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By The parkomat may be a grand new place to park cars, but it sits uneasy in the New Market that Sajni Kripalani Mukherji knew as a child The author teaches English at Jadavpur University, Calcutta
  • Published 17.05.07

The other day, as I watched the car disappear for the first time into the nether world of the New Market’s new automated parkomat, for a moment I was back in the old days when the front was nearly always fairly empty, with a few cars in the centre of what was then Lindsay Street. Hey! New Market? I have lived quite close to it for the better part of six decades and I can never remember it as being new. It was always changing and it always remained the same: a symbol of decaying grandeur, a relic of the sahibs in the heart of sahib para. When parts of it burnt down at the rear end some years ago, the rebuilt bit was called New New Market.

In the early Fifties, if you were the child of a shop-owner in the area, your first prospect of its entirety might have been from the children’s club across the road. You might have seen the sign on the red brick front saying Sir Stuart Hogg Market or, as my earliest memory of it goes, “Si St ar Hogg Market”. Then, as now, the clock tower with its imitation Big Ben chimes dominated the façade from its eastern corner and, in a strange way, one’s life. When you couldn’t sleep at night because of a terrifying exam the following day, the gongs every hour on the hour and distinctive part chimes for each quarter sounded mournfully and we recognized them from afar. At other times, the chimes were tuneful and chirpy — in the summer vacation or at the end of the school day when one could legitimately spend time at the children’s club and library.

The clock often does not work now and with so much more ambient noise from air conditioners, generators, TV sets and radios, one can only welcome the chimes once in a while at dead of night, even when it does.

Legend has it that at this grand old covered market in downtown Calcutta, you could buy anything from a needle to an elephant. In the early Fifties, in newly independent India, its character began slowly to change. The memsahib still shopped there for the week every Saturday morning. The jhnakavala waited patiently while she shopped for wines and liquors at the shop that had catered to Derozio and Michael Madhusudan Dutt. She would move on to buy fresh cuts of pork, beef, a whole chicken or two, eggs, and then to the market at the rear (still known as Inglish market) for the rarer veggies like mushrooms, a crisp head of lettuce, a freshly-baked loaf of brown bread or some cake, biscuits, preserves, fruits and perhaps finally stop at the flower range for some cut flowers. Where are the Wyse, Lobo and D’Gama of yesteryear, an old-timer like myself often asks. Saturday shopping mornings are still de rigueur for corporate wives buying wisely off entertainment allowances, but now more the preserve of working women who have none of the grandeur of the shoppers and only the one morning free in the week.

I never saw an elephant being bought or sold there, but there was a livestock section where a whole suckling pig could be prepared for you, where you might buy a hamster as a pet or some colourful budgerigars, a cage, a clay flowerpot would all be carried cheerfully by the tokrivala to a waiting car or even to one’s home if it were close by.

Some favourite shops were the two curiously called Curio shops at the front of the market. And here, there were elephants galore, in all kinds of materials, from clay to ivory, even if one were not in the market for a live one. The chatty old owners were always happy to let us browse. There were delightful little items from all over the country and the Far East. Friends would be thrilled when gifted with the little red fruit seeds packed with tiny ivory animals. These were old-time traders along the silk route and, apart from the items or ‘curios’ they had on sale, they would sometimes give you a coin or two from foreign lands. Import policies and the growth of government handicrafts emporia appear to have done them out of business.

In the area were also located the finest cinema houses: the trio of New Empire, Lighthouse and the Tiger — pleasantly advertised as places “where the pictures do the talking” — Globe, Minerva (now Chaplin), and the finest coffee shops in the world like Ferrazzini’s and Firpo’s, reliable chemists, and a laundry that had ‘responsible and reliable’ written on its front.

The Chinese were a strong presence in those days, owning shoe shops, the friendly neighbourhood hairdressers, the little Chinese restaurants with cubicles where many budding relationships took their first hesitant steps. A Bora gentleman owned a shop that sold records (old 78, 45, 33 r.p.m. ones) and also readily repaired your gramophone for you. If you belonged, as we did, to the area and you had forgotten the name of a song you particularly wanted, you could hum it to him and he would produce it for you from one of the countless cardboard boxes that he was surrounded by. European classical, Indian classical, Western and Indian pop, Rabindrasangeet and adhunik: he had it all at his fingertips. Für Elise or Haal kaisa hai janaab ka — you could get it at his shop.

A shop directly opposite the main entrance equipped the traveller to Europe or Old Blighty, with custom-made overcoats, jackets, and long evening dresses when Western clothes had not yet become standard wear for everyone. The mannequins displayed these with aplomb: even a long woollen overcoat on a hot summer day in Calcutta.

The New Market shopkeeper is always interested in selling. He will show you twenty saris even if you look as if you will not even buy one: he might shame you into buying one with his ingenious prattle. Just look at this piece, he will say to you: it could have been custom-made for you. Don’t buy it ma’am. Just take a look at it. He might also whisper sotto voce to his companion in a language you don’t understand: “This one has trouble opening her bag.” As children, we knew the prattle by heart. As an ageing woman, I know that the moment I enter one of these old, familiar shops, someone will give up his own stool from behind the counter so that I can rest my aching feet, offer me a cold or hot drink and make me feel really welcome. Not for me the great malls of today. I prefer the personalized treatment I get in the New Market. I always also know exactly where to get the narrowest ribbon, the perfect buttons, the best quality dry fruit, the finest chanachur.

The shopkeepers are essentially conservative: but a political party that calls too many bandhs is never going to be popular with them, for vyapar (trade) is for them a religion. It was thus that I was startled but not wholly surprised by the banner on the front of the lingerie shop opposite the newly-built parkomat. Its red would have competed well with the red all over the Maidan on a rally day. It recorded in bright silver its “profound gratitude” to the chief minister for all that he has done for the improvement of Calcutta! In these dark times, our chief minister, who inaugurated the parkomat the other day, has received a vote of confidence from an unexpected quarter.