Higher and higher they pile, their prices swinging in inverse proportion, until the competition arrives – first lychees, then cherries, plums, and peaches, and then the most luscious, irresistible pears. They are scattered on stalls and wooden crates in the area, some even obscuring the brilliant fountain in the centre of what was once courtyard to this rotund Norman-Gothic building.
With the floor strewn with hay turned slimy by fruit peel and other unnamed substance, this section of the market is reminiscent of Covent Garden – not as it is now with its naked aborigines and painted performers, but back in the My Fair Lady days. The fountain was designed circa the same period, by Lockwood Kipling – father of the inimitable Rudyard, who was born nearby at what is now the Dean’s residence at the JJ School of Art, in 1865 – and some of his bas reliefs adorn the exterior.
In later years, the foreign influence would be represented by products of diverse nationality. Alongside stalls vending standard Indian market produce, tubs filled with soaps of Chinese and Thai make sell for Rs10 onwards. Bottles of French shampoo jostle for space with tubes of Swiss face scrub, and shelves groan under the burden of Taiwanese Black Bean Sauce and Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
A few days ago, I walked the slippery, narrow lanes leading into Crawford Market with my mother-in-law, soaking in the heady aromas of rotting flesh from the meat market and decaying dung from the caged animals – pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, goldfish and more – that lined the route. For me, Crawford Market had been a familiar haunt long before it was named Mahatma Phule Market; for her, it was the first time, and the most special treat I could think up for her brief visit to Mumbai.
As children, gawking the bustling metro on our annual visits, a high point would be the visit to the nearby Badshah Cold Drink house, where we would guzzle mango juice, marvelling its availability in December, and scrape every last bit of kulfi off the plate. Those were the days before ice-cream came to the hill resort near which we lived – and the parking lot outside Crawford Market could still manage a space or so for shoppers.
In later years, when I lived and worked nearby, Crawford Market was where I went to buy inexpensive return gifts and decorations for kiddy birthday parties; faux-silk Diwali saris for the bai; and fruit of the utmost variety and quality. Nowadays, I still undertake the four-hour drive from Pune every few months to stock up on essentials, and revel in the distinctive population of the place: the canny vendors; the throng of memsaabs in their tight t-shirts and clip-clopping stiletto heels, haughtily pointing to that, that and that, at first one shop and then another, followed at a respectful distance by a coolie balancing a wide, shallow strip-bamboo basket on the head; and, of course, the coolies who come in a wide permutation of size, nutritional intake, regional mix, and gender.
Where else but at Crawford Market could I buy the half-kilo of active dry yeast and the litre of vanilla essence which ensure that home-made bread and cake are economically viable? And where else could I buy several months supply of paper napkins, toilet paper, aluminium foil, garbage bags and more at one shot without destabilizing my budget?
Proudly showing my mum-in-law around my favourite shopping complex, it irritated me that she was initially unimpressed, but gratified as she struck good bargains on aam papad, jelly, and pasta.
The pasta at Crawford Market comes in every shape and size of traditional pasta, some in brilliant, unorthodox colours. It’s sold in sackfuls, like any other grocery product, labelled ‘Italian pasta’, and one of the stall keepers offered us a packet of ‘pasta masala’ to go with it. Intrigued, I asked what it contained but the boy was vague. Masala, he repeated: “salt, garam masala … it’s masala for Italian Pasta.” I politely declined.
Sated, fully-laden coolie in tow, we headed for the exit and my mother-in-law, with the practice born of long years of pure-vegetarianism in this barbaric non-veg world, gently steered us out by a less aromatic route.