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When coronavirus gives you 'corona sandesh'

Why has covid-19 gotten the sandesh treatment? Where was the SARS rosogolla or the dengue barfi?

Corona ‘sandesh’ in a sweet shop. (Getty Images)
Corona ‘sandesh’ in a sweet shop. (Getty Images)

I know of a chemistry professor who saddled his children with names like Platinum, Iridium and Radium. So I was not that surprised when I heard about twins born during the covid-19 pandemic being named Corona and Covid. Though I admit I was taken aback by someone who chose to name their newborn child Sanitizer. If they had all come from the same family and been separated at birth by the pandemic, they could well have been the stars of a post-coronial version of Amar, Akbar and Anthony singing “Ek jagah jab jama ho teenon Corona Covid Sanitizer".

But I have to draw the line at the corona sandesh. I am yet to find anyone who has eaten it so I can’t vouch for the taste. But its appearance is scary, a cross between a pomegranate and a hand grenade with spikes sticking out of it as if waiting to explode in a covid meteor shower. It’s apparently actually a covid-awareness sandesh and I hear it even comes with literature about the dreaded virus, a noble venture, but I am still mystified by those who would want to bite into a sweet named after a killer virus. Until now I thought the sandesh and Cadbury chocolate marriages, an annual competition in these parts, were the ultimate in misalliances, followed closely by Maggi and Gundi Paan Shot Rosogolla. But the corona sandesh takes the cake, so to speak.

Anyway, why has covid-19 gotten the sandesh treatment? Where was the SARS rosogolla or the dengue barfi? I suspect covid’s international profile might have contributed to its elevation in the sandesh hierarchy. After all, Britain’s Prince of Wales tested positive, which makes corona sandesh the closest thing Bengal has to a peer in its sweet hierarchy after the syrupy ledikeni, named after the vicereine Lady Canning.

It is no surprise that one of the first businesses to get some leeway during the lockdown from the government in Bengal has been sweet shops. The Paschimbanga Mistanna Byabasayee Samity says there are 9,000 sweet shops in Kolkata alone and about 100,000 all over Bengal. The ostensible reason for the relaxation is gallons of milk going to waste. But I suspect a more pragmatic reason is that mishti is the opium of the Bengali.

Not all have opened. Rahul Chaurasia of Ganguram, great grandson of the original Ganguram Chaurasia, tells me he has orders but his workers have left. I wandered into our neighbourhood sweet shop purely for the purposes of research.

The streets were deserted, as if the city now belonged to stray dogs lolling in the shade and Swiggy and Zomato drivers idling on their bikes.The masked guard sitting outside the sweet shop sized me up and down. Then he nodded wordlessly at a bottle of hand sanitizer sitting on a stool outside the store. Dutifully sanitized, I walked into the store. The men behind the counter, usually a lackadaisical bunch, sprang into action. The stock was limited, relying more on long-lasting laddoos and barfis than short-lived chhena sweets, but just for a moment one felt a sense of a normal world.

Not for long though. The salespersons looked like Robocops equipped for battle in mithaiwalla PPE—gloves, a head covering, a mask and a plastic visor. Unfortunately, we immediately hit a snag. Between my mask and their mask plus plastic visor, none of us could hear what the other was mumbling. So everyone kept saying “Eh? Eh?" until we resorted to pantomime. The whole rigmarole was repeated at the cash counter.

As I picked up my kesar rasamalai, I asked (again for purposes of research) what was selling the most. “Eh?" said the mithaiwalla. “You want gulab jamuns?" No, no I said, I want to know what is selling the most. He pointed to gulab jamuns anyway but I was not sure he heard me correctly.

A man standing at proper social distance bought two containers of what looked like gulab jamun syrup. I don’t know whether he had wanted that or it had got lost in translation, but in these times of turmoil and paucity, one takes what one gets. That night, we brought out the special china for the rasamalai.

There was a time when sweets were made at home. My mother remembers the sweet maker setting up shop in the house during family weddings and her uncle sitting all night long with his paan dabba supervising the making of darbesh and ledikeni while cousins gobbled up hot juicy ledikenis as fast as they were fried.

In Thor Bori Khara, a memoir of yesteryear Bengal, Kalyani Dutta says a good house always had a supply of home-made sweets handy, names that now sound like prayer beads from a sweeter past—jeebey goja, kucho goja, malpoa, mohanbhog, rosbora, chandrapuli. And every young woman needed to learn how to make pantua and sandesh to be considered an “honor graduate". When sweet shops became common, Dutta writes about one Dr Ramchandra Adhikari, who took his friends on a “sweet trip" to Krishnanagar in 1933 and tried out 64 kinds of sandesh. Social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar offered snacks and sweets popular in Kolkata to the goddess Saraswati, leading someone to coin a shloka:

Luchi Kachori Motichoor Shobhitang

Jalebi Sandesh Goja Birajitam

Jasya Prasaden Pharamaplumah

Saraswati Sa Jayatannirantaram!

Even those who moved to Bengal from other parts were infected by the sweet tooth. The Sheherwali Jains migrated from Rajasthan to Murshidabad and Azimganj in the 18th century and became famous as the Jagat Seths. “When the aroma of laddoos being made would reach us, we would go to the halwai khana and ask for plates and spoons and eat it while it was being made fresh," remembers Sidharth Dudhoria, a descendant, entrepreneur and avid keeper of the history of the Jagat Seths. “We had a halwai khana all year round." His grandfather had elephants and they would come to the house and do a salaam to the grand old man and get a fresh jalebi as a treat.

When they moved to Kolkata, great handis of sweets would arrive from Murshidabad, remembers Dudhoria. When his aunt got married, the groom’s party was told they could stay as long as they liked and not a sweet would be repeated. They stayed one month and legend has it that they were served 100 kinds of sweets. “If someone didn’t eat sweets, he would be scorned," says Dudhoria.

It’s no surprise then that in a world such as this, sweets have quietly crept into the list of essential items. Perhaps the pandemic will force the sweetly desperate to return to home-made sweets. A friend says he is alternating between chhenar payesh (a sort of kheer) and mohanbhog made at home. Another is baking mishti doi in the oven. Yet another has succumbed to tinned rasagollas, once the last resort of the desperate NRI, or non-resident Indian.

But in these bleak times when nothing is open in our neighbourhood other than the pharmacy and a Subway (for home delivery), the welcoming light of a sweet shop at least offers up a promise that not all is lost in the pandemic, that there is some sweetness left in the world. Or perhaps at a time when Bengal is being rapped on the knuckles for not testing enough, and the government complains it’s doing the best it can with the kits it has as it ramps up its game, cynics would say that if they cannot have testing kits, let them have sandesh.

But oh, on some hot summer afternoons, when the air grows sluggish and the mango tree is heavy with unpicked fruit, I would trade my kingdom for some red-tinged mishti doi still carrying within it the earthy taste of the clay cup it came in.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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