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Delhi has been in mourning since 2nd July. The papers carried the shocking news of the demise of a city icon: the 225 year old Ghantewala Confectioners. The mithai shop opened in 1790 when it catered to kings and later heads of state. Its single best-selling mithai was Sohan Halwa. Not many shops attempted to make this candy-like mithai that was so hard that you usually had to shatter it with the edge of a grinding stone. All through the 1960s and ‘70s, a box of mithai simply had to include at least one piece of sohan halwa and one of balushahi. Today, both mithais are missing in action. Instead, what comprises mixed mithai include barfi, gulab jamuns, patisa and kalakand. The more premium boxes include kaju barfi in various nouvelle guises and even the exorbitant piste ki lauz.
Like everything else, there’s a fashion in mithai as well. And in a trend that has been gathering steam in the last decade, mithai in general seems to be going the way of the dodo, with chocolate bonbons, cupcakes, even baklava gaining more cachet than boondi laddoos. There is also a churning in the real estate space, especially in traditional markets like Chandni Chowk, and that is where the ultimate collision between Ghantewala and changing tastes took place. There are a few iconic mithai shops in Chandni Chowk. A few are on the main road: Annapurna Bhandar, Tewari Bros, Kanwarji, Haldirams, Chaina Ram, Old and Famous Jelabiwala and Meghraj. Others are deep inside the bylanes that are too narrow even for cycle rickshaws to pass. It is fair to say that those shops on the main road are the ones that have become iconic over the decades if not centuries.
And that is precisely why the denizens of Delhi are in such an uproar about the closing down of Ghantewala. It was famous; it was the one destination for sohan halwa plus a few savouries. Unlike any of its peers, it alone had divided its cavernous shop into two and sold off the other half some 15 years back. And while competitor Haldiram’s grew from strength to strength, adding newer types of mithai and namkeens, Ghantewala was shrinking into its shell. Gunjan Goela, food impresario whose forefathers have lived in Chandni Chowk since 1840 feels that it was obvious that the family was increasingly unable to manage the karigars who actually make the mithai. She is of the opinion that Ghantewala sold out to the lure of the big bucks of real estate.
There’s just one question that refuses to go away after the post-mortem: shouldn’t an icon of the stature of Ghantewala have outlived mere passing fashions and transcended such venal considerations as real estate prices?