Sweet Mumbai: An immigrant story that is best enjoyed over some Bengali mishti (dessert)

Mango chutney, patishapta and chitrokoot from Bhojohori Manna Mumbai's Bengali New Year feast, 2017. The restaurant didn't exist at the time when this story unfolded 

Starting Durga Puja on a sweet note

This is not a Durga Pujo story in the strictest sense but it is a long due expression of gratitude from me and what better time than the Pujas to pen it.

A few days back I read a lovely blog post written by my friend, Samudra Sen, about a certain Mishraji who owns a sweet shop at Mahim in Mumbai. The story suddenly brought back memories of a 'Mishraji' who had featured in my life  and who was a harbinger of mishti (sweets) too. Samudra's post was published on Mahalaya, which is the pre-opening of the Durga Pujo or Puja for us Bengalis. Mine, coincidentally, is out on Shoshti, the first day of the main part of the Puja. It's no coincidence that Sam (Samudra) and I know each other through a Puja, the Bandra Durga Pujo.

Sweet memories from when the honeymoon period was over

I am talking of an elderly non-Bengali gentleman called Lallan Mishra. The story is from the early 2000s. Our newly purchased mobile phones, the first we ever owned, were not very smart and did not have cameras We didn't have digital cameras either. We would buy film rolls which offered the promise of 36 photos. We would buy them for special occasions like birthdays and holidays and weddings of course. Taking a photo of a plate of sweets or a sweet vendor would not have even struck me back then. Which is why my Mishraji's story has no pictures.

K and I had just got married and we were setting up a new life together. For some reason, desserts played a big role in this. I was not much of a dessert eater as teenager. Desserts were considered to be a financial indulgence and fattening too by my mother. At the most she would occasionally send me to the local sweet shop on weekends with a couple of Rupees with which I was to buy roshogollas and at times jilipis. She would sandwich either between thin slices of very white bread and give it to my little brother and me as a breakfast treat.

A sweet shop or mishtir dokan close to my granny's place in Kolkata 

Her general wariness of all things sweet continued to influence me even after I grew older and moved to Mumbai to work. I would try out lot of new things to eat here. I would rarely order dessert though.

K, on the other hand, loved (and still loves) the sweet stuff. When we were dating and would have a tiff at work (we had started off as a workplace romance), the simplest solution was for me to go to the chemist shop at the Oberoi Hotel Shopping arcade and buy her a Lindt bar which cost a princely sum of Rs 100 or so back then. It always worked and helped cool her down. After K got married and moved in with me, my late father in law would often give us a box of gulab Jamuns from B Damodar at Dadar, which K loved, when we met. Or a box of Ferrero Rochers which was her favourite chocolate back then and from before they entered the Indian market. The two of us (K and me) would sit after dinner and finish a whole box between us while watching TV. An Akai flat screen if I remember right.  Then there were times where we would buy a half kilo 'New York' chocolate cake from Birdys and finish it at one go.  Or a tub of ice cream from Snow Bite at Mehboob Studio and do the same. We had stopped eating out to save money but somehow we found some spare cash for dessert. I obviously began to grow in the relation, pun intended. Then K decided to wean herself off dessert but I was hooked. It's only recently that I too have managed to reduce my consumption of dessert. Now we try not to keep dessert at home though we occasionally call in for cookies from Sweetish House Mafia or pick up dark macaroons from Le 15 Pattisserie but this is no longer a daily affair. My bigger weakness is fried food and savoury snacks but this post is not about that.

The entire point of the above paragraph was to tell you that we were both pretty crazy about desserts and sweets back then. My 'problem' was that I liked almost all sweets barring perhaps coconut based ones. K at least liked only western desserts and ideally dark chocolate based. So I ended up having more sweets than her.

Mumbai's stepmotherly treatment of Bengali sweets

The one thing I missed in Mumbai back then was Bengali mishti or sweets. This was before Sweet Bengal shops spread across the city. The jury is divided anour the quality of sweets and their in prices too in the chain, but they were definitely better than the rubbery, inedible, lurid coloured that were passed of in Mumbai sweet shops as 'Bengali Sweets.' So I would depend on my occasional trips to Kolkata, or trips made by my friends to the city, for mishti. The other options was the Iskcon sweet shop at Juhu which offered a limited range of acceptable Bengali sweets at an acceptable price and the annual Durga Pujo pandal food stalls with their overpriced mediocre mishti.

Santa Mishra 

Then one day, a Bengali colleague of K's, Sanchita, told her about a certain Lallan Mishra. He was apparently someone who went from house to house in Mumbai seeking out Be glass and selling Bengali sweets to them. We requested Sanchi to send Lallan Mishra to our house and he did turn up at our tiny apartment the next weekend.

It was a Sunday afternoon when the bell rang. We opened the door and there stood an elderly, tall, thin slightly hunched gentleman who was wearing a white kurta and a dhoti. He could have easily been a phuchkawallah at New Market in Kolkata if you went by his looks. He was carrying a large aluminium vessel balanced on his head. He put it down at our doorstep and sat down. He looked up and flashed a huge toothy smile at us. He unwrapped the cloth which had been used to tie up the vessel he that he had brought while I looked on with heightened anticipation. He finally unwrapped the lid of the vessel and I peered in impatiently. Lying inside were Bengali sweets. 

There wasn't much of a variety to what he had though. The sweets were the basic roshoholla (rasgulla)  and pantua (the demure Bengali version of the gulab jamun), chochom and lyangcha. The latter two are just variations in shape of the former as the chomchom is an elongated and firmer rasgulla. Ditto with the lyangcha and the pantua. There were perhaps some khaja and goja too if I remember right. It's been a while. 

The sweets were fairly inexpensive and tasted decent too. 'Decent' as they didn't offer the variety and finesse of sweets that one associated with the sweet shops of Kolkata but yet gave me a taste of home. The aggressive pricing worked for us and we continued to buy small amounts of mishti from Lallan every weekend. I would be the one who would eat them all and K would buy them for me. Lallan told us that he worked for a Bengali 'seth', who was probably a caterer from what I gathered. Lallan would bring sweets from him to sell. He had nothing to do with the making of them. Lallan's business depended on the word to mouth marketing. Soon there were a few more Bengali friends of ours who became a part of his market and he would come to all our houses to sell sweets.

Roshogolla. Not Lallan's but from Sweet Bengal a few years later 

When the music's over  

A year later, K and I realised that we needed to trim down and lose weight and that involved cutting down on sweets of course. Plus I had got a bit bored with the lack of variety in Lallan's sweets to be honest. So we reduced the number of sweets that we would buy from him and then completely stopped buying them.

Yet, he would come ever weekend and ring the bell. When we would say that we did not want anything, then he would sit down with a very sad face and looked very forlorn and would almost refuse to go in the hope that we would give in and buy some sweets. We were adamant that we didn't want any though and would gently but firmly ask him to go. 

This became a routine every weekend which after a point bordered on irritation for us as we had made it amply clear that we did not want the sweets. We began to dread his Sunday noon doorbell ring and would even go out then to avoid him. He would still come over every Sunday and sit down in the hope that we would change our mind. 

It turned out that we were not the only ones who went through this. Coincidentally, all our friends had decided to stop buying sweets from him at the same time. It seemed that we had all realised that we were neither getting younger, nor lighter and that we definitely did not want to spend money on Lallan's sweets.

The scene at our would be repeated in every other house in our little Bengali circle. Lallan would come over. Ring the bell. Be greeted by an antsy face. He would sit down still till the door would be finally be shut on him, politely but firmly.

I don't quite remember what happened after that but I think he finally stopped coming over to our houses. 

We never got to learn the secret behind the despair on his face when we said no to him. 

Home sweet home... Mumbai

I don't know what happened to Lallan after than and we never met him again and nor did we hear of him from anyone else though we made many more Bengali friends in Mumbai.

As the years went by,  more Sweet Bengal shops opened as did Bengali restaurants such as Bhojohori Manna and Calcutta Club and Peetuk in addition to Oh Calcutta, accessing Bengali Sweets in Mumbai was not that difficult anymore. Plus with air fares going down and air travel increasing and our network of Bengali friends going up, there was usually a supply of Bengali sweets flowing in to the city at all times. As the years passed by, I learnt to show some restraint when it came to sweets and lost a bit of my fondness for Bengali sweets.

Someone like Lallan Mishra would no longer be that relevant in today's scheme of things for me but I do know that Lallan and his sweets played a big part in helping ease my transition from Kolkata to Mumbai back then and its's thanks to people like him that Mumbai began to feel like home to me and what was supposed to be a two month training stint when I first moved in here became a twenty year and counting stay in the city.

Here's wishing you all a happy pujos and especially so to the many Lallan Mishras in our lives who quietly made life a wee bit sweeter for us in Mumbai.

Here's the link to Sam's post on his Mishraji