According to its Wikipedia entry, the origins of New Market in Kolkata were both grandiose and grubby. The market, which stands on Lindsay Street, was built as an opulent arcade to meet the shopping needs of the city’s British-colonist population. Opening at the start of 1874, it was soon attracting “(a)ffluent colonials from all over India”, who spent money in “its exclusive retailers like Ranken and Company (dressmakers), Cuthbertson and Harper (shoe-merchants) and R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink, the famous stationers and bookdealers.” But, notes Wikipedia, the motives behind the founding of New Market were also unpleasant. Its wealthy, white, expatriate clientele had petitioned for the building of the arcade so that they’d no longer have to associate with the Indian locals in Kolkata’s bazaars. For the British Victorian mind-set, the problem with India was that it had Indians in it.
Of course, the British have long-since departed and New Market has long-since been Indian-ised. But the ornate, red-brick exterior remains resolutely British-looking and in a somehow parochial way. It resembles a showcase edifice that’d be the main point of civic pride in a medium-sized, moderately prosperous English country town. Accordingly, when I saw the compact clock tower that rises from its eastern wall – a late addition to the market in the British Empire era, for it was only brought over (from Huddersfield) and erected in the 1930s – I found myself thinking of the beloved old BBC children’s show Trumpton.
Inside, New Market feels labyrinthine, although it shouldn’t do – it contains a grid of narrow alleys, with the alleys bisecting one another at neat right angles and with the shops and stalls arranged in neat blocks. But it’s so busy and has so much to see that you believe you’re in a more architecturally chaotic place that you really are. And the boundaries of the market are hard to define since it also has a basement, similarly crammed with retailers, whose far end seems to emerge in another building that contains several more floors of shops. Plus, of course, the vendors spill outside the main building and sell their wares on the surrounding streets too.
It goes without saying that you get the impression you can buy absolutely anything here. I saw groceries, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, confectionary, shoes, sandals, wigs, cosmetics, toiletries, toys, suitcases, wallets, saris, shawls, scarves, trousers, shirts, T-shirts, bed-linen, jewellery, figurines, tourist nick-nacks, silverware, crystal, crockery, kitchen utensils, electrical appliances and flowers. There are stalls selling multi-coloured spices out of giant glass jars (like the ones you used to see in old British sweetshops). There are barber shops, and money-changers, and at least one astrologer. I even saw a retailer who sold designer burqas, as this photo testifies:
Meanwhile, if you’re on the hunt for a handbag, you’ll be spoilt for choice if you venture out of the market’s western side – for there seems to be a million handbags on sale there, not so much hanging from as heaped up against its external wall.
However, animal-lovers and folk of a nervous disposition may want to avoid the market’s butchery area, where livestock – mainly goats and poultry, from the look of things – are slaughtered on the premises so that the meat’s as fresh as can be when it’s sold to the shoppers. A stroll along an adjoining alley, where the poultry dealers seem to hang out, is an uncomfortable experience thanks to the smell, a pungent combination of dusty chicken feathers and acrid chicken-shit; and to the sight of countless baskets, sealed at the top with rope netting, within which are packed still-living chickens. I saw one such basket that had a big white cat sprawled asleep across its net top – to the understandable disquiet of the nervously-clucking birds a few inches below.
The only other issues you might have with New Market are the latrines – inevitably smelly and, in at least one place, positioned so that their users have to do their business in full view of passing shoppers – and the occasional never-do-wells who latch onto visiting foreigners and pursue them offering to take them to the best shops. I had a few exchanges with such types that went: “I’m not here to shop. I don’t have any rupees on me.” “Oh, I’ll take you to a shop that accepts credit cards.” “I don’t have any credit cards on me either.” “Oh, I’ll take you to a money-changer.” Etc., etc. I found that walking briskly and making a couple of sudden body-swerves down the alleys to my left or right was enough to shake them off after a minute or two.
New Market isn’t as slick and tourist-friendly as, say, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. And I have no doubt that the modern shopping malls that are springing up around Kolkata have taken a chunk out of its profits and diminished some of its lustre. Nevertheless, I could spend – I did spend – hours in this bustling and venerable arcade.
Compare that with the five minutes I usually spend in the average shopping mall. Five minutes is as long as it takes me to nip onto the premises, locate the toilets, have a pee and then flee the premises again.