Glitzier malls may attract the youngsters but Kolkata’s New Market continues to draw the old-time shopper, bargain hunter and culture-hungry tourist. And it’s no secret why. In a city where markets serve as meeting places, milestones and melting pots, it is one of the oldest and most vibrant. Along with the phuchka, rolls and chaat available in Lindsay Street outside the main building, New Market also serves up its own brand of nostalgia, a trifle grimy but not devoid of charm.There is nothing very new about New Market. Built in 1874 as a market that would exclusively serve the sahibs so that they didn’t have to brush shoulders with the “natives”, it was rechristened Sir Stuart Hogg’s Market in 1903 after the then-city commissioner. Barring renovation of certain parts in 1985 after a fire, it largely retains its sheen of history, albeit under layers of sooty dirt.
There are legendary tales about the sheer variety of things available inside New Market’s covered buildings. Rumour goes that at one time you could buy an elephant here. I wasn’t hoping to see any live tuskers though when I visited recently, merely looking for some good bargains.
I reached New Market at around 4 pm on a dusty summer afternoon. As I paused at the door to get my bearings, a strapping figure in faded uniform, carrying a jute basket, offered to help me. He seemed perplexed by my refusal. A few steps later, another, similarly-clad person started walking by my side. “I’m an official coolie,” he explained, showing me his badge eagerly. A shop-owner sorted out my confusion: “He will show you the better shops, carry your things. Just give him a tip at the end.”
After a brief internal tussle with concepts like privacy and feudal occupations, I gave up. This was Kolkata, a city where about 13 million people live, sleep, jostle and work, side by side, every moment of the day. Warmth is valued here. Privacy, not so much. And people will do what they can to earn a living.
Allaudin turned out to be a resourceful guide though a trifle pig-headed. He took me to his favoured shops. Everywhere, there was a lot of hard sell, always friendly, sometimes intense. Shopkeepers tossed out kurtis, unfolded sarees with a flourish, insisted on displaying all their merchandise despite vigorous protests. They wheedled, charmed, coaxed, cajoled and appealed to a host of instincts ranging from greed (“Take just one more.”) to pride (“But this one is so cheap, madam!”). Wherever I went, plastic stools were hurriedly produced. Bottles of Thums Up appeared. About three or four people watched my reactions while Allaudin hovered at my elbow. There was a mood of collective happiness when I approved of something. Of course, I ended up buying more than I had planned to.
The variety is truly impressive. It is easy to get lost among the maze of stalls selling ready-made clothing, fabric for different uses, cosmetics in little jars and bottles, shiny bindis, Chinese leather shoes and bags, glittering jewelery and paper cones of mehndi, buttons and baubles, dry fruit, chanachur and churan, Christmas decorations and handicraft gift items. Spent with shopping, I asked Allaudin to show me the “regular” sections. He seemed flattered and set off at a trot towards the darker, more dilapidated buildings that house the fish, meat and vegetable markets. I had to run to keep up with him, a dapper, old man with a deeply lined face, bouncing my packets in a basket on his hip.
We passed a row of shops selling tea, spices and pork and turned into a deserted building: the fish market. The busiest of places in the morning, the fish market closes at 2 o’clock so I was greeted by the sight of naked platforms, cleaned of the day’s produce and glistening wetly in the dull evening light. We wound through the market dedicated to onions and potatoes where vast heaps of these lay in organized piles, a potent reminder of how fond the Bengali is of potatoes and onions in his diet. Then, we entered the vegetable and fruit market where things being reasonably slow on a weekday afternoon, shopkeepers tapped my wrist, pointed at my camera and asked to be photographed.
Things were slow across the aisle at the meat market as well. Massive slabs of beef hung from hooks, red, raw and defiant and beef sellers stood around chatting, indulging in a little tea-time adda. Further down, a group of goats crowded into a little pen, bleated furtively. “These are mine,” a young boy informed me imperiously. “I take one out when I need it and then I cut it and sell it fresh. You may take my photograph.” In the vicinity, a chicken was being beheaded, all struggling legs and ruffled feathers. I decided to move on.
When Allaudin led me into the bird market round a corner and into a building on a quiet street, I hesitated for a split second. Outside, groups of men played cards; inside, it was stiflingly hot and a desolate air hung low over the cages and chicken coops. Many of the bird-sellers were asleep, curled up in tiny lofts above the coops with only their legs visible. The place was full of the sounds of caged birds—anxious coos, clucks and burbles. Sheikh Mohammed, a bird seller, was awake and happy to talk. “At one time, everything was available here, even lion cubs!” he said, with unabashed pride. “Then they made it all illegal.”
Now, chickens rule the roost but there are doves available as well. “Many families buy them to set them free at the temple or in the open fields at Maidan,” Mohammed informed. “The starting price is 80 rupees for a pair.” On the way out, I looked at the men playing cards. They didn’t give me a second glance. They were engrossed in a game of what looked like Teen Patti.
Recently, Kolkata’s civic authorities decided to pull down the dilapidated portions of the New Market complex. This includes the vegetable, fish and meat segments of the market. The demolition drive will affect more than 600 traders, a handful of whom I had met during my visit. As my taxi trundled away, I looked back at the red buildings set against the fading evening sky and wondered how many of them would remain part of the rapidly evolving cityscape of Kolkata.
A version of this was published in Sunday Herald last week.