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Rosogolla Dibas: What this humble sweet, once at the centre of a culture war, means to Bengal

At the opening of the Kolkata International Film Festival, Mamata Banerjee told the gathered crowd, “My question is, why shouldn’t there be festivals in our lives?...We will support organising every festival with equal enthusiasm. Durga Puja, Kali Puja and Diwali have just been celebrated across Bengal with enthusiasm. Chhath Puja, Jagadhatri Puja and Christmas are coming, and will be celebrated with equal enthusiasm by the people of the state.”

Why not more festivals indeed? Didi could have added one more to the list, a spongily secular one too. 14 November is Rosogolla Day or Rosogolla Dibas. Coincidentally, it is also World Diabetes Day.

Before it had its own day, the rosogolla already had a song of its own. It involved actress Debasree Roy dancing around old men in dhotis, cops in khaki shorts and dwarves, while singing “Aami boli shobai saabdhaan, aami Kolkatar rosogolla” (I say everyone beware, I am Kolkata’s rosogolla) and waxing eloquent about her charms, which were unlike a dry goja or motichoor. The song incidentally is about a gang of pickpockets, but let's not read anything into that.

Representational image. Facebook/Rasgulla.food

Representational image. Facebook/Rasgulla.food

The spongy sweet that epitomised everything Bengali now has a day of its own. The Misthti Hub in Ecopark in the suburbs of Kolkata will showcase different varieties of rosogollas. Yes, rosogolla, once considered the plain Jane of Bengali sweets is no longer just plain. Now, you can get baked, green chilly-flavoured, lemon barley, cappuccino coffee, gundi paan shot, even sizzler varieties of the dessert.

But more than anything else, Rosogolla Day will mark a victory for Jai Bangla. There was a moment when the rosogolla seemed to be slipping from its grasp. Neighbouring Odisha laid claim to it, saying they invented the dish. They said it was offered as kheer mohan prasad to Goddess Lakshmi in Puri for over 600 years.

Didi went on war footing to secure Bengali pride, and the Geographical Indicator for Banglar Rosogolla from the authorities in Chennai. Odisha submitted a 150-page report by the Jagannath cult researcher Asit Mohanty, which cited the 15th century Dandi Ramayana, mentioning the rasgulla. Bengal submitted an entire book by Haripada Bhowmik, Rosogolla: Banglar Jagot Matano Aabishkaar (Bengal’s invention that became a global craze). After a two-year battle, Bengal’s sweet tooth prevailed.

This Rosogolla Day is the victory lap for the Royal Bengal Rosogolla, although Odisha tries to claim 30 July as Rasgulla Divas. All seems amicable now, but as talks intensify for a mahagatbandhan before 2019, it would not be advisable for Mamata Banerjee to try and woo Naveen Patnaik with a dabba of rosogollas.

But in all this parochial muscle-flexing about the sweet dish, it is easy to miss, as the Indian Express points out, that rosogolla lovers should really be grateful to the Portuguese for their favourite sweet. The Portuguese brought the practice of making cheese by splitting milk through the addition of citric acid to these parts. “The technique may have lifted the Aryan taboo on deliberate milk curdling and given the traditional Bengali moira (confectioner) a new material to work with,” said food historian KT Achaya.

But the rosogolla does need a bit of a renaissance. The staple of Bengali sweets, it has a bit of an old-fashioned, socialist aura about it.

It is emblematic of Bengal’s pet malaise – nostalgia on the part of the NRI, or rather non-resident Bengali, for a particular rosogolla from a particular long-lost sweet shop in a particular alley, which no canned rosogolla from KC Das can ever satisfy. Even today, the Kolkata Airport has a handwritten sign warning departing passengers that they cannot carry rosogollas in their hand luggage. But in Kolkata itself, the aspiring Bengali wants fancier sweets –nolen gurer soufflé, mango sandesh cheesecake, and horror of horrors, strange products of miscegenation between Cadbury chocolates and Bengali chhena sweets that are judged every year by a phalanx of Bengali celebrities. The rosogolla is too simple in this showy world, too unpretentious. It brings back memories of being sick in bed.

The fact is, when we were children, we were not allowed to take a rosogolla for tiffin on examination days. It resembled a big fat zero. Mothers all over Bengal feared that if they sent their beloved children to school with a rosogolla during their exams, they would come back with zero marks. If push came to shove, and in the unlikely event that no other non-spherical sweet could be found, the rosogolla would have its ras squeezed out, and then the poor sweet would be flattened so it looked less circular. Then and only then, could it enter the tiffin box.

Perhaps every rosogolla needs its day to reclaim its place in our cultural imagination.

Rosogolla Dibas is a timely reminder to all of us to not take our heritage for granted. Envious neighbours are always coveting a piece of the chhena pie. This is Mamata Banerjee’s sweet spot – seizing the cultural mantle. She said at the Kolkata International Film Festival, “KIFF's status was declining before we [TMC] came to power [in 2011]. And we restored its lost glory." Didi’s outsize role in the battle for Bengal’s glory was clear to all attendees at the festival, with her face featuring on every hoarding leading to the Nandan auditorium. Filmmaker Anik Dutta tartly observed, “In reality, cinema doesn’t belong to the director or the producer. It belongs to the person whose pictures are splashed all across Nandan and around the city.”

But Didi loves nothing more than to be seen as the proud defender of Bengal’s culture and heritage. The rosogolla is perfect as a player in that saga. And Rosogolla Dibas is the sweet ending to that chapter of the glorious story. Next time around, for Rosogolla Dibas, giant rosogollas with Didi’s face on them? But cash-strapped Bengal should just be careful that this day is not misconstrued as a comment on the state of its coffers.


Updated Date: Nov 14, 2018 17:28 PM

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