It has been there for over one hundred and fifty years. An iconic building in Mumbai, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market, formerly Crawford Market, is almost as well known as the nearby Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus.
Although we — and all the taxi drivers in the area who ferry us there — were born after Crawford Market was renamed when India became independent over 70 years ago, we still hop into a cab and say “Crawford Market” and no driver takes offence or is confused about our destination or the route there, or drives us straight to the police headquarters facing the market to teach us a lesson in nationalism.
The market offers shoppers practically everything: and we have been negotiating our way along the narrow aisles inside the building and the many lanes outside for years. No visit to Mumbai is complete for us without a trip to Crawford Market.
They just dropped their prices lower and lower until we slowly turned — and realised that what they held out looked pretty good. Quaint, colourful, and more important, useful
And somehow, each time, we find something appealing that we had not noticed before — or maybe it is just our changing interests that make our eyes alight on what we had not seen earlier.
Thus, we went from Mars bars to cake tins and baking accessories, specially prepared spices, plastic containers, a wide variety of clothes … The list is endless.
Of late, however, we have tended to take those trips to Crawford Market for granted and we have also made them shorter and shorter. Ignoring the cacophony around us and the calls of hopeful vendors, we head determinedly to the shop we know has what we want, we get it and we are off again.
No fascinated wandering around to see what is available, no picking up things we do not need but cannot resist … until we visited recently our cousins from abroad.
They were not looking for anything in particular, but having already browsed through the shops on Colaba Causeway and watched us bargain our way to some pretty good deals for them, they were game for some more of the same thing at a different location.
Surrounded by vendors
So, with our usual clear-cut agenda, we led them straight to get something “Indian” for their friends “back home” and then we shepherded them purposefully to the next place and the next, weaving through crowds of other shoppers on the sidewalk.
That is when all manner of vendors looking to peddle their ware recognised the potential in their obvious “foreign-ness” and descended upon our group in droves. We were surrounded — and all manner of goods were proffered, or should I say, thrust at us. All ranges of prices were quoted too.
Our cousins were mindful of their baggage allowance and neither they nor we were comfortable with the circling (and closing in) vendors who built up a wall of noise and extended arms through which we could not penetrate. We tried to squirm our way out, we appealed politely, we barked refusals, but those vendors did not give up.
They just dropped their prices lower and lower until we slowly turned — and realised that what they held out looked pretty good. Quaint, colourful, and more important, useful.
Our about face and recognisably favourable response triggered another frenzy: Packets were opened, wares were displayed in all their splendour, jokes were exchanged — and soon, all of us found ourselves with our arms and our bags full of tablemats, tablecloths, packing organisers for suitcases, belts, confectionery moulds and implements.
It was bonanza time for our cousins and for us and, we like to believe, for the persistent vendors too, because we snapped up most of their offerings before they reached rock bottom rates!
And now our overflowing cupboards stand testimony not only to those tenacious vendors and their attractive wares but also to a day of noise, crowds, confusion — and so much fun!
—Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India