Friday, 24 February 2012

The Ice-cream Treats of My Childhood

For most of my schoolgirl life, my family lived in a small multi-storeyed apartment in Central Delhi; one of the many "government quarters" in the city, meant to house the families of government servants. The "government quarter" was one of the perks of working with the central government, as they were invariably located in some of Delhi's most coveted residential neighbourhoods (it was a different matter that many of the apartments were tiny, as was the one that I grew up in, but I will leave all that angst for another post).

We lived in Lutyen's Delhi, just a short walk from India Gate, and not much further from Connaught Place and Khan Market, both of which were among Delhi's most favoured shopping areas when I was growing up. Now of course, they have been overtaken by Gurgaon and Noida's steel-and-glass malls, although from all accounts, the city's elite still have a soft spot for Khan Market.

Back in the 1990s, India's government servants weren't paid very much. Life was far from flashy, if you weren't a corrupt servant of the public that is. And so the apartment block that I grew up in was a microcosm of middle class Indian life.

One of the things I remember from my childhood is a little ice-cream cart parked outside our apartment block all day and for most of the night. He sold "Kwality Wall's" ice-cream which, in our minds, was infinitely more upmarket than homespun Mother Dairy and Amul ice-cream. Mother Dairy and Amul restricted themselves largely to family size ice-cream bricks in a few predictable flavours - vanilla, strawberry, butterscotch and chocolate. They also did a couple of desi flavours for those with more Indian palates: kaju-kishmish and kesar-pista, if I recall correctly. Kwality-Walls, on the other hand, offered a much wider variety of flavours. They even did ice-cream sundaes in family packs, which was such a novelty back then. 

As an after dinner treat, my brother and I were treated to ice-cream fresh from the ice-cream man's cart. My father was always the more obliging parent on that count. My mother is as a schoolteacher, and so was back at home at lunch time just when we escaped school, leaving her free to spend the rest of the day with us tyrants. She saw too much of us to be an indulgent parent. My father was more vulnerable to ice-cream requests, having spent all day at work away from us, and having returned in the evening when we were on our best behaviour, too tired out to wreak further havoc.

The ice-cream man wasn't visible from our balcony, but my brother and I could spot his cart in the far distance if we hung out at a strategic angle from our kitchen window. On some evenings, when the idea of requesting an ice-cream treat occured to us a little later than it ideally should have, my parents (usually my mother) would say "Too late, ice-cream man must have packed up and left", with a badly disguised tinge of hope. This was the cue for us to rush to the kitchen and hang out of the kitchen window to check if our beloved ice-cream man had indeed shut shop for the day, before we could be stopped in our tracks by parental health and safety warnings on the risks of this daredevilry. On some days, we were in fact too late, and we'd head back sulkily to our half-finished meals. On other days, we had better luck, and we'd excitedly announce our sighting of the little red cart to our parents and ask them to hurry up with the cash before the ice-cream left on four wheels.

Things have changed so much since then. Kwality-Walls isn't quite the "cool" brand of ice-cream anymore. We have all the big international ice-cream brands in India. There don't seem to be as many ice-cream carts dotted across the city. I'm no longer a little schoolgirl, my mother is too far away to dictate how often I indulge my weakness for ice cream, and the neighbourhood supermarket next to my London flat has a fairly respectable variety of ice-cream flavours. Still, I don't think any ice-cream can ever match the joy that I got from the hard earned Kwality-Walls ice-cream treats of my childhood.   

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