The Vanishing

Mom-and-Pop
Stores of
Calcutta
by Amrit Baruah

The Vanishing
Mom-and-Pop
Stores of Calcutta
by Amrit Baruah
also by the author: “My Childhood in Assam: Growing Up in the Last
Days of the British Raj”
http://www.scribd.com/doc/17523917/My-Childhood-in-Assam-Growing-Up-
in-the-Last-Days-of-the-British-Raj
Copyright © 2010 by Amrit Baruah
baruah@starpower.net
Amrit Baruah was born and raised in the eastern part of
Assam Valley, in the heart of the tea-growing region. He
left at the age of sixteen to attend Presidency College in
Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he stayed on after gradua-
tion for employment with jute industry laborers during
the last few days of the British Raj in India.
In 1952 Amrit left for Boston, to study at Boston Univer-
sity and Harvard. He has been in the U.S. since then, one
of the earliest immigrants from India. He has worked in
the fields of mental health and community organization
(in pre-civil-rights-era South Philadelphia), and has
taught at universities. Currently he is a part-time writer,
psychotherapist, and organization consultant located in
Maryland.
:
F
oi rwo uuxoiio yiais ruisi rixy suois uavi iio
people with groceries, bathed infants with their Life
Buoy soaps, provided the mustard oil to cook fish and
vegetables.
There was always that man (always a man and usually
older) sitting in the midst of goods that were stacked close
to one another, in a space barely adequate for his slim body
(the man was always slim or frail) to move around. In win-
ters these men would have a shawl around them; during the
intense heat of summer they would sometimes be wearing a
t-shirt. They were always there—the mudis, or grocers,
although they also sold other commodities. There were
some staples: Lux soap, big aluminum cans of rice, dal
(lentils), Neem toothpaste (from the medicinal Neem tree),
a hair oil called Jabakusum. Some mudis had a stationery
corner: exercise notebooks, white “foolscap” paper, pencils
with a red eraser at the end.
These were the spots that made a neighborhood com-
plete. After years, the old man died but the son who had
been apprenticed to him took over. The old man had seen
a particular customer grow old along with him, become a
father or father-in-law, become a grandfather and perhaps
die before he did.
When someone got bored, he could always drop in on the
old man in the neighborhood. All he needed was an excuse
such as buying a bidi; bidis, which cost half a cent, are a
native cigarette.
I was curious. More than half a century ago, I had been
a customer in some of these small cubicles called dokan
(stores). I had my shirt tailored in one, bought my second-
hand books in another, once got my watch repaired in one,
had even eaten in a pice hotel (penny hotel) when strapped
for cash (and in those days money meant cash—there were
no credit cards).
Already, I had seen in Calcutta a few malls with depart-
ment stores. I knew about multinationals—and not just
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
:
McDonalds—drawing young people. I had heard about
Wal-Mart trying to come into the huge (one billion people)
Indian market, along with companies like Niles, Mark and
Spencer. Advertisements for pants were in every morning
newspaper, and I wondered how those mom-and-pop
shops were doing. I needed to find out and not from an arti-
cle or a book, but directly from the proprietors of the shops.
So with the help of a young female graduate student who
was both intelligent and idealistic, I started exploring. We
selected three areas. One was the College Street area where
I had spent four years as an undergraduate student in a dor-
mitory. Another was Shovabazar, the city’s most ancient
neighborhood. The third was Bowbazar—old but not
ancient and near the main train station.
We decided to start at Bowbazar. It was exciting also for
Bipasa, the female grad student, because she had grown up
and lived most of her life in the southern part of the city,
which is more modern than Bowbazar.
Bowbazar is located in the middle of the city near
Sealdah station. It is the entrance to the city if one is com-
ing from the east and Bangladesh by train. Bowbazar is
mostly shops, run by old families, hidden away from the
larger streets. These families are mostly on the gallis (lanes).
One particularly intriguing galli is called Serpentine Lane;
and true to its name, it meanders about.
It is said that Bowbazar got its name from the old
Bahubazar (bahu meaning bride), and that at one time there
was a huge tree there, under which the Englishman Job
Charnok (who according to some historians was the
founder of Calcutta) used to sit and smoke his pipe. One
wonders if he came up with the idea of slicing up the city,
making the Fort area the “white area” reserved for
Englishmen and their families, and the rest the “black area”
meant for the natives, with Bowbazar being a prominent
section of the latter.
But Bowbazar could not care less. It prospered with its
historic soirees of wealthy people and their dances and
music. And all those gold merchants and jewelry shops
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
+
appeared in time, so the wealthy wife of the landlord (the
zamindar) would step out of her palanquin in front of the
gold merchant’s shop to buy her emeralds or select the jew-
elry for the upcoming wedding of her son. Chances are she
was plump or even fat, because in those days being fat was
considered desirable. The husbands were proud of their
women’s girth, as it symbolized that the women were cared
for and did not have to do any housework. There were
many servants. She could just sit, eat and sleep and please
her husband—the perfect life.
What is called Bowbazar includes about ten blocks in
each direction. It is a rectangle buzzing with life. One can
walk or drive on the big streets—the four boundaries of this
rectangle—without ever knowing the history, the lives, or
the mini-cultures of the small blocks within.
I have noticed a profound change in the outdoor life of
the city, which is also prominent in the Bowbazar area
where we were to walk this morning. Pavements sixty years
ago were for walking. That is now the exception rather than
the rule.
Today it is different picture. There is the tea stall for
example; it takes up a part of the pavement with customers
lining up. And this is not the once-in-a-year girl scout
fundraising that appears in the U.S.; it is a daily occurrence.
It is not an underground economy either. If anything, it is
very much over-ground, to the point that it is out of bounds
for the pedestrians. It is an alternative economy in urban
India.
There are stalls of jewelry, stalls of clothes and even open-
air restaurants. They are all in front of, and even covering
up, the front of old established stores that feel superior to
the pavement businesses but are hemmed in by them.
When we started out this morning, Bowbazar was buzzing
—one man in a white shirt, another in a blue shirt, both
with blue jeans and briefcase; the laborer in his t-shirt and
pajamas walking slowly; the sari-clad woman holding her
two children who cried for the treat from the street hawk-
er and became silent only when they got it. All of this was
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
¡
happening as we tried to walk side-by-side, which of course
is the normal thing to do. Finally I gave up and told Bipasa:
“Let us walk single file and hold our conversation. You go
ahead, I shall follow you or else we’ll keep getting bumped
by the crowd on whatever narrow space is left on the pave-
ment.” And we did exactly that.
We had started out on a Monday, a day when there
would be fewer customers so that we would have a chance
to talk at length with the owners. We were walking on
Rajah Rammohan Street—a wide important street named
after an iconic social reformer, more than a hundred years
ago. Rammohan stood against some of the social cruelties
in Hindu society, especially those harming widows. We did
not have any set destination but decided to keep walking
and look for a small store that was old. We saw a narrow
lane, Premchand Baral Lane, and looked at a small tailor’s
shop at No 42/1 named Sajgo (“dressed up”).
We went in. Near this tailor shop were a few other kinds
of stores: sweetmeat, grocers and a stationery store selling
paper, pencils and items of that sort. There was also a music
store nearby. The owner of the tailor shop, Mr. Ghose,
seemed eager to talk once he felt assured that we had no
other agenda except my interest in old stores like his.
He and one of his four brothers bought this store in
1970. He showed us the five sewing machines that are at
the center of his business. I noticed that they were the old
Singer sewing machines that I remembered from my child-
hood. Mr. Ghose said that their business had declined dur-
ing the last ten years; old customers had switched to the
newshopping malls. They chose readymade clothes because
those were cheaper. At one time long ago, readymade
clothes were not considered fit for middle- and upper-class
people.
Bipasa asked him how he got most of his business. He
received “tenders” from different companies and then got
workers to work on them. This was the practice until now,
as it had become very hard to get such temporary workers
because they had moved to the big employers. I looked at
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
s
Bipasa because earlier, we had talked about how globaliza-
tion may not have harmed the worker in the lowest rung of
the totem pole—he is still needed by the new shops. These
workers are on the payroll, at a fixed salary with the big
companies and are no longer “temps.” The result was that
store owners like Mr. Ghose were hurting.
There was another problem for him. During the Bengali
Pujah (a kind of Bengali Christmas that lasts seven days),
he receives lots of orders but almost half of them are never
picked up. He took us behind the counter and we saw about
half a dozen shirts and another half a dozen pants that were
hanging from a rod. Mr. Ghose said that these customers
somehow managed to get the money to buy the cloth, but
failed to pay him and pick up the items measured and
ordered.
I remarked that it looked like there were lots of activities
on this narrow lane: different types of stores and residences
of his customers. He gave a sly smile. “Well, you should
come late at night, there are other kinds of activities.” What
sort? I asked. Mr. Ghose replied: “This lane ends in a
‘Baishya Polli’” (a red light district in Har Kata Goli, i.e.,
Har Kata Lane).
That struck a chord in my memory. During my college
days, we knew about Har Kata Lane—an old and almost
historic red light district. This is a neighborhood that is
well-known, but geographically is a hidden pocket in
between busy streets on all four sides. We took leave of Mr.
Ghose. By now the lane interested me.
We stopped outside no. 50A, a store named Gaan
(“music”). Bipasa had suggested that we stop there. “This
is the kind of store you will not find in America,” I said.
“You will find stationery and grocery stores in the U.S. But
I doubt you will find something like this. Let us go in.” And
we did.
It was a musical instruments shop. We soon learned that
it had been there for 120 years. We introduced ourselves to
one Mr. Firoz, the manager. The long-time owner had died
a couple of years ago. Mr. Firoz volunteered the informa-
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
o
tion that he had been working here for twelve years and that
his salary was 5,000 rupees per month—a fairly decent
sum. When asked, he said that the present owner, the
fourth generation in the family, was not very interested in
the family business and had a day job somewhere.
Mr. Firoz painted a dismal picture of the business. He
said, “This is the age of electronics. Who cares for a har-
monium anymore?” (The harmonium is the famous his-
toric instrument that is somewhat like an accordion but
heavier and not portable—although Alan Ginsberg, who
was won over by India, came back with one and used to
chant while playing it.) No Bengali music setting was com-
plete without the harmonium and the tabla (the Indian
drum).
Mr. Firoz referred to the long-time owner, Swaroj Seal,
and said that before Mr. Seal died two years ago, the store
was filled with customers. Part of the reason was that Mr.
Seal was a musician himself and he would play on several
of the musical instruments in the store.
Mr. Firoz went on to say that in those days business was
so good that he did not even have time to eat lunch. Now
he has lots of time but no customers. I remember that dur-
ing my college days we heard about a tradition among some
wealthy people who would visit their favorite prostitute,
not merely for sex but for an evening of song and dance.
And of course in those days, where there were songs there
were harmoniums.
After some hesitation, I asked Mr. Firoz: “You are so near
Harkata Lane. What about those musical soirees? They
must need harmoniums.” He threw his hands in the air and
responded: “Those days are gone, now music means cas-
settes, DVDs. And besides, harmoniums are old-fashioned.
The previous generations that sat on the rug cross-legged,
playing old tunes on the harmonium, that is history. This
generation does not even know how to sit cross-legged, and
many of them are taking piano lessons!” We left and I
looked back at that narrow lane and recalled the past.
Sometimes, in those days I would visit such lanes to meet
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
¬
a friend. During the evening, singing would come out of the
windows with someone playing harmonium. In fact, in
those days, while coming to visit the bride and her family
(I called these “wedding interviews”), the prospective
bridegroom’s family would ask the girl to sing and show her
knitting abilities. Excellence in these marked a desirable
bride, along with other considerations—some healthy and
some not, such as education, family and dowry.
In those days Calcutta did not happen on the main
streets. Those were for tram lines and larger stores. The life
of the city was in these dingy, narrow lanes, sometimes too
narrow for a car to pass. Generations lived on these lanes.
Poets, writers, professionals came out of them to stand at
the bus stop and go about their day’s activities, all return-
ing in the evening, some with their shopping done on the
way in one of the “markets.” These markets were stalls
inside a large building in which the produce, fruits and
even fish were laid out in rows.
We stopped at a small grocer near the corner of a main
street. The sign board was nailed to a greenish wall. It was
a narrow space about two feet wide, next to a door frame
that was no more than four feet wide. Next to the door was
a wall that had the family rooms on the other side. We went
in and introduced ourselves. I explained the purpose of our
visit, not being sure how he would take it. He took it as a
matter of fact, seemed pleased to talk about his business. I
felt that he trusted us.
Mr. Sen the owner was about fifty. That morning he had
an unshaven face. He was slightly bald and wore black-
rimmed glasses. He was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt
and was seated on a stool on the other side of a narrow
counter. Mr. Sen was in the middle of a transaction when
we entered. He had a measuring cup in his hand and was
explaining something to a woman who obviously was a cus-
tomer. He stopped his talk with her and signaled to us to
sit down. When I saw that he wanted to continue the ini-
tial introduction, I indicated that we would wait until he
had taken care of the customer. She bought some lentils and
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
ï
two bars of Lux soap. She filled the empty bottle that she
had brought with her with mustard oil, paid him and left.
Now it was our turn.
There were two interruptions: another middle-aged
woman and a young boy. They purchased minor items and
these two transactions were each less than two hundred
rupees, the equivalent of four dollars. The morning sun
coming through the window kept us warm on this October
morning. Mr. Sen explained that at one time, this location
was an advantage—being so near the main road meant that
customers would drop in. But now even old customers had
moved away.
I became animated after these interviews. I had learned
that recently in old shopping areas interviewers had been
visiting shopkeepers to do market research for big business,
prior to the opening of shopping malls. But my experience
showed that shopkeepers seemed eager to share stories with
a stranger and maybe there would be more like the ones I
had already heard.
I thought of Mr. Ghose, the tailor. I had received two
reactions fromhim. One was about his declining years and
recently declining business; but at the same time his attach-
ment to his small store was heartwarming. He was proud
that he had been able to keep that family store going. The
next generation was simply not interested in making their
struggle a matter of family pride.
The first thing that strikes someone who is used to
America (where I have resided for many years) is that so
much history occupies so little physical space. In a small old
room, every inch is occupied by rows of soap, a few bottles
of mustard oil, jute bags containing lentils, with a one-foot
aisle in between all the items just wide enough for the shop-
keeper to navigate. The previous day we had been at the
South City Mall, described as one of the biggest shopping
malls in South Asia. Mr. Sen’s entire seventy-year-old shop
would fit into the counter space behind which the “pan-
taloon” pants are neatly arranged in a spacious back section.
At least half a dozen dark-suited young men were there to
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra
,
serve customers. There was no history in this mall similar
to that found in one of the tiny stores we had visited in
Bowbazar. Absent were the owners reminiscing about the
old days of their fathers and grandfathers.
Down the lane from these shops are a few cottages, also
small, where entire families have lived for three generations:
eating the lentils and rice from one of these stores and cook-
ing their fish in its mustard oil. They grow up, marry, par-
ent and die in the same cottage. Even an Indian like me
feels overwhelmed thinking about it.
But now change has come and this is the last chapter of
that story. I came away from that first day of interviews
pleased, thinking of the easy acceptance of me and Bipasa
by the store owners. Bipasa had informed me that recently
these people have begun to hear the expression “market
research”—the precursors of malls and big business; and
someone from America, I had thought, would have two
strikes against him. “What is he doing on our lane asking
about our business?” would have been a natural question on
their minds. But no.
All it took to open the door and the heart was an honest
statement: “I came to stores like yours as a student when
your grandfather was sitting on that stool, and I am curious
howyou are doing these days.” Bipasa had told me: “Just be
yourself. Tell them that you came here years ago and are
interested in how they are doing.” And so I did. Tomorrow
we would be back for more.
rui vaxisuixc xox-axo-ioi sroiis oi caicurra

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