Burdwan, arguably the most famous zamindari in Bengal, has a clean history and dusty geography. It was acquired by a family of Punjabi traders on their return from a pilgrimage in Puri during the reign of Jahangir, and their pot of gold survived through Lord Cornwallis’s turbulent permanent resettlement in the last decade of the 18th century, an impressive tribute to the art of genuflection. By the norms of their time, the Mahtabs were good landlords, rising to the eminence of maharaja and leaving, very unobtrusively, a little hint of Punjab in the sky. The blue above was a playing field for kites when I drove up from Calcutta, and the air a music hall without walls. Bengal’s kite season is during the ebb of the monsoon, but Burdwan celebrates its kite festival in the middle of January, in an echo of Baisakhi. Memory of the Mahtabs will not wane, for an excellent reason: Their vast palace is now the campus of Burdwan University. Question: Why hasn’t every state turned its best palace into a university?
Who says there has been no progress in Bengal? You still can’t find a job, but you can get the delicious nalin-gur (new molasses sounds so pedestrian compared to nalin-gur) in a tube, and squeeze it out like toothpaste. You can order Burdwan’s unique contribution to a gourmet’s palate, mehindana, through Flipkart. Other Indians have a sweet tooth. Bengalis have 32 teeth submerged in sugar. If there is one word which can be, or perhaps should be, considered the motto of Bengal then it is surely mishti. A conventional dictionary would translate that as “sweet” but the nuances simply do not travel into the consciousness of another culture, let alone English. Burdwan gave the British its allegiance, not its menu.
Mishti is the highest compliment that can be paid to a bride. It does not denote just beauty — anyone young is attractive; it speaks of temperament as well. It is gender-neutral. Critics have carped that the bane of young men is that they have been canoodled too long by ma and pishi as mishti chheley. But at least the mishti standard can claim harmony as a dividend. At a time when the university map of India has become a mountain range where every second peak is a volcano, and valleys strewn with lava; when the common rooms and carrom board clubs of the unemployed have turned into cinder barns, the Burdwan academic environment is calm. Its students converse with a vice chancellor who keeps his door open.
Is there a silent revolution taking place among the upper echelons of Calcutta? Elgin Road is one of the many congested arteries weaving towards the heart of the city, bedecked with shops in egalitarian sequence, fancy astride humble, much in the sense and sensibility of Calcutta. Towards its end is a very spacious Ganguram outlet selling what it describes, sensationally, as sugarless mithai. That is an oxymoron worthy of Coca Cola; how can it exist, let alone flourish, in Calcutta? If sugar falls in Calcutta, then its era is over.
Sunny, said the headline of a single-column story in a major Delhi newspaper, has decided to stop endorsing gutka and all those tobacco variants designed to send you into cancerward much faster than cigarettes. This came as a relief. For my generation, Sunny is synonymous with an icon who leapt into our imagination when we were in our teens, through radio and cricket commentary from a distant West Indies, where he faced the bouncers of fierce fast bowlers with an aplomb that was worthy of Napoleon. This was Sunil “Sunny” Gavaskar, a rare combination of huge talent and brisk good sense, who has become a staple of television screens over decades. There was one niggle though. Why had Sunny lent his fame and reputation to such products in the first place. Fading filmstars with leaking bank accounts might do so, but surely not Sunil, who earns more from broadcast than most players. Curiosity took me towards the full story. It was not about Sunny Gavaskar but Sunny Leone, the star more famous for acrobatics than cricket. I remain astonished, not at the sudden arrival of health-conscious rectitude on the part of Sunny Leone, but at the editing desk of the newspaper. The newspaper assumes, alas correctly, that if a reader sees “Sunny” in a headline, he or she will automatically transfer association to India’s most famous pornstar rather than India’s second most famous cricketing legend. Just 10 years ago, this would have been unthinkable.
How brand names change.