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The Toyota, Merc and Lexus of Bengali sweets

September 10, 2008 12:32 IST

The American intellectual with a left inclination who was exploring Kolkata in the late sixties impressed me no end. Impressionable I was in my late teens, still taking in with wonder the confusion and variety of the big wide world just opened up to me on crossing the portals of the great institution on College Street that managed to be both hallowed and radical.

He knew so much more about India than I did, and he liked most of it. Except the sweets, a defining aspect of life in Kolkata. Bengali sweets are 180 per cent too sweet, he declared with finality, thus demolishing in a single stroke one of the pillars of the world I loved without reservation.

As I have got to know a wider world, I have often wondered how something as material as sweets can have such a strong, almost emotional, link with those who have grown up with it.

I have failed to find the answer but proof that such links have a strong theoretical foundation is contained in the book Jalebi Management by Shombit Sengupta.

He has built an entire original theory with the humble jalebi as its central motif and metaphor.

The idea was born when he was down and out in Paris as a youngster and could not afford the jalebi that he suddenly saw one day in an ethnic sweet shop window.

A winning product must forge an emotional bond with the customer, the sort that made him long for that jalebi in the foreign land.   

The link between modern management and traditional sweets is not all that remote as it may seem. Yes, Kolkata's sweet shops are a symbol of its unchanging side.

The stretch of the main road near our old house in Bhowanipur has always been defined by two elements --  the trams that clank and trundle and refuse to come to a total stop and the succession of sweet shops bearing hallowed names like Jalajog, Dwarik, Sen Mahashay and, of course, the irreplaceable Girish Chandra Ghosh.

They have all seen better days and it would be realistic to think that the last rites which could not be performed by economic decline may eventually be executed by health consciousness.

But if there is absence of change at the core, that is certainly not so at the periphery. In Jadavpur, which I have got to know well since I got married, new thinking is at work.

Not only are bright and pleasant shops offering good value for money (their sweets are bigger and taste almost as good as those of the traditional greats), one of them actually cuts prices late in the evening to clear the day's stock. 

The message is loud and clear: We sell only what's absolutely fresh, never stuff that is even a day old.

These sweets have naturally travelled all over the country. Delhi's Bengali Market has two massive shop-cum-restaurants that sell every kind of sweets and snacks, only some of them are identifiably Bengali.

But the association in the mind (irrespective of the history of how the place got its name) is unmistakable -- the Bengali and the sweet go together.

To get totally authentic stuff you have to travel to the cultural ghetto of Chittaranjan Park where fish and sweets vie for the consumer's wallet, but no purist will grudge the fact that a mega brand will live in many colours in many places.

The sweets have naturally travelled to Bangalore as well, where the migrant software engineer is willing to pay top rupee for the taste of home.

The grandfather is, of course,  K C Das, whose shop occupies a prime place on St Mark's Road, almost opposite Koshy's and bang in front of the very recently opened Hard Rock Cafe. K C Das has lately been done up and there is an elegant look about the place, particularly when the works of some aspiring artists are on display.

But it is time it read Sengupta. He emphasises that a luxury brand will be steeped in tradition and need never sell on cost, but it has to keep offering better value.

A particular variety there recently caught my eye but it was priced at Rs 14 per piece! The good people of Kolkata will be scandalised but you do tend to lose your sense of reality in the virtual city.

What is more, other good shops in town are seeking to cater to both those who are born with a sweet tooth or are keen to acquire it.

In the Indira Nagar neighbourhood where I live there are at least three expert dispensers of the genre. Shree Mithai has a separate section which says these Bengali sweets must be consumed fresh, the very same day! Note the implicit brand-building effort, conveying the message that this is something special.

Then there is a new branch of Mishti but the most fascinating of all is Kanti Sweets. Known for its quality, to its varied offering of north Indian and Kanada sweets (their Mysore Pak is to be had to be believed) they add in season a small offering of natun gurer sandesh.

The quality is exquisite and it is priced a shade below K C Das. To borrow an analogy from Sengupta, they are a Toyota which has a Lexus in the making that can challenge the Mercedes of K C Das one day.

Subir Roy