Sandip Roy sees progress increasingly measured by new mega-malls, ‘Net cafes

by Sandip Roy, PNS

When an Indian immigrant to America visits his homeland, he sees progress measured by bright new mega-malls and Internet cafes. But how might one weigh the loss of a quirky, messy neighborhood market where Mr. Butterman, the Spinach Lady and the fishmonger knew your name?

February 10, 2004 – KOLKATA, India – My mother inspects the piles of glistening fish at the market next to our family home in Kolkata dubiously. “If I give you bad fish you can have your money back tomorrow,” sputters the fishmonger indignantly. “After all, I am not going anywhere.”

The fishmonger may not be going anywhere tomorrow, but the next time I return to India, the dingy neighborhood market awash in fish scales and smelly water may be gone. In its place will be a modern, four-story market and office complex with parking and a post office. For most Kolkatans, a clean, orderly fish market cannot come a moment too soon. But my mother wonders if she will still have a fishmonger she knows by name.

My nephew and niece, like me before I left India 15 years ago, won’t be caught dead in the crowded fish market, sidestepping the occasional fugitive catfish jumping in a puddle. They are more interested in showing me Forum, a brand new mall with its own four-theater complex and Kolkata’s “first multi-cuisine food court.” Even on a weekday afternoon, it is packed with affluent shoppers and uniformed security guards. With weekly foot traffic of 75,000, the mall’s main priority is adding 400 new parking slots.

India, where salaries rose between 9.5 and 12.6 percent in 2003, according to the global consulting firm Hewitt Associates, is booming. Even Kolkata, a bastion of communist rule for three decades, is embracing the West with open arms, though it has dumped its Anglicized name, Calcutta.

Kolkata Fish Market

The little corner shops that once sold single cigarettes you could light from the tip of a smoldering coconut-fiber rope now all have stacks of brightly colored Cheetos and Frito Lays. They do have an Indian twist, with flavors like “Masala Magic” instead of “Barbecue.” The only familiar one to me is “Sour Cream and Onion,” called “American Cream and Onion.”

But what is most striking among the city’s new “flyover” roadways and mushrooming Internet cafes are the departmental stores. I was used to stores where you asked for what you wanted from the store manager. He then deputed an underling to fetch it from the back. Then the cashier ceremoniously gave the manager your change. Meanwhile, another attendant desultorily dusted the shelves.

Now, one by one, all the sleepy neighborhood shops are vanishing, being replaced by brightly lit self-service superstores. My friends love the music superstore where they can actually check out the latest Indipop at the listening booth. They love shopping carts they can fill with whatever strikes their fancy and the price is right there on the tag. It’s all terribly convenient and efficient, but a culture is passing.

Mr Butterman did not just sell butter. He would ask after my mother’s knee. The Spinach Lady calls out to my mother every day, though they bargain over a bunch of greens as if it were a matter of life and death. The Buttonman dispenses real estate advice. When my mother sees a long line at the butcher she simply tells him what she needs and he sends it over to the Potatowallah, who delivers it to our kitchen. “This is the last of the modern day zamindari,” says my mother, referring to the bygone feudal landlords who ruled over entire villages.

But its days are numbered. The whole neighborhood block is slated for development and will soon be coming down, taking with it Mr. Butterman and Mr. Buttonman. The spiffily uniformed salesgirls at the departmental stores in malls like Forum ask, “May I help you, sir?” in mellifluous English, and even offer tea or coca cola if I make a big purchase. But they don’t know my name.

Khokon the fish seller does. “Is that your son from America? I knew him as a little boy,” he tells my mother. “Yes,” she says. “Can you bring some mango fish for him tomorrow? He likes that.” There is no reason why the fish market in Kolkata should stay smelly and dingy to suit some Non-Resident Indian nostalgia trip. It’s only right that things should become more efficient, more convenient, more 21st century. I have to confess, even I went to the big music superstore where I could browse the CDs instead of having them handed to me one by one over the counter.

But there is still a strange comfort in knowing that somewhere in a smelly fish market in Kolkata, in the midst of the anonymity of booming India Inc., there is even now a fishmonger who knows my name.


Previously from Sandip Roy @ Asian-American Village is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.