Does the government understand Bengali sweets, wonders Pranab Nandy, one of the owners of the Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy shop in the heart of North Kolkata, one of the city’s oldest, started back in 1844. Ahead of Durga Puja, sweet shops like these in Kolkata are still trying to find their way around GST (the Goods and Service Tax), a new, unknown ingredient in recipes perfected and improvised over the years. Last fortnight, over two lakh sweet shops in Bengal, under the banner of ‘Paschimbanga Mistanna Byabsayee Samity’, shut down for a day in protest against the GST on sweets and held a three-day hunger strike.
The Samity explains the confusion: sweets were not taxed under the Value Added Tax (VAT), but since July 1, under the GST, there is a tax of 5 per cent on items such as sandesh, rosogolla, rabri, kacha golla etc; add some chocolate as coating and the tax goes up to 28 per cent. Sweets such as radhabalavi and kochuri have 12 per cent tax, while there is an 18-20 per cent charge on sweets with saffron and silver coating. Says an angry Nandy, “There is no GST on milk, none for chhena (cottage cheese), then why on sweets? Already we have had to hike the price per sweet by Rs 5. We have to keep an accountant or a machine (to calculate the tax), and file 17 returns in a year. Customers are unhappy too. In Bengal, sweets are sacrosanct. We were hit by demonetisation and somehow survived, and now this!”
The 55-year-old goes on to describe a 7 am to 10.30 pm daily routine, starting with workers carrying in jars of fresh milk and opening the shop’s shutters to send a waft of baked cottage cheese drifting through the neighbourhood, on 56, Ramdulal Sarkar Street. The dark walls of the room where the men work are adorned with pictures of gods and godesses, while in the corner stands a steel rack where prepared sandesh, of different varieties, is stacked in aluminum plates and bamboo baskets. From here, the sweets are taken for display to glass showcases in the front, to be sold to customers.
Once the milk arrives, it is taken to the ‘vien ghar’ (the oven area) and boiled. Lemon juice or tamarind water is added to the boiled milk, and the mix sifted through a white thin cloth several times to get chhena. The process takes over two hours. Specialised workers then cook the chhena for around 45 minutes in large utensils, to which sugar is added to make the basic sandesh. Except for a new machine to boil milk, little has changed in the shop since the 19th century. The changes, Nandy adds, are more subtle. “The good old days are gone. We get fresh milk from a top supplier in Kolkata but it is not what it used to be. The owners of cows inject them for more milk, and the quality drops… Trained workers are also hard to find. Who knows the perfect way to make a sweet… it is all in the chhena,” he says.
Later, workers sit around 3 ft by 3 ft wooden planks, called pata, with chocolate syrups, or mango, lemon or orange crush or squash, to produce different kinds of sandesh. Both ‘naram pak’ soft sandesh, that is less sweet and takes less time to bake, and ‘kara pak (hardened) sandesh are made. In around four hours, the different types of sandesh are ready. Every day around 26 varieties are available at the shop, apart from special orders.
Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy also stocks sweets such as kancha golla, chandrapuli, jal bhora, talshash, golap sandesh, and newer innovations such as flavoured malai rolls, chocolate chips, mango manohara, and gurer sandwich. There are sweets named ‘Sachin’ and ‘Sourav’, after the former India cricket captains. By the time the sweets are ready and placed inside the steel almirah, it is past noon. The wokers take some lunch and grab a nap at the back of the shop. Around 7 pm, fresh milk arrives, and the morning process is repeated. The shop stays open till around 10.30 pm. “Every day we use 150 to 200 litres of milk. Per litre lends around 250 gm of chhena. Each day we have sales of Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000. During the festive season and marriage season, the sales jump manifold,” says Pratip Nandy, one of the other owners.
Among the regulars are celebrities, he adds. “Manna Dey (the late singer) used to live in this para (neighbourhood). He used to love our lemon sandesh, with the orange peels in it. He used to take it to Mumbai.” Matinee idol Uttam Kumar, the family of Satyajit Ray, actors from theatres in the area, all used to frequent, Pratip says. Once, director Rituparno Ghosh came and bought a sandesh variety called ‘Parijat’, he adds. “It was a special order. We did not know it was for the wedding of Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai.” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee chose this shop’s golap sandesh to gift to Hillary Clinton during her visit to Kolkata in May 2012. Pratip also proudly shows off a photo of a sandesh cake made to celebrate the Kolkata Knight Riders IPL win in Kolkata in 2012.
The 62-year-old isn’t sure how long all this will last. However, his son Rana, the fifth generation of the family in the business, is not as pessimistic. Busy with his cellphone in one corner, he says he joined the shop after graduating in law. “Making sweets comes naturally to me since I have been brought up with the shop,” he says. But GST remains an issue, adds the 29-year-old, who has attended seminars to try and understand the new tax. “Look at the thousands of small sweet shops all over Bengal. How can they afford an accountant? Their knowledge about taxes is zero,” he says. The Nandy family lives atop the shop in the same building.
Pratip again talks of what makes Bengali sweets “special”, starting with the fact that they don’t use any refrigeration. “In Bengal we make chhena-based sweets, which are highly perishable. In other states, they use mewa and maida, which can be kept for two to three days. Our kochuri and radha ballavi have to be eaten hot, unlike sweets in Delhi, Mumbai, where something made in the morning can be eaten in the evening. Whatever survey the Modi government made, they failed to understand this.”
Biswanath Kanrar, 75, from Amta in Howrah, one of the 16-odd workers at the shop, regrets that the setback is a further blow to a trade struggling to find youngsters interested in the job. “I have been working here since I was 20. Our next generation doesn’t want to be in this profession,” he says. Of his two sons, one is a welder and the other owns a small shoe shop. Late afternoon, there is a heated argument between Pranab Nandy and sugar supplier Ajit Kumar Shaw. “See, he is not giving us the best-quality sugar. We will not tolerate this for long,” fumes Pranab. “There is so much confusion after the GST,” Shaw defends. “Earlier sugar was taxed at the sugar mill. Now we have to pay the GST. The price should have been Rs 47 per kg at this time but it has crossed Rs 50. What can I do?”
Towards evening, customers come in a regular stream. Most express dismay at the costlier sweets. The two employees handling the sales have a hard time explaining why. Sanjib Dey, a regular, has just bought a packet of sweets. “It is unacceptable that the government and its policies are creating trouble for sweet shops,” he says. “Why should we pay extra money? They should have kept sweets out from such things.”