When advertising, marketing, and diversifying are the order of the day for a business to succeed, Paramount in Kolkata has resisted all the established rules of the game.
But can you be too critical of the policy when you are told that Paramount -- tucked within a warren of shops on Bankim Chatterjee Street in central Kolkata – is more than a century old, selling only sharbat and syrup made from their own recipes? As you enter, the signage at the entrance reminds you that the shop was founded in 1918.
“My father had ingrained in us the ‘mantra’ of using quality ingredients, and that is what has stood us in good stead all these years,” with a hint of pride in his voice said the late founder’s 70-something son, Mrigendra Majumdar, who I had met when the shop completed its centenary in 2018.
The shop is now managed by the younger generation who take equal pride in their legacy.
Probably, the seed of courage to go beyond established norms was planted when a young man from Barishal (then part of undivided Bengal and now in Bangladesh), Nihar Ranjan Majumdar, opened a shop in Kolkata (or Calcutta as the city was then known as) called Paradise. Selling ‘sharbat’ was a front. It was actually a covert meeting ground for those plotting to overthrow the British. Nihar Ranjan belonged to the then-well-known revolutionary outfit Anushilan Samity. He changed the name of the shop to Paramount when the cover was blown.
The shop itself has changed very little over the years it seemed, “except for some functional changes like a modern fridge replacing the old Germany-made wooden one,” added Majumdar. Animal trophies (apparently bought from an auction) shared wall space with yellowed portraits of famous Bengalis; flower-bedecked gods looked upon the crowd around the Italian marble-topped tables from yore.
Inside, the shop is so narrow that visitors have to slip in sideways, occasionally twisting and turning to allow the waiters, juggling full tumblers, to pass. But nothing seemed to deter the crowd who streamed into the shop. Most visitors appeared to be repeat customers, ordering their favourite drink without a glance at the menu card. Even the uninitiated seemed to know that the ‘daab sharbat’ (green or tender coconut is called daab in Bengali), was the signature drink here.
According to the owners, the recipe for the daab sharbat, whose demand grows manifold in summer, was given to the founder by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, the famous Bengali chemist, educator, and entrepreneur. “It was the Acharya who encouraged my father to sell this sharbat and at a pocket-friendly price for the benefit of the students [the Calcutta University and other educational institutions being Paramount’s neighbours] and yet the drink would have nutritive value,” said Mazumdar. The green coconut used to make this sharbat is specially sourced from Basirhat (a town to the east of Kolkata). So post-pandemic, people have been known to return without having tasted the special sharbat as the owners would not use green coconuts grown elsewhere.
Stirred into the green coconut water are ice shavings, a flavoured syrup, and a liberal quantity of the white pulp found inside the green coconut. It is customary to sip the drink, occasionally stopping to scoop out and munch on the slivers of pulp; they do provide a spoon with the drink.
The water-based Tamarind syrup is also a refreshing summer cooler.
Keeping the changing taste of customers in mind, the owners do experiment, trying to get some special concoction that their patrons would like.
For example, if you are feeling peckish and looking for a fulfilling sharbat, then try the specially concocted Passion Fruit (made with the fruit added to raabri – the north Indian favourite made from milk – and topped with cashew, raisins and almond) or the Kesar Malai (made with raabri, milk kheer, cashew, etc.).
Apart from the milk-based range of ‘Malai’ sharbat, there is also a curd-based ‘Cream’ range of sharbat; both are available in an assorted fruit range, including banana, orange, green mango, strawberry, etc. “If you go through our menu, you will find most are fruit-based because we always want the sharbat to contain some food value,” said Majumdar.
Or, you may try the Cream Lassi or the Cream Kesar Lassi, for a change from the fruit-flavoured drinks.
“We have been asked many times to open branches or offer franchises,” said Majumdar, “but we have not agreed because we will not be able to personally supervise the making of the sharbat.” But they have signed up with popular delivery apps and also offer carry-home packs.
As I finished my ‘daab sharbat’ and got ready to leave, a smiling Majumdar pointed to an almost century-old writing on the wall, “If you are satisfied tell others/If you are not tell us”. A motto that has seen the business through a hundred years. The only flicker of publicity was the later addition of two display cases showing copies of articles written on Paramount and another one high up on the wall listing the names of luminaries who visited the shop.
Information: Paramount is located in central Kolkata. Just behind College Square park, on the same pavement as the Mahabodhi Society. The shop front is so narrow that you may miss it unless you are looking closely for it.