The short story "Neipayasam" by Kamala Das tells of the grief of a man called Achhan after the sudden death of his wife. He comes home from work one day and his wife is dead on the floor. He takes her away in a taxi, and their three sons do not realize she is dead. They think that she is only away because she is ill. She has left food in vessels on the sill, but Achhan does not want to serve it to his sons because "it is touched by death." Besides the other food, she has also left some neipayasam in a glass bowl. The children eat this with great enjoyment, proclaiming that "it is very tasty" and that "Mother has made splendid neipayasam."
This story was originally written in Malayalam, a south Indian language, and then translated into English. The title "Neipayasam" appears in some versions of the story translated as "Sweet Milk." However, payasam, also known as kheer, is not merely sweetened milk, but rather a type of rice pudding popular all over India. The basic ingredients are milk, rice, and sugar, to which other spices, dried fruits, and nuts are added as flavoring.
Neipayasam is a particular type of payasam that is made in Kerala, the state in India that Kamala Das is from. It is served in households, at weddings, and in temples. It is made with rice, ghee (a type of clarified butter), jaggery (a type of dark brown sugar made from palm tree sap), grated coconut, water or milk, cardamom powder, ginger powder, and cashews.
The neipayasam in the story symbolizes the sweetness that the man's wife has brought to their household and lives that will never be there again. The children are blissfully ignorant of the loss of their mother and thoroughly enjoy the delicious dessert, while the husband is reminded of the irreparable loss of his wife and has to leave the room.
Kamala Das wrote “Neipayasam” in Malayalam, an Indian dialect. When it was translated into English, the story was given the name “Sweet Milk.” The narration is omniscient third person focusing on the unnamed father as the protagonist of the story.
Without the father’s name revealed, he becomes a universal figure for all men who lose their wives and worry about how to cope without their partners. The story employs an unemotional quality which makes the story even more poignant. It illustrates the shock and dismay the father feels for his own life and his three boys.
A young mother is found dead from a heart attack in her kitchen. The story begins with the woman’s husband returning from the cremation and funeral of the wife. Tearful, it is obvious that he is in shock. His concern is for his children and how he will carry the responsibility for himself and his wife.
When the father arrives at home, two of his three boys are waiting for him. The middle boy is sleeping. Immediately, the father decides not to tell the boys about their mother until the next day. There is no reason to ruin their sleep. The boys inquire about their mother thinking that she had to spend the night in the hospital. The father responds by telling them that the mother will return.
The importance of the payasam
The mother has left a loving legacy for her children. Before the mother had her heart attack, she followed her usual routine preparing food and a special treat for the children when they returned from school, as well as potatoes for the evening meal. The boys loved their mother’s payasam. It was their favorite snack.
When he sees the boys, the father learns that they had not eaten. He offers to fix them a meal. All the boys want is their mother’s treat that she made especially for them. First, the father thought the boys should not eat the food their mother had prepared because it was touched by death. Then, with a melancholy feeling, he decided that they should be able to eat the payasam since it was the last thing that their mother would ever make for them.
As the oldest boy begins to eat, he comments that his mother made wonderful neipayasam.
They started eating the payasam. He [the father] sat motionless, watching them.
“We want only payasam. It’s very tasty."
"Yes, Mother has made splendid neipayasam," Rajan said happily.
With this comment concerning the food, the boy expresses his love for his mother and appreciation for her making them their favorite food. Sadly, he is unaware of the importance of this payasam, which is the last their mother will ever have made for them. They would never again be able to eat their mother’s cooking.
No longer can the father hold back his tears, and he rushes to the bathroom to hide his grief from his boys. What will tomorrow bring without the mother’s love!