Old fashioned stories with a beginning, middle and end come at a premium these days. Most are dark twisted flights of language that demand applause for brilliance. And then comes Jayant Kriplani’s New Market Tales which is a nostalgic trip to a time and place that the actor-author was once familiar with in the 1960’s and 70’s. Most of the stories are linked to Lindsay Street and New Market and the ‘marketayr bachhas’, or children of the shopkeepers – some of whom were obviously real life people and those familiar with the Market will be able to guess at their identities. There is the cricket team which has the boys out at nets early in the morning before school, including the baker’s son who doesn’t want to be a baker, and the team captain Raju who has insights into the lives of nightclub owners.
The stories are told by different someones who come into contact with market people over chai and singaras early in the morning and exchange gossip or who know the shopowners and their families. The pieces are insights into a vanished world, because New Market is no longer what it was, the horse trough lined parking lot having been replaced by an underground Parkomat and many of the stalls being ravaged by fires or the death of the owners.
Kriplani scatters Bengali phrases throughout his stories to create a sense of the Bengali milieu, though the language really does not make a difference, especially since New Market was known for its cosmopolitanism. Apart from New Market he also conjures up adjoining streets like Dharamtola, now known as Leni Sarani, or the world of North Calcutta houses where the first tram clatters past at 5am.
He also creates some vivid characters like the underwear shop owner, Ganguly Gainjeewala who teaches his rebellious daughter Gopa a lesson in customer relations, or the ‘Mesho’ Hari Prasad Condoo who owns a shop filled with fabled pieces of Waterford crystal and Wedgwood dinner plates on which Queen Elizabeth ate her last dinner of chicken tikka masala, or Swati G, a Sindhi flamingo in shocking pink who runs the nightclub Zacks, despises society women and has a mysterious life story. Swati G’s story in fact, while it is true to the concept of New Market in that it covers life in one of the nearby nightclubs, is actually not set among the shops but tells a bittersweet story of life changed by politics and love.
Not all the stories in the collection belong there – Anila, the story of the musical king and his son with a cracked voice for example seems to have been included after the addition of a prologue and epilogue set around New Market. Harish and his bar could belong to New Market, since there are bars in and around the place, but has a different kind of message. However the best stories in the book are the undoubtedly the ones set in New Market – they were apparently written for a TV serial which did not take off.
Yes being familiar with the Bengali world helps and knowing New Market a little makes navigating its lanes and bylanes easier. But this knowledge isn’t essential. Though the eleven stories don’t all have happy endings, they have a feel good factor to them – something else lacking these days. Forgotten romances, conversations over games of golf and all the charm of a vanished world, where joy and sorrow come together in a perfect balance.
New Market Tales by Jayant Kriplani
Published by Picador in India, 2013
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