Meet the Indian grandmother who started a business at 90

Now 95, Harbhajan Kaur prepares sweetmeats, chutneys, pickles and sherbets that are sold across the country

Taking small steps with her walker, Harbhajan Kaur, 95, reaches her kitchen slowly, but is quick to take charge.

“Ah, now the besan is the right kind of brown we need,” she says, picking up a ladle to stir the semi-soft mixture of chickpea flour and ghee in a heavy-bottomed kadhai (wok) simmering on a low flame.

“Manav, it’s now time to add the sugar,” she tells her grandson, who slowly pours some sugar and stirs the mixture to get the besan barfi ready for setting.

A litany of such instructions, coupled with affectionate banter between the grandmother and grandson, lead to the melt-in-the-mouth signature sweetmeat made day after day in their Chandigarh home and sold under the brand Harbhajan’s – Bachpan Yaad Aajaye (Made with Love). "Bachpan yaad aajaye" translates to "it will remind you of childhood".

Now shipped across India, barfi is Kaur’s family legacy, a sweet she picked out from her father’s repertoire of recipes. Four years ago, with her family’s backing, it became the signature dish of the brand born in Chandigarh, the joint capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana.

Quote
I wanted to get a taste of being independent
Harbhajan Kaur, founder of Harbhajan's

It all started with a candid conversation with Kaur’s youngest daughter, Raveena Suri, a few days before the matriarch’s 90th birthday. Suri asked her mum if she had any unfulfilled desires. Kaur said while she was happy to see her children and grandchildren settled and busy with their lives, she also felt the need to do something and not sit idle at home. “I wanted to get a taste of being independent.”

What’s significant, Kaur says, is that her daughter took her words seriously. Within a matter of days, Suri found an opportunity for her mother – who loved preparing Indian sweetmeats and delicacies – to set up a stall at a pop-up market in the city. Five kilograms of besan barfi, badam sherbet and mango pickle sold out within the hour, giving Kaur a chance to earn the first 2,000 Indian rupees ($26) of her life. More importantly, she received a lot of attention and affection from buyers owing to her age.

Kaur with her grandson Manav, who helped standardise the recipes.

And it is Kaur’s inspirational story that the brand has built and thrived on over the years.

“In the first two years, we only sold our products to people who were known to us,” says Supriya Suri, Manav’s wife, who handles her grandmother-in-law’s social media accounts. Kaur would make these dishes in her home kitchen along with a helper, and buyers would come to the door to collect them.

However, since June 2020 – when the Instagram account was launched – the orders came pouring in. Owing to the pandemic, the whole family were at home and got a chance to focus on the initiative and run it like a proper business.

Packaging and branding were worked upon by her granddaughter Mallika, and Manav got involved in production. He entered the kitchen and, with help from his grandmother, turned the measures from “fistfuls” and “bowlfuls” to grams and ounces, thus standardising the recipes. Trays and cutters were purchased to create barfis with the same dimensions. A website was set up in August, and Harbhajan’s officially became a family passion project.

But Kaur has always led the pack. She formulates every recipe and tastes every batch before they are packaged for delivery.

She credits her ingenuity and work ethic to her father, who was a passionate cook. “He didn’t cook regularly, but whenever he did, he created magic with food,” Kaur says. He loved making besan barfi on festivals and special occasions such as birthdays, following the same recipe since Kaur was a child.

“I was quite a foodie with a sweet tooth, so I hung around helping him and learnt the recipe in the process,” she says.

She picked up on the rest of the products, such as chutneys, pickles and sherbets, from her mother, who was the wind beneath her husband’s wings, always helping him in the kitchen, but never taking the credit. For nearly 90 years, Kaur’s life was much like her mum’s – away from the spotlight and working behind the scenes.

Barfi aside, the brand also makes pickles, chutneys and sherbets.

“I wanted to study and do something with my life,” says Kaur. But as luck would have it, when she was in class 8, her teacher died. Instead of replacing him, the school shut down classes for her batch. As was common at the time, Kaur was sucked into household chores and lost the chance to study further.

Cooking became thoroughly enjoyable once she got married. “My husband loved eating and I enjoyed cooking for him and the family,” she says. “If I ever planned on eating out, my husband would say: ‘Tera dhaba best hai’ [your restaurant-quality food at home is the best],” recalls Kaur.

Recently, Kaur’s family convinced her to put her photo on the packaging and now she has literally become the face of the brand. But for her, the business is not about being in the limelight. Rather she is happy that the initiative has filled her time and helped connect with the family.

“These are my bonus years, and I’m glad I can bond with my children in this way," she says.

Updated: December 20th 2021, 9:21 AM