Of New Market

New Market crawls with the noon crowd. The complacent, even happy, sun shines in hues of gold and white through the glass windows of the shops, over the parking lot, lighting up a million dusty roadside stalls selling everything from bags and purses to cheap, glittery jewellery and strings of beads in yellow, red and green; gaudy hair clips and suspicious looking cosmetics that form a riot of colours on the footpath; little curio shops that sell absurdly priced antiques, and beady eyed, paan chewing, semi-precious jewellery sellers who size you up from behind gold framed glasses.

And when you step into the dark labyrinths of the erstwhile Hogg Market, you are greeted by a dark coolness that relieves you of the heat outside, and the overpowering smell of meat emanating from the slaughterhouse within the complex. I’ve always managed to avoid that side of New Market though. And everywhere you can hear loud, frantic, extremely enthusiastic bargaining between wise women who are forever convinced that they are being conned and seasoned shop owners who are always on the lookout for a  good con.

Students and couples-in-love, in pairs and groups and hordes can be seen loitering about the parking lot. Sitting, standing, eating phuchka and ice creams and chaats. Being happy in general. The middled aged having a cold drink or two. Tired after several bouts of bargaining and some shopping too, expectedly. “Freshly cut” fruits and jhaal muri. Paapri chaat and bhel puri. Chana batura and juices. Dahi vada and dosas.They might seem diarrhea inducing (and probably are) but you cannot help but give in to monstrous growls in your belly, ignited by the sight and smell of these devious, positively evil food-like things.

Women and men saunter into jewellery stores and carefully pick out engagement rings, and wedding rings and bracelets and necklaces and earrings and jewelled wrist watches. All at a good price. Indian weddings are lavish affairs and we are sentimental about our shopping. And then they drift on to inspect colourful shoes and handbags and cushions and bed sheets; all the while digesting the aforementioned positively evil food-like things. What better than a vigorous bout of shopping to aid in the break down of your lunch/dinner/whatever it is?

I can write endlessly about New Market. As a child I used to find it a magical place. A you’ll-find-everything-there place. And that enchantment has not faded till date. Because it is one place where you’ll find everything. Literally everything. From banana chips to flower vases with plastic flower, cheap imitation jewellery and diamond earrings, heavenly brownies and spicy masala cola, suitcases and sand paper. Everything. And you can spend hours just walking around this place doing absolutely nothing. A window shopper’s paradise. A struggling, forever-broke young girl’s 4th circle of hell. Yep. The one associated with GREED. Anyhow, it’s one of of my favourite places in Calcutta. I especially make it a point to visit Nahoums. Mostly for those wonderfully decadent chocolate fudge brownies, the bread rolls and the jam tarts. And their shortbread. I also make it a point to haunt the different antique jewellery shops. Especially Chamba Lama and more recently, Asian Arts right beside it. Wonderful place for silver jewellery. My go to place for stone nose-pins.

New Market exhausts me, and makes me go through severe, tormenting pangs of guilt for blowing up money on absolutely unnecessary things. But I guess it also releases a gleeful rush of endorphin. It’s all about indulgences and at times it just feels good to blend in with a motley crowd of strangers. Anonymity is comforting even in the chaos.

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Taking of a Toast and Tea

There’s a roadside tea stall (cha er dokan) near my house. There are two more identical tea stalls right beside it. And yet more, many, many more strewn carelessly, almost strategically, all around Calcutta. Kolkata, rather. They usually open early in the morning, around 6 am, or even before that. Big yellow taxis, newspaper-wallas on bicycles and cha er dokans. Familiar, comforting sights that Kolkata mornings greet you with.

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Tea is a lot of things for a lot of people.

It’s a cheap and instant source of energy for taxi and truck drivers whose days start at ungodly hours. It’s a lazy Bengali’s object of late afternoon indulgence “ei, ek cup cha de toh!”. It’s a perfunctory offering to guests who come over at any odd hour at your place. Good tea-making skills are a positive way of impressing a prospective mother in law. It’s a source of inspiration for writers and poets who can mull over a cup for hours at end for the next great inspiration.

But more than anything else, a cup of tea is a wonderful conversation starter. That’s why tea-stalls are so popular outside college campuses and workplaces. It goes beyond a pot bubbling with a super sweet, milky, hot beverage. It’s an adda spot. What is adda, you ask? Well, according to Wikipedia:

“…is a form of intellectual exchange among members, who were originally of the same socio-economic strata, but the process has democratized in modern times. It is most popular among the youths belonging to the so-called “middle-class intelligentsia”. Although many Kolkatans boast of the city being the birthplace of adda culture, Satyajit Ray (in his film Agantuk) traces back the origin of the tradition to regular intellectual dialogues prevalent in Ancient Greece at the time of Socrates or Plato. Adda is a prominent leisurely activity in India and Bangladesh.”

But to me, it is the very essence of being a Bengali. Be it banal commentaries on the insignificant to cannot-be-missed-gossip to heated debates on the existing socio-economic and political state of Bengal and beyond, adda is all-important to us argumentative, intellectual folk. We swear by it. After all, we have a mind of our own. And an opinion on everything, of course. And usually, a tea-stall becomes the hotbed of artistic outbursts and matchless creativity. From Tagore to Ghatak, Madhuri Dixit to Mayakovsky, science, art and aesthetics, everything is touched upon. Oh, and politics. And Corruption. Nostalgia and recollections are other favourite topics, but usually among older people. It is at the very core of communication and has survived social networking. With style.

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I often like going to tea-stalls for a solitary cup of tea. And a biscuit or two from those glass jars filled with crumbling, sweet goodness. So, the other day I happened to eavesdrop on a group of old gentlemen gathered for their evening adda session.

They sat remembering before-times with affection. “It was so good, back in the day…” they concluded unanimously, in a way old people usually remember the past as being continuously better than the present [loud tea-sipping noises ensued].

Everything was cheaper. Everyone was better- better behaved, better looking, better everything. Things were simpler. People were less greedy. “You could walk down the road covered in gold from head to toe and still feel safe!” [heads nodding in agreement] “This neighbourhood you see? It was blissful! Quiet! Almost like paradise, so clean it was!” [mutters and sighs and grunts of approval] “Aj kal toh shobbai bidesh chole jacche…ei toh shedin amar nati America chole gelo…” (These days, everyone’s going abroad…just the other day my grandson left for America!) [a moment of silence, some order another cup of tea] “Ekhane theke hobe tai ba ki? Ja din kal poreche…” (What’s the point staying here anyway?) Then one of them broke into a fit of cough. The vagaries of old age.

I usually like smoking while having my tea. I sat, fidgeting with a packet of cigarettes. To light or not to light. Offending the fragile sensibilities of a  group of grandfatherly men is something that I did not really want. They are not approving of young ladies smoking. A young man smoking is fine though. I don’t mind. I am fond of old people, having lost my grandparents when I was too young to really know what their absence meant. So I finished my tea, smiled at the old man sitting next to me and offered him a matchbox for him to light his smoke. Then I left.

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“Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”