The good news coming out of the lockdown in the Indian state of West Bengal is that despite the ban on almost everything sweet shops will remain open from 10am to 5pm every day. That is a reassertion of the idea that come what may, it is never a good idea keeping the Bengali away from his sweets, the mishti he cannot do without. Even today, with all the western junk food and with all the biryani and pulao and korma and raita and what not making their way into Bengali homes, on both sides of what once was a united Bengal, it is tradition in the form of sweets that has gone on undisturbed. Rare are the times when, after a filling repast at lunch or a satisfying meal at dinner, mishti is not on offer. A meal is not a meal if it is not followed by mishti doi or roshogollas or gulab jamun.
It is therefore a most pleasing thing for all those sweet shops in West Bengal to remain open, in the lockdown, for seven hours every day. Yes, there is the raging pandemic outside the door and within the home there is the ageing parent or grandparent suffering from diabetes and all those ailments which cruelly deprive sweet lovers of all the mishti they have grown up consuming in relentless pleasure. As a mishti enthusiast myself, and despite all the medication I am on for diabetes, I do make it a point to have some sweets come my way at opportune moments. And those moments are the clandestine minutes when no one in the family is looking or when their protests, aimed at saving me from dropping dead, are smilingly ignored --- by me. Ailment or no ailment, how can one have that bowl of sweets on the dining table looking at one and not do justice to it?
A couple of years ago, I asked my doctor if I were allowed to have grapes. 'Go ahead', he said with a wave of his hand. That cheered me, obviously, before I threw my next question at him: 'How many?' He lifted three fingers, not those you see among the young Myanmarese registering their protest against the coup makers in their country, but a gesture that told me that I could gorge on no more than three grapes. And that too not every day, but after rather long intervals! And so when my eyes chanced to fall on a vendor's van advertising grapes at Walthamstow market in London the other day, I simply went on looking helplessly at the fruit. Those three raised fingers of the doctor flashed in my mind.
But, no matter. These past three days, thanks to a wife sympathetic to my loneliness without mishti, I have happily been feasting on some truly good roshmalai. No, I haven't forgotten my diabetes medicines, which will be there with me for all the remaining years of my life. But roshmalai? They will not come to me every day. And so I have been having my fill of them. But I really hope my nephew and my two nieces, people who have made it their mission to keep me away from sweets or sweet shops, do not read this piece. They will sizzle and boil and get back to me on facebook messenger or on the phone with dire warnings of what they will do to me and to my sweets once they get hold of me again. Many were the times, when travelling with them along Dhaka streets, I asked the driver of the car to stop before the first sweet shop he found on the way. That immediately led to a howl of protests from these three young people. They simply ordered the driver to keep moving, warning him that if he did stop before a mishtir dokan, all three of them would strangle him straightaway with not an iota of mercy!
My grandfathers both loved mishti. My father, I remember, often came back home from work with a bowl of roshogollas dipped in an infinity of the accompanying juice or rosh --- it was actually an earthen pot or hnarhi covered by half a page from an old newspaper, which was tied with a thin rope around the neck of the pot --- and handed it to my mother. He loved sweets and would cheerfully gulp down a good many roshogollas from that pot, all the time instructing us to do the same. We obeyed. The following morning, knowing that though the roshogollas were gone but their rosh was yet in the earthen pot, I dipped the plain roti or paratha, which my mother had made for breakfast, in the rosh and enjoyed it to my heart's content. Nothing can beat the taste of hot roti dripping with roshogolla juice. It's heaven on earth.
Bengali babu culture has been an intrinsic part of heritage. Great were the times when men who had just married went on visits to their in-laws in the villages with loads of mishti in hand. The eyes of the mother-in-law and father-in-law sparkled at the sight of all that mishti, though they politely protested that their jamai babu ought not to have spent so much money on those sweets. But those pots of mishti only endeared him to his in-laws even more. His bride felt proud of being married to a man who understood the social value of sweets. It was not just roshogollas that came with the jamai but also shondesh, jilapi, doi, chomchom and everything else, the quantity depending on the financial ability of the son-in-law.
Mamata Banerjee as a full-blooded Bengali knows the meaning of the term mishti mukh. When our children do well at examinations, we quickly send someone off to purchase sweets from the nearest mishtir dokan. When guests turn up unexpectedly, we remember manners and arrange for sweets for them in a matter of minutes. And remember the old days, when a bridegroom and his bride, having just been pronounced man and wife in rural Bengal, treated each other to mishti, often in the form of nothing more than plain sugar? The bride, her eyes seductively closed, opened her bud-shaped lips and took the sugar in from the hand of the bridegroom. Ah, what romance was aroused in everyone by that sight of mishti locking two young people in bonding for a lifetime!
I have not forgotten the Eid mornings when my father, a lifelong sweet lover, hovered around the kitchen table as my mother placed plates of sweet dishes, a whole variety of them --- kheer, firni, shemai, along with jugs of sherbet made of milk and nuts --- for the family to partake of after the prayers at the nearby mosque. I am happy to report that my sister, my spouse and my sisters-in-law, like every proper Bengali family, have carried on the tradition. My nieces are picking up, hopefully without thoughts of depriving me of the pleasure I derive from a close relationship with sweets.
The West Bengal chief minister has rekindled my interest --- in buying sweets from Haldiram's in Kolkata's Ballygunj and Moron Chand and Aladdin and Premium in Dhaka. Politics may divide us Bengalis, natural disasters may bring misery in our lives and the pandemic may keep us detained at home. But sweets, our mishti, integral components of our lives down the centuries, keeps us together, keeps us unified as a people. Sweets help broaden the smiles on our weathered faces, assuming we are getting on in years. My late friend, a diehard sweet fan, once set up a sweet shop in a prime location in Dhaka. It ran for a few months before it closed down, primarily because my friend called everyone known to him passing by and treated them to all those sweets without charging them a penny. You see, he loved eating sweets and he loved seeing his friends share those sweets with him. Who cared about business?
A Bengali is hardly a Bengali without his sweet tooth, without that spread of mishti before him. That mishti brings out that inimitable mishti hashi in all of us!