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From a market under a banyan to superstores

Shihab Sarkar | Published: September 28, 2017 21:14:52 | Updated: October 24, 2017 08:58:24


Bangladesh has been known for ages for its kitchen markets --- especially those in the villages. These normally improvised trading centres have continued to expand with the passage of time and kept including varied types of consumer items. As time wore on with continued increase in the demand for newer things, the 'bazars', Bangla for markets, and 'haats', large weekly markets, kept offering changed looks. The Bengal 'haats' have long been known for trading in paddy, jute, cattle and clothes. The smaller markets have never shied away from embracing constant changes. The process, however, was slow which had a lot to do with the perennially backward and slow-moving economy of the land. The changes gained considerable speed after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Over the centuries up to that period, the look of markets in Bengal had remained almost the same. The difference between village markets and those in the trading hubs of Dhaka or Chittagong turned out to be imperceptible. The outward, and even basic, features often overlapped. On the other hand, the day-to-day business activities at Dhaka's Chawk Bazar and Narayanganj or at Chilmari in former Rangpur in northern Bangladesh in the 18th and 19th centuries also showed many resemblances. A noticeable development began occurring with an increase of the British business stakes in Bengal. While the region's jute and muslin continued to end up in British seaports, the markets in Bengal were seen flooded with products churned out by the wheels of the Industrial Revolution.

Ironically, due to its being suppressed by a mighty colonial power for 200 long years and the absence of organised resistance until the 20th century, the sub-continent, including Bengal, did not see much change in its trade scenario. This has also been reflected in the region of eastern India. The case of the eastern part of Bengal, however, remained mired in an impasse even during the neo-colonial Pakistani rule. Independence brought about the cherished change in 1971. However, notwithstanding the shine and glitz brought to both district-level and larger urban markets by the made-in-Bangladesh products, the remote village 'bazars' in independent Bangladesh found themselves self-absorbed, remaining nestled in their mostly sylvan coziness. The general spectacle hasn't changed much in the last forty-six years.

The typical village markets in the country today are still distinguished by their folksy nature. Before the emergence of port-towns and cities, it's the rural markets which used to serve as the platform of many royal and administrative activities. Chores related to day-to-day life would also be conducted there. Those ranged from meeting people, social assemblage, carrying out arbitration to reprimanding someone for an immoral act or petty crime. Like in many developing countries, many of the country's socio-economic activities in the bygone days were centred on markets, mostly those by the rivers. With these trading venues eventually turning into 'ganges' (indigenous ports) and later urban points, the village markets found themselves being pushed deeper into a region. Some of these markets remained cut off from the mainstream national life for even a century. Even in the days immediately before the liberation of the country, many of these 'bazars' and weeky 'haats' did not have concrete structures, with shops mostly made of bamboo walls and thatched roofs. Many conducted their business in the open, with a nominal shade on four poles overhead. Electricity remained a pipe dream until the supply from the rural electrification authorities. Many areas of the country, and thus markets, still remain out of electricity coverage.

However, in over last four and half decades, most of the rural markets of the country have undergone major changes. Earlier fish, vegetable, milk and molasses would dominate the market products. Now the venues hum with people carrying smart phones and polythene bags. The shelves of brick-built shops are filled with all kinds of merchandise. Apart from grocery, they range from kitchenware, crockery, canned foods, so-called energy drinks to cosmetics and trinkets.  Shopkeepers smartly attending to the clientele, including girls and young women from the nearby schools and colleges, are common spectacles. Impromptu fast food corners, photo-copying and computer type-setting shops are no longer the scenes too unusual for these markets.

Markets in Bengal in the distant past grew by riversides, with boats being the chief mode of carrying goods and people. Those deprived of rivers or other water bodies would grow at a convenient point accessible by people living close by and even at distant places. The latter faced trouble reaching the markets. These days many such markets have the facility of transports.  Apart from rickshaws, market-goers in these areas use improvised motor transports. This was once beyond the farthest reach of thoughts of people in such areas. Village markets can now meet the local people's demands for many products previously unavailable there. They do not have to travel to towns to buy a life-saving drug or festival clothes. In spite of this self-sufficiency, a lot of people miss the old charm of these markets. They pine for the good old days of the village 'bazars'. Markets, be they small or big, by the rivers or deep inside, once dotted the landscape of Bangladesh. In spite of the development spree covering ever-increasing swathes of the country, village markets still remain integral to its mainstream life.    

The socio-economic activities of humans have been remarkably shaped by markets since ancient times. Although in the later ages, markets assumed wider spherical space and dimensions, in their early stage they flourished exclusively on trading. This commercial activity was characterised by distinctive characters in different lands on different continents. Apart from commerce, markets were found playing the role of catalysts to the shaping of cultures and civilisations. This process has also evolved in varied ways. A traditional marketplace in the pre-Christ Egypt, Greece or Rome thus developed in conformity with the respected region's customs and rituals. Those were obviously different from that existing in India, Mesopotamia, Persia or China during the corresponding period. As part of a universal rule followed by humans living in disparate regions, civilisations have never stopped progressing, with only a handful getting lost in oblivion midway. The character of markets has kept evolving in the dynamic societies under different civilisations without pause. In accordance with this process, markets are credited with being a prime impetus to the growth of cities and urban cultures.

The sub-continent in its earlier times boasted of its markets which were unique to it. Besides bringing people to a particular venue for buying and selling things, these markets eventually emerged as an ideal place for get-together. There was no gender discrimination. Alongside men, female traders would be found engaged in their respective business activity at the generally male-dominated markets. Selling fish was one such job, which remained exclusive to women. Meanwhile, nearly a thousand years have elapsed. The land, its peoples and their cultures have embraced newer customs and practices. Markets are not out of it. Yet, despite the changes in the look of the markets in South Asia, their basic nature remains more or less the same down the ages. This also applies to the rural markets in Bengal. Whereas these commercial centres in some parts of the West in the past were used to watching drunken brawls and revelries alongside trading, an ambience of peace and harmony used to prevail in the markets in ancient and medieval India.

Indigenous markets are not going to peter out anytime soon in the country. Yet decline in arable lands' size and people opting for non-agricultural professions coupled with their city-bound migration may hasten these markets' disappearance. Instead of a market by a river or under a banyan, the rural people may one day be found visiting superstores in their neighbourhoods. The visual, however, remains confined to the domain of fantasy at the moment.

shihabskr@ymail.com       

 

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