Chinese in Calcutta : Memories Old & Sweet

I was barely 8 years old then.  Come Christmas, my father would take me to a place called Toy Land. This was a small shop located in Brabourne Road, beyond  Writers Building – the Ministers Office. During the Christmas there was a Toy Packet, for distribution among neighbourhood children, sponsored by some benevolent organisation in UK, which was delivered from this shop. It was  perhaps 1962, as I was happily proceeding after collecting the gift packet, I noticed a ground floor office in a paper-lanterns-chinese-new-year-decorations-2large building with broken glass panes and windows… a lot of pedestrians were peeping through the broken windows. I was too short to see much, but nevertheless saw an abandoned office, with deserted office tables, chairs and the sundries. My father explained “this was a Chinese  Bank, once the war started, some people pelted stones.. and the office is now closed and abandoned. .. there is no bank now.”. I  heard that there was a war, but  I was a little confused and asked “But dad, the war is somewhere near the Himalayas …. Why breaking window glasses here …” ? My father did not answer to this but gave me a blank look, and, I was sure he did not approve the idea of breaking windows right here in Calcutta mid-town. Our next place, every year was the China Bazar where we bought some paper-lantern (we had only one variety then)  and some coloured paper. We used to buy them from an old lady from her road-side spread. Those were all home made and there were a few other chinese sellers along side her selling space… there was no formal shop for them. (Last I purchased those was about a decade ago… since then those sellers vanished. In their place there are now stationary shop owners who stock the paper lanterns…… all imported straight from China, available in nicely wrapped packets, and the products are machine made. I surely miss those nice people who made those passionately crafted decoratives.)

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old china bazarIt was late evening. All four of us.. my three elder sisters and myself, were busy preparing our school lessons in our front room when our uncle entered the room. He was working with a paint factory.   “Here is something very special for you” saying this he placed a box on our table. “Try this, this is called Chow Chow….  a chinese preparation…. Very tasty…. Try it.” We all jumped on it and indeed we all agreed that it was very tasty….. our first taste of a Chinese food !

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A decade later I was at a Leadership Camp. It was a camp for university students organized by St. Xaviers College, and, even though I was  studying in another college, I was attending… there were a few more like me from other colleges. During day time there were interesting sessions on leadership, and, in the evening there were cultural exposions.  Singing was my fort, especially hindi film songs, and, obviously this cultural session was my favorite part. There was one Ricky….he played guitar very well who sung many Beatles numbers.. and  he could compose songs instantly. Bangladesh liberation war was on and in one evening Ricky composed a song called “Joi Bangla”… it was a very good rendition and I became his fan. Returning to Calcutta I landed up in his house. His father was a businessman and they lived in a big two storied building in central Calcutta. There after very often I came to his house and we spent good times listening to Beatles on cassette player, and, of course many numbers sung by Ricky live ! He was my first Chinese friend. He explained that their family business is making Electro Magnet, an important component meant  for various industries.

The same year we had a group or Chinese University students, from Hong Kong,  visiting the city on an exposure visit. The entire programme for them was managed by a group of six university students of the city, including myself. We hired a mini-bus for the week-long programme, and, had good fun. We were 16 altogether, 10 chinese and 6 bengalis. Most of us spoke broken English, but we soon realized that language is indeed not a barrier before true friendship !  During the period we went on a long trip to a small village called Khari in Sunderban forest region. The villagers prepared rice and some curries. It was then we realized that our Chinese friends was not used to eat by bare hands, and in any case the villagers did not have so many spoons ! Ranjitda, oneof the villagers, soon worked out quite an innovative way out. He quickly managed to cut nice long thin tree branches, shaped them neatly, and made good chop- sticks, and they all enjoyed the meal !

On the last day of the visit, it was planned to hold a fellowship dinner. There was a restaurant near our home at Garcha  Road called Kim Wah. My good friend Tarun and self went to the place that morning and met the owner. The Chinese gentle man was quite nice and quickly understood our problem. He explained that Chinese food are not very expensive and there are frequent such programme for college goers in his place, and, that we should not feel nervous about the expenses. In the evening when we all reached there was a nice sitting arrangement. Several tables were joined together to give the look of a very large table…. On top there was a white linen. With chairs around it was indeed a gala show. This was the first time we noticed that the place had nice lamp shades … golden-red coloured. There were a number of songs presented by enthusiasts among us,  before we settled for our meal. The menue was mixed chow, mixed fried rice and chilly-chicken…. Only a few full-plates were ordered but very efficiently shared by the restaurant friends. As promised, the bill was not at all expensive…. (And then on for all our gatherings, even now , we go for the same menue) At the end there was a special performance …. Magic Show by one of us … Raja. Raja was studying science at a city college and all along the trip days Raja was very helpful…. He would get down from the bus every time there is a traffic jam and help us to have smooth ride.  His magic items were simple. Piercing a balloon with a long needle… and the balloon would not burst ! Then he will take out various colour ribbons from his mouth…. real long ones…. And finally his special item. He would gulp a long piece of white thread. …. He would then make a slit on his stomach… and then pull out the thread…. Real blood- read in colour ! Clap…..clap……clap !!  At this point Deborah Chou, the youngest Chinese friend shouted with tears on her eyes “oh no, you should not do this trick again…. You can not hurt yourself like this !”  (Little did she know that it is only a hoax, a pre-coloured thread piece was already pasted on Raja’s stomach with a transparent sticky tape, and, then in a dramatic way he only had to make a slit on the tape, to pull the red coloured thread piece !!!)

The next day when we went to the Airport to bid them good bye we were teasing Raja…”Did Deborah said Good Bye to you Raja “!! Before the departure the team leader of the Chinese students said that there should be more to this…. It was suggested by them that one of us should visit Hong Kong on an exposure trip. We all agreed that Raja should get this opportunity. A couple of months later Raja indeed left for Hong Kong. Within a week Raja’s air-mail letter arrived us…. Yes. He had a good time there…. A special mention was there that he visited Deborah’s house….and that her father was a very nice persons.  By next year Raja married Deborah and they lived happily ever-after !

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wellingtonBy next year I got my first job. It was at Bangalore and every one advised me that I should be well dressed… complete with a nice pair of shoes. As usual my good friend Tarun came to my rescue. He told me that he knew of a place, a shoe store… a Chinese “uncle” sells nice shoes at an affordable price, and the styles are quite good for young people like us. The place was on Wellesly Street near Wellington crossing. There was a signboard which simply said “Any Shoe 14.50”! Yes, Rupees Fourteen and fifty paise. I had Rs.20/- with me and guessed I could afford this luxary ! Uncle showed me a large variety and we settled for deep brown crocodile designed shoe. “You may put on and walk around so that you may know whether it was comfortable”… uncle suggested.

Now I was all ready for a new life….. I have entered the earning line !

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Tagore : Yesterday – Today

As usual  little Deep was given this important duty to look after the stage area. The stage was a nicely cleaned space on the bare ground, a thin layer of clay pasted neatly. Come Tagore Birth Anniversary – Rabindra Jayanti as it is popularly called in Bengal, there will be a cultural show organized by Deep’s family ! While Deep’s three elder sisters will take part in all the performances – group dance, recitation, songs, drama – all written by Tagore, Deep’s role will be to look after the stage made under the “Foroz”  Flower tree.  This is a kind of paper-like white flower bloom abundantly… it has no fragrance.. but they look nice.

IMG1176It is customary to make a nice design on the floor of the stage… normally with chalk powder or lime powder… or  rice powder. It is Deep’s elder sister who has the enthusiastic single handed work every year to draw this nice floral design  (kollam or alpana). This year she could not get her hands on any of the powders…. So it was her innovative idea to work out an alternative and she did the design using Wheat Flower.  It was done in the morning and till afternoon it did not dry up yet. So, Deep had the additional duty to see that no one comes near it and spoil it.

It is now after noon, already two old aunts have come. The ground rule is that the audience should carry their own sitting stool or a small mat. Deep made a small trip nearby to call some more aunts and grandmas and soon returned to his duty spot, and, lo behold….. the floral design had now become just half ! The other half just vanished ! Deep was perplexed as to what had happened. He soon felt a sharp pull in his right ear….. it was his elder sister, already with a heavy make up for her dance performance !

“Where were you ? Look what has happened”. At this point Deep noticed Booli, the pet hen of the house, gulping her last bit of Maida Flower …. She must have had a stomach-full of early dinner with the readily available floral design made with wet-maida –flower.

Soon the cultural function started. There was a good crowd, consist of mostly aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas. This event ground is in fact a common entrance passage for the houses inside this campus, and, the programmes were often interrupted  by inmates walking through !

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IMG1190Today is the Tagore Birth Anniversary. Rianna and Ruhani, our grand daughters were draped in Sarees. Some one got hold of a tagore picture, and a make-shift picture frame was made with hard board (in the olden days every household had at least one large glass-framed Tagore photo !). Foroz flowers were gathered and they were placed near the picture.

We had a short dance programme performed by little Rianna and Ruhani… under the same Foroz tree. The tree is still there and gives a lot of flowers….. perhaps to proclaim that some things never change… Thank God !

 

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Grandmas and Aunts still attend the function as audience !

A Wristwatch Named Sona !

Today is a very special day for Deep. The School Final Board Exam starts today. The exam centre is a bit far away, and, he has to catch a public bus which is normally crowded. Hence he has to set out a bit early, so that he can afford to avoid boarding on a crowded one, and try the next one. It is at that moment someone asked “do you have a  wristwatch to carry ?”  Deep did not have one, and everyone agreed that he needed to carry one. There are two exam-papers to appear today. Each of two  hours  duration. One has to calculate judiciously time allocation for attempting each of the six long questions on every session ! Those days the fashion was to write long exam papers, especially on the literature subjects.  Deep’s dad said “ My elder sister had an old watch, let me check if it still works”. Soon he took out the same from a tin trunk. He wound the spring key till the end, and after a bit shaking it started rolling. It was a square dialled wrist watch…. she was a health nurse and Deep did not have any hesitation to wear it. After all the exams were over, about a week later, Deep returned the watch to his father…. after all it is a memory item for his father, and, it was placed back to the tin trunk.

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Deep is now in college doing his university studies. He still did not manage to have a watch on his own….. and yes, bringing out the same-old watch during exam days continued during university exams too during next 3 Years. During this period Deep DSCN2682got interested to own a wrist watch….. an Indian brand called HMT. There was a small outlet of this brand on the Park Street in Calcutta, at a departmental store called Hall & Anderson. One has to stand in a queue early in the morning, and, the limited number of pieces was always got exhausted within an hour and a large number of people never got a chance to procure the watches…. they always came back the next day a bit earlier to try their luck again.

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Deep’s first job, right after his university education was  in Bangalore. His office was at a tall building called Unity Building, and, lo behold there was an outlet of HMT watches. Deep never missed to spend time peeping through the show-windows on the various watches. Kamat Restaurant was  on the same building…. so this is how the rest of the lunch break was spent! He was very encouraged to note that there was not much crowd, and, they had enough stock. On the first salary  day he decided to buy a watch.  The salary he got was 265/-. In fact the salary was 300/- ,but, 35/- was deducted as p.f. During that after noon very boldly he entered the show-room and  he was happy that the salesman in the counter very  sincerely showed him various models. Two models he liked, one named Janata…. it was the cheapest available… Rs. 99/-.  Then there was this model  called Sona  costing Rs. 125/-.Deep felt it was a bit costly one, but so what… after all it is his hard earned money any way !

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It is a regular jouney now, to and fro Bangalore. Deep always preferred to have a long bath at the Madras station  on his way from Bangalore to Calcutta. Madras was the change over station.  This trip was not an exception. By the time he came out of the washroom, it was already time to catch the connecting train to Calcutta. He was literally running on the platform…. it was at the time he had a feeling that some one was shouting and was trying to catch up with him behind…. he too was almost running. Deep stopped, and looked behind… and he realised that this gentle man was indeed waiving at him from behind. He came near Deep. He was a dhoti clad middle aged man and spoke good English “ I was at the next wash basin when you were washing your face…. I saw you placing your watch at one corner of your wash basin. And then you hurriedly turned back , started running towards the platform without taking your watch ! Since then I was chasing you…. but I was no match for you…. you were too fast !”  Deep profusely thanked the gentleman, and,  Sona was back to its rightful owner !

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It was a long flight from Bangalore. I was again working at this city after a gap of about 15 years. I always felt  very cold during  a flight and always carried a heavy sweater.  I always put the sweater on before boarding at the craft and seldom took it out.  The flight almost reached Calcutta when I took out the sweater, folded them neatly, stashed it in the carry bag before landing.  When I reached home it was already late night. I took out the coins, a few rupee notes  ( I do not carry a money purse !) from the trouser’s pocket…. it was at this point Pakhi, my wife,  noticed that I have the watch but only the disc ! All the golden dial needles…. even the glass cover vanished…. it is a good for nothing piece now !  Was it at the Bangaloe guest house, that it got broke.. that I must have dashed with the door or something ? No, it could not be…. I checked my watch several times when the  flight had a delayed departure.  “Don’t bother, it was any way an old one…. it is not a great issue to be upset about”- my wife was trying to console me.  Frankly, I felt sorry….. I was sure even if I wanted,  I could not get it renovated……HMT never made those models any more !

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It is winter again ! Time for the warm clothing to show their faces again. Since morning Pakhi  is busy washing sweaters of varied colours and sizes for all the family members. Suddenly she rushed to me in the front room and said “tell me if I give you something very dear to you, what prize would you give me !”  “Well, well may be a dinner in the nearby Chinese Restaurant for all ……. but tell me what it is “ ?  She opened her palm… lo behold…. here they are…..  the  needles of my Sona….. the second-needle…. the minute-needle…. the hour-needle. They look more glittery now with a gentle soap wash.  “They were all stuck in your sweater…… and next time you take out your sweater please remove your wrist watch first”.

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With the advent of mobile phones none of us use watches any more. Not even Sona makes any guest appearance any more, except for photo-shoot for a blog write-up like this !

 

The era of wrist watch is gone. Mobile phone  has replaced it. But Sona lives on…….

Storage !

Rijul is a high school student in his last year of schooling, and all busy these days preparing for his final exam. Computer is his favourite subject. He was very enthusiastically teaching his grandpa about storage.

“You see, first it was kb.  Then mb… that is megabyte,   then gb… and now it is tb…. you can virtually store anything….. for many many years …do you get anything ” ?

Me, the grandfather was not sure was able to grasp all that he was telling…

dadu1My  mind went far far away. Yes, we too had a storage-system….. a brown all leather briefcase ! This was the all important Storage System for us.  My father was very meticulously keeping things here….. a large variety of things…. our house ownership documents,  school and university certificates of all his four children, their exam marksheets, bank pass books (hand written!), a small red plastic case for smaller but vvip items like a few gold bangles of my mother .. my passport, pension nomination papers… Wow !And any other things which he thought should be stored safely.

dadu2Those were before the xerox age. Thus often we asked him for school certificates or marksheets and we would neatly copy-write them with blue ink pen on plain paper and get it attested by a Govt. Officer, for all our practical purposes. He would several time give us reminder to get the original returned. Once he got them back he will again store them in the Storage Box.

Well, listening up to this point, our Rijul was all perplexed and amused !

dadu4After a  little while I called him again and handed over to him the Real Storage.  He was indeed baffled to find some items still lying safe in the Storage  …. a bank pass book – hand calcuted ,  the “red box” … it had a few blades which he did not believe were used for actual shaving,  a cloth-made money purse with a few 10paise coins (he never knew that such coins existed !)

Sindoor

Pakhi, my wife was from a small town near our city of Calcutta. It was just a few days after our marriage, and, we were setting out to a relative’s house. It was a part of the usual invitation which normally follows the marriage ceremony. She took a quick

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Mother’s Sindoor Pot. Sandal Wood work from Bangalore

bath, wore a saree and it was then that we realised that there was no Sindoor-Pot! ( Every married Bengali woman prefers to apply a streak of vermillion or sindoor to the parting of her hair. This vermillion or sindoor is kept in a special pot). Very shyly she asked whether my mother would have any sindoor-pot ! It was a legitimate query as on those days, putting on sindoor for Christian women were not very common. But my mother used to always put on sindoor, every day after bath. I assured her that my mother had one and I brought the sindoor-pot for Pakhi for that day.

 

It was then I realised that for Pakhi putting on sindoor was very important, and, that she does not have any sindoor-pot. I assured her that I would buy her a sindur-pot.

I was on touring job then ( and even now, of course the number of tours is less now for obvious reason) and on return from a trip I brought for her a nice sindoor-pot. I picked

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Hyderabad near charminar,

it up from Hyderabad near Charminar.

 

During the next tour I asked her what I should bring for her ! She just smiled and said “You bring whatever you think best”. When I returned from this trip I opened a small packet and asked her “Guess what gift I brought for you?”

She said “ You show me what it is”. Lo behold…. it was a sindoor pot ! We both burst into a loud laughter !

Thereafter for several years, it almost became a ritual to bring a sindoor-pot from various parts of the land of varied designs, until our children were big enoughto do a bit of leg-pulling for this blunt gift idea !

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Soft Stone work from Khurdah, Odhisa

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Designed on real konch-shell . Puri Sea Beach, Odhisa

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Nicely crafted with sea-shells. Kanya Kumari , Tamil Nadu

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Mirron crafts from Jaipur, Rajasthan

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Brass work of Uttar Pradesh. Lucknow

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Wood work. Chennai, Tamil Nadu

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White Stone-Carving : Agra, Uttar Pradesh

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Coloured Stone. Cuttack, Odhisa

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Pix: Srichandra V

 

 

TABLET OF IMMORTAL LOVE !

(This is my 50th writing. What else could have been more befitting as the 50th one than

this  !) 

Since early morning every one in the Das family seems to have become very busy ! The men-folk are busy going  up and down to the market, making hectic buying…. fish, vegetables, sweets… Women in the house are engrossed in the kitchen, making various preparations.  Only exception is Pramila, the daughter in the family…. she is given rest for the day. Today is the final negotiation day for Pramila’s marriage.

Pramila was waiting for Manilal, her elder brother who,  someone told, gone out to invite a few elder neighbours for the afternoon negotiation meet. A little later Manilal came home and came straight to  Pramila

“It seems you  wanted to meet me…. is there something “ asked Manilal

“ No Khoka da (that is the name by which Manilal is called at home), I  was  er.. I mean.. you know..”

“Okay, Okay,  my little sister, I understand…. you need not be nervous about it. I know this boy very well… he works as a police officer….. handsome….. well-built…. very well behaved…. his name is John… John Solomon.

“But Khoka-da I don’t know a thing in English !”

“ha..ha…ha” Manilal had a real loud laugh now and said “ He is a Bengali with an English name… originally from East Bengal .”

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“Dadima (Grandma), can you hear me ? Are you sleeping “

At this Pramila opened her eyes “ Sorry Deep I was not sleeping, just lying down.”

“Uncle told me that you wanted to discuss something with me”

“That’s right”

Deep noticed the photo frame of Grandpa was placed on the wall facing grandma’s cot. It is several months now since Grandpa left this world….. left Dadima to be precise. They spent a long happy period of married life. They had seven children, every one was well educated…. since Grandpa was a police officer and always on the move, she managed the entire family responsibilities single handedl…. and successfully at that.

It was not easy to participate in all whims and fancies of Grandpa! But she handled them with elan. For instance “Pension” . For long time, since childhood, Deep understood “Pension” has something to do with eating ! Like “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner” and there was this “Pension”. “Pension” is taken in the afternoon… once in a month !  It was like this,  on every first working day of the month grandpa John Solomon will set out early in the morning to collect his monthly retirement pension money. Those days one has to physically walk down to the pension  department to  collect the pension. Our Grandpa on his return journey used to buy sweets, a few loaf of breads and some bananas.

We the grand children, about 10 in number, used to gather at the dining room at Grandpa’s house in the afternoon. We would sit around the large dining table. Dadima would cut banana leaves, cut them into perfect square pieces.  Make neat pieces of the bread loaf (those days pre-sliced bread was not in the vogue) and then serve two pieces of bread,  sweets and two bananas to each of us. Grandpa would take the centre seat and we would be talking on all kind of things with Grandpa….. from our progress in studies… to the forthcoming birthday plans of one of us to any thing, even the drama script we are planning to stage at our family gathering ! All along Dadima would serve more breads or sweets to some of us who would need them.

“I have a little favour to ask from you, Deep.”

“Listen Dadima, no need to hesitate…. just shoot “.

“Okay…. I want a Stone Tablet to be made for you Grandpa…. it should be nicely done… I know it is expensive…. but I have some money.  And don’t share about this with anybody. Well… I feel  a little….Well you know”

Deep now laughed loudly  “Okay Dadima, I understand . Today itself after the college hours I would start working on it”

Dadima took up one corner end of the white saree she was wearing, then opened the neatly tied knot there. Inside the knot there was a hundred rupee note. She handed over that mani-folded note to Deep and said “This is the advance. When you go to take the delivery of the tablet, collect the balance amount from me. And yes, take a taxi when you bring it”.

“I think I got your idea Dadima. You want to put this Tablet on the wall of our church…. so that hereafter when you go to the church on the Sundays you have a company !  (there was a church within the campus of Grandpa’s house, for, he wanted to donate best portion of his land to his Lord )

To this  Dadima threw a very innocent smile “you little naughty one !!!”

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tabletWhen Deep reached the Marble Shop, located in the Dalhousie – the central area of the city,  two weeks later,  the stone tablet was ready. Indeed it was looking great…. the engraver man told that this is Jaipur marble,  a bit expensive, but engraving work looks nice on them.  By the time the bill was settled and the tablet was wrapped with paper it was already raining. Deep was waiting for the rain to subside. It was a long wait before the rain stopped. The area was flooded with water…. Deep started walking… the water at some point was waist-deep. Deep now understood that the marble was quite heavy…. but he lifted the tablet up on his shoulder and started walking briskly. Deep visualised the broad smile which Dadima would give when she first see the tablet … in remembrance of her loved one. Deep  suddenly felt the tablet was now weighing much lighter on him !

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(I was happy that some of the Pension Chairs still survived the test of time !)

Photo: Subhadip Mukherji

Pre-Christmas in Kolkata : Then & Now !

dsc_0022In our teen age days the pre-Christmas outing was a visit to the New Market. We are located at an extreme end locality in South Calcutta and this visit to the central Calcutta was some thing great for us. I always eagerly awaited for the day. My grandpa would come around noon, a few days before Christmas, and we will set out for this journey to the wonder-land ! I always narrated about this dream outing to my grand children – they are 3 in number. The elder one Rijul, who is at his final class of schooling, always had many interesting queries about  this… my olden days New Market trip !

This Christmas I promised Rijul to take him on a similar pre-Christmas trip to New dsc_0016Market. More than him, I was the one who was keen on re-living history !

dsc_0014When we reached near the main entrance the area was too crowded and there was a near stampede situation. Ah.. that was the Light House Cinema…. this is the spot where there were some head-loaders… they will come running with a large bamboo basket…. go along nmwith you to collect whatever you buy from the New Market… carry the load on their head and at the end of your shopping, come to the taxi stand and put all the packets inside the taxi neatly…. and finally be happy with whatever bakhsis (tips) you offer… after all its the festive time ! I was feeling sorry that none of them were found here, they must have found much lucrative alternative vocations !

At the New Market entrance, in olden days, we used to make short stop over at the greetings-card shops…. there were about 10 such shops. dsc_0012Only one we found still surviving, but with no takers. In the internet era none is interested in those greetings cards. Once inside the market, the scenario did not change much. Many of the old charming clothing shops were still there, though they did not have much buyers. Most of the families go for online shopping for their readymade clothes, and, even the sarees are procured by the same method.

The mistletoes and other decorative selling shops are still there. They are doing some what better business than others. The cake shops are doing brisk business. I was indeed upset as dsc_0009I did not find the same old charming New Market hopping experience. But for Rijul, he was enjoying the visit… I was showing him some of the old shops still in the business. I bought him a heart-cake and a hot patties ! I tasted a bit. Ummm…. some what nearer the olden-day –taste, except less buttery ! Well… at least some good things still survived the test of the time.

Those days our return trip was by a tram ride. Then the trams had less riders and it was a pleasant smooth journey. I did not propose the repeat mode for our return journey. It was a very difficult time to get hold of the taxi to take us.

Finally we managed to get one taxi after putting half and hour effort, and, reached home. It was indeed an enjoyable trip…. a good start for Christmas 2016 !