The legend goes that in 1858, Lady Canning, wife of the Viceroy of India, Charles John Canning, asked the Bengali sweet-maker Bhim Chandra Nag to prepare a special candy for her birthday. He rose to the challenge with a deep-fried creation, dipped in sugar syrup, that was originally named after the woman who requested it but, thanks to the twists of time and tongue, is known as the “Ledikeni” today.
Bhim Chandra Nag’s family business was set up by Paran Chandra Nag, his father, way back in 1826. Bhim Chandra inherited the business. The shop remains where it was first set up – on what was then called Wellington Street and is known now as Nirmal Chandra Street, in the Bowbazaar area of north Calcutta. The Ledikeni is the first element that Bhim Nag’s sweet shop is famous for – the second is a Cooke and Kelvey clock.
The same year that Bhim Chandra Nag invented the Ledikeni, the British silverware company called Cooke and Kelvey (founded by Thomas Cooke and Charles Kelvey) came to Calcutta. The street which led east from Lal Dighi was called the Old Court House Street, named after the first dewani court which was located in that area. The court house was torn down in 1792, and was later replaced by St Andrews Church. It is now named after Hemanta Basu, the freedom fighter. The street was lined with several British stores and offices. The first of these was the Great Eastern Hotel, which was followed by Hamilton and Company (a jeweller, silversmith, and watch maker), Thomas Cook and Sons, Lawrence and Mayo, and in the house marked number 20 – Cook and Kelvey – which made watches, precious stones, and diamond merchants.
An image from the Calcutta Street Directory shows the Great Eastern Hotel with St Andrews in the background.
The clock, as we know it today, did not arrive in India until the 19th century, by which time it was already a common household item in England. Church clocks and public clocks were being manufactured in England in the 14th century. Improvements in mechanism resulted in further development of clock production and England dominated the market in the 17th and 18th centuries.
As British ships anchored at the ports of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta brought clocks and watches made in England to India, British merchants took them deeper into the Indian market.
Legend has it that in 1858, Thomas Cooke (who, by then, had started his clock-making business) paid a visit to Bhim Nag’s shop. His choice may have been influenced by Bhim Nag’s newfound fame as the inventor of a new candy for Lady Canning’s birthday, but whatever may be the cause of Cooke’s visit, he was satisfied with what he tasted. By 1858, Bhim Nag’s store was more than 30 years old, indicating a steady business and by extension – prosperity. Legend has it that Cooke was surprised by the fact that such a large store had no clock and decided to gift one to Bhim Nag.
There was only one problem, Bhim Nag said. None of his workers knew a word of English, and couldn’t understand the numerals on the clock face. A clock would be of no use to them. What if the clock face had numbers in the Bengali script instead? To his credit, Cooke took to the idea immediately. A sample was sent back to Cooke and Kelvey’s factory in England, where at a workshop in London, an employee of Cooke and Kelvey painted Bengali numerals on a clock made in England, with Swiss machinery.
That year, 1858, was also the year in which political control over India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. It also came to be the year of India’s first struggle for independence – nationalism was still nascent, the establishment of the Indian National Congress was still some 30 years away, the Swadeshi movement, which called for a rejection of British goods, would not take place till another 37 years. The result of a sweet friendship between a Bengali merchant and a British clock merchant can still be seen at No 5, Bowbazar Street today.