At four every morning the severely annoying sound of a gradually intensifying, prolonged and near-deafening yawn would obliterate the tranquillity of a sleepy northern neighbourhood slowly waking up to face another day in the cosmopolitan city of Kolkata in the eastern armpit of the Indian subcontinent.
A solid ten minute of thunderous “Hh uuu aaaa wwwww hhhhhh, maaa maa ma,” by seventy-seven-year-old Paandurongo Trilokchand Ghosh, alias ‘Poe-tay’ would scare off dawning birds and bats perched on electric poles and tree branches.
Some covered their ears with the palms of their hands. Others tried to muffle the sound with pillows cuddled over their heads. Poetay’s legendary yawn was one of the many noises played by the septuagenarian every morning not to annoy his neighbours but to prepare himself for the day. It was a routine, which he had come to practice, absorb, and develop as second nature over the years, and could not break come what may.
Round as a barrel of scotch and as dark as its charred inner surface, Poetay was a tall and chubby man, a jumbo-bag of slow-moving wobbly-lard, always seen wearing just a single piece of translucent red and white checkered cotton gamcha (traditional thin Bengali towel), wrapped around his gargantuan waist.
This choice of attire was perhaps mainly because the juggernaut hated the heat and continuously perspired wrapped in pounds of human fat and flesh, and wearing the gamcha he could be as close as being naked to air himself in the presence of civilised men and women.
Though everyone hated his clamorous early morn escapades, they simply loved him for two things he made as the day progressed. With the break of dawn as smoke from charcoal cinders of tea stalls filled the morning air, Poetay would continue with his irritating cacophony stirring up everyone’s hair. Unhinging noisy iron shackles and squeaky heavy bolts, he would open the black soot-stained antique wooden doors to his ancestral business.
On the ground floor of a semicircular corner house at the intersection of Goabagan street and Goabagan lane, a shabby and faded sign with broken letters in Bengali font spelt out ‘Ramkrishna Misthanna Darbar’. One of the many authentic and traditional sweet shops of Kolkata, virtually found in almost every street and bylane.
Poetay was the third-generation proud owner and chief confectioner of this one-hundred-and-twelve-year-old Bengali sweet shop. A family business that his grandfather Mukundoo Poramanik Ghosh had started in the year 1888, established sixty-two-years after Bhim Chandra Nag had opened Kolkata’s oldest and most prominent sweet shop in 1826, still very much in business today.
Back in the heydays, Poetay used to make a variety of sweets, the art of which he had picked up from his late father Trilokchand Mukundoo Ghosh, who had picked it up from his in the early 1900s.
Amriti, Balushahi, Barfi, Bonde, Chandrapuli, Chhenar Jilipi, Chomchom, Danadar, Darbesh, Dudh Puli, Goja, Gujiya, Jilipi, Kacha Golla, Kalakand, Kalo Jam, Kheer Kadam, Kheer Potol, Kolar Bora, Komola Bhog, Lobongo Latika, Langcha, Ledikeni, Malpua, Mishti Doi, Mishti Shingara, Mihidana, Moa, Mohan Bhog, Monohora, Narkol Naru, Nikuti, Pantua, Patishapta, Payesh, Peda, Rabri, Rajbhog, Rasmalai, Roshogulla, Sar Bhaja, Shondesh, Sitabhog, and Soan Papdi were the forty-three sweet items that were ever made in his shop back when the business was booming, either throughout the year or during particular months, depending on pujas, festivals and seasonal ingredients.
Now the year was 2000, long gone were the glory days of Ramkrishna Misthanna Darbar. Poetay somehow barely managed to keep the doors of his business open. His shop now just made one sweet and a salty item. Though these two everyday delicacies were quite famous in the locality, they were not sufficient to rekindle his dying business. He had further become very complacent and lacked the zeal and enthusiasm to innovate.
Being grotesquely obese from a very young age, mainly due to, constantly inhaling sweet fumes and tasting confections in the shop kitchen every day, he could not find a girl who would like him and remained unmarried hence. For this, he was issueless and always worried about what would happen to his beloved shop after he kicked the bucket.
“Eei Kanai, Raju kothai re (Hey Kanai, where is Raju today),” enquired Poetay, waking up one of his last two remaining assistants, who usually slept on the red-cement floor beside the simmering hearth of the shop’s smutty kitchen. “Ageyyyyy yyy eeee eee ee jani neeee eee ee Korta, mone hoi ratei paliyechey (Don’t knowwww www ww bossss sss ss, I think he ran away in the night itself),” replied the emaciated Kanai with an equally annoying yawn as that of Poetay.
Slapping his plumpy cheeks with the palm of his chubby hands, the old confectioner cussed in frustration – “Bayta Hindustani nigghat tope felechey (Damn Hindustani must have lured him away).”
Two years ago, bang opposite to Poetay’s shop, the all-new and happening branded confectionary chain Hindusthani Sweets, had opened their latest three thousand square foot showroom. With glass counters, self-service on payment through rechargeable smartcards, attractive hostesses in neat attire wearing hair caps and gloves – basically with all the bells and whistles and of course a huge collection of amazing confections, Hindustani Sweets was bound to choke and kill Poetay’s flickering business.
History of the Bengali’s sweet tooth reaches back to the days of yore. During those times ‘Gur’ or molasses was harvested in the region in great abundance. That is why ancient Bengal was also known as ‘Gauda Banga’, ‘Gauda’ meaning ‘Gur’ or molasses.
Sweets of the Bengal region have been chronicled in historical books like ‘Manasa Vijaya Kavya’, written by 15th-century Bengali poet Bipradas Pipilai. In his book, the bard goes on to explain how varieties of ‘Pithe’ made from rice flour, jaggery, kheer (condensed milk), and khoya (milk solids) with coconut and sugar stuffings were an integral part of Bengali rituals and festivals during the 1400s.
Many varieties of sweets were made from khoya and kheer, while fruits were also used to spice up things. Sweets like ‘Nadu’, a globe of coconut, Moya, an orb of flattened or puffed rice, both mixed with sugar or molasses, were also popular during those days.
‘Chhana’ or cottage cheese, which forms the very basis of a majority of Bengali sweets today, conquered the Bengali’s taste buds much later during the 1600s. It came along with the Portugues when they invaded Bengal in the month of August in 1498.
Curdling of milk with acidic substances was forbidden in Hindu practices, however, the Portuguese loved their cheese and could not live without it. After settling down in and around the city of Calcutta sometime in the 17th century they introduced making sweet with cheese to the Bengali People.
Now in the year 2000, after completing a journey of more than six hundred years, the Bengali sweet had become a booming global business. The pertinent question, however, was whether the smaller artisans of this culinary trade survive? Could they continue with their business or would they be gormandised by the branded chain of confectionery giants?
No matter how many varieties the Hindustani Sweets made, with all the technology and research that they had invested, they could not beat or out-sale the only two things that Poetay created. His legendary Jibe Goja and Mini Shingara (Samosa or salty vegetable fritters), the last two remaining items that the Ramkrishna Misthanna Darbar now made.
Jibe Goja is a traditional Bengali sweet, which used to be a regular part of the Bijoya Dashami thali (blessed food plate). Amongst the Bengalis, Dashami is a ritual of wishing each other by touching elders’ feet and peers hugging each other four times, known in Bengali as Kolakuli, right after Goddess Durga’s holy immersion ceremony. Today, however, Jibe Goja has become a year-round everyday Bengali sweet, and perhaps no one made it as good as Poetay did.
Flour, white vegetable oil, sugar, salt, water, baking soda and black cumin seeds were the simple seven ingredients used by Poetay to cook his legendary Jibe Goja dish. No one, however, knew what secret ingredient he used. Some said it was his sheer weight that he used to mix the dough to a perfect fluffiness. Others said it was the black cumin seeds that he gently heated in a copper pot simply kept at a distance of two feet from his earthen fireplace.
The second thing that Poetay was famous for, was his fabled Mini Shingara or Samosa as the non-Bengalis say. Now many would wonder, how was his Shingara special, in what unique way? Well, to start with they were exactly one inch under every possible measurement considering their three convex sided pyramid shape. The fried shell was perfectly crispy and salty, and the filling a potato paste mixed with selected spices and herbs dotted with the occasional peanut was perhaps the tastiest in Kolkata, that anyone could get.
One-hundred-and-three-year-old Haripada Pal the visionary founder and owner of Hindustani Sweets, a living legend in the Bengal sweet circle, irrespective of all his fame and fortune was having sleepless nights. The centenarian had heard about and tasted Poetay’s legendary Jibe Goja and Mini Shingara. He mulled over how his chefs could not replicate its taste. He had achieved so much in life but brooded over how Poetay’s name would always be above his when it came to Jibe Goja and Shingara, in North Kolkata’s Goabagan region.
Though the Ramkrishna Misthanna Darbar hardly posed any threat to his global business, it hurt Haripada’s pride greatly, when people preferred Poetay’s Jibe Goja and Shingaras cooked over an earthen-cinder fuelled by wood-fire, above the ones made over Hindustani’s gas-oven flames.
Driven by this petty senile jealousy the antediluvian had hatched a scheme to destroy Poetay’s business. He gave 100% focus on his Goabagan store and nothing else. For the past one year, Haripada made sure that all of Poetay’s assistants left him to join Hisdustani on much higher pay scales. He thought that by hijacking the employees not only would he weaken and destroy Poetay’s business but might also get the secret recipes from the defecting assistants.
Haripada was at the brink of destroying Poetay’s livelihood. Most of the fat confectioner’s assistants apart from one, Kanai, were all now happily cooking in Hindustani Sweet’s kitchens.
“Nikommer dheki kichui janish ne tora (useless buggers none of you know anything),” shouted old man Haripada nearly coughing himself to death, while addressing Poetay’s defected assistants at the back office of the Hindustani Sweets Goabagan outlet.
Beating his gold-handled intricately carved mahogany cane on the teakwood working desk the old geezer ventilated for breath as he screamed: “Tora keu Poetay’r ranna janish na, dur hoi ja ekahn theke (none of you know Poetay’s secret recipes, get lost I say).”
With such anguish and tension progressed Haripada’s days, while Poetay too barely managed with only one remaining assistant Kanai, who was pretty useless anyway. Poetay was even finding it difficult to pay his landlord, who wanted to rent out his lucrative corner property to any of the many businessmen willing to offer him much more than what Poetay could ever pay.
Haripada hated being a villain. Deep down he was kindhearted. He had risen in life through many hardships and felt terrible destroying Poetay’s business. Though outwardly hostile, he respected the fat confectioner from inside. Immersed in this mental tug of war between good intentions and false pride, one night after much thinking, a brilliant idea finally came to Haripada’s mind.
Next morning the rickety oldtimer walked over to meet Poetay. Dropping his stick, he caught the fat confectioners’ hands and sobbed begging for forgiveness. Before dying he did not want to leave behind an act of hatred and spoil his lifelong legacy of goodness.
That day Haripada struck a deal with the fat confectioner, through which Poetay would continue to make the two items from his shop, which would now become only a kitchen closed to the public for any kind of sale. His Jibe Goja and Shingara would be exclusively sold from Hindustani’s Goabagan outlet from a dedicated counter branded ‘Poetay’s Legendary Jibe Goja and Mini Shingara Promoted by Haripada Pal’.
According to the deal, Poetay willed the secret recipe of his Jibe Goja and Shingara to the Hindustani Sweets, only to be opened after his death. For this Poetay was handsomely financially rewarded, supplied with assistants, did not have to deal with customers anymore, and his landlord got out of skin been aptly paid.
Haripada passed away the day after he signed the deal with Poetay. Perhaps, it was his bad karma, which had kept him alive, and when finally, he shed his hatred and wrong ways, doing good by everyone, the almighty finally took him away. Poetay lived for ten more years and passed away in 2010.
He spent his remaining days happily cooking Jibe Goja and Mini Shingaras for Hindustani Sweets, to be sold from their dedicated counter ‘Poetay’s Legendary Jibe Goja and Mini Shingara Promoted by Haripada Pal’ from their Goabagan Outlet.
After his death, when Poetay’s will was opened by the next generation owners of Hindustani Sweets, they respected all of the wishes of Haripada Pal and Paandurongo Trilokchand Ghosh, alias Poetay.
So today if you happen to land at the intersection of North Kolkata’s Goabagan street and Goabagan lane, you could still see the black soot-stained antique wooden door. Above it, a shabby and faded sigh board with broken letters in Bengali font spelling out ‘Ramkrishna Misthanna Darbar’.
Though the shop is closed today, still if you place your ears on the door you would hear things going inside, perhaps someone preparing Poetay’s famous items. Perhaps it could only be cooked at the corner house kitchen and nowhere else. Who knows these things what can one say, food recipes, after all, are some of the worlds most guarded secrets.
Not to worry though, you can just walk across the street to the Hindustani Sweets and taste these two famous everyday delicacies at their dedicated counter ‘Poetay’s Legendary Jibe Goja and Mini Shingara Promoted by Haripada Pal.’ Though don’t forget to tell your friends about the fascinating tale behind two traditional treats you tasted in North Kolkata’s Goabagan region.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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