Mishraji was a potbellied man, with a clean-shaven head, and the only prized possession on his head was his ponytail, that was tied in a knot (also known as the Choti). The thin moustache on his well-rounded face gave him an air of benign arrogance. He was always clad in a ‘Dhoti” and “Banyan” and his Dhoti usually was tucked up to his knees, allowing him to work freely. He chewed his betel leaf with aplomb, with often a red stain being visible at the corner of his lips. His shop probably was never painted in years. It had dark green walls lit dimly by a solitary tube-light.
Monday, September 18, 2017
Mishraji and his Magic Jalebis
Mishraji was Mori Road’s “Mithaiwala” (sweet vendor). His specialty was Bengali sweets and he had worked in Kolkata in his younger days before moving to Mumbai. My mother often said that he made the most delectable Bengali sweets and I grew up eating a good variety of them.
When I was in school, I used to walk up and wait outside Mishraji’s shop to board my school bus. There used to be the whole lot of us waiting there and Mishraji was at times a good host. There always used to a cauldron of milk boiling and in another large vessel, he used to be frying “Jalebis” (a kind of Indian delicacy). There used to be a motley crowd at his shop every morning and business used to be brisk selling the milk and Jalebi combination.
Often, my friends and I tried to convince him to part with a Jalebi or two. The excuse was that we had our exams and his Jalebis brought us that extra bit of luck. After a bit of cajoling, he used to give in and we felt we had won a hard bargain. Sometimes, I did feel that I did better at the exams when I had his Jalebis, and told Mishraji about that, but he thought I was pulling his leg. “If you want free Jalebis, just say it. Don’t tell me that they bring you luck and all of that.”
After I passed out of school, I rarely frequented his shop. After my mother passed away, I stopped going to his shop altogether as I was never very fond of sweets. It had been years and I had all but forgotten about Mishraji.
It was the evening before Mahalaya. I got home late in the evening. The next morning, I needed sweets at home for the Puja as part of our household tradition. It was too late to get to Sweet Bengal or Brijwasi, where we usually bought sweets. As I was thinking, it dawned on me that my only option would perhaps be Mishraji’s shop. If I could run down, maybe he would still be open. So Mishraji came alive again after many years of hibernation.
I ran down and as I got to the shop, I saw Mishraji hunched over his cash counter with his back to me. Recognizing someone was at his door, he bellowed “Go away, we are closing. There is nothing left now.” I was crestfallen. “Please, there must be something left. I need it for the Puja tomorrow.” With his back still towards me, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand “I am sold out and closed. Bad luck.” he said. The same stern voice I thought to myself. Instinctively I found myself saying “Do you have at least one to spare for some good luck?” That got him. He spun around.
Age had caught up with him. He had acquired thick rimmed spectacles, his cheeks sagged a bit and he was bent with age, but in spirit he looked the same man. He drew up close and peered at me through his thick glasses and it was a while before he exclaimed “You, Don Boscowallah! Am I right?” I acknowledged that his guess was right and re-introduced myself and the fact my mother had been a big fan of his. It all came back to him luckily for me.
“Can you help me?” I asked. He shook his head slowly. “We are truly out of stock. Can you come in tomorrow morning? The same time you used to go to school. I will have something ready for you.” he said. I thought it was a good idea as I would get some freshly made sweets in the morning. I returned home and told my wife that the sweets would be there next morning and there was nothing to worry. I had it all worked out.
The next morning after hearing the chants of the Chandi invoking the Mother Goddess, I went down, at the appointed hour. He greeted me warmly and said “I have made these early this morning. The best “Sandesh”. One bite and you will be in the streets of Kolkata.” As he said this, my eyes fell on the vessel where he was frying Jalebis.
Memories came flooding back and I think he saw me looking at the Jalebis intently. “Do you have an exam today as well eh? Do you want a free one?” he asked in jest. “Your jalebis bought me luck.” I smiled and said. He offered me a couple of Jalebis and I bit into one of them. It was flashback to my school days, moments locked up in time, set free with the taste of the sweet Jalebis.
“Who was the boy who used to be with you, asking for the Jalebis?” he asked. “Oh, Picklu (not his real name). He now lives abroad and has done very well in his life. He is the head of a big company and travels the world.” I said. “Are you in touch with him?” he asked. “I sent him some messages but never got a response. He is a busy person. I am happy he has achieved a lot. It has been over a decade since I last spoke to him. I feel a little odd to call him now” I said. “Send him a picture of my Jalebis. See what happens?” he grinned and said. I took my phone and clicked a few snaps with Mishraji in the background and “Whats Apped” it to Picklu.
To my surprise I had a response back in seconds. “Are you at Mishraji’s place?” his message read. “Yes, standing with him.” I responded. The next moment my phone rang and it was Picklu on the line. “Convince him and eat a free Jalebi for me as well !” he said. We started off and we spoke for a while and he spoke to Mishraji as well. A decade of distance was washed away discussing the sweetness of Mishraji’s Jalebis and our memories of school. Picklu ended by saying “I will be down in Mumbai soon. Let’s go to Mishraji’s shop and then visit school once again.” I said “Would be great to do that. The Jalebis are as good as ever.”
As the call ended, I told Mishraji “Your Jalebis, truly have magic in them. Trust me this time.” With that said, he stuffed a few more of them in my hands for the family. As I headed home, I thought my mother would have been very happy to see the authentic Bengali “Sandesh” from Mishraji’s shop. And, of course, for me it was the Magic Jalebis.
“You are late for the Puja. And where are the sweets? And why have you got Jalebis with you?” my wife asked. “Well, I got them free with the Sandesh. Bonus offer. Our kids have exams and I thought they could do with a few Jalebis. It brings you luck.” I said. “How can Jalebis bring you luck? Every Mahalaya you have something weird to tell me. Now let’s sit for the Puja.” she said. I winked at my kids and told them to try one.
The eastern sky was lit now with the sun peeking out from behind the clouds. This morning felt special. I knew Mahalaya was here again. Have a great Pujo folks. And if you need Mishraji’s address just let me know.