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Old curiosity shops

Oldtimers will remember two shops at the front of New Market. One sold knick-knacks from the old Silk Route, such as Japanese dolls, oystershells with an entire family or village scene carved within, fans, pearl jewellery, paintings on silk, ceramic and glass objects, carved jade and turquoise. The other sold indigenous handicrafts in wood, rosewood, sandalwood, leather, cane, semi-precious stones, soapstone and ivory. In pre-independence days I imagine they catered to the returning sahib who shopped there for gifts to take home for friends and decorative objects for his own home. A leopard skin rug or barasingha wallpiece would testify to a more adventurous lifestyle than he perhaps had actually enjoyed.

My friends and I had browsing rights in both these shops because our fathers owned nearby shopping establishments. I must have been about eight when I went to the first of the two shops with my father and told the owner I collected coins. With a big smile on his face he presented me with a huge number of coins from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma and the Far East. I still have many of them.

With the other I had a long-lasting relationship until it closed down in the late Sixties or Seventies. Shops like this one went out of style when state governments opened up emporia that sold their own distinctive wares. I often heard the cheery rosy-complexioned owner berating suppliers from around the country about the deteriorating quality of their goods. Once in a while he would make a trip himself to decide what else he could offer. He had a terrific sense of humour and generosity unparalleled. As a child I would go in there clutching two rupees and he would find me something striking and precious. I remember red seeds filled with animals carved in ivory, a carved ivory toothpick, laughing Buddhas, papier mâché turtles, hand-painted leather covers for school exercise books that I bought there.

I remember an afternoon in 1955 when my father returned home from work carrying a cane basket with four brown paper packages tied up with string and asked us to guess the contents. Not mangoes, not melons, not even dosas, an occasional treat when he had been in Dalhousie Square. He said they were gifts for his four daughters. Not clothes, not trinkets. We gave up. They turned out to be exquisitely carved ivory figures: a dancing woman, a Saraswati, a Vishnu and a miniature Venus de Milo. In time they became our dearest possessions.

I think I fared best because I was the last to leave the fold. I am also aware that an ivory figure might have caused the death of an elephant. I hope not because I so treasure this strangely witty image of the goddess.

The expected expression of serenity on her face is also joyous and mischievous. She carries a book in one hand, a floral offering in another. With her other two hands she carries her veena and it could well be a guitar. Her delicate feet poised on the lotus are a delight in rhythm and music, ready for any dance in the world. There is no sign of the swan. A peacock standing close looks vainly towards its own exquisite plumage. It is an image for all ages: inviting joy in reading and the arts not dictated by time or convention.

The artisans who made these marvellous detailed pieces now work in shola. I have seen lovely peacock barges but I have yet to see an image like my Saraswati among these. I truly miss those shops of yesteryear.

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