A journey down memory lane in Russell Market

Three years after the fire tragedy, Russell Market is back to business as usual. Pavan Kulkarni walks through the heritage building, to capture the glimpses of the market and narrate the stories that he comes across.

It was in 1927 that the then Municipal commissioner TB Russell initiated the construction of what is today a landmark market of Bangalore: Russell Market. He wanted to organise the anarchic markets of the Cantonment area which catered meat, fruits, vegetables and flowers from around the world to the British settlement in Bangalore throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century.

A brickwork of lime and mortar, roofed by corrugated sheets of aluminum supported by a framework of imported steel girders, this structure was built in Indo-Saracenic style, incorporating the Hindu architectural elements in the bulbous domes capped with gothic spires, and the Islamic architecture in the scalloped arches, all constructed carefully to serve as a testimony to the marvel of British engineering.

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A visual journey into the market

To the south-east of this market towers the oldest church in Bengaluru and the only church in this state to be given the status of a basilica: St. Mary’s Basilica. The lane across the two-wheeler parking lot, opposite to the main east-facing entrance, is lined by rows of restaurants serving kebabs and biryani. Along the lanes surrounding the other three walls of the market are poultry shops and fish stalls. Eagles circling the sky above the market are attracted by pieces of flesh discarded on the streets and dive down.

Purple and red aztecs; white, yellow, orange and red roses; flower wreaths of multicoloured Gerberas and green ferns; and bouquets of orchids packed with white dahlias and cedar leaves, displayed at the two tiny shops on either side at the entrance, greet the eyes of the visitors.

Organic fertilizers for house-gardens are sold on the narrow passageway to the right of these shops, and to its left, after the dry fruits stalls–displaying dried apricots, dried plums from California, dates from Iran and Tunisia, cashews, almonds, saffron etc–are the toy shops selling remote controlled cars, barbie dolls, miniature kitchen sets, doctor sets, cricket bats and wickets, plastic bowling sets etc.

Further down this wet and slimy corridor–littered with vegetable waste, gutka packets and cigarette buds piled up in a few pockets along the walls–the hallway is gilded with garlands of yellow marigolds, red roses and white chrysanthemum (sevantige) hung outside the flower shops on either sides.

Bhavana, a house-wife who came from KR Puram to buy groceries, swears that she prefers markets like these over malls and supermarkets any day. “These are fresh vegetables. And look at the variety here.” When asked for her opinion on replacing this market with a mall, she says, “I am not against building malls, but not here. This is a heritage market in Bangalore. And moreover, where will these vendors go? Can they afford to pay the rent at a mall?”

“We used to frequent this place before. Have come back today after a long time,” says an interior designer who was carefully selecting the best yams from a basket in a stall. “Here you get fresh vegetables. It feels real. Not those uniformly sized, packed stuff displayed like dolls on the shelves of a supermarket. There is no need to construct any mall or supermarket here. If the BBMP really wants to renovate the place, they can make proper arrangement for garbage and waste-water disposal, and maintain this place well,” she says, adding on a lighter note, “So we won’t have to reserve special clothes for our visit to this market!”

Outside the market, under its veranda behind scalloped arches beside the rear entrance, are rows of stalls selling different sizes and varieties of fishes, prawns and blue crabs – all spread out on trays over a thick layer of crushed ice.

Salman, a 15-year-old manning one of these stalls says, most of these fishes are caught from the sea-waters of Kakinada and brought to this market each morning within the next 24 hours. The air here is thick with stench and the streets are wet, regardless of seasons.

Up the steel stairs littered with cabbage leaves and more cigarette buds, a group of boys, most of them in late teens, sit and prepare decorative hangings using orange Dahlias, on a narrow corridor on the beside the aquarium shop on first floor.

A tall man in early 30s sweeps the floor of the aquarium shop with a smoking joint held loosely in a corner of his lips. Behind the locked gate of the corridor to its left, two giant goats lazily chew the leaves from the bundled shrubs tied with a rope and hung from the roof.

The wider parallel corridor opposite the aquarium is long and dark, with a few workers sleeping beside the walls on both sides. On southern end of the corridor, a manager oversees the workers loading gunny bags full of potatoes inside one of the only two stores open.

80-year-old Mohammed Anwar, owner of a store on the other end of this corridor, says in a faint voice, “These are all storehouses. If you want to see this place alive, come early in the morning at 3.30, when the goods are arriving at this market.”

Past the vegetable and fruit section on the ground floor, the hallway leads to a seafood stall equipped with cold-storage, embedded into an octagonal structure in the middle of a small room of the same shape. On the unroofed alleyway outside the exit to the left, where potatoes, onions, garlic and ginger are sold in wholesale, is the short flight of stairs that leads to the locked entrance of the clock tower above octagonal structure.

This, according to Mohammed Idress, the secretary of traders’ union in Russell Market, was one of the first watch towers built in Bangalore in 1820, over a century before the market itself was constructed. It is believed the dials and hands of this clock, which were vandalised sometime in the late-1900s, was made of gold. The staircase inside the tower, which had collapsed from old-age and weakness, has not been restored yet.

To the west, the octagonal room below the tower opens into a long and dark horizontal hallway of the mutton section, with only four stalls open at 2 pm, displaying the cross-section of goats hung from sharp hooks.

Syed Pasha, a vendor selling variety of leafy vegetables, peels the skin of a couple of green chanas plucked from one of the many bundles of greens displayed in his stall, insisting, “You must taste this. Fresh and sweet”. He was not lying. “My grandfather was selling in exactly the same stall since 1921,” which was a few years before the structure around was built. “I am the third generation manning this stall,” he adds.

When asked about the fire that ravaged the fruits and vegetables section including his stall in 2012, he said, hesitantly, “Well, we’re told it was a short circuit. Could be that or maybe someone’s mischief. If it was a short-circuit, who is to blame? Just bad luck. But if it was the doing of some miscreant, God will make him pay for playing with our livelihoods. He will pay in this very market before he is dead”, he says with full confidence.

The entrance to the toilet on the northern side of the market is blocked with mounds of garbage.  Lack of toilet facilities, says Mohammed Idrees, is a serious inconvenience to the vendors here. “Every time we have to go either to the mosque nearby or to neighbours’ homes. Before the fire incident, the toilets, though ill-maintained, were at least functional. After the fire, there are no toilet facilities whatsoever in this market.”

When asked about the history of the market, Idrees leans back on his chair and lights a cigarette, while the gaze of his eyes turn upward in a nostalgic reverie. Back in the British era, he says, this was one of the primary hubs of commercial activity in this city.

“Every year during Christmas grand market shows were organised here. Farmers and merchants from across the state came here and displayed the best of their produce. Three winners–one from the fruits category, one from vegetables and one from mutton–were declared and awarded gold medal. Real gold I mean, not gold plated. Even after independence, the Municipality was conducting the shows every year till 1983, after which they stopped. But we have still kept this tradition alive by organising the event by raising funds ourselves,” he explains.

Ghosts of Russell Market fire refuse to die

“It was all going fine until that one night in February of 2012. That night I shut my dry-fruit stall at 12 am and went home for a sound sleep. Was very tired. Around 2.45 am I was woken up by a phone call about fire in the market. This is not a time to joke about such matter, I said and went back to sleep. Then I received two more frantic calls. I was still near the police station on the way (about a 3/4th kilometer away from the market), when I saw thick smoke rising up to the sky. I ran to the market, pushing aside the police who were blocking the way. My stall had 7 lakh worth of dry-fruits. But there was nothing I could do.”

When asked if he believed that the fire was caused by short-circuit, as the official version goes, he says, “We have different meters and circuit-breaker fuse everywhere here. No chance of short-circuit causing such a fire. You should have seen the flames. Blue, green, orange.. multicolours. Many inside the market, who had fallen unconscious from breathing the smoke, had to be dragged out. The smoke had a peculiar smell. What here do you think can catch such a fire? Its all fruits and vegetables. They don’t catch fire like that. They all have high water content. I had encounters with fire before during my service in fire department as well as police department. And I can tell you this was no accident.”

“The BBMP, I believe, had their eyes on this land for quite a while then. There was talk about razing down this market and building a mall. No way the public would have allowed for that. And then suddenly one night there is fire in the market, and the next day, after the fire was put out, BBMP closed down the market, saying it had become weak, and was unsafe to be used.”

Vendors renovate market themselves

“The affected vendors were given compensation ranging from Rs 7,000 to 50,000. How could the vendors feed themselves till BBMP finished building whatever it was they were going to build? They would take years. So we waited for no one, and cared for no eviction notices served. We all went in and started cleaning up the ruins day and night. We approached KK infrastructure, which was involved in construction of the airport. They initially quoted Rs 2 crore, but we bargained for 1.75 and started renovation. A total of 33 lakh was given to us as compensation. We used that money and the remaining cost was divided among the vendors. We paid from our own pockets to get this place renovated. Within a month the market was running again.”

“But because we did not pay heed to the eviction notices served, our power supply was cut off. For eight months after reopening, the market was run on generators costing us Rs 8,000 a day. We were running under loss because of that. Then we finally went to the local MLA and said we are stretched our limits and now we are helpless. We simply cannot afford to run generators anymore. And then the power-supply was restored.”

‘BBMP to be blamed for not hiking the rent’

When insufficient rents generated from this place to BBMP is pointed out, he says, the BBMP is to be blamed for that. The rent in early 90s was around 60 rupees, which was raised to 90 after three years, and then, after the next three years, to 150 for vegetable stalls with no shutters and 200 for the fruit stalls.

“Why did BBMP stop rising the rent since then? Forget hiking the rent, they haven’t even bothered to collect this rent since the fire. Knowing we would be blamed for not paying rent, we ourselves went with the cash to the BBMP office to pay the rents. But they did not accept. They don’t have orders to take that money, they said.”

“We have no problems with BBMP’s plans for renovating the place, so long as no showrooms will be coming up here. We have been promised stalls in the new complex that will be constructed. It will be built inside the front wall, without demolishing the structure that gives a heritage value to this market. We only ask that a temporary arrangement be made for all the vendors till the construction of the new complex is complete. If this condition can be met, we are willing to offer our full cooperation for this project. We are even willing to pay increased rent. But if temporary arrangement is not made for us, we know what to do. We have kept this place functioning for decades against all odds and will continue to do so,” Idrees declares.

Last heard, BBMP is about to restart collecting the rent from the traders in Russell Market, and vendors are searching for an efficient way to manage the waste generated in the market.

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