S.B. Easwaran reflects on the decline and fall of the delectable soanpapdi and decrees that it is in a sad spot of sweet trouble.
The plight of the soanpapdi demonstrates the power of over-gifting to diminish the gift. The melt-in-the-mouth sweet has in recent years become the subject of a plethora of derisory Diwali jokes and memes. These would have us believe that a box of soanpapdi evokes so much disgust in the recipient that it defeats the most talented hypocrite and shines like stained tinsel through his thanks and his smile.
This is an undeserved downfall for a sweet that evokes subtle gustatory delights when crafted by a discerning confectioner. Mildly flavored with cardamom and garnished with pistachio, well-made soanpapdi tempers its sweetness to well-meaning moderation – a good tenet for life and therefore difficult to achieve. Doubly so for a candy floss, which is what soanpapdi is at heart. Moderation has, of course, to be coached and coaxed into it with besan and other ingredients by the hands of those who believe in such niceties. So, when it was on a wedding menu, a special team led by a master would be hired for just that one item.
But assembly-line production has taken artisans out of the long and careful process of soanpapdi making and with them have gone the delicacy and the delight, both too ethereal to cling-wrap or vacuum-pack. It has cheapened the soanpapdi, made it the risible everyman of the supermarket shelves, robbed of his hand-worked vestments of care, effort and rarity. Easy to pick up, easy to hand over casually, it has become the unwitting symbol of thoughtlessness.
Like many other more easily prepared sweets before it, the soanpapdi has in the last few decades succumbed to the inexorable grind of industry. As a result, it has been reduced to the ignominy of a boxed cringe-inducer. And the butt of gratuitous jokes provoked so readily by fallen clergy or royalty.
Go to a supermarket and pick a few random boxes of this deposed sacerdotal ruler of mellowed sweetness. Even if they are from the same brand, you can be sure one of them will yield a soggy mess, another a crumbly one, another a powdery playground for pixies and peris, and yet another a bullet-stopping block. You might roll two Yahtzee-in-ones in succession, but you won’t pick two boxes that yield two decent pieces of soanpapdi. What a comedown for one that once promenaded in stately grace!
Lending poignance to its deterioration is a built-in mathematical metaphor in the soanpapdi. This Maharashtrian confection – like the Korean cloud candy known as emperor’s beard, the Turkish-Bosnian pismaniye, the Iranian pashmak and many others – bears sublime testimony to the power of doubling and redoubling. It comes into being as a cooling ring of sugar syrup is stretched and folded on itself to reach more than two million filaments in 20 repeats as other ingredients are worked in. The increasing numbers endow it with valued flakiness and lightness, the outcome of an accompanying thinning out and weakening.
In ironic contrast, industrial production has brought exponential sales growth to soanpapdi, accompanied by a pitiable devaluation – of its ineffable qualities as much as of its status.
S.B. Easwaran is a journalist who has worked for The Indian Express, Outlook and Governance Now. His work has appeared in Prosopisia, InterlitQ, Drunk Monkeys, Prometheus Dreaming and Majuscule. He keeps a bowl of colorful dice on his table to remind himself to bear his insignificance lightly.