Once upon a time, there lived a demon who stole clouds. He then mixed them up with sugar and gobbled the lot up. When he peed, ice cream fell instead of rain. This is definitely the world’s worst creation myth, and I had the honour of making it up when I was eight years old. The story was inspired by other tales so not exactly original, but it did say something about my interest in ice cream. Recently, I ran few blocks behind an ice-cream truck only to realise that I didn’t even want the ice cream. Strangely, ice cream is not one of my favourite desserts, but I am fascinated by the idea of it. I think, it has to do with the privileged position ice cream enjoyed back in the 80s and early 90s when it was neither cheap nor commonplace.
I remember my mother would only allow me to eat only Kwality brand ice cream at the time when the choice was mostly limited to five or six flavours. For her, every other brand of ice cream was hokey-pokey. While people disagree about the precise meaning of the term, the general idea is that it means inferior ice cream sold by street vendors. Back in the late 19th century, poor children in New York, who couldn’t afford ice cream, ate hokey-pokey which was often watered down sweetened frozen milk, or frozen lemonade etc. mostly made in unsanitary conditions.
This was clearly not the case in 80s and 90s Calcutta where I grew up. There were several brands that were way cheaper than Kwality, like Casanova, Quality, Badshah, Prince and so on. In fact, they had more attractive flavours such as rose, pineapple, cherry, coffee to name a few. Kulfi too fell in the hokey-pokey group back then. I sometimes managed to use guile and eat them; honestly, I don’t remember the taste, but defiance is usually very sweet.
It was not that ice cream was scarce, but it was something that needed to be earned. You couldn’t just get it, like say a piece of barfi or pedha which was always there in the fridge or the kitchen. To get a small cup of vanilla ice cream, you had to either get good grades, or do housework, or demonstrate exemplary behaviour. Naturally, many of us didn’t get any ice cream for months. It required a lot of work. Ice cream was a status symbol, you respected it, revered it, and it was not something you munched like the lowly batasha. Just like the Barbie Doll, which was kept in a showcase and played with once a year, it was too good for you.
My fascination with ice cream grew even more when I watched Jack Carson’s The Good Humor Man based on a character created by Good Humor Ice Cream Company to sell their ice cream. If someone had made a movie based on Ramu and Shyamu, the Poppins boys, or a film with the Lijjat Papad bunny, it would have been like the Jack Carson movie. I don’t know how the videotape landed at our house, but it definitely inspired me to write a whole series of ice-cream tales that were decidedly atrocious. Even today when someone offers me ice cream, I still think of a picture I saw in a book as a kid, where fairies make ice cream in wooden vats with cream, clouds and fairy dust.