New Market -- Kolkatta, India

One block north of Sudder Street, New Market (10.30am--7.30pm Mon to Fri, Sat till 2:30pm) is definitive Kolkata and a bargain hunter's paradise. Opened in January 1874 as an up-market alternative for Britishers loathe to jostle with "natives" at hot and dusty bazaars, this sprawling shopping center is the brainchild of then-Calcutta Corp. Chairman Sir Stuart Hogg, for whom it was formally named in 1903. A northern portion added in 1909 and the 1930's addition of the renowned clock tower -- of a piece with architect R. Bayney's broad-shouldered, red brick style and ringing out every quarter hour -- have made the grand edifice one of the more appealing Raj era structures downtown. Even a fierce 1985 fire, after which several northern sections were re-built, failed to diminish its appeal.

Designed with airy, 19th century European shopping arcades in mind, New Market has since morphed into something entirely Indian. With over 2000 shops, the interior is choc-a-bloc with stalls and stands of every shape and size, from spicewallahs and their wares crammed into twenty square feet to the ample space and abundant salespeople of the Jamna Departmental Store. From sweaters to saris, chapals to cardamom, leather goods to luggage, toys, flowers, tea, pet supplies, sporting goods, cosmetics, jewelry, and a great deal more, a determined shopper can find anything here, often at prices that preclude haggling (this is where Kolkatans shop, too). Stores are grouped by product offerings – dairy goods in the NW corner, for example, and flowers on the SE – for easier perusal and greater competition. Essential stops include: Nahoum and Sons Confectioners, an oasis of warm baked goods and dark wood near the NW corner, offering popular Western-style brownies and dense, rich fruit cakes; Bombay Dry Food has a lock on the best nuts; and at Curio Cottage, brass Dancing Shivas and wooden Ganeshas share shelf space with white and blue habit-wearing miniature Mother Teresas. Additionally, an attractive variety of only-in-Kolkata specialties -- glass bangles, palm sweets, cane baskets, and fine embroidery -- can be found at the back, or northern end, of the market.

Although the licenses of the ubiquitous, wicker basket-carrying coolies patrolling the grounds attest to the continued existence of Sir Stuart Hogg Market, their place of work has been widely known as New Market for decades. Be not leery of their services; many have been working the market for decades and can lead you to the finest Kalimpong cheese or Kashmiri shawl at the best price in no time, and since they are paid a commission from the seller with every purchase, they expect no more than a nominal gratuity.

Finally, the market has matured beyond its original structure and purpose. Tentacles reaching into nearby alleys and side streets have transformed the surrounding seven or eight blocks into a single, slapdash shopping district. One block east on Mirza Ghalib, for instance, is a row of music shops. Record Prince offers the latest Western and Hindi CD's and an eclectic collection of old 45's; a quick flip-thru turned up Judy Garland, Charley Pride, and the Bay City Rollers.

After dusk, most of the interior shops close and New Market becomes a lively outdoor gathering place, with tea stalls and snack shops crowded with munching, chatting patrons and well-manned area shops staying open and brightly lit til late. The Chaplin Theatre in the northeast corner occasionally shows plays or performances, and numerous cinemas, restaurants and bars just north do a brisk business in the evening.

SPOTLIGHT: For the strong of stomach, a stroll through the Gothic masterpiece of a meat market that divides the New Market building into east and west wings is essential, and a powerful sensory experience. Less a place to buy meat -- although that is still an option -- than to absorb the glory of gore, the space seems to have dropped in from a previous, more forbidding century. The aroma of fresh animal viscera smacks the nostrils upon leaving behind the market stalls for the slaughterhouse. Cleavers crack through bone and meet tenderized tree stump with a thud as chicken-feathered blood runs wine dark thru small canals edging the butchering floors. A smiling Bengali jabs his arm elbow-deep into the body of an upside down-hanging goat, bobbing feverishly to separate furry skin from flesh and bone while nearby his colleague peddles two-gallon tubs of cream-colored animal fat. Overhead, dozens of cawing blackbirds perch on crisscrossed, cobwebbed ropes and wires, hedging hopefully towards freshly skinned shanks of pink meat. Hazy fingers of light streaking through shattered windows and vents bearing a century's worth of dust complete the Grand Guignol aura, as well as the eloquent argument for vegetarianism.

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