May I help you?

From saffron to leather to edible silver paper, Johnny the market boy knew where to find it in the teeming Calcutta marketplace.


Jack Goldfarb
March 25, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

On a sultry morning of our first trip to Calcutta six years ago, my wife, Simone, and I emerged from our posh digs at the Oberoi Grand Hotel onto the teeming sidewalk of the main thoroughfare, Chowringhee. Instantly, a lean man of about 30 with a betel-stained, toothy smile approached. In typical Bengali dress, he wore a white kurta shirt draped over a saronglike lungi.

"I'm Johnny the market boy," he announced. "I can help you with your shopping today." He dangled a saucer-shaped bamboo basket in his right hand. Pinned to his kurta was a small blue badge, which he proudly informed us allowed him to work inside the legendary New Market a few streets away.

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"I find all things you're looking for," he said cheerfully. Simone, who has browsed through markets and malls from Orchard Street in New York to Orchard Road in Singapore, declined Johnny's offer. The most astute bargain-finder and bargainer I know, she didn't need a shopping advisor here in Calcutta. So she said.

Swept along with the crowds, we headed for the nearby New Market, Mecca for Calcutta shoppers for over a century. Behind us, beaming his broad grin right at us, was Johnny the market boy, not one to give up easily.

The New Market, a huge red stone building with a Gothic clock tower, resembled a 19th century London railway station. Inside, a vast labyrinth of open-fronted shops and stalls lined the narrow passageways swarming with merchants loudly pitching their wares.

Simone's shopping list included requests from friends back home for such exotica as saffron spice and edible silver paper (for a niece keen on baroque cake decorations). When we asked shopkeepers where we could find any of these items, most responded by urging, "Have a look inside my store!" In the heat and hubbub of the bewildering maze of merchants and merchandise, Simone's customary shopping zeal was visibly wilting.

We looked around for help. And there was Johnny, watching our frustration from a discreet distance. His faint smirk pointedly asked, "Are you ready for me now?" Of course we were. He sidled alongside. "Memsahib and Sahib, what you be looking for?"

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We told him about the silver paper first. He nodded knowingly, raised his bamboo basket above his head and beckoned us to follow him into the fray. Johnny knew his way around the market as if he were born on the site. He shepherded us through the tangled passages and crush of people to a hidden cubbyhole of a shop where a paunchy vendor cooled himself with a peacock-feather fan. With the other hand the man produced three shiny packets of silver paper and weighed them on a tiny brass scale, never once missing a stroke of his feathered fan.

"These will give my niece much pleasure," I said. The shopkeeper and Johnny snickered. Only later did I learn that some Indians believe chewing silver paper in a betel leaf is a potent aphrodisiac.

For the saffron, Johnny steered us to an aromatic corner of the market where pungent smells competed with squawking chickens and bellowing grocers. Through mounds of tropical fruits, pyramids of nuts and dunes of curry powder, Johnny led us to a spice stall where the mingled scents suffused into a cloud of exquisite fragrance.

By now, we were trusting Johnny's expertise enough to believe that the 20 grams of orange threads he bought for us at a suspiciously low price of 600 rupees ($16) was genuine saffron and not the often-substituted turmeric. In Oriental folklore, excessive use of saffron makes you laugh too much. We hoped the laugh wouldn't be on us.

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When Johnny brought us back to the hotel with our purchases, I wasn't sure what to pay him. His reply was, "Whatever you give, I take with open hand." I slipped him a 100-rupee note, which he pocketed without looking at it. "Meherbani," he said, bowing his thanks with palms touched together, Indian style.

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Three years later we were back in Calcutta, again staying at the Oberoi
Grand. Outside the white porticoed entrance, at his accustomed sidewalk
spot, there was Johnny, who recognized us long before we did him.
His eyes sparkled in greeting; a scraggly mustache garnished
his smile. His face was thinner, his hair graying.

"Good morning, Memsahib and Sahib," he said, flicking a salute to his
forehead. "I've been expecting you. I knew you were coming one of
these days."

"You did?" I said in obvious disbelief. Simone jokingly suggested he
might have access to the Oberoi's advance reservations list. He grinned
mysteriously. But the more we got to know him, the more we believed
Johnny had some kind of ESP going.

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Pleased as we were to see him, we didn't hire Johnny that morning. We
preferred to browse on our own down Chowringhee (now renamed Nehru
Road) and absorb the ever-compelling Calcutta street scene.
As we wandered off, I glanced back. Johnny was still hanging out at
his sidewalk post. We made our way through the kaleidoscopic spectacle
of hawkers, shoeshiners and touts. Past the gloomy YMCA and the
venerable Indian Museum, we angled off into fashionable Park Street with
its smart restaurants and upscale stores.

While window shopping on Park, I decided I could use a new leather
jacket. Simone said she wanted an Indian-patterned cotton dress, maybe
two. We were debating whether to venture through the maze of back
streets, an unfamiliar shortcut to the New Market where the prices
were cheaper, the bargaining more rampant and the shopping more fun, when out of the passing throng appeared Johnny in his flowing white
kurta. Coincidence? Hardly likely. Surely he had followed us. Or
sensed where we had gone. Yet why did this wraithlike genie seem to
materialize at the precise moment we needed him?

Smiling, Johnny quickly took over, guiding us through the gritty back streets raucous with vendors clamoring for our attention. Johnny's job, as he saw it, included "shielding" us from persistent peddlers, wheedling street kids and the outstretched hands of beggars who refused to be ignored or shooed away. Johnny's quiet nature never lashed out in anger as he warded them off. He well knew others' desperate need to scrape together a meager daily subsistence. At the Lindsay Street entrance to the New Market, a gang of porters nodded respectfully to Johnny as he escorted us inside.

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In the streets, Johnny always walked behind us, never alongside. But once
in the market, he led the way, piling all our purchases into his round
bamboo basket. Our folded umbrellas, guidebooks, even advertising
leaflets all went into the basket. Johnny's strict protocol did not
allow us to be "burdened" with anything.

Most Calcuttans call people like Johnny "coolies," from the
Bengali word quli -- porter or unskilled laborer. But Johnny's self-styled title "market boy" implied a dignity he felt about his job. When
I once suggested that "market man" was more befitting, he winced in
embarrassment.

Johnny led us straight to the shops where pukka leather jackets were the
"best buy in Calcutta," and where Simone found exactly the cotton prints she was looking for. He had solid marketplace savvy. He knew the "rock-bottom" prices of goods and hated to see his clients overpay. As the middleman between buyer and seller, Johnny was supposedly neutral, but his clients, mostly foreigners, tipped him far more handsomely than the merchants did with their scant handful of rupees as commissions. Consequently, when they bargained in English, Johnny employed a subtle system of signals to special clients (including us) using thumbs and facial expressions. With vendors who spoke only Bengali, of course, Johnny did the bargaining.

On our last day in Calcutta I decided to write something about Johnny;
I wanted to invite him for a cup of tea and a personal chat to learn more about him.

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He normally started work about 8 a.m., but this day at 9 a.m. he wasn't
at his usual spot outside the hotel. Maybe he already had a client. At
10 a.m., still no Johnny. The concierge offered to send a bellhop to look for him. An hour later the bellhop returned to say he was nowhere to be found, but several porters had told him Johnny hadn't come to work today because he "went to visit his home village," "drank too much last night," "took one of his kids to the clinic." All the porters, of course, eagerly offered their own services.

At noon, I headed for my favorite lunchtime haunt, the old Fairlawn
Hotel on Sudder Street. Shouldering through the crowds on Lindsay, I
felt disappointed at having missed the chance for a personal conversation
with Johnny. I scanned the faces of the passersby. To my amazement, there was Johnny walking toward me, the incredible magic of incarnation working again. He seemed sober enough, assured me he was fine and all his family, too.

"Write a story about me?" he asked, warily. "Why?"

"Maybe it'll bring you more business," I laughed. I invited him for
a cup of tea at a tea stall. "No, thank you, Sahib," he fidgeted
self-consciously, "is not my place."

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And so, standing in a quiet corner of an arcaded passage off Lindsay
Street, Johnny hesitantly talked about himself. He came from a little
village in Bihar, India's poorest state, and began working in his
early teens. He didn't know exactly how old he was, nor did he know his
birthday. He guessed he was about 36.

Twice a year he trekked north to his home village to see his elderly
parents. In Calcutta he lived in a one-room hut in a bustee -- a
congested slum town -- with his wife and four children. He told me he earned about 300 rupees ($8) a week.

"You must come visit us," he said, opening his arms wide.

Johnny had a strangely mystical aura about him, with his uncanny
capacity for popping up whenever we needed him. And wasn't his calling all about helping people realize their wishes, acquire their material wants? Johnny was a cool latter-day genie who required no magic lamp to summon him.

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"Will you send me the story after you write it?" he asked. He
laboriously scrawled his name and address on my notebook. His actual
name turned out be Mosalim Khan, his mailing address care of a New
Market textile merchant.

Next time I'm in Calcutta I hope I'll still find Johnny in that
maelstrom of 12 million people. More likely, however, if I wish it, Johnny will find me.


Jack Goldfarb

Jack Goldfarb has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other publications

MORE FROM Jack Goldfarb

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