When victory is sweetmeat

Poll pudding: An assortment of sandesh graced by sundry party symbols, Didi and PM Modi. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty   -  Ashoke Chakrabarty

The NaMo cutting chai mousse. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty   -  Ashoke Chakrabarty

Brisk business. Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick keeps pace with the times   -  Ashoke Chakrabarty

Kolkata’s sweet tooth was spoilt for choice between a NaMo sandesh, Didi yoghurt and other ‘election mishtis’ churned out by a 129-year-old confectionery

For all of 129 years, Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick has done much to help satisfy the cravings of South Kolkata’s sweet tooth. But during the recently concluded general elections, the confectioner realised it also had an opportunity to exploit the city’s stomach for politics. The best demonstration of Balaram’s ingenuity came in the days after May 16. Amidst rows of traditional mishtis (sweets) such as the kachagolla and patisapta, there sat the rectangular NaMo sandesh. Made with chhena (sweetened cottage cheese) and sugar, Narendra Modi’s face on the sweet resembled that of a beatific Santa Claus, perhaps the most appropriate likeness a new prime minister could have wished for. The broad smile made it clear. Achhe din had finally arrived.

Rajendra Nath Moulick visits Balaram’s at least once a week. Though avowedly apolitical, he confesses he was particularly impressed by the still talked about NaMo sandesh. “We need to put Narendra Modi’s efforts in perspective,” he says. “Think about the number of rallies he addressed, the amount he travelled and then consider the margin of his win. For all that labour, I think Balaram’s was justified in putting his portrait on a special sandesh.”

Describing an arduous process of continuous trial-and-error, craftsman Uttam Bhattacharya argues that the art of accurate sandesh portraiture is often as difficult as winning a tricky constituency. “Sometimes we’d get the beard wrong. Sometimes the spectacles wouldn’t fit. And each time we’d have to start from scratch.”

After having seen his creation fly off the shelves for more than a fortnight, Bhattacharya was sad to see the NaMo sandesh being discontinued this week. “I felt it had at least another six months left in it,” he confides ruefully. Owner Sudip Mullick, however, is a firm believer in that oft-cited adage — invention is the mother of necessity. He explains, “We have to keep experimenting. I have customers who walk in every week and ask, So what’s new today? These really are great expectations.” In the fourteen years since 33-year-old Mullick took charge, he has tried hard to capture the State’s zeitgeist through his mishtis. There was a large cake for Pranab Mukherjee when he became President and a gur (jaggery) sandesh for Mamata Banerjee when she became chief minister, but these last elections, says Mullick, “had captured the public imagination like no other.”

Though heated political debates are considered an integral part of West Bengal’s genetic makeup, Mullick believes the decibel levels this year were a good notch higher. “It didn’t matter whether I was taking a swim or trying to enjoy a drink at the club. Regardless of where I went, I heard people discussing the pros and cons of some leader or another.” His ears buzzing with shrill punditry, Mullick decided that he was well-positioned to offer his clients a taste of their politics. Hitting upon the idea of nirbachoni mishti (election sweets), the young proprietor introduced four types of sandesh, each with the party symbol of a prominent political outfit etched upon it.

Rather than go from door to door, psephologists should have perhaps been advised to make their way to Balaram’s instead. As it turned out, the sale of its nirbachoni line helped predict trends in Bengal as convincingly as opinion polls. While the store sold 500 pieces of the Trinamool sandesh, it found there was also a demand for 200-250 BJP lotuses. Only 50 customers asked for a show of the Congress’ hand and an even fewer 30-40 were interested in the CPI(M)’s hammer-and-sickle.

The confectioner also offered other concoctions. Impressed by Modi’s humble tea-selling background, they infused CTC and Darjeeling tea to invent a NaMo cutting chai mousse. Helpings of nolen gurer payodhi (baked yoghurt) were named ‘Didi’ because, as Mullick later clarified, “Like nolen gur, Mamata di was the flavour of Bengal with 34 Lok Sabha seats.” But the most interesting item on Balaram’s election menu was possibly the RaGa dessert. Mullick says his reasons for dedicating a chocolate sandesh to the Gandhi scion were simple — “He is young and a little Western. He has studied abroad and has some Italian heritage. I felt a few chocolate flakes were warranted.”

Did he ever worry that his innovations might lead a party or leader to take umbrage, Mullick turns philosophical. “Life is a risk,” he muses. “Moreover, no one can accuse us of having been undemocratic. We have made sure every party was represented.” Sensitivity, however, isn’t just limited to politics in a sometimes orthodox Kolkata. Balaram’s is also subverting the city’s age-old traditions of sandesh-making. More than Mullick, though, it is his father, Pradip Mullick, who makes an impassioned plea for more experimentation. He says, “You must realise we are living in the age of the fusion mishti. People want something like a NaMo sandesh. On the day Narendra Modi was sworn in, I could have doubled our sales if we had enough stock. The demand is really crazy.”

A regular at Balaram’s, Chandan Prasad feels the ₹120 price tag for a NaMo sandesh was more than justified. “The shop uses sulphur-free sugar. You might pay more here, but you pay for quality and, more importantly, you pay for innovation.” Not one to disappoint his patrons, Sudip Mullick is trying hard to ensure that the hysteria of an election is fast replaced by football frenzy. A replica of the trophy for the upcoming World Cup already occupies a corner of his store and more specials are said to be on the way. “I’m just waiting for the day India plays in the tournament,” concludes the proprietor. “When that happens, I won’t make just eleven mishtis. I’ll make 11,000.”

S hreevatsa Nevatia is a writer based in Kolkata

Published on June 06, 2014

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