The frequent visitors to Market No 2 of South Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park would definitely know Balaram Pal’s vegetable and fruit shop. Fresh Bengali favourites like mocha (banana blossoms), jhingey (ridged gourd) and sheem (flat beans) pile up alongside exotic varieties such as broccoli, zucchini and asparagus in the shop even as Pal lords over his stock.
Pal or Balaram da, as he is endearingly called by his customers started his shop back in 1974 when there was only one other vegetable vendor in this new neighbourhood. “I used to observe that the shop would get so crowded. People would queue up with a bucket to carry vegetables in. And there would be so much rush that in case someone needed an extra vegetable after having bought everything, then they were required to get back into the queue again,” says Pal reminiscing about his earliest days in the neighbourhood and how he was inspired to begin his own little business.
Chittaranjan Park, or C R Park as it is popularly referred to, was not even a decade old then. It was established in 1964 to accommodate those who had moved to Delhi from East Pakistan during the Partition.
Back in the day though, his shop occupied nothing more than a small corner of the footpath. “I used to sell vegetables there and sleep there itself,” he narrates. Pal was one among the 25 to 30 people who were part of a lively discussion that took place last week on the history of the popular markets of C R Park. The event titled ‘Haat-bajarer itihash’ (history of markets) was organised by theatre and social activism group Shapno Ekhon, as part of their oral history initiative, ‘Neighbourhood Diaries’.
While Pal was laying the foundation stone of the first vegetable shop in the market, Nirmal Hajra was busy catering to what is perhaps the most important need of any Bengali neighbourhood: fish. He started selling fish in 1972. “I would ride along the neighbourhood on my cycle and sell fish during those days. A kilogram of fish would be sold for Rs 3. Today I am selling the same fish at Rs.400,” he says.
“Markets have a very critical role to play in any new neighbourhood,” says Malabika Majumdar who moved to C R Park in 1972. She adds that “we used to meet people here, sit and chat. It became a place for socialising.”
The uniqueness of the four markets that cropped up in the Bengali enclave back in the 1970s lies not just in the vast variety of food products that serve the culinary interests of both Bengali and non-Bengali population in Delhi, but also in the special fabric of social relationships they gave birth to. The distinctive character of these markets lie in elements like a corner kept aside for young and middle-aged people to engage in carrom contests, tea and snacks shops around which people gather in the evenings to discuss politics in full zest. But most importantly in the unique seller-client relationship that has developed over time and with such ease.
Ruby Dasgupta who also moved to the neighbourhood back in the early 1970s narrates how her father started the first tea shop in the market, known as Dey’s tea stall. “In the initial days he would come here by cycle and then go back home which was then in Lodhi road. He met with an accident once so my mother advised him to shift here,” she recollects. She goes on to narrate how her father then started living in the shop itself, sleeping with a brick under his head during the nights.
When the family finally shifted there they first lived in the home of an acquaintance. The business ended when her father passed away, and it was one of their long time customers who invited them to live at his home when the shop was no longer there. “We had a beautiful relationship with our clients. When jethu (uncle) invited us to live at his home, he genuinely took us to be his family,” she says.
But those early days were also fraught with problems. While electricity was made available only in the early 1980s, water scarcity remained a problem even till a couple of years back. “We would borrow water from neighbouring houses,” says Swapan Mazumdar who has a catering shop in Market Number 1. “As far as electricity was concerned we would use hajak light… like a Petromax,” he adds.
Yet another problem was that of security. Rabi da, as he is popularly called, owns a snacks shop in Market Number 1. He recollects how he would be in constant fear of dacoits from the neighbouring areas. “They had long beards and would come mounted on horses. They would even order me to make tea for them. I was so scared that I would just quietly give them whatever they wanted,” he narrates.
While the markets have been serving the daily needs of the residents for decades now, they also have a few complaints to make. “C R Park markets have everything, but there is no shop for electronics. There is no shop selling shoes. If we had to buy shoes, we had to go to Kalkaji. Everyone was only interested in opening shops selling food products,” says Rabi. His thoughts are soon echoed by Mukherjee who says that “I personally feel that here the size of the shops are small and so is the investment made in it. There was no attempt to invest in a large scale.”
Equally striking is the absence of a bookstore in the market considering the popular stereotype of ‘book-loving Bengalis’. Majumdar recollects the time when one such bookshop was in opened by a certain Rishi Chakrabarty. “He had in fact started a very interesting concept. He created a space for children to sit and read in the shop while the parents would go about their daily chores,” she says. Later the shop was moved to his home and it finally dissolved when he passed away.
“Another bookshop was started by Badal Rai in the 1990s in B-block,” narrates Majumdar. “Badal was a theatre person and the bookshop was more of a decorative piece,” she adds.
But the absence of books, garments and electronics was made up by the large number of travel agencies that came about in the markets. “You see Bengalis would have a lot of relatives visiting them from Calcutta. We had to give them a tour in and around Delhi and that was a major problem. So a number of travel agents would sit around here in small shops,” Majumdar narrates explaining how these shops would offer a ‘delightful’ package of Agra, Mathura, Vrindavan and add Fatehpur Sikhri in between.
It is hard to say what all has changed in the markets of C R Park today. The prices of commodities have of course gone up. Cosmopolitan additions have been made such as shawarma and momo stalls, popular North Indian eateries as also the most recent inclusion of several bakeries. The character of the markets though has remained untouched. As everyone agreed, it is most identifiable in the fish shops. “You see C R Park caters to entire Delhi’s fish eating public,” says Majumdar with a joyful laughter.
The event was part of Shapno Ekhon’s tenth anniversary celebration titled ‘Shobe Dosh’. They have launched a series of conversations on the history of CR Park titled ‘CR Park Story: A Retelling’.The monthly dynamic, non-static pop Neighborhood Museum takes shape with these conversations and are accompanied by an exhibition of archival photographs.’ Haat Bajaarer Itihaash’ was the second in this adda series. They have been working closely with the residents of C R Park and in collaboration with historians Swapna Liddle and Narayani Gupta to create awareness and preserve the history and heritage of the over 50-year old locality.