Sweet brainchild o' mine

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To say that Nobin Chandra Das invented the rossogulla would be as good as saying Baba Ramdev introduced yoga in India

Round up a hundred people anywhere in India — other than Bengal — and ask them to name one thing that they think is distinctly Bengali. Chances are that nearly all of them will say rossogolla, so synonymous is the spongy ball with West Bengal.

But does the rossogolla really belong to West Bengal?

The question gains relevance, suddenly after all these centuries, because both Odisha and West Bengal are now seeking Geographical Indication (GI) — in other words claiming historical ownership — of the syrupy sweetmeat which, like idli and dosa, is made in eateries across India today.

Odisha has a strong case here because it wants to obtain GI for the ‘Pahala rossogolla’ — Pahala being a hamlet on the Bhubaneswar-Cuttack highway which has traditionally been considered the rossogolla capital of the State — whereas there is no one particular place in West Bengal that can claim to be associated with the Bengali’s most-favourite dessert.

There is no historical evidence — and there can never be one — to prove that the rossogolla originated in West Bengal, even though the K.C. Das family claims that it was ‘invented’ by their ancestor, Nobin Chandra Das, in erstwhile Calcutta. Their claim, in fact, is cast in stone. Their family home in Baghbazar bears a plaque that says:

“The famous institution of the inventor of rossogolla, Mr Nobin Chandra Das, was located here. The institution was shut down by the order of the government banning production of milk sweets in 1965. This stone inscription commemorates the centenary of the invention of rossogolla: 1868-1968.”

So there, we even know when exactly the rossogolla was ‘invented’. This claim is at the heart of West Bengal’s contention that the sweet dish originated in its soil and not in Odisha.

My own belief is that time-tested dishes could not have been invented overnight, that too by just one person: they would have evolved over decades, perhaps even centuries, before becoming perfect enough to acquire specific names that the world eventually came to know them as.

As for the rossogolla, someone would have come up with the idea of ‘breaking’ milk into cheese (in this case, the Portuguese), someone else would have come up with the idea of making syrup out of sugar, yet someone else would have thought of making dumplings out of cheese, and then another wise man would have tried putting those dumplings in the syrup.

 

It must have taken countless trials and errors, spanning several decades if not a century or two, before we got the first flawless rossogolla. To say that Nobin Chandra Das invented it would be as good as saying that Baba Ramdev introduced yoga in India.

One freezing evening in December 2012, while researching my book on Calcutta, I had met Nobin Chandra’s great-great-grandson Dhiman Das at their sweet-making factory in Baghbazar, and this is what he had told me then: “Some people say the rossogolla originated in Odisha. But we went there, made enquiries and found no evidence. Even if something similar to the rossogolla existed at the time, it certainly did not match the quality and texture of what Nobin Chandra Das had created.”

So it is more likely that Nobin Chandra had only fine-tuned an existing form of rossogolla instead of inventing it, but the irony is that the rossogolla produced by the family of the ‘inventor’ today sells far more in Karnataka than in Kolkata. How did it travel down south?

Nobin Chandra was born in 1845 as a posthumous child in a family of sugar merchants when their fortunes were on the decline. At 19, with the support of his mother, he opened a sweet shop at Jorasanko, near the ancestral home of the Tagore family. The shop didn’t do well and within two years he shut it down and opened another shop in Baghbazar. Here he ‘invented’ the rossogolla and gradually became famous. He died at the age of 80 in 1925, when his son Krishna Chandra, already 54 at the time, took over the shop.

 

In 1930, Krishna Chandra Das opened another shop in Jorasanko with the assistance of the youngest of his five sons, Sarada Charan, and introduced tinned rossogollas. But he died in 1934, leaving the business in the hands of Sarada Charan, only 28 at the time.

Sarada Charan turned out to be a visionary: he expanded the business and in 1946 registered it as a private limited company named after his father, and for some reason not after his ‘inventor’-grandfather. Thus K.C. Das, the company, came into being. It suffered a severe setback in 1965 when the West Bengal government banned commercial production of milk sweets, saying the milk should be diverted to the needy, such as children, expectant mothers, the aged and the infirm.

K.C. Das shut down all its shops in Calcutta except the plush eatery that Sarada Charan had opened on Esplanade in 1935. The eatery was equally popular for its savouries and wasn’t going to suffer too badly.

Among the shops that were shut included the one where the rossogolla was ‘invented’ by Nobin Chandra. By the late 1920s, the family had constructed a multi-storeyed house over this shop and it became the family home, and in 1965, when the shop had to be shut, they let out that portion to UCO Bank (the bank remains there even today).

When the West Bengal government revoked its order in 1967, Sarada Das decided not to reopen the shops — just in case the government changed its mind again — and shifted his business to faraway Bangalore. Until December 2012, when I met Dhiman Das at the Baghbazar factory, KC Das had 19 outlets in Bengaluru and only six in Kolkata. In other words, Bengaluru is driving their business in Kolkata — and not vice-versa, as one would think.

 

So why does K.C. Das run at a loss in Kolkata? The answer is simple. In Kolkata, the brand is one among the many — many being an understatement here. There are far too many shops to list here — I am talking about the big guns — leave alone the time-tested neighbourhood shops that command the same reverence that a Bengali usually reserves for Maa Kali.

My rossogollas come from an unassuming shop called Ghosh Brothers in Maniktala. I am not being partial because of the surname. Their rossogolla is somewhat large, somewhat spongy and somewhat brittle. I have a problem with rossogollas that are too spongy — you put it into your mouth and it’s gone! But when they are slightly brittle, they tend to break when you dig a spoon and give you the pleasure of meditating over several succulent pieces — rather than gobbling up the entire ball in one go.

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