“Lady, are you looking for my shop? Because I think I am looking for you”, said the man outside the sweet shop in Istanbul as he snipped off a piece of Turkish Delight and offered it to me.
For the uninitiated, Turkish Delight is like a more user-friendly and colourful version of our halwa. Like many Turkish sweets, it is filled with nuts, and this nicely breaks up what scientists term the ooey-gooey texture. And then, to further reduce the stickiness, it is dusted with powdered sugar. This is in direct contrast to the packet of Bombay Halwa that we once got from a sweet shop in Madras. We lost many a spoon in its murky depths, attempting to divide it, but it remained adamant and sprung back to its original geometric shape viz. indeterminate blob. As it lay there on the kitchen counter glistening with ghee-soaked arrogance, we realised that the only proper way to divide it was for all four of us family members to hold it and then pull in opposite directions. Several hours later, we had managed to divide it into five unequal pieces. We were forced to cede the extra piece to my father, veteran of several bun fights and someone who wears his cholesterol reading like a badge of honour.
Talk of sweets always takes me back to my childhood in Madras. Growing up, I realised that the sweet industry was as fickle as the fashion industry, or so it seemed in my sugar-crazed Tambrahm family. One month, everyone would be ooh-ing and aha-ing over the dry fruit halwa introduced by Adyar Ananda Bhavan, and the next month, the Horlicks Mysorepaa of Shri Krishna Sweets would be in vogue. Occasionally, a Bengali sweet with a name like Cham-Cham or Suryamukhi would make a brief but unremarkable debut. And then there was always the family eccentric who would back an outlier like the Soan Papdi from Suriya Sweets. But when it came to the best sweet shop in Madras, there was absolutely no argument. Grand Sweets & Snacks beat the competition hollow. Their marketing strategy was pretty sound. They would insert a humble, visiting-card sized ad on Page 2 of the dailies, usually with some religious advice and the punch line, “Buy Grand Sweets and Distribute to Good People”. This strategy, together with the chaotic token system, and the brusque saree-clad staff, gave it an air of moral superiority and sanctimoniousness. Naturally, no self-respecting Tambrahm could resist it. Best of all, if you landed there at the right time, you could help yourself to a little leaf cup filled with the day’s prasaadam. Many a mama would slip out at the golden hour of 3pm, under the guise of going for a walk, only to be found draped over the plastic chairs in the Grand Sweets sit-out, high on the sublime pleasure of free food, and holding forth on the latest cricket match. It was the closest thing the Tambrahms had to a local pub.
It was with these memories that I landed up in Madras some years ago. When I reached the old home that housed Grand Sweets, I was confused to find that there was now an unsightly wall running through the property. There were now two shops, side by side, with identical boards. “Uncle, one for sweets, one for kaaram-aa?”, I asked a mama who was teetering out of the shop, looking like he had just inhaled a rather large plate of adai-avial. He shook his head, “No, ma, two-two shops are there now. Some misunderstanding came and full family split-tu.”
I soon found out that this disease of family splits had spread all over Madras like a rash. There were two-two Nalli Silks, two-two Kumaran Silks, and two-two Naidu Halls. I figured it must be something in the water because back in Bangalore, I found out the venerable MTR had also split, and new “Maiyas” had sprouted all over the garden city. It was all quite ridiculous.
It’s hard to tell what the effect of this chaos will be on civil society. Personally, I think that it adds an unnecessary level of complexity to our already hectic lives. I now spend precious hours pondering and researching difficult existential questions. Which Grand Sweets has the better ratio of cashewnuts to boondi in its mixture? Which Naidu Hall has better nighties for the modern bride? Which Nalli stocks the Kareena-Kapoor Chanderi saree? And in what colours? The nation wants to know.