It was the summer of 1997. I was travelling through the villages of
West Bengal in search of the famed folk musicians of Bengal. They were simple people who journeyed from village to village, singing and performing.
But something happened along the way…
The afternoon sun was at its height when I reached Kankalitala, in the northwestern part of West Bengal. The temple in Kankalitala is very popular among the worshippers of Goddess Kali. The temple is located right next to a river called Kopai, a beautiful
silent river that is known to get naughty sometimes during the monsoons. There were very few people about, for almost all of Bengal sleeps in the afternoon.
Tired and sweaty, I bathed in the river. My eyes fell upon some shacks across the fields. They looked like eating-places. A closer look revealed that one of them was indeed a decent-sized sweet shop dressed in tin and aluminium sheets. It even had a proper electricity connection.
“Welcome Sir!” shouted a boy, almost pulling me into the shop. It was full of sweets – all the traditional Bengali sweets like rasgulla, chamcham, five different types and sizes of shondesh or the Bengali version of the north Indian burfi. They may look similar, but a burfi and a shondesh don’t taste the same.
There were five types of shondesh in the shop — plain ones, conch-shaped ones with jaggery, a roundish one with extra dry fruits, a square one with honey in the centre, and another conch-shaped shondesh scented with rose water.
That was not all. There were two types of huge gulab jamuns, one dipped in sugar syrup and one that was drier. But both looked delicious. Ummmm…My mouth started watering.
I decided to skip lunch and have sweets instead. It would be a much better treat. I smiled.
“But do you know what the best sweet in the shop is?”
I turned around to see a short old man, half bald, with a scraggy white beard, dressed in an old kurta and a dirty dhoti, standing behind me.
“Hello young man, the best thing about this shop is none of the sweets you’ve been admiring for so long. What they make really well over here is a langhchaa!” he said.
“What’s a langhchaa?” I asked.
“Well a Langhchaa is made of the same dough as a gulaab jamun,
fried and dipped into sugar syrup. But, unlike the gulab jamun, it is cylindrical in shape. I don’t know what they do to it after that. It just tastes yummmmm!” said the old man.
The old man then asked one of the boys to get some langhchaas out. “Saying Yes Mastermoshaai!” (moshaai is a term of respect), the boy ran to fetch the sweets. I noticed that the old man had an air of authority about him. Confident and commanding, almost as if he were the owner of the shop.
As he went out to meet an acquaintance who greeted him on the way, the boy came out of the little kitchen with a vessel full of langhchaas and a big smile on his face. He told me that the old man had been the village school headmaster once. Which is why the entire village called him Mastermoshaai even now.”
He is retired now and lives in the village all by himself, continued the boy. He had no family, nor any money. And he had never got married.
But, how does he support himself then, I asked.
“You will soon come to know, sir,” the boy replied with an impish grin.
The old man had returned. “Mastermoshaai, since you recommend, I will go for a Langhchaa,” I said.
“Yes yes go for a langhchaa!”” he nodded and then whispered, “to
tell you the truth, young man, the rasgullas aren’t so good here, the
shondeshs are so-so, and the gulaab jamuns too could be better. But the langhchaa…is..absolutely divine.”
“Will you join me?”
“Of course! I haven’t had anything since morning, so… I am going to have
a couple of them!”
“My pleasure sir!” I replied.
Hearing that he frowned. “But young man, what makes you think that’s it’s going to be your treat?”
“I am going to earn it from you” he snapped.
“But how?” I asked.
“I am going to recite you a poem, a very beautiful poem, and if you like it,
you could pay me for the same!”
” Sure Mastermoshaai!” I exclaimed.
The old man closed his eyes, took a deep breath and began to recite, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…”
He recited Rabindranath Tagore’s poem beautifully.
“So, do you like it?” he asked after he had finished reciting.
“Very much Mastermoshaai!”
“I don’t have anyone else to support me you see. I guess I make do with whatever little I can. Anyway I’m too old to find work now. You can give me whatever you feel like.”
I handed him a twenty rupee note. I saw the sweet shop boy smiling to himself as he fetched a fresh plates of langhchaas for the both of us.
As I bit into a long, juicy langhchaa I realised that the old man hadn’t exaggerated. The langhchaas were simply delicious and worth the wait.
Soon dusk fell. How time had flown! It had been a great afternoon. And now the crickets were getting noisier and noisier.
“It’s late, young man and I must take leave. You should also leave
or else it will be difficult for you to reach town,” said Mastermoshai before leaving.
On my way to the bus stop, I saw the old man disappear into the fields, beyond which he lived. Soon the city bus came and I left Kankalitala. But in my mind I can still taste the langhchaas I had that sultry afternoon in the company of the Master of Mithaais, the Mastermoshaai of Kankalitala.