation. Musk melons are a very sweet summer fruit. After eating every melon the seeds were soaked in water for a few days. Once amply fermented the seeds were washed, cleaned and dried by my mother and stored. They were then taken possession of by my grandmother who would then painstakingly shell them. To give you an idea of their size, the seed is 1 cm by .25 cm and flat. The seeds she wanted to shell for the day were soaked in water and wrapped in a wet muslin cloth. The damp seeds made shelling easier. We as kids were always on the lookout and as soon as she had some done we would be there to eat them. I can still picture her pretending to get angry that she was doing this for Janamashtami cooking. If you eat them I will have nothing left.
Our lifestyles have changed and changed for the better in most cases. Our cultural practices are also changing as young working mothers living in nucleus families have no time to get into festival cooking. Often when interacting with young mothers and my students I can feel that they would like to have their children to be more aware. Since I never took up a formal job it was easy to cook these special dishes and prepare for them. Thankfully I lived with my mother-in –law and she would spend hours deseeding the melon seeds and my children would eat them as soon as a handful were done. On my objecting she would say it’s alright, it’s for them only. My mother- in -law never threw anything and one day to my surprise I saw her using a contraption for cracking the seeds. On asking she started laughing and said that 60 years ago she used this pin to curl my elder sister-in-law’s hair when she was a baby. Simply fascinating! Today, she is no longer with us and I also buy the meeng seeds from the market to make the barfi.
Janamashthami is the day Krishna was born in a prison and the story is very fascinating. He is considered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Krishna because of his playful antics, mischievous behavior and pranks is a very human and lovable God. In fact I remember as a child, one of my relatives telling me he is the best God to worship. On asking for elaboration he said “ Krishna is the most understanding as he stole the butter, he prevaricated on his answers and he played pranks. So if you have done anything wrong he will be the most understanding and forgiving.” As a youngster this logic made absolute sense.