A Note before we begin:
I deliberately haven’t included history in the main body as this article is about my experiences. However, New Market (earlier Sir Stuart Hogg Market) is a historical place and many will be interested in the background, especially my readers from other countries. So at the end of this article, there are a few useful external links on New Market- which is more than a century old British era shopping arcade and Nahoum’s- the Jewish Bakery inside the market. I have also mentioned several shops in New Market in my write-up. I have given a list of my favourite shops, containing one sentence introduction and location on Google map, at the end. Happy reading!
“Why is it called NEW? It doesn’t look very new!”
had asked the tiny me when I visited this grand colonial market for the first time with my folks. Don’t remember what dad had answered, but I do remember getting dazzled by the toys displayed at the shops, Christmas decor and the delicious aroma of cakes at Nahoum’s. I also remember being a bit overwhelmed by the dimly lit maze inside, all aisles looking similar and crowded with shoppers. And the tall clock tower (well, tall to me at that age), that demanded awe and respect. It was a very different world than my quiet southern avenue neighbourhood.
From that day till now, life’s journey involved discovering and rediscovering New Market and its surroundings in different phases. Pre-teen years were about watching Superman and Jaws in Lighthouse or New Empire, nagging Dad for buying me dolls, getting birthday cakes from Nahoum’s and eating biryani in Aminia- the usual stuff that all 80s kids did while growing up in Kolkata. There are specific memories like me crying for one whole hour for one particular doll and getting a huge ship cake from Nahoum’s for my 10th birthday. There were tiny plastic people on the ship which I had saved for quite a few years.
Teen years were all about shopping. I got my first denim from Avis, the shop on the right side of New Market’s central rotunda where the iconic 75-mm Cannon was placed to give goosebumps to shoppers. Shoes were always from either Henry or Kowloon and jewellery was from Chamba Lama. I also celebrated being 18 by watching Basic Instinct at Globe. On one occasion, Mom and I had lunch in Karco-the heritage restaurant. The trips to New Market started decreasing once I started working. The few trips I made involved mom introducing me to her favourite saree shop –‘Bombay Silk Store’ and me getting my first baking equipment from Baborally Sirdar. New Market structure by then had started changing due to two very unfortunate fire incidents.
Yet, it was still a witness to every milestone in our lives- be it rushing tailor Alam to deliver Sister’s wedding blouses or buying infant clothes when she delivered the cutest baby boy in the whole wide world (we think!). New Market had become a part of our lives.
This winter, in my current status of adopting the slow life, I suddenly felt the urge to revisit New Market memories. So a couple of days before Christmas, I stood in front of the main entrance and looked up at the clock tower on the right. It was dwarfed by my newer experiences of visiting many tall structures. The surrounding concrete ugliness also paled its grandeur by many notches. The striking canopies at the entrance also were removed in the name of maintenance and never were installed back.
Trying not to be discouraged, I entered the semi-lit main alley that leads to the centre. But instead of walking straight ahead, I turned left. This lane is dedicated to the florists selling both fresh and dried flowers. The shops wore colours like Spring, but there was hardly anyone to appreciate. A lone Anglo-Indian lady shopper was picking up her favourite flowers and was a bit irritated by my phone camera. Barring that, the lane was almost forgotten by the crowd outside. It leads to the two shoe shops I frequented in my youth. The Chinese gentleman at Henry was standing in the doorway. We exchanged glances and then his eyes caught my woodlands. He immediately dismissed me and went inside. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. Why did I shift my allegiance? I couldn’t think of areason beyond letting myself dragged into the mall culture and online shopping. Many memories were rejuvenated by seeing shoes in the windows, some were the same dependable pairs that walked with me many rocky roads. The leather bag shop close by also reminded me of my first pocketbook which I got with the salaries of my first job and I still have it in my cupboard. Made of pure leather, it had cost 500 rupees 20 years back, my first indulgence.
There used to be a ‘cold drink’ (carbonated drinks) stall at the centre point next to the cannon, the only one inside New Market. Tired shoppers used to quench their thirst there. It wasn’t there anymore, and of course, neither was the cannon which was moved in 2006 to the town hall. The vacant spot has been taken over by shops selling Faux Christmas Trees and decorations. A lady from the neighbouring country stood in front of a tree smiling mysteriously at me. The mystery was solved soon as I found her husband behind me trying to click her picture with a phone camera and I was obviously creating unwanted obstructions. I moved quickly towards the direction of Nahoum’s.
As always I had let my nose find Nahoum’s. In front of the legendary Jewish bakery, I took a few deep breaths to fill my nostrils and heart with the heavenly aroma as I got ready for the jostle inside. To my utter surprise, thecrowd was manageable, in spite of a popular television news channel filming inside. The reason could be fast service or a bit fewer footfalls or both. I bought my childhood favourites – heart cakes, sweet buns, lemon pops, rum balls, pies, and pantheras. Unfortunately, the spring rolls weren’t there. I could see the current owner Mr. Isaac Nahoum sitting behind the desk although he was not really paying attention to all the craziness around. He is past the point of being excited by materialistic things. The show is now run by Manager Jagadish Banerjee and he is fighting the survival games with the knowledge he has. The faces inside the shop mostly belonged to Bengalis who were bound by rituals and nostalgia. I was caught by the news camera and had to give a short byte, though no idea whether it was shown or not. Those who are wondering, I must let you know the lack of passion has passed on to the cakes and savouries turning them into low-end products. Also, our tastes have improved over the years through so many better experiences. The products are, however, easy on the pocket.
I roamed a little in the lanes of cheese and chanachur, paid a tribute to Bombay Silk Store and the shops selling elegant crockery and Crystals. Every seller searched a customer in me and the few other odd people that walked the lanes. I felt a tinge of sadness seeing the crockery shops started selling plastic wares along with china. Times are cruel. The entire market used to turn red and green before Christmas. Now only a handful of shops are investing in Christmas decorations.
I needed a place to sit and sip coffee to reflect on the new experience. I took the side lane exit and was greeted with a sea of pedestrians, shoppers and street sellers. It’s a busy place after all, with thousands of businesses and offices all around! I headed towards Karco in the new building constructed by Kolkata Municipality Corporation after the fires.
A short flight of stairs will take you to Heritage Karco. Why heritage? When I asked the person at the cash counter, he pointed me to a sepia-toned picture. Apparently, it has been a part of New Market since 1956. The restaurant relocated twice due to the fire devastations and ultimately settled in the new part. It certainly has a modern look now with the limitations of a budget restaurant and doesn’t look anything like what it used to be in my childhood (though I have a very hazy memory of my sole visit with mom). There’s a small AC section and a large and comfortable non-AC section. I actually had come here a few months before when a small group of us were rediscovering new market eat treats. We had fish fries and chicken pakoras then and were pleased with the distinct Anglo-Indian style of cooking. There was also a puzzle of a scissor being brought with food.We realized only after finishing our eats and drinks that the scissor was a thoughtful gesture to cut the small pouches of sauces provided at each table.
This time I ordered a chicken omelette, some butter toasts, and coffee. The omelette brought a happy smile on my face. It was a no-nonsense omelette I grew up eating and not the new-age fluffy bullshit. I instantly was transported to govt rest houses in hill stations. Made with two eggs, shredded boiled chicken, onions and coriander leaves- every bite guaranteed little joy! Toasts were also simple and very tasty and before realizing I was eating white bread, I had polished off three slices. Satiated, I sipped coffee and looked around. Customers were mostly regulars and shoppers and foreign travellers on a budget. Most of them were eating heavy meals like fried rice or rice and chicken. The undying love for ‘bhaat’ in lunch! I also noticed a few shop owners getting their food from the place and also using the washroom. It seemed to be an arrangement made with the restaurant.
I could see the large kitchen from where I was sitting and all the kitchen hands looked like they had been with Karco for many years. Unfortunately, the front staff didn’t have much information on the past and google couldn’t throw any light. I did some asking in Purono Kolkatar Golpo Group on Facebook and found out KARCO actually meant Kar & Company, owned by one Bengali gentleman with the last name Kar. Some said he hailed from Chattogram and settled in Boral in Garia, others say he lived inBehala. It was originally a two-floored restaurant serving Raj era food like roasted chicken and fish n chips. Back in the 1950s-60s, the second floor had a live band playing in the evening. The old-timers in the group praised the food and service. There were two entrances- one from inside New Market and the other was from the side lane. There was a red wooden swing door at the second entrance.
I noticed that servers were depositing the tip money to the cash counter. It meant they had a system of equal distribution, which was a good thing. Before leaving I found out that the present owners were Soumen Roy and Nanigopal Kar. And people say Bengalis can’t retain businesses over the generations!!!
I took the New Empire lane to come to the main road to take a cab back home. It seemed people do all their shopping from Citimart (Lighthouse has been converted into Citimart) these days. I had to use all the caffeine strength to bear the crowd and the huge, unappealing Santa Claus.
As they say, you don’t read the same book twice, you probably don’t visit the same place again. New Market has completed it’s 145th year on January 1, 2019. I believe, the part evolution and the part grit to stand against the time, can be quite an interesting topic for historians and culture researchers. My view is- while accepting the change is wisdom, not getting too swayed by the modern era also can be a wise decision. I believe such wisdom is not very far when many will turn away from fast fashion and fast food and fast everything and will embrace the slow life. New Market businesses are waiting for such days. I would surely go back to do some mindful purchases. As it is I am tired of mall culture and poor copies of global food. It’s time to go back to roots and to support local businesses.
Images and content belong to Alokeparna Ghosh and not to be used without approval.
List of favourite shops
1. Heritage Karco – a restaurant that has been a part of New Market since 1956
2. Nahoum and Sons Confectioners – Jewish bakery inside New Market and running since 1902
3. Henry Shoe Store – owned by Chinese family living in Kolkata
4. Bombay Silk Store – a vintage shop that sells beautiful printed silks
5. Chamba Lama – a Tibetan silver jewellery shop