How much sugar is too much?
More broadly, the word ‘mishti’ (sweet) represented a universe of things that looked, felt or smelled good – be it perfume, color, nature, music, voice, disposition, behavior, affection and even anger… Mishti Meye was one way to describe a pretty girl. Language and literature reflected the importance of sweets in our lives. Phrases and idioms like ‘mukh mishti’ (the meaning of which ranged from sweet words to sharing one’s happiness by offering others sweets), ‘michhrir chhuri’ (a honeyed dagger) or ‘mone jilipir pyanch’ (to be as convoluted as the rings of the syrupy jilipi) were part of common parlance. The most popular children’s magazines of the time were called sandesh and Mushakboth named after candies.
A story I heard growing up about my town’s craze for sweets was about a “sweet revolt” in Calcutta, when milk-based sweets were banned by Gandhian Chief Minister Prafulla Chandra Sen in August 1965, under the West Bengal Channa Sugars Control Order. With public rage growing, Sen even gave a speech on All India Radio justifying the legislation given a tough economic environment. The order and his speech infuriated people so much that it was challenged in the High Court in Calcutta, with the judges coming down hard on him. In less than a year, he and his party lost in the legislative elections. Everything to ban milk sweets? Maybe, maybe not, but the milk candy ban certainly turned public opinion against him.
Factory-made, nutritionally inferior white sugar began to appear from the late 19th century, aided by protective tariffs. Despite protests, bonfires and the boycott of sugar and other British manufactured goods during the Swadeshi movement of 1905, the march of cheaper refined sugar could not be stopped.
In 1907, Sir Richard Havelock Charles, a British doctor stationed in India, made the alarming observation that type 2 diabetes was increasing rapidly among wealthy Bengalis living in Calcutta, while it was even rarer among poor Punjabis. He linked this to an increasing consumption of sugar. The region’s famous sweet tooth was spiraling out of control.
Swami Vivekananda, the thoroughly modern saint with a foresighted eye, wrote in his ruthless prose: “Once upon a time the zamindars of our village…would not hesitate to walk twenty or thirty miles, and eat twice – twenty fish bones koi and all – and they lived to be a hundred years old. Now their sons and grandsons… put on airs, wear glasses, eat bazaar treats, rent a car to drive from street to street, then complain of diabetes – and their lives are cut short, c is the result of their being civilized…”