Kolkata Chromosome | Shamik Bag

Long before actor-turned-author Jayant Kripalani came up with his collection of short stories, set in Kolkata’s New Market, one of her customers, says Tshering Yangki Sherpa, had written a short story.

Tshering, the 51-year-old scion of the Tibetan family that runs the 56-year-old jewellery, artefacts and curio shop Chamba Lama in New Market, remembers the story. It was triggered by the sale of a pendant to a visiting UK-based lady—the author spun a yarn around her daughter’s determination to buy a skull-shaped pendant from a shop marked by Buddha images, Yin Yang lockets and Zen-like atmosphere.

Like Kripalani’s work, New Market Tales (Picador), which is based on his memories of having grown up around the area—a world of Zack, Francis, Gopa and Ganguly Gainjeewala, a shop-owner whose employees follow the ladies around the market muttering “bodice, bodice"—the centrality of colourful characters continues to dominate every New Market transaction.

Tshering yangki Sherpa of the Chamba Lama curio shop. Photo: Indranil Bhowmik/Mint

New Market was renamed Hogg Market in 1903 after Sir Stuart Hogg, a former chairman of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation who conceived the shopping space. The name change can be seen at the entrance and at commemorative marble tablets near the market office but is rarely heard in local usage, where it has survived as New Market—with 3,000 shops and stalls and a heritage status, and where the best of the Eastern bazaar vibe meets the Western covered shopping mall format. Here, according to British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse, writing in the 1971-published book Calcutta, “for almost a century it has been possible to obtain practically all that imagination could conceivably want to buy.

“Without the local colour, these interminable rows of stalls, this endless maze of small shops, would be scarcely distinguishable from the Grainger Market in Newcastle, the Pannier Market in Barnstaple and the covered daily markets to be found in any self-respecting town from one side of Lancashire to the other of Yorkshire."

Post-independence, New Market’s association with the sahibs raised doubts about its survival. The traders suffered from 1948-60. But the Bengalis gradually made the market their own, writes Raghab Bandyopadhyay in Calcutta: The Living City Vol. II. They came together with Anglo-Indians, Marwaris, Jews, Tibetans, Chinese, UP Muslims, Jains, Kashmiris, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Sindhis and Biharis as New Market shop owners. They became part of, among other trades, businesses in garments, jewellery, figs, flowers, confectionery, toys, music, cosmetics, curios, electronics, furniture, antiques, tailoring, masala, meat, fish, vegetables and stationery.

Isaac Nahoum of the Nahoum patisserie. Photo: Indranil Bhowmik/Mint

Walk on any lazy afternoon through the alleys of the high-ceilinged market as the Victorian clock tower at the far end of the complex nobly sounds out on the hour. The hum inside comes from the shopkeepers, shoppers, window-shoppers, hagglers, porters, touts, hawkers, gawkers and hangers-on—everybody contributing to keeping the air rife with rumour, gossip, argument, and banter. They are participants in the stitch-work of human relationships that has kept New Market alive in an era of glass-and-granite mall shopping. Here, they still make conversation and glean out stories.

Consider the elderly R.N. Banerjee, a consultant pharmacist at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, chatting up Isaac Nahoum, a member of the Jewish family that has owned the eminent confectionery and patisserie shop Nahoum’s since 1902. Taking advantage of an extended Kolkata winter, Banerjee, dapper in a khaki shirt and beret, along with his wife Anima, have come to get their long-time favourite, the heart cake. Anima rues that the heart-shaped confection has shrunk in size. “But not in taste," counters 77-year-old Nahoum.

Banerjee’s queries to Nahoum bring forth nostalgia: his visits to the shop when he was young, watching a BBC documentary in London where Nahoum’s was featured, the Jewish community in Kolkata, the vacation in Israel, till the conversation turns, invariably, to museums and orchestral music concerts.

“It is rare to find such warmth in any other marketplace in the world," says Nahoum after the Banerjees leave. The Baghdadi Jew family came to Calcutta 150 years back. His 86-year-old brother David Nahoum, who was the only member of the family that owns Nahoum & Sons living in Kolkata, died in a local hospital on Wednesday night. He had been undergoing dialysis for the past couple of years. The shop remained closed on Thursday, with a simple handwritten notice informing customers of the news.

Nahoum comes to Kolkata every year, but had to extend his stay on this occasion because of David’s ill-health and to look after Nahoum’s, where nothing has changed “thankfully" in terms of design or modernization. The quality of their offerings are primary, and Nahoum says the shop’s rich fruit cake is sent to him every year in Israel. “I’m not sure what my brother, a bachelor, has in his will," he says, “but we have no intention to give up the shop. Everybody is like family here and the shop can be run even from Israel."

Tshering says her mother, Cheten Yangjom, “saw a side of Kolkata which was very nice". It was Yangjom who started Chamba Lama in 1957 along with her father, Chamba Ongchuk. The Lama in the shop’s name came about after people started referring to the spiritually-devoted Ongchuk as a lama.

Originally from Tibet and based in Darjeeling for five generations, Tshering’s grandfather returned to Tibet accompanying the British administrator Sir Charles Bell in his early 20th century expeditions to the remote land. Tibetan antiques, curios, musical instruments and thangka paintings were among the things the family sold when it came down to Calcutta. “There was a lot of trade between Calcutta and Tibet and Tibetans would come here to buy Indian gold with the elephant mark. That has stopped, and also over the years we moved with the times and went more into imitations and jewellery," says Tshering. “My mother wanted to retire in Darjeeling, but keeps coming back to Kolkata. She is torn between her birthplace and adopted home."

Life in New Market is about negotiating change. The couple of Chinese shoe-sellers, it is said, are finding it difficult to cope with the competition from newer brands. At the Chinese-owned Henry Shoes, once patronized by cricketers and film personalities, an old-timer says there are days without a single transaction.

In the Flower Range, florist and nurseryman A Bose Pvt. Ltd has adapted to the times. In the colonial era, A. Bose supplied flowers to Government House (now Raj Bhavan, the residence of the governor), and revelled in “the priority that was given to flowers". These days, government functions and a tendency among customers to buy imported flowers have compensated. “Earlier people would buy flowers for themselves. These days they buy flowers to show others," says Abhijit Bose, a third-generation florist of the family.

Loyal customers vouch for the quality of the fish at Ojha Fish Seller, which has been around from the pre-independence days. The fish sellers still line up at the Rejkir Dokan (small-change shop), which has for many generations supplied loose cash and coins.

“We fear one day the ceiling of our shop will crash on us," says Jayanta Ray, an associate of Baborally Sirdar, a century-old shop owned by a Bengali Muslim family which sells ingredients for baking cakes and chocolates. Despite the disrepair, and ignorant of the complications facing the family-run shop, customers continue to turn up.

Sitting inside the nameless juice shop in the middle of the market, A. Ahmed has seen a change of cultures from close quarters. The “gol ghar" juice shop, run by the Urdu-speaking Muslim family originally from Uttar Pradesh, is over 50 years old. It provides a vantage view of New Market and the elderly gentleman talks about the shifts in the dress and behavioural pattern of customers. “There was an old cannon here, but people would use it as a spit-on or to sit. Finally, the authorities shifted it elsewhere," he says.

Yet in the swirl of change around him, there is the comfort of constancy: People have never stopped coming to New Market. After every tiring shopping jaunt, Ahmed knows, there’ll be an occasion for a cooling juice.