Cakes and calendars
Research suggests that this is an entirely Indian concoction, in which the chocolates, roses, teddy bears, dates and kisses, usually stacked into a single day of Valentine celebrations, have been mapped and stretched onto Indian ritual time
Unless you live on a deserted island or a remote rural place undiscovered by corporates, you will have registered that yesterday, February 9, was Chocolate Day, under the very special calendar known as Valentine's Week, which includes Rose Day, Propose Day, Chocolate Day, Teddy Day, Kiss Day, Hug Day, Valentine's Day.
Research suggests that this is an entirely Indian concoction, in which the chocolates, roses, teddy bears, dates and kisses, usually stacked into a single day of Valentine celebrations, have been mapped and stretched onto Indian ritual time. It's Valentine's Day remixed with an Indian wedding or the nine-day colour-coded dandiya calendar — to create a Valentine's calendar, yaniki, the Himesh Reshammiya Dating Utsav version of V-day.
Despite this remix, chocolate uninterestingly retains its dominance as the ritual sweet offering for the desi Valentine. This is curious because if there is any parallel to this Ganga-Danube tehzeeb of East-West remix, it is, in fact, the Indian bakery, where the concept of cake and bread have been joined with Indian mithai in sugary matrimony to birth Indian bakery items.
Consider the concept of mawa cake: where does the mawa end and the cake begin? I could tell you but I don't talk with my mouth full. Before there were pastel macarons (I do love to look at them, especially the purple ones) and cupcakes, there were the shelves of Indian bakeries looking like an entire colony of Hansel and Gretel's many-coloured magic house of sweets. For most of us, the afternoon walk home from the school bus was a longing contemplation of beckoning bakery cases full of dark yellow, puff pastry patties, with a little bit of veggie mash leaking out of the corner and a rainbow array of pastries, whose icing was as curly-wurly and thickly-frilly as Marie Antoinette's wigs, complete with tiny silver beads.
Several buttery cream strawberry and raspberry and pista green so-called mint and yellow pineapple pastries, whose cake tasted faintly of kewra, not vanilla, and whose icing flavours were surely a mix of cough syrup and food colouring. And, of course, the cream-crammed chocolate éclairs and cream horns, determined dominions of sugar and cream, proof that most Indians with a sweet tooth were also maakhan chors at heart. Every tiny north Indian town and big city neighbourhood had several such bakery shops with names such as Azad, Maqdoom, Victoria and Bharat Sweets — not clever puns on buns like contemporary bakery names (Love Sugar Dough, Sweet Retreat), but a layered cake of history and culture.
The south had far more developed and synthesised choices. As one friend informed me, Bengaluru has Iyengar bakeries and Malayalam bakeries. There, you could buy things such as dilkhush or dilpasand, a big choco-pie type item filled with coloured coconut filling and candied fruit, yaniki, tutti-frutti in slices ("Sounds horrible," I said. "Oh yes, horrible and sooo good," she replied), Japanese cake (a cousin of mawa cake), Russian cake (a black and white cake that seems like a riff on marble cake), khoya naan, also a tart stuffed with khoya, and so on, to the savoury bits.
These bakeries made a contemporary Indian food, mixing colonial with desi, foreign with familiar. As the mixed fruit jam of Valentine's week – which indicates that despite purification efforts of cultural gatekeepers, Indians find the old tastier mixed with some new.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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