Save Crawford Marketby Khalid Mohamed June 22 2020, 8:14 pm Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 6 secs
Khalid Mohamed pleads for the restoration of the past glory of the centuries-old market, a part of which was gutted in a fire this month.
To think of Mumbai without Crawford Market is to think of the metropolis without one of its most throbbing nerves.
So in the midst of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic reeling in the city, there couldn’t have been more alarming news that one of its section was caught in the midst of a blazing fire on June 11, around 4.15 p.m. ‘Live’ images which flashed on TV screens and via WhatsApp messages indicated that the flames were licking the north-end section of the 72,000 square-yard area of the heritage marketplace, opened during the British Raj in 1869.
Gratifyingly, there were no casualties. Four stalls have been gutted; the fire brigade fought heroically to contain the catastrophe within four hours. All’s well, then or nearly at the market, which was renamed the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule market after the 19th century anti-caste socialist reformer.
I say ‘nearly’ because even before the eruption of the fire, the Crawford Market (as it is still called by most), in South Mumbai, has already become a shadow of its former self. A visit earlier this year had proved, to put it mildly, dismaying. Renovation work was supposed to be on but it was seriously going the haphazard way.
Even remotely it didn’t resemble the wonderland shopping arcadia of yore, especially during the immediate post-Independence era. Today, only a fistful of fruit and vegetable outlets have survived and had to be located after asking for directions.
Earlier there were scores of vendors at their allotted stalls (gallas), eager to negotiate sales with a bevy of housewives accustomed in the typical Bambaiya style of bargaining. The more they bought, in quantity, the cooler the price. Truly, the vendors could outclass the most fervid of corporate smoothies today.
Meant to be a wholesale market, retail sales, however, formed a vital part of its everyday trade.
A charming store on the lines of a school’s tuck shop - managed by a cheerful Parsi family - at the entrance which vended sweets, chocolates and so many of our favourite things, had shut shop. The water fountain was dry, and was being used as a spot to store wooden crates of mangoes for shipment and courier packages of the lord-knows-what, its vacant rim providing a comfort spot to stragglers.
The separate enclaves for meat and poultry was always a separate world in itself – the stench was overpowering. Yet a shopper could be assured of fresh supplies, sans pumped-up chemicals. Cold storage was just not the scene there in its heyday.
On the downside, at the backend of the market, pet shops thrived – downside, because there were illegal sales of quails, pheasants (an indulgence for those who still relished nawabi cuisine) and red birds, called Lal Muniyas were sold undercover.
From pet-shops, pups, water turtles and kittens could be picked up though the faster-sellers were love birds chirping away in their mini-house chalets. That the lovebirds had been garishly painted was obvious, the colour would wear after a few days of the purchase. Neither did the love birds live for too long, dropping dead hearbtreakingly in the cages.
Still, it was like all yesteryear markets - you could distinguish between the real and faux - and that made an afternoon outing there, an experience, to be ended traditionally with a kesar falooda or ‘fruit cream’ at the still-busy Badshah Cold Drink Depot across the street.
Inevitably of late, the Crawford Market has been overrun by cellphone hole-in-the-walls shops, toy emporia (from China, where else?), duplicated copies of branded pret-a-porter clothes, and more dry fruit and cheese tins you could find at an U.A.E. mall.
A handful of the vegetable and fruit shops, which were struggling to survive, of late down their shutters way before the closing hour. Reason: as one of the tired, 60yish survivors explained, “It’s more fashionable and maybe more convenient to go to the shopping malls,” adding, “It’s just a matter of time before I move out of here. My family thinks I’m soft in the head to continue here anyway.”
Right, all good things must end, as the adage goes. Yet, while wandering around the sprawling expanse, it could be sensed that if the municipal corporation wished to save the iconic market - once contributed generously to the city by Sir Cowasji Jehangir - it could. A traditional marketplace - be it in New York, Paris or London - is still the hunting ground for organic food and fruit.
Moreover, since here’s a heritage structure, shouldn’t its… dare I say the words - romance and architectural beauty be preserved for generations to come? Moreover, the market is key for the metropolis to retain a key component of its distinctive ethos.
Tough job that, needless to admit.
Already the parking lot outside is a cat’s cradle of confusion. Rival gangs of the area demand hefty rates per hour and insist that they will keep the keys of your car since they are into ‘valet service’. Are they? Ironically, the parking chiselling goes on right opposite the Mumbai Police headquarters. Just one day’s cleansing-drive of the self-described valets would do the trick some day.
Incidentally, Crawford Market conceptualised and designed by the British architect William Emerson was named after the first British municipal commissioner Arthur Crawford. Designed in a blend of Norman and Flemish styles, here’s a edifice which is still remarkable for its blend of buff Kurla and Bassein red stones.
The two bas reliefs at the entrance - depicting the everyday life and resilience of Indian farmers at the wheatfields under British imperialism - are classic works by John Lockwood Kipling, the father of novelist Rudyard Kipling. On occasion, the reliefs have gathered dust for months, but have been washed sporadically by municipal workers.
The point is Crawford Market is an intrinsic part of Mumbai’s history and of us. It can even play host to small-time entrepreneurs; like two young men who offer haircuts, accepting money in accordance to the customer’s satisfaction.
A diminishing number of ageing fruit and vegetable vendors congregate there every day of the week (except Tuesday). The outbreak of the recent fire is believed to be just one of those things. In whispers, it is alleged that the fire was intentionally set off - a deduction that has become commonplace in areas being eyed by real-estate sharks. Since there’s no evidence for that, the allegations remain in the realm of conjecture.
No doubt, the pandemic has made the chore of earning a daily wage for the vendors, more difficult than ever. Still, good times or bad times, the market stands talls and proud, invincible despite centuries of age.
Would I continue to shop there? No, not unless the grand legacy left to us by our forebears is assigned its just status and the renovation - said to be in the works - doesn’t slap us in the face like a bad joke.