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1947: A story of tricolour ‘halwas’ and subversive ‘mithais’

How sweets across the country emerged as players in the freedom movement and carried the imprint of Partition

Sweets in hues of the tricolour often make an appearance in shops around Republic Day and Independence Day. Photo: Hemant Mehta
Sweets in hues of the tricolour often make an appearance in shops around Republic Day and Independence Day. Photo: Hemant Mehta

It was salt that fired the imagination of the people of India after Gandhi’s Dandi March but those who worked with sugar were not going to be left behind in a display of patriotic solidarity. The old halwai in Varanasi I talked to some years ago(touching 80 then) reminisced with misty eyes about the heady times when it was “bliss to be young in that dawn.

“The government could censor newspapers and it wasn’t easy to plaster walls with posters. This is when we created sweets that served as slogans. Tirangi Barfi on display substituted for the tricolour flag beloved of the revolutionaries and followers of Gandhi. It continues to be made on Independence Day and Republic Day. That was the time when artificial colours and flavours were taboo. A layer of orange barfi sandwiched khoya/nariyal to be flanked on the other side with piste ki launj to commemorate the unfurling of the flag on the banks of the Ravi by Jawaharlal Nehru.

“Other sweets were renamed to mock the unpopular British rulers. But Jawahar Laddoo was a large bonbon specked with colourful bits of dried fruits and nuts mimicking gems. Who could take offence at the creative licence taken by the halwai?"

It was not only in Benaras, as the city was then called, that sweets resonated with echoes of the freedom struggle; in towns, small and big signage ostensibly proclaiming the proprietor’s name subtly subverted the censorship. Subhash Mishtanna Bhandars suddenly mushroomed in the Hindi heartland and began to flaunt their house speciality—Subhash Pedha or Subhash Bhog.

The police was always in pursuit of freedom fighters, especially youngsters, raiding college hostels and keeping their homes under surveillance. This was when street-side eateries and sweetshops would become ideal rendezvous for those conspiring against the British. In these hole-in-the-wall eateries, they could appear suddenly, order a mithai as a codeword, meet a comrade and disappear in a wink, mingling with the crowd.

The outbreak of war and the tumult of the Quit India movement interrupted this. Then came the trauma of Partition. Sadly, this affected the shared heritage of sweets. The Muhajir who migrated to Pakistan were parted from balai ki gilori—a delicate mildly sweet triangle fashioned with layers of clotted cream resembling conically wrapped betel leaf. And those who stayed behind still lament that the skilled karigar (workers) who followed their patrons (or perished in the carnage) took with them the art of making muzafar and mutanjan.

The refugees from East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh, compensated for this loss by introducing their compatriots in West Bengal to sweets like khejur gurer payesh, pati shapta and puli peetha. Those displaced by the division of Punjab cherished homemade traditional sweets like patisa and panjiri. It’s a pity that as these families struck new roots and spread all over the land, the making of these sweets was handed over to the professional halwai.

Shereen Bhawan in Old Delhi is known for its extensive selection of ‘halwas’. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

We often tend to forget that Partition drove a wedge not just between Bengal and Punjab but also Sindh. The travels and travails of the Sindhi community have yet to be documented adequately but some idea of this diaspora can be gleaned from the story of Karachi Halwa.

The innocuous geographical indicator prefixed to this confection suddenly became communally charged in the aftermath of Partition. People addicted to it renamed it Bombay Halwa. This was easily done, for during the colonial period, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Karachi had flourished as twin port cities. In Delhi, however, the halwai proudly asserted the Sindhi identity. The colourful, chewy halwa prepared with wheatgerm and enriched with nuts soon gained a fan following among non-Sindhis. It has a very long shelf life and was even more seductive as a gift in colourful tins. There was a time in the 1950s when it gave Delhi’s traditional favourite, Sohan Halwa, a run for its money.

And as we munch on the crunchy Bombay chikki, few among the present generation are aware that it has evolved from another pre-Partition Sindhi classic, majoon.

Today, much of the exotic Habshi Halwa, khajur and other sweets prepared by Shereen Bhawan in Old Delhi find their way to the United Arab Emirates, and, sometimes, from there to the neighbour with whom we have perpetually strained relations. For, while men may redraw boundaries on the political map, it is impossible to divide the shared heritage of a sweet taste. So Hyderabad still has gifted karigar who prepare exotic confections like badam ki jaali and double ka meetha that celebrate the culinary legacy of undivided India.

It’s futile, then, to classify sweets, or savouries for that matter, along religious lines.

It’s time, in fact, to reclaim a resplendent shared culinary heritage.

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