Growing up in Calcutta, one of the primary loci of my life was the neighbourhood sweet shop, Mahaprabhu Mistanna Bhandar (Mahaprabhu’s Cornucopia of Sweets). Lunch or dinner was always terminated by one of its products and whenever a guest came, that was the place I had to go to buy the chomchom and the chanar jilipi. My favourite Mahaprabhu sweet used to be the extremely saccharine gujiya (25 paise a piece) from which I graduated to what I called Mahaprabhu’s Ek takar mishti (the one rupee sweet) , the jewel in their crown whose quality was distinguished by virtue of it being priced at Re 1 whereas everything else was 50 paise or below.
As time went by, the prices went up, the size of the sweets went down and the people at the front counter became less generous in giving out extra rubber bands. But virtually everything else stayed the same: the peeling plaster on the walls, the slightly broken statue of Laxmi and Ganesh, the rickety sink on which was perched a plastic jug that contained potable water, the huge vats of rosogolla and pantooya floating about in a sea of syrup, the flies buzzing about, the bare-torsoed/baniyaned assistants with their exposed pot bellies and abundant nostril-and-cochlear hair taking your order, handing out change and packing the sweets
In a city that I struggle to recognize each time I come back, I find that one of the last bastions of timelessness, Mahaprabhu Mistanna Bhandar has fallen to the winds of India shining. The complex of run-down one storey buildings, of which Mahaprabhu was one, had been torn down and replaced by a spanking new multi-storied commercial complex: the first floor of which is dominated by Mahaprabhu Mistanna Bhandar.
But this is that old store in name only.
With shining glass panels as walls, marbelled roof and full climate control, it is barely recognizable not only in terms of its looks but also with respect to the sweets it sells and their pricing. Gone are the traditional Bangali delicacies, gone are the middle-class affordable prices. Gone are the tubs of lard that manned the gates of sweet heaven in their various stages of undress. And the flaking paint and the cracked water jug.
Instead there are North Indian sweets (as distinguished from Bangali ones) with a wild assortment of food colors, which I was told is “all natural” each one costing a small fortune. Smart uniforms are the norm, the people handling sweets could well have been call center employees with none of their physiques showing any trace of extensive sampling of merchandise. The flies are gone, a huge statue of Krishna Lalla dominates the store and the old proprietor, who was once “one with the people” sits in a quasi-cubicle, CEO-like. The old Mahaprabhu used to open its shutters at the crack of dawn and sell jilipi-singara (Bengali jalebis and samosas) but evidently that is too downmarket for them now because of which Mahaprabhu opens not earlier than 8.
Remarkably impressed by the new-look Calcutta, of which the new incarnation of Mahaprabhu is but a manifestation, I could not however help but feel more than a bit of nostalgia-driven sadness. And something more.
A sense of disassociation. The feeling of having become a stranger in my own para. (locality). I do not recognize faces on the street anymore. Where girls in shapeless salwar kameezes walked to Bhartanatyam/painting school now stride shapely ladies in red skirts and black stockings as they make their way into the airhostess training institute next to Mahaprabhu. Where was once parked venerable mini-tanks otherwise known as Ambassadors and mobile rust-buckets otherwise known as the Premier Padmini now stand a Honda City or an Accent. The cobbler who repaired the straps of hawai chappals for a few rupees is gone. So too is the weighing machine in front of Mahaprabhu with the blue/red lights that spat out, with equal randomness, your weight and your fortune.
Yes, Calcutta has changed.
And it has changed, without me in it.