Parle-G Pe Charcha: How this Slab of Glucose Unifies a Country

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Parle-G Pe Charcha: How this Slab of Glucose Unifies a Country

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

L

ong before we were undertaking complex confectionery callisthenics like twisting, licking and dunking, we were simply slurping. Like our lives depended on it. For most kids (now reluctant adults) of my generation, sucking out every last grain of the pulpy Parle-G pooled at the bottom of the milk cup was our introduction to the delicate art of suction, breath control, and jaw stress. I’d say it was our first tryst with pranayama — we just didn’t know it at the time. For most people I know, it’s impossible not to get lost in nostalgia at the mere mention of Parle-G. All of us have stories with the simple, unassuming, dependable biscuit at their centre. It’s tough not to get emotional as I watch the brand that’s been synonymous with my childhood for as long as I can remember lay off thousands of people. The child in me grieved on the day Parle decided to trade the striped yellow waxy paper for the more durable but soulless plastic as the outfit of choice for its iconic brand. Part of the joy of Parle-G was to hear the faint crackle as the wrapper was ripped open to reveal the sugary treasure inside. But the new development is so much worse. Is this the beginning of the end?

When I look back, I see my growing up years littered with memories of Parle-G. But none of them are particularly unique or even extraordinary. Perhaps that was, and probably continues to be, the beauty of Parle-G. In its own diabetes-inducing way, it unifies a country with such vastly different food traditions, and wealth disparities. What do a pot-bellied rich moneylender, an overworked government school teacher, and a trucker parked on the side of a highway dhaba have in common? At tea time, they all attempt to drown their worries in a piping hot cup of adrak chai and a packet of Parle-G. Whether your heart belongs to puttu or marches to the beat of yakhni; it doesn’t matter if your soul is nourished by a bowl full of steaming gyathuk, a crispy vada resting tenderly among the folds of a soft pav, or a platter piled high with dhoklas; it’s almost always Parle-G to the rescue when an instant jolt of energy is what the body needs. 

I can’t remember a time when Parle-G wasn’t a part of our household. When you’re trying to keep eight children between the ages of three to 13 alive simultaneously, while also hosting playdates and birthday parties, even as you’re saddled with husbands who couldn’t tell a langoti from a bib if their lives depended on it, you quickly learn to be grateful for food that falls within permissible limits of unhealthy. Parle-G and ketchup were mum and chachi’s agreed-upon weapons of choice. They could make almost everything better simply by existing around their failed culinary experiments. 

Allow me to elaborate.  

Somewhere around the mid-90s, this godawful device called the home ice-cream maker started getting widely advertised on the teleshopping networks that had suddenly hypnotised the middle-class of the country with their unheard-of offerings. I believe the contraption to be among the worst things to have happened to the children of my generation. I remember the giddy delight with which mum and chachi ordered one home. All their friends had one, and it would pay for itself many times over, they claimed. Over one year, assuming two potions per month per family member, it would amortise to less than one-tenth the cost of a store-bought bar of ice-cream. For two months, the women of the house persisted with dogged determination. Those weeks of experimental ice-creams with more ice crystals than cream were made bearable only due to the generous helpings of Parle-G crumble they were buried under. The project was abandoned when the ratio of Parle-G to ice cream began to inch toward the double digits. The ice-cream maker was banished to the top shelf of the cupboard of useless devices, but the tradition of sandwiching ice cream between Parle-G continues to this day in my family

Parle-G was my diabetic grandfather’s favourite treat, and the rare times when I heard my grandmother storming, matching her husband’s ferocity, it could always be traced back to tell-tale crumbs on his dhoti.

That’s just one story. There are so many more. For years, I watched mum and papa having their morning tea together, splitting a packet between them. I was a fussy eater as a child, and on the days when I adamantly refused to put another morsel of lauki in my mouth, and not even the threat of being ratted out to my thundering grandfather could convince me otherwise, Parle-G was my lunch. Mum would quietly glare and put a glass of milk and a packet on the table for me. Twenty-five years on, I still avoid lauki like the plague. Most of the time, I turn to milk and Parle-G.  

I remember the large sack full of Parle-G’s two-rupee variant that was a permanent fixture in the boot of our car. Those biscuits were strictly off-limits, meant only to be handed out to the kids begging at the signal. For a while, I truly believed that the sack was magical — I never once saw it empty. Parle-G was my diabetic grandfather’s favourite treat, and the rare times when I heard my grandmother storming, matching her husband’s ferocity, it could always be traced back to tell-tale crumbs on his dhoti. The man could move to a completely unknown city with a wife and six children and set up a successful business, but was unequal to the task of hiding the evidence of his illicit indulgence. 

The biscuit was also Lala’s — my school’s watchman — favourite, and the only way to get him to open the school gates and let you inside after the morning bell was with bribes of Parle-G. I remember the day we were taken to Parle’s iconic Mumbai factory for an educational visit. And the look of rapturous delight on Lala’s face. And if I concentrate, I can still smell the overwhelmingly sweet smell of the sugar, flour and dairy concoction that is baked into the biscuit I know and love. For over two decades, I’ve thought about that day, Lala, and the packets of biscuits that were piled into every child’s arms by a laughing plant manager at the end of the visit, every time I’ve crossed Vile Parle and breathed in the faint scent emanating from the factory. There was something oddly reassuring about its familiarity. I felt like a part of my childhood had forever slipped away the day the factory was shuttered in 2016. And now this devastating news of mass lay-offs. How long before the much-marketed cream-filled centres and the odious pretenders otherwise known as cookies force the simple slab of glucose from my childhood into permanent retirement? I’m not grown up enough to live in a world without Parle-G. Are you?

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