Saturday, December 3, 2016

Of sweet history and delectable sandesh

The place is dingy, dark and very, very old. And yet, very quaint. It appears to be from a different era. From a timeless Bengal. Even as I try to adjust my eyes to the surroundings, the delightful smell of sandesh caresses my nostrils. It feels rather unusual to realize that I am standing at a very special place. A place which is steeped in history.

‘Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Nandy’ is an age-old sweet shop – 172 years to be precise – located in the nostalgic bylanes of North Kolkata. In looks, it might come across as an ordinary, almost nondescript, sweet shop. But there is nothing ordinary about ‘Nakur’, as the place is fondly called. Behind its ordinary fa├žade and visage, lies a place which has managed to tickle the sweet tooth of generations of Bengalis over the decades.

Set up in 1844 by Mahesh Dey, who had come to Kolkata from Hooghly, Nakur is located in the Hedua area (near Bethune College) and specializes in making sandesh of countless variety. After Mahesh Dey, it was his son Girish Chandra Dey who took over the reins of the shop. Girish and his son-in-law Nakur Nandy then took the shop to the next level and within no time it became the favourite of countless Kolkatans. Incredibly, even after all these years, they have managed to set up an extremely loyal customer base and still do brisk business.
The shop’s forte lies in its sandesh, of myriad kinds. And interestingly, despite the overwhelming pressure of competition these days, Nakur – which has now been declared a heritage location – has stuck to its specialty and have never even attempted to dabble in other, fancier sweets.  

“Our ‘secret’, if you want to call it that, is our quality. We have offered the premium quality of sandesh to our customers for years and people return to us for precisely this reason,” says a confident Partha Nandy – the fifth generation of the Nandys managing the shop. Even as he speaks to me from the workshop, he keeps giving instructions to his labourers; some are busy preparing balls of chenna (cottage cheese) for the sandesh and some are busy packing the completed sandesh on boxes and arranging them on the sales counter at the front of the shop for customers to see. The small area next to me has a wall that is adorned with countless photo frames, all very old, of Indian gods and goddesses. Multiple worn out shelves having old, dusty papers of some kind are positioned below those frames.

On my opposite end, there is a shelf which has rows of dark brown-colored chocolate sandesh, one of the shop’s many famed specialties. I am told that it is filled with thick and oozy jaggery syrup. The tempting item is one of the most sought ones of the shop these days.

Image courtesy 
Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Nandy
Just like the chocolate sandesh, Nakur, from time to time, keeps trying to introduce other novel sandesh varieties. ‘Sonkdek’ (cake in sandesh form), Black Current Sandesh, Apple Sandesh, Butterscotch Sandesh, Green Apple Sandesh, Mango Sandesh, Mango ‘Kulfi, Mulberry Sandesh, White Chocolate Sandesh, and at least a dozen types of chocolate sandesh, are some of the unique additions to Nakur’s menu which have become extremely popular. Then there are the other traditional ones like karapak (hard baked sandesh) and narampak (soft baked sandesh), golapi pera (prepared with kheer and rosewater), and chandan sandesh (made from sandalwood oil), among a host of others, which the shop specializes in.

Incidentally, they had even experimented with ‘Wine Sandesh’ once, where they filled the centers of different sandesh with wine, rum, and vodka. However, the authorities objected to this, stating that they are a sweet shop and to sell sandesh having alcohol in them, they would have to attain a permit. The experiment was hence shelved. But the makers are still determined to charm their customers with attractive varieties.

Despite the stiff competition they face in the way of modernized sweet shops which have sprung all over the city, Nakur has remained staunch towards its original location and refuses to branch out or even refashion their shop. In fact, even the boxes where the sweets are packed in are simple, white ones; bereft of any glitz just like the place itself. Their attraction, they believe, lies in their timeless tradition of simplicity. Customers like returning here not just for the soft and colourful sweets, but to get a glimpse and feel of the old-world
Bengal as well. Perhaps it reminds them of simpler times. When a visit to the nukkad sweet shop was an event in itself.

Among the shop’s many idiosyncrasies, is a wide grill covering the sales counter which was installed for security purposes during the Naxal menace in Bengal several decades back. Nakur decided to keep the grill even after the threat had subsided and soon it became a part of their persona. Today, it adds to its flavor of olde worlde charm. 

Image courtesy 'Outlook India'
But behind the charm and traditions, there are some concerns as well. Sandesh shops, feels Partha, are region oriented, and are bound to be very limited in the days to come. “Sandesh shops are primarily limited to Bengal. They don’t enjoy the same popularity outside. So I don’t know how long such shops will be able to sustain in the years to come,” says Partha with concern. Then there is the problem of manpower. Partha feels that they need good machines to make sandesh on a large scale and in a specific manner for better results. “Unfortunately, there are no specialized machines for making sandesh. We will have to have it custom-made, which requires a lot of capital. So this is a big issue for us. A good machine would have helped us sustain better.”

Despite the hurdles, Nakur still enjoys immense venerability in these parts. Generations of people have grown up relishing their varieties of sandesh on special occasions. And even today, the shop keeps winning new fans over with the distinctive softness and flavor of its sweets. Partho refuses to divulge the ‘special’ technique by which they prepare their sandesh – it’s their inside secret, after all. Regardless, there is no denying that Nakur p presents a unique quality of sandesh that can’t be found anywhere else.

It is precisely for this reason that they were the main confectioners in the wedding of Bollywood superstars Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai. Even the local IPL team, Kolkata Knight Riders requested them to prepare a ‘sondek’ for them during their 2012 tournament victory celebrations. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray, too, was known to be extremely fond of their sandesh and a host of stars from the Bengali film industry stars have a weakness for Nakur today.

I look around the shop one final time. Everything here seems so ancient and yet so charming that I wish I could snuggle up in one of its corners quietly and leave behind the oddities of the present world. I thank Partha Nandy for his valuable time and bid him adieu. He offers me a sweet - a newly invented sandesh in the shape of a paan and having a chunk of orange-colored maava inside. Now I am no connoisseur, but it is absolutely delectable; very soft and sweet and just melts in the mouth. As I allow the sweet taste of the delicacy to invade my mouth, I offer my thumbs up to Partha for this pleasant parting gift.

It has been a unique experience, this. As someone who simply cannot do without sweets in his life, visiting Nakur and exploring its rich history and tradition up so close has been an enriching experience.

As I move away from the place, I notice a 50-something woman at the counter holding the hands of a little girl, probably her granddaughter. The woman is placing her order while the girl looks on at the array of colorful sweets at the counter with wide-eyes. Perhaps, the love for Nakur will be passed on from one generation to the other and the legend of the shop will live on for years to come, I reflect with hope. The lingering sweet taste of the soft sandesh in my mouth only reinforces this feeling.

1 comment:

  1. i didn't knew that there are so many varieties of sandesh....i used to think that it is called moreso 'sondesh'...i m personally not a 'sweet lover' but after reading this delicious article placed with wonderful magical words i think should try a sandesh....