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Masala mix feelings

Haldiram’s made ‘North Indian’ vegetarian snacks cool for a mutton cutlets-fish fry-chomping ‘East Indian’ fiend like me. Now one of India’s biggest and most ubiquitous brands has blood on its hands. What should I do?

india Updated: Jan 31, 2010 08:44 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Haldiram’s made ‘North Indian’ vegetarian snacks cool for a mutton cutlets-fish fry-chomping ‘East Indian’ fiend like me. Now one of India’s biggest and most ubiquitous brands has blood on its hands. What should I do?

On the one hand I feel that if those packets of ‘Navrattan’, ‘Khatta Meetha’, ‘Punjabi Tadka’, ‘Bhujia’ and ‘Moong Dal’ remain as sumptuous as they are, why should I deny myself the goodies just because the owner of Haldiram’s has been found guilty of attempted murder?

On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable about chomping away on the stuff knowing that I’m feeding the kitty of a man who hired a thug to kill an innocent man. So here I am, staring at a bowlful of Khatta Meetha, waiting to make the right moral gesture that won’t come in the way of my aesthetic wants.

In a country that knows how to make pretty much everything that’s edible — and some things like paneer burger and mooli ka paratha are serious borderline cases — the great insight of Haldiram’s was to brand standard bhujiawalla snacks, bring them under one qualitative roof and make them reach everywhere.

The Haldiram’s story starts in Bikaner in 1937 when Ganga Bishan Agarwal aka Haldiram opened a sweets shop — four years before the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in California. By 1941, the shop was no longer one of the countless anonymous shops across the length and breadth of India selling snacks from jars by the weight, in packets made of old, gummed newspapers. The shop was now called ‘Haldiram Bhujiawala’.

By 1950, Haldiram’s son and grandson, Rameshwar Lal and Prabhu Shankar Agarwal decided to expand their Bikaner business by setting up a manufacturing plant in Calcutta, the great land of the chanachur-dalmoth (nuts-gram flour-dal mix), teley bhaja (practically anything that’s deep-fried with a thin coating of gram flour) and mustard oil-doused jhaal muri (puffed rice with green chilli bits, of course).

The Calcutta factory was still a small operation, but the Haldiram-branded snacks were a hit. So Haldiram’s grandson Prabhu started thinking big. In 1970, a large manufacturing unit was set up in Nagpur. The 80s-90s saw Prabhu Shankar Agarwal make the old Bikaneri bhujiawala a big player in the Great Indian Retail Spree. It was just a matter of riding the curve for Haldiram’s to reach pan-Indian proportions. By the 2000s it had become the first desi brand in the global F&B industry exporting its fare to North America, Europe, the Far East, Australia and the Middle East with sales of more than Rs 400 crore.

(If you detect a tinge of envy here, you’re right. My paternal grandmother’s side of the family owns the not-quite-ubiquitous sweetshop chain, Deshbandhu Mistanna Bhandar. Its first outlet was set up in 1921 in the same Burrabazar area where Haldiram’s had set up its unit more than 15 years afterwards. Deshbandhu now has three branches worldwide. All of them are in Calcutta.)

So to cut a long success story short, the glorious Haldiram’s has now been tainted by Prabhu Agarwal and four of his associates being sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to murder a paan shop-owner Pramod Sharma. Agarwal had allegedly threatened Sharma, who had refused to shift his legit shack from the mouth of the road that would house a new Haldiram’s food plaza in Burrabazar.

On March 30, 2005, Agarwal’s ‘henchmen’ fired at Sharma leaving him gravely injured. Luckily he did not die.

People still buy Volkswagen cars despite the company being set up by the Nazis; they still buy Adidas goods despite its child labour scandal; they still watch the Oscar-winning film The Pianist on DVD, even though its director, Roman Polanski once raped a minor.

So here’s what I'll do: I’m going to munch on the Haldiram’s munchies in front of me. But I will insist that the Indian government — the present one and those that come in the future — never, ever gives Prabhu Agarwal, who’s done so much for India both inside and outside the country — a national award after he’s finished serving his ‘life’ imprisonment. There. Now I can chew with a clear conscience.