A stroll down the evocative lanes of Old Delhi is exciting. There is so much to extoll, to engross – and ingest. Ah! The flavours of quintessential Purani Dilli ka khana (Old Delhi food), the uniqueness of the myriad delicacies on offer here. It may not have a UNESCO World Heritage tag, but that doesn't deter this ancient city from keeping alive its culinary legacy, which is palpably evident during a festival, be it Eid, or Diwali.
A walk through the narrow lanes brings up-close encounters with some interesting sights but, at the turn to the very famous Ghantewala's, anticipation turns sour. Sweet memories must remain just that: the shop has shut down, no longer able to stand up to insensitive jaws of modernization, financial crisis, competition and endemic system failures. The current owner, Sushant Jain, confesses that he feels he's doing his forefathers an injustice, but is in no position to carry on as sales have fallen to new-age restaurants, and also systemic inequities.
It is undoubtedly a tragedy. Ghantewala had its roots way back in 1790, when a small-time sweets maker, Sukh Lal Jain from Rajasthan, migrated to Delhi to earn a living. It's said he would make the most exotic sweet savouries, using only the finest ingredients. There are a couple of theories around how the shop got its name, but the most plausible one is that Sukh Lal initially did the rounds of the city on foot, with a brass plate laden with sweets on his head and a bell in one hand. The ringing of the bell attracted buyers and eventually gave him the name Ghantewala – the man with the bell.
As the word spread, Ghantewala became a phenomenon. He had patrons young and old, firm and infirm, far and wide, up and close, famous, infamous and the ordinary. Soon when he had gathered enough funds, he set up shop on the bustling main street of Chandni Chowk. Widely known – his sohan halwa (a gooey concoction made of refined flour, sugar, nuts and oodles of clarified butter) was, perhaps, most renowned – this was a sweets establishment that was cherished by everyone, from the emperor to the common, though no less discerning, common man.
Interestingly, during the 225 years of its existence, the shop has been mute witness to many important events, upheavals and progress, both on the world stage and locally in India. Think about it, in 1790, Mozart was weaving his magic in Austria, George Washington was the US president, Napoleon was gaining eminence, George III was king in Britain, and Delhi was ruled by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, a staunch consumer of Ghantewala's sweets.
A sliver of the past has been taken away. It diminishes the legacy of the city – a legacy one is proud of – but which will now only remain in the pages of the history of Delhi. It's a bitter death of a sweet shop and we're only left asking, for whom the bell tolls?