From when I was seven, my mother took me every year to Merry Flower in New Market. Each year, we bought the same balloons, streamers and confetti but a different Khoi bag. On birthdays, my house wanted to look like a small Indian version of Mardi Gras, for which we had to go to New Market. But later it wasn’t the only reason I would go there. I was drawn to the smell of countless second-hand bookstores along Mirza Ghalib Street. They smelt of a combination of frayed, moth-eaten rare books and fresh best sellers. Nothing about them changed — from when I fell in love with Enid Blyton as a little girl to the time I found exhilaration in the writings of W. Somerset Maugham in college. The rickety bookshelves are still trying to hold the treasures of the past and present from falling apart.
A few steps ahead and the sound of Beatles’ on vinyl records will emerge from ancient gramophones. They are being sold for a paltry amount but nobody wants to buy them. Everybody has iPods and phones with audio players and JBL docks. Vintage collections of old Zappa, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan records lay stacked up, neglected. Tourists from all over the world used to come with their analog cameras and picture these tiny stalls. Foreigners would fill their bags with records and take them back to Armenia, Slovenia, Thailand or other exotic lands they came from. The new tourists only want to take pictures, add filters and stick them on their Instagram. I have watched this change from the inside of trams. The trams themselves have changed. Quintessential wooden seats and brass knobs have melted into gaudy aluminum interiors.
The old red building that houses the historic clock tower from the British days is like a warm bowl of creamy chicken soup. Each sight is like a comforting bite, enough to keep me alive. The Gothic architecture lies in stark contrast to the contemporary structures that have been built around it. New Market is quite literally the heart of the city, in more ways than one. Watching people rush out of New Empire after the matinee show, one of the oldest single screen theatres in Calcutta; hawkers strategically placing huge stuffed toys on the rear of parked cars and using them as temporary stalls; malnourished children begging; and entire families relishing puchka all over Lindsay Street are snippets worthy of postcards.
The diluted mausambi juice tasted blissful in the scorching sun. The chocolate fudge at Nahoum’s melted in our mouth like frozen hearts in love, and got stuck between our molars. And the inexpensive trinkets we bought off the streets were never worn. We saw foreigners in hipster clothes and unwashed dreadlocks, who stayed in tiny backpacker hotels on Sudder Street, being stared at voraciously by the locals.
One tiring afternoon, I sat on the stone steps of an old shop to sip on a fountain Pepsi. Around me, old men reclined against trees reading Bangla newspapers, florists with flowers in a plethora of colours negotiated with their customers and the narrow snakelike lanes were filled with a number of hand-rickshaw pullers swarming through the crowd. To my left, immensely satisfied loyal patrons walked out of Nizam’s, after binging on many a kind of kabab, while the whiff of pav bhaji and gugni
At sunset, the entire place lit up in a way that if you were on an airplane, you’d be looking at a hoard of fireflies down below.
Sometimes my father picked me up on his way back from work. Otherwise I just enjoyed the four-rupee tram ride back home. Occasionally, before heading home, I walked around the Indian Museum, admired the opulent white pillars and hollow arches of the structure from the outside, and wondered about the many secrets it kept from days of yore. It reminded me of the yearly visits we made to the museum in our school uniform. On the rather empty coach I think about how New Market’s busyness is what makes it harmonious, and I am urged to falter out of the moving tram.