Bit­ter­sweet Di­wali as sweets lose their al­lure

The Covington News - - Religion -

By Gavin Rabi­nowitz

NEW DELHI - For thou­sands of years, Di­wali cel­e­bra­tions have had a sweet em­brace on In­dia.

Sug­ary treats, or mithai, have long been cen­tral to this Hindu fes­ti­val of lights — sweet, fudgy good­ies rich with car­da­mon, pis­ta­chio and saf­fron, of­ten coated with an ethe­real foil of pure sil­ver. They are ea­gerly eaten, given as gifts, of­fered to the gods.

But the sug­ary glow is fad­ing. With In­dia’s econ­omy boom­ing and its peo­ple’s waist­lines ex­pand­ing, sweets are los­ing their al­lure.

In­creas­ingly, the na­tion’s grow­ing ur­ban mid­dle class wants hol­i­day presents that bet­ter re­flect new­found wealth. And an ex­plo­sion of obe­sity and re­lated health con­di­tions has many In­di­ans — some 35 mil­lion of whom are di­a­betic — think­ing twice about treats.

“Thirty years back there was no op­tion but sweets,” says Girish Aggarwal, a part­ner in the Ben­gali Sweet Shop, a New Delhi land­mark where the coun­ters are piled with rich sweets shaped like ap­ples and roses and creamy slabs of cashew and pis­ta­chio barfis, a dense fudge­like sweet of­ten made from con­densed milk.

“Peo­ple are not il­lit­er­ate now, they know about other op­tions,” says Aggarwal, whose shop saw fes­ti­val-re­lated sales drop 20 per­cent last year. “Now we have ev­ery­thing in In­dia: Bel­gian cho­co­lates, Swarovski crys­tals, elec­tron­ics, gold and sil­ver.”

On Di­wali, or Deep­avali as it is known in some parts of the coun­try, Hin­dus light lamps to sig­nify the victory of good over evil. New clothes are worn, gifts — tra­di­tion­ally of sweets — are given and pray­ers are of­fered to Lak­shmi, the god­dess of wealth.

While ex­act fig­ures are elu­sive, thou­sands of tons of sweets are made ev­ery year in a mar­ket dom­i­nated by mom-and-pop stores. Shop own­ers say Di­wali can ac­count for as much as 30 per­cent of their an­nual sales.

That is chang­ing. Last year, sales of sweets in New Delhi dur­ing Di­wali — tra­di­tion­ally cel­e­brated in Oc­to­ber or Novem­ber — were down 40 per­cent from the year be­fore, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the As­so­ci­ated Cham­bers of Com­merce and In­dus­try of In­dia.

The pre­ferred gifts now? Linens, toast­ers and iPods.

But sweets shops are fight­ing back. Tra­di­tional treats usu­ally con­tain plenty of ghee (clar­i­fied but­ter) and su­gar. Now busi­nesses such as Nathu’s Sweets, a lead­ing chain with branches across north­ern In­dia, are of­fer­ing more su­gar-free va­ri­eties.

“We have been mak­ing them for about 10 years now,” says Indu Gupta, whose hus­band is the great-grand­son of Nathu’s founder. “Ini­tially there was not much de­mand, but in re­cent years it has shot up.”

The Ben­gali Sweet Shop makes su­gar-free treats too, us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers. But Aggarwal can barely hide his dis­dain.

“The taste is not the same, but those who can­not eat reg­u­lar sweets, like di­a­bet­ics, have no op­tion,” he says. “Those who are health con­scious still eat reg­u­lar sweets, they just eat less.”

Some have sim­ply found health­ier al­ter­na­tives.

“Most of the time we give dried fruits. They are health­ier, last longer and are more prac­ti­cal,” says Sukh­preet Kaur, 32, as she waited out­side Nathu’s while a friend shopped in­side.

In the run-up to Di­wali this year, which be­gins Oct. 28, economists are pre­dict­ing fur­ther woes for the sweets in­dus­try.

In­dia’s eco­nomic growth has slowed this year. Global eco­nomic un­cer­tainty and ris­ing inflation have sent food prices soar­ing. This means In­dia’s poor, still the vast ma­jor­ity in this na­tion of 1.1 bil­lion, prob­a­bly also will buy fewer sweets this hol­i­day.

But no­body is pre­dict­ing the demise of the In­dian sweet.

No event, from a birth to buy­ing a new car, is com­plete without some­one of­fer­ing friends, fam­ily or co-work­ers a tray of mithai. Even on a reg­u­lar day, both Nathu’s and the Ben­gali Sweet Shop were packed with cus­tomers.

“Without sweets, there is no fes­ti­val and there are no oc­ca­sions without sweets,” says Deepak Ku­mar, 34, who was buy­ing bun­dles of them for his up­com­ing wed­ding and planned to be back for more for Di­wali.

Per­haps sig­ni­fy­ing how cen­tral sweets are to In­dian cul­ture, the gov­ern­ment re­leased mil­lions of tons of su­gar into the mar­kets in Septem­ber in a bid to drive down prices ahead of the fes­ti­val sea­son.

Even sweet shop own­ers re­main up­beat about Di­wali.

“Di­wali is the big­gest fes­ti­val, so peo­ple spend all their money,” says Aggarwal while show­ing off his shop’s most ex­pen­sive treat, a bright green square of pure pis­ta­chio and su­gar dot­ted with pure sil­ver that melts in the mouth.

“The sil­ver is just for dec­o­ra­tion. It’s like lip­stick on a lady,” he ex­plains. “It makes her more beau­ti­ful, but doesn’t change the woman.”

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