New Market Tales:
A friend visiting London in pre-Olympic days and before it was spruced up gasped that the city over Thames reminded her so much of Calcutta.
Though the vestiges of colonial rule live on in the architecture of the city, especially in and around the city centre, Dalhousie Square, many of the buildings are now decrepit. Yet there are some iconic structures still standing that hark back to the times when Calcutta was the capital of the British empire in the east. Howrah Bridge, Victoria Memorial, magnificent churches and, of course, the Hogg Market near Chowringhee.
Built in 1873, this Gothic red enclosed structure served the sahibs with top retailers like Cuthbertson and Harper, and stationers like RW Newman setting up shop. Named after then Calcutta Corporation chairman Sir Stuart Hogg, the municipal market flourished under the British. The war years took some of its sheen off, as did two fires down the years.
But though Calcutta today is no stranger to the mall-and-multiplex culture spreading across the country, and despite the fact that the air-conditioned comfort of the malls is missing, people still flock to New Market. And it is around this market and its inhabitants that city-bred Jayant Kripalani spins his debut book of stories, based in the 1960s and 1970s when the Naxal movement was changing the citys political scape. Charming, nostalgic, funny, sad, Kripalanis New Market Tales brings alive an old Calcutta institution. Along the way, there are some gentle laughs at the expense of Bengalis and their, what else, English-speaking skills and broad Bangali accent. A character nostalgically remembers the kul bridge blowing on Howrah breeze. We do get our j and z mixed up, and the s and sh sounds, so we laugh along too.
In Tales, we get to meet an exciting, albeit eccentric, cast of characters. Theres Francis, the aspiring cricketer son of a baker who becomes a jewellery maker, and Rathikanta of the luggage and leather goods shop, who loved his sleep so much that he came to be known as Atiklanta, which as the author rightly says can at best be translated as so weary. Therefore, the weary Atiklantas journey towards becoming a Bahadur Singh is a delightful surprise.
Theres Homi, a Parsi, living in a dilapidated but sprawling house on Chowringhee Road who gets a dog to keep his mother and cats at bay; and Gopa, the marketeyr bachcha, and activist daughter of a lingerie shop owner Ganguly Gainjeewala, who is at loggerheads with her father but learns some incredible lessons after a day in the shop; and Mesho or Hari Prasad Coondoo, 70, who owns the largest crockery and cutlery shop in the market but decides he must die. In Zacks, we have an adolescent lose himself in the life of a nightclub owner Sati G.
When Sati Gs husband decided to settle down in Israel, she was devastated but took over the running of Zacks. Soon, she could see her clientele drifting away and being replaced by the dregs. But the dregs had money. The underworld, crooked politicians, purveyors of sleaze. A few years later, the nightclub shut down, even as a newspaper ended the report about the closure with a holier-than-thou line about how the neighbourhood could only be a better place now.
Most of all, Tales tells us of a time and place in Calcutta, a once-great city, still vibrant but slowly losing its way in the world. In the 1970s began the great exodus from the city after the Naxal movement and nothing has been the same ever since. New Market Tales holds a mirror to a part of the citys past thats fun to visit.
The writer is a freelancer