The metropolis is a big sweetmeat for the odd diabetic — a cottony white rosogulla or the voluptuous jal bhara sandesh perched comfortably saccharine on the banks of the Ganges. Kolkata, to the intrepid outsider, is identified by its proverbial Bengali sweet-tooth that creeps into the northern palette as well. A year’s sojourn to the metropolis –Satyajit Ray’s “Mahanagari” and chief minister Mamata Benerjee’s “cauldron of political bonhomie” — bequeathed me a legacy of a lifetime. A blood sugar count of 400. The doctor smiled – slightly benign and generally saccharine. “No misti (sweets), madam”. The stricture exploded in my mindscape with a new perspective — the sweetmeats on which I had been fattening my Bengali fantasies everyday at breakfast acquired a new pedagogy of existence. I began to ponder their anatomical dialectics – their genesis, evolution, the ongoing war of the “rasogulla” between Bengal and neighbouring Orissa – and their intellectual sublimities.
Startling, but the humble “jal-bhara”— a baked jaggery cheesecake – the proud refrain of every halwai in the metropolis — rolled out a story- my own juxtaposed against the large canvas of a changing Bengali pysche. It is a royal sweet that has seen the Bengali societal progression from elitism, Marxism to the current-day egalitarianism in the present-day Bengal, living above the breakages and fissures of political time-scales. ‘Jal-bhara’ has emerged unscathed to become slightly more refined, resplendent and modern with an odd raisin, a green cardamom and a dollop of liquid palm gur (jaggery) that aficionados swear is sweeter than it was at the turn of the century.
The sweetmeat vend near my home – “Mouchak” or the Beehive — a sought-after and thriving address for all the sugar-coated diabetic newbies in the south Kolkata neighbourhoods says the “jal-bhara” dates back to a time when the erstwhile landlords of the metropolis were scouting for forms in their “feudal consciousness”, nearly 150 years ago at the beginning of the 20th century or at the lag of the 19th century. An ingenious halwai or the cheese artist accidentally stumbled upon the idea of the ripe “plum’ as the clay model for the gastronomy of the sweetmeat somewhere near Jessore in present day Bangladesh – though some like to differ to Chandannagore- then vital to undivided Bengal as an arterial node on the silk road between Ganges and the Padma. The dates are tangled in factual and spatial discords.
History cites that the rationale for “jal-bhara” was inspired by topography – a desire to transform the desolation of a decadent Bengal into a “syrupy” passage of socio-politico cultural change. Pouring “rose syrup” inside a sandesh was the right spice to steam-cook the imagination of the Bengali misti (sweet) platter that occupied the forefront of the traditional Kolkata hospitality. In 1818, moira (sweetmeat maker) Surjya Kumar Modak drenched the jiggery and cottage cheese dough with rose syrup, moulded it like the plum fruit that hung in wanton and inebriating profusion from the green tongues of the city in the making – dotting roads, riverbanks, private gardens and the country-side. The “newly-crafted” sandesh (sweet) was christened the jalbhara or the tal-shansh sandesh. Modak later went to patent the “motichur sandesh”, aam sandesh (mango sandesh) and the khirpulli sandesh (cheeseball sweet). The discovery of the jal-bhara in chocolate and vanilla flavours came a mild surprise – the flavours appeared too city-slicking for a delicacy as traditional, prissy and hefty as the “jal-bhara”. The evolution of the jal-bhara into “choco-latte” took the wind out my Bengali soul. It was a sacrilege – the entire vandalism of the Bengali aristocracy associated with its unique gastronomy that progressed simultaneously with the march of the wet terrain from the days of the early Hindu-Bengali dynasties to the “nawabi tehzeeb” of Gaur, the ensuing fiefs, feudal holds and the British Raj to the “bullocks” 21st century- when the intellectual melting pot of the renaissance years became the superficial hunting ground of confused shopping arcades (east meets west facilities in Bengali haste) and messy industrial skeletons under the Left Front and then the Trinamool Congress – rising like a mythical flying creature from the grassroots.
The sight of a “kid” in dungarees – freshly disgorged from its NRI flying machine off the coasts of Atlantic – digging into the chocolaty jal-bhara in an obscure sweetmeat counter not far from my home was an affront to the sensibility. It was a spur. No! It is not the right way to sink teeth into one of Bengal’s enduring legacies- the words died at the tip of my tongue but the outrage took precedence prompting a deeper look at the social gastronomy of the “jal-bhara”.
Children measure the furlongs of societal transformation – in Bengal the process has acquired a curious twist spawning a generation of aliens –severed from the cord blood of their Bengali DNA early at birth.
At the beginning of the new millennium – circa 2000 – or as some of my peers point out — in the cusp of the political melodrama of the mid-1970s when the fire of a Marxist revolution (Naxalism – a home-grown brand of Mao’s doctrine meets the armed insurrectionist of South American Communists fired by the poetic violence of Che Guevara) was making way for a more sane and moderate Left bloc (derided as a bourgeois government), Bengal witnessed a drain. The outflow was a strange reversal of the 1971 demographic phenomenon when the droves swamped the Gangetic delta from neighbouring Bangladesh in an exodus spurred by the war of Liberation — a steady surge of bright young minds deserted the state for greener pastures up country – to New Delhi and beyond— moving across the walls of geography to surf foreign shores. United Kingdom and United States of America were their common destination stops – enterprising and thinking Bengali boys and girls – the later in a minuscule in proportion — took up posts in the white collared industry and the services. The elders inferred lack of space citing that the metropolis was bursting at the seams with progression and immigration – mostly illegal through its syrupy riverine borders. They had to find room in the more sparsely-inhabited turfs across the globe.
Forty-years on, the out-bounds of the 70s and the 80s have multiplied into families – two generations of them who fly home twice a year diligently unlike their brethrens elsewhere across the country – to bond. The boys bring in brides – as in my personal recollection and encounters – frail American blondes with lank mousy hair, pallid skins and large blue eyes. “Blonde, that’s what clicked…,” the guys who trooped to school in unison, gush out of the earshot of yankee consorts . “Jal-bhara” returns to the realms of conversations about politics and the quintessential Bengali gastronomy – the morphs, amorphous subtleties and the universalisation of the Bengali platter. “Misti (sweetmeats) and steak- medium, not overdone….beef. Fata fati combo. Pair it with red wine,” the suggestion is outlandish, perched precariously on insanity. Beef is irreverence. Why not?
But the spirit of “jal-bhara” means magic. “Ganguram, Sen Mahashyay. KC Das, Balaram Mullick or Mouchak…” the contentions are overloaded. Ganguram spells class, Mouchak is spice. Sen Mahashyay harks back to the heritage of North Kolkata’s “bari” culture. KC Das is pure commerce. Each has interpreted “jal-bhara” to suit its trajectories – business, sociological and personal. The “jal-bhara” of Ganguram edges past Mouchak in its sugary wealth— and buttery skein. Mouth-melting, flaky, the jaggery smells like freshly-plucked palm fruit, the dough is softer and the sugar syrup sweeter.
The brisk trek to Ganguram in a bustling neighbourhood in South Kolkata is a 10-minute exercise in sugar-searching. “We look into our souls for a bit of sweet-nothing every year during the Durga-utsav, away from the manic pace of Manhattan…,” their words carry the wisp of Hudson’s serendipity. Limpid. Far-away. Unknown. It beckons. “Chole aye (come away). This city stinks,” the card-board loads of “jal-bhara” pile heavy on their arms. Two boxes are for the festivities and the rest loaded into the cargo-holds to New York.“That choco-latte derivative looks tacky – pedestrian. Jal-bhara has to be the right shade of earth – light, mute and drenched in memories,” the description fits the odyssey of my favourite Bengali misti . Like the city. A nostalgia crumbling into the flaky dough of jal-bhara. “I am acutely sugary…”
“ Never mind. Bite a morsel…” the response is shaper than usual. Why waste yourself in the alleyways of what it was; politics has never been this chaotic and quixotic, life has taken a second place on the transparency meter of the city and economics is on the least ebb in the stock-exchanges. The dollar trades beyond the periphery of my professional and algebric imagination- 60 for one. “Can you beat it. We can raid the stores here. Lark… ekhane eshe khorrcha korbi (spend here) – you can go to the moon…” This year should be my last in the city. Manhattan, next.
But jal-bhara remains resilient in the counter of the obscure sweetmeat vend next to my adopted home in the city. Jaggery, chocolatty, Bengali and slow-changing to the tug of the times.
Kolkata, Sept 2016
Asia News Network (India) Coordinator
Foreign Affairs Editor (The Statesman)