Cloudy Coffee


The plane I am sitting in is somewhere above Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland. I look down, and the Midwestern clouds are frothy with the suggestion of cream that’s not yet fully whipped, or the warmed, unhomogenized Nandini milk my aunt Sharada pours into coffee.

This is a small regional jet. It can barely take me from Madison home to Brooklyn. It definitely cannot take me the seven thousand miles to Aunt Sharada’s kitchen in Mysore, so I instead conjure the exact onomatopoeia of my aunt blowing across a pot of warm milk. Instead of the engine, I hear her gaspy inhale. The soft shush of the exhale, directed gently, carefully over and with her lower lip so the wind stays at the milk’s surface but has enough invisible momentum that the cream shimmies over to one side of the metal pot. Ffffff. In the mornings, in her kitchen, the radio plays mantras or she prays, singing, quietly, as she works.

Like any coordinated breathing, like in yoga, like in meditation, the milk-blowing takes practice. Any errant saliva would render the entire quantity of milk unclean, garbage, so it’s a high-stakes move. The goal of the ffffff is to slide the cream over just enough to expose a half-moon of the milk’s thinner surface underneath. That way, when my aunt tips the vessel, the milk will slip out from under the cream. After the pot is righted, the cream stretches out again, reclaims its old space like a lover’s arm stretching across the sheets, once you’ve risen. Well, when you’ve done it right.

Blow too hard and the cream will bunch, small pieces will break off, end up floating in the lotas, the small, stainless steel tumblers from which we drink our coffee. I hate those bits; they always catch in my American throat and I gag unbecomingly. Unhomogenized milk is somehow sweeter than our American fortified supermarket gallon. Indian milk is the perfect pair for the coffee beans, which must be grown locally, roasted and weighed and ground with chicory by the proprietor of the shop kitty-corner from my aunt’s kitchen, across from the temple that serves a landmark for rickshaw drivers. The gods stand tall above the corner. The temple is being repainted, and for weeks the gods are milk-white in the bright blue sky. They loom above us when we cross the street to buy coffee.

My aunt brews it into bitter decoction, dark and complex as molasses. All this must happen before the coffee can meet the milk.

I think of my aunt in the kitchens of my childhood visits, her hairstyle changing as I advance the years in my head. It is always the same motion, a half-turn from our conversation to ffff. Then she spills the milk into the coffee pot, swirls the coffee and milk together. She pours the first cup for my dad. He is always first, privileged first-born son, beloved more because of his absence. But, really, his cup comes first because he prefers his coffee without sugar. Once his cup is poured, she shovels in some white sugar, the big-grained kind, and pours the liquid back and forth, pot to lota to pot to lota, mixing and cooling and frothing. Under the froth, there are drops of oil from the coffee beans, tiny beads of bitter notes.

My aunt, sari-clad, extends her right hand to me with Dad’s lota. I am to serve him, which I do only in India. Somehow, when I am there, the patriarchal practices do not feel so oppressive, such an imposition on my feminism. Gold and glass bangles clink the short length of her lower wrist. Mine, too, as I receive the coffee. Whether in a sari or jeans, when in India, I am always, auspiciously, wearing my bangles.

The coffee handoff feels like a specific moment in a Hindu wedding: the daughter lines up behind her mother, forming a slope by bending their necks, knees, and hips. Other women relatives sing as they pour water on the mother. It flows from mother to daughter, an unsubtle celebration of generational transition. My own parents, avowed atheists, sat out most of my Hindu marriage rites, so it was behind my aunt Sharada that I stood when the water ran down my spine.

In a later part of the ceremony, my new husband and I faced each other next to the homa. I held a heavy coconut in both hands, and he wrapped his around mine. In pairs, my aunts and uncles and even both our own sets of parents participated. Each father held a tiny silver idol at the top of the coconut, and the mother poured water from a lota, the same sort of lotas we drink the coffee from. Through the smoke of the homa, I saw the pandits’ coffee cups next to their vacated spots. They stood to chant as the parents poured the cool water. It streamed over the god and my hands, sandwiched between the coconut, hard and scratchy, and my new husband’s hands, warm and white around mine. His grip tightened slightly. Later, we agreed, it was the moment we first felt married.

The cool water ferried us to our new state, connected us to the generations of married people before us. Their marriages had led to us, and now, we had a marriage, one in a line. I felt, as my mother once said about having children, “part of the stream of life.” She said that over coffee, but in New York, where we make our homes. We sat in a café in Washington Heights. The Hudson glittered in the sun. The traffic moved slowly. Our coffees came in paper cups. It was not as hot, not as dark, not as bitter, not as milky.

Across the oceans, the water that Brahmins were traditionally forbidden to cross, waters black as coffee, I am often left out of the Kannada conversation. My grasp of the language is not even elementary. But “coffee” is a word imported directly from the English. I always recognize it. It is, perhaps, the most important word in our family. When my uncle bellows for it, when the feeling that it is time for tiffin settles around us, when someone pays the house a visit, or when we are bored, I can summon my tiny bits of baby Kannada to suggest gently that my aunt remain seated. Sometimes, she nods. I rise and walk, my toe rings clicking on the cool, polished concrete floor. I slip into her kitchen to do what women do, our everyday work its own prayer, its own dribble of connection. Carefully, I inhale, and then blow the creamy cloud across the surface of the milk.

In her Brooklyn apartment, Dania Rajendra crafts social justice strategy by day and dinner, dessert, and literary offerings in the eight hours for what we will.