Malay Bhanjo was happiest when he was at his sweet shop. The smell of sweets pervaded the air and slowly made its way to the small counter where he sat with his back to the portraits of Durga, Kali, Satya Sai Baba and Lok Nath Baba – all in a harmonious row.
Malay’s shop, Bhanjo Mishtanno Bhandar, was located in a nondescript lane in Hatibagan in Kolkata. This was his entire world. He left home after his bath every morning. A few minutes of pooja in front of Ma Kali, and some of the other gods that his wife had collected on her various temple visits and effectively managed to push into their home, ensured that the day goes well.
Malay liked to laugh off any mention of religiosity – he felt it wasn’t masculine enough. Secretly, though, he visited the Shani Bari down the lane from his shop. One might even presume that Malay was slightly scared of Shani thakur (god worshipped on Saturdays under a tree) and hence tried his best to pacify him. At times, when he forgot to slide a ten-rupee note into the donation box, he has nightmares of the blue-skinned god chasing him down the streets of Hatibagan.
For the past few days, rumours had been rife about a virus that had descended on the country. Malay was worried, and wondered whether prayers hadn’t been offered to Ma Shitala in the villages. Shitala was the goddess known for her prowess in curing incurable diseases, especially small pox. But since its eradication in India, her popularity had taken a beating.
Malay was engrossed in these thoughts as he walks down to his shop. He noticed that a few shops were closed. Unimaginable! He shuddered at the very thought of it. Just think of not being able to make mishtis every day. The juicy khirer chawp, the roshomalai that his customers loved eating standing right there inside the shop, the whiff of shingara and roshogolla heralding the evenings – Malay quickened his steps at the probability.
Suddenly he was sure that there would be more customers in the shop today. And in the circumstances, they might even have to make more of everything than usual, he pondered, while also doing some quick mental calculations about the profits. Maybe if he closed his eyes and prayed to Ma Kali really hard, she might even tell him the exact time when the maximum number of customers would drop in.
Malay decided to stop by the Marwari wholesale shop, just before the turn in the road that led to his own store. The old man who sat sprawled on his soft cushioned bed would often call out to him, taunting at his inadequacy at buying the best quality of incense for his gods. But Malay had to grudgingly accept that the incense in the Marwari shop did have a better fragrance.
He fished out a ten-rupee note, with great sadness somehow, and stood in front of the wholesale shop. The banner above looked flashy – on a reddish peach base yellow letters that glowed beautifully at night. Malay looked at it now, with a childlike smile. He had momentarily forgotten that he was in full view of the old man in the shop. His childlike dreams of putting up a similar signboard for his own shop was overpowering.
‘’Ki chai Malay babu, how come you’re in my shop today?”, asked the paan-chewing old man.
Malay frowned and looked at him in disdain, his beautiful reverie suddenly broken. He held out the ten-rupee note. ‘’Some of those sandalwood incense sticks please.”
The Marwari smirked, ‘We don’t sell stuff for small change. Check some other shop.”
Malay was indignant! How dare this old man speak to him in such a manner! This is exactly what is wrong with Bengal, he muttered to himself. He would raise the matter with the councillor in their neighbourhood. But then he remembered the face of the councilor – a corrupt and dirty Bengali. He felt tired suddenly, all his community pride quietly slipped down his white dhuti, trickling into the adjacent dirty drain water.
Somewhat subdued, he produced a hundred-rupee note. ‘’Give me a full packet, then.” The old man seemed to realise that the games were over. Wordlessly he handed over a packet of the incense, along with thirty rupees in change. Malay hurriedly pocketed it and wordlessly walked up to his shop.
Bhanjo Mishtanno Bhandar occupied a modest one thousand square feet. A portion at the back had been converted into a godown-cum-kitchen. As he walked in now, Malay could smell at least three kinds of mishti being prepared – the everyday roshogolla, khir kadam and jilipi. Bhanjo Mishtanno Bhandar was specially known for its roshogolla.
Every day, children and their mothers would flock to the shop exactly around four. They knew that the roshogollas were just be about to be taken out of the pan, and ready to be put on the display counter. Unlike other shops in the neighbourhood, who had gone on to focus on the more glamorised and fancy sweets like baked roshogolla and caramel sandesh, Malay had stubbornly stuck to the traditional version.
His logic was a Bengali would always return to their roots and so the craving for roshogolla would never die. In hindsight, his understanding in gauging the Bengali sweet tooth hadn’t been too far off the mark. As a result, the small sweet shop had actually thrived, even while a few others in the same area had shut shop over the years.
Right now, though, he was preoccupied. Piku, the 19-year-old who worked as a delivery-boy-cum-gossip-hotspot for the neighbourhood, walked up to him. Without preamble, he began:
‘’I heard we have to close the shop.”
‘’Baje bokish na Piku. What nonsense!”
The thought of closing his shop was scary. But Malay was curious too. They had all been hearing rumours about the Chini virus doing the rounds, but as far as Malay was concerned, it would confine itself to those Chini shoemakers in Esplanade. He remembered some of the carts down the lane, selling suspicious snake-like noodles that looked disgusting. He was just grateful that they weren’t close to his shop. But what was this new problem. Malay wondered if he should consult the policeman who at the traffic signal, but decided against it.
Although the day passed by uninterrupted, there seemed to be a slight drop in the queue for the evening roshogolla. Malay’s sixth sense picked up warning signals, almost as sensitive as a nose that had been conditioned over the years to detect a sweet gone bad without even setting foot in the kitchen. By the time he was ready to close shop for the day, the word was out in the streets. The Chinis had occupied the world, the country would have to be shut down to tackle yet another invisible war.
Images from the black-outs of 1962 came back to haunt him now. By the time he had wound up that night, the Prime Minister had apparently already ordered a total shut down! All around him, he saw shopkeepers pull down their shutters in a hurry. Mr Banerjee, who ran the stationery shop next door, peeped in. ‘’Aren’t you going home Malay Babu?’’ he asked. Malay nodded. He could not believe it – could it be true that it was the Chini chowmein that had won the war over his kheer kadam? These are terribly bad days, he muttered to himself, shaking his head.
There was mayhem on the streets by the time he started walking back home. People ran around in a frenzy, some of them completing last-minute shopping for provisions, while shopkeepers pulled out sacks of raw food, trying to store it safely. No one seemed to have any idea about anything, or where all of this was leading to.
Malay’s employees – four of them, the sweetmaker, the delivery boy Piku, and two shop assistants – walked home with him, carrying large tumblers full of dough, cans of sugar syrup, large tins of milk, and a few cans of unsold sweets that couldn’t be left behind in the shop. Malay wasn’t quite sure where he would store all of this, but he knew that he just couldn’t throw it all away.
That night Mrs Bhanjo could barely get a word out of her otherwise verbose husband. They ate their meal in silence, surrounded by the large steel drums filled with milk and other sweets – some of it hurriedly thrown into assorted utensils, still half-cooked. Mrs Bhanjo had never been overtly fond of sweets, but she could not muster enough courage to admit this to her husband.
Tonight, however, the humid Kolkata heat made her sweaty back itch. That exact spot where the thin fabric of her blouse met the thick handwoven Dhonekhali sari was lined in perspiration. Every time she moved her hand to place a handful of rice in her mouth, she could feel the drops trickling on to the sari. The smell, now mixed with the the exaggerated sweetness spilling over from a tray of leftover kalakand sweets, made her pukish. The children had fallen asleep, but Malay seemed to be taking far too much time over his food. Eventually, he just pushed away his half-emptied plate walked out of the room.
Seated at the other end of the room, Mrs Bhanjo looked at the overstuffed refrigerator. Malay had used a piece of thread to tie the handles together, so that the doors didn’t burst open – which was, however, just what she wished they would do. Idly, she imagined the sweets being swept up into the heavy air and landing in crumbs all over the kitchen and beyond it. She felt the bile rise in her throat and rushed to the bathroom.
Malay, meanwhile, had already retired inside the mosquito net. By the time Mrs Bhanjo joined him, it was already past 10.30, but neither of them could sleep. Mrs Bhanjo watched, irritated, as her husband curled like a dog, furling and unfurling legs leading out of a well-rounded stomach that protruded beneath the thin vest he wore to bed.
Twenty minutes into their wordless, restless solitary confinement, they were startled by a knock on the door. It was a soft sound to begin with, one could almost miss it – but in the stillness of the dull night, the knock felt loud, even ominous. Malay jumped up and walked purposefully towards the front door. He was about to switch on the lights when he heard footsteps hurriedly running away.
The halogen street-lamp outside cast a surreal, yellow sickly light, making Malay hesitate. But then, as he was about to open the door, something lying on the floor caught his eyes. He could make out a hurriedly torn off square of pink chart paper that had been thrust beneath their door. It sat there waiting awkwardly, a horrible pink in the yellow faded light. Malay picked up the paper rather nervously – written boldly across it was this message: “We need a supply of roashogolla everything is totally closed.”
Malay couldn’t believe his eyes. Was this some sort of trick to get him arrested? Who had slipped in this piece of paper? And how could he open his shop now that the government had ordered all of them to be closed? He opened his front door hesitantly then, and looked around, but there was no one in sight. Fumbling in the dark, he closed the door and hurried back to the bedroom.
Mrs Bhanjo sat up in bed with a worried look on her face. Malay handed her the paper wordlessly; he still hadn’t understood what to make of it. Mrs Bhanjo looked at the paper and then looked up again at him. They began to discuss the situation. Mrs Bhanjo was of the opinion that this was a trick by one of the neighbourhood kids, but Malay wasn’t convinced, somehow.
He looked at her with sudden excitement in his eyes and said, “What if this message is the last wish of our neighbours, so that they can at least have their favourite roshogolla one last time before they die?’’ Mrs Bhanjo suppressed a laugh. She knew that her husband was obsessed with his sweet shop, but this was a bit too much even by his standards. Still, she didn’t say anything, for she didn’t want to offend him. Instead she tried to explain the practical problems.
‘’Suppose we were to believe what you’re saying – that indeed some of the neighbourhood people want to taste our roshogolla before everything collapses around us, but how do we go about it? I mean most places are already closed and we can’t open the shop, the police would arrest you.’’
Her little speech over, Mrs Bhanjo turned over, quite convinced that she had laid before him the impossible nature of the situation clearly. As far as she was concerned, the issue was closed. Malay was quiet for a while, but after a pause, he let out a muted cry and shook his wife, ignoring her irritation. ‘’Listen,’’ he said, ‘’I have an idea. We can make the roshogolla right here, in our home. We can start now and have them ready by morning.’’
Mrs Bhanjo sat up now, her irritated expression replaced by one of incredulity – had her husband gone mad finally! She always known that there was something strange about him, but this level of stupidity was unprecedented! She laughed out loud now, hoping it would distract him, but stopped suddenly when she saw that he had leapt off the bed and picked up his phone. It was past eleven, whom was he about to call?
Malay had already forgotten about his wife, or her objection to his idea. Like a crazed man, he paced around the small room and then half-ran to the kitchen, pulling at the thread that tied the fridge handles together and put his head inside. He breathed in deeply, as if reminding himself of smells long lost.
Over the next ten minutes, frantic calls were made to all the four employees of the shop. A few heated arguments back and forth later, a look of satisfaction suffused his face. Mrs Bhanjo could trace that look to the times she had seen him tasting freshly made sweets in the shop.
Flinging his gamchha over his shoulder with a flourish, Malay announced, ‘’We begin making our sweets at home tonight Khuki.’’ Mrs Bhanjo was stumped; this seemed to be unfolding like a bad version of the mad hatter’s tea party – only, this was her home. And yet, he hadn’t called her Khuki in years. She held her tongue.
Some ten minutes later, there was a discreet knock on their door. Malay opened the door excitedly to usher in a beaming group of four. Why on earth were they so excited to be awake in the middle of the night, Mrs Bhanjo grumbled to herself and lay down again on the bed rather defiantly. She wanted the message to go through clearly. She would play no part in what she had convinced herself was an underground activity.
But try as she might, she couldn’t sleep, nor stop herself from being curious about what was going on in the kitchen. After a while, she quietly slithered down the bed, and took up position furtively behind the curtains that led to the kitchen. Everyone seemed busy, they didn’t even look up or notice her presence. Finally, not able to bear it any further, she blurted out, ‘’What’s going on?”
Malay looked up. ‘’Khuku, we’re going to feed our entire neighbourhood. Let’s give them a taste of roshogollas before they forget it altogether.’’ Khuku’s indignation vanished, her face suddenly young and excited. She became the girl Malay had married – and into the night they worked together.
Between the six of them they made four hundred roshogollas that night. The sticky, sweaty, smell of the syrup didn’t bother them. The milk curdled beautifully, and when they ran out of vinegar, Mr. Bhanjo offered her lemons. Piku stirred the sugar syrup over and over again, mountains of fresh chana dough were kneaded softly, the round balls measured out with accuracy, and the fluffiness gauged with expert hands.
They ran out of plastic packets soon after the first batch, but Malay cut square sheets of glossy magazine paper, stacked two or three of them on top of one another and placed the sweets in the centre. Thankfully the juice didn’t drip, and they had just enough rubber bands to hold the packets. By dawn, the entire living room resembled a small factory.
The men took turns with the delivery, scurrying in and out of the house like rodents taking advantage of the dark. They had to make sure they were back inside the house before the sun rose and the police patrol started. Packets with six roshogollas each were placed in the doorway of each house in their neighbourhood. A small tag accompanied these packets: “It is not only medicines that are essentials.”