BENGALURU: What Syed Zaheeruddin remembers of his father’s grocery store in the Johnson Market of the 60s is the empty, somnolent road it stood on. “We would sit and wait to see a car drive by (on the now Hosur Road) and maybe catch one in an hour,” says the third-generation businessman. His general store is now 50 years old, like most of the nearly 100 shops in this market set up in 1929.
The Iranians’ ‘Fair’ Trade
Johnson Market’s history dates back to the arrest of Iranian horse traders Aga Ali Askar and his brothers. “They came from Shiraz (in Iran) and travelled to coastal Karnataka and Kodagu,” says Mansoor Ali, a historian.
The fortunes of Shiraz, once the capital of Persia where poets and scholars met, would have begun to wane in those years. “In Kodagu, the traders were arrested by the king because they looked obviously foreign.”
The British came to their rescue. Since then they became friendly with the government and started supplying Arabian horses to their cavalry.
The trade was profitable and soon Ali Askar’s family owned 25 big properties. “This included Windsor Manor and the Governor’s House,” says Mansoor. One of Ali Askar’s grandsons, Sir Mirza Muhammad Ismail (1883-1959), was the longest serving Diwan with 18 years in power.
In 1893, Ali Asker had willed that a sum of `800 be used to build a mosque. In the 1930s, Sir Mirza expanded the construction, which was later brought down. “Only an ashurkhana stands here now,” says Mansoor. This is where ceremonies of Muharram are organised.
Meanwhile, an Anglo Indian community had started settling in this locality. So the colonial establishment decided to open a market for them and bought the land from Ali Asker.
Later, Ali Asker also gave land for one of the first dispensaries in the city — Sadat Dispensary, says Mansoor. “The British asked for it and the land in front of what is now Fathima Bakery (opposite Johnson Market) was handed over, along with Ali Asker’s donation, to build it,” he says.
In Honour of The Briton
“The market’s construction was done under Johnson, a British civil servant,” says the historian. But it was initially named Richmond Town Market. “Later, someone came to know of Johnson’s contribution and renamed it,” says Sreedharan, who runs the nearly 50-year-old Durga Bakery here. It is known for its milk cakes.
There’s a shop older than his, Bahadur Sharif’s. It is one of the greengrocers that line the inner corridor. Johnson Market has three zones - the outer with its grocers, bakeries and stationery shops, the inner with its greengrocers and the outer corridor with the butchers.
Spot the Lotus Motifs And Arches
The architecture of the main structure is Indo-Sarcenic, says Mansoor. “This is a combination of Hindu and Islamic architecture with lotus motifs and arches.”
Traders seem to have made changes to its structure by adding PVC pipes to drain rainwater from the roofs and tubelights and street lights. But the roof with its clay tiles and wooden beams seems to have been relaid only once.
A butcher’s assistant taps on the central building’s walls and says that they are made of natural stone. The walls have been painted over but the floors retain its grey.
Harsh CFL lamps light up this corridor. Mohammad Afroz, who has been running his shop here for 35 years, says they used to have only candles earlier. “The market used to close at 6 pm.” Now shops shut down between 8 and 11 pm.”
Bahadur’s greengrocers is one of the last three open at 8 pm. His relative mans it after 1 pm, and says he has spent his entire life of 60 years here. “This market was well known for its beef, fish and vegetables,” he says, and insists that he should not be named, because he wants to be “left in peace”.
The entrance to the shop has flimsy grills. “Those days, we could leave it open… Eventually, we also had a watchman,” he says.
Traders Turned Down Riches
The older customers have now migrated to England and Australia, he says. “Now and then some people come and ask me if I remember their father or grandfather, and give identifying features like a top hat. But, I remember nothing.”
Syed Zaheeruddin remembers how his father was offered a home to buy. “A customer was moving to London and said that my father could pay half the price upfront and half later, whenever the owner came visiting,” says Syed. His grandfather didn’t buy it though. The locality did not seem promising enough.
Syed Asif Bukhari of Chai Day too recalls a house that his father passed. “It was a 10,000 sq feet home right opposite the current Baldwin School,” says Bukhari. “They were selling it for Rs 30,000.” But his mother was worried. How could she manage such a huge house? So, the family refused the sale.
“The square feet rate here was Rs 1,200 in 1994-95, now it is Rs 29,000,” he says. But Asif Bukhari says that he does not see it as a loss. “The real riches are up there,” he says, pointing heavenwards.
Bukhari set up his tea shop in 2008, but has been living nearby along with his extended family for long.
“The area behind Lifestyle (in Vivek Nagar) was where the British bred horses. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere near Magrath Road, where Garuda Mall now is, after 7 pm… it was where garbage was dumped and the carriages were parked.”
There was a flour mill too, he says, towards Shantinagar. Now an apartment building stands in its place.
They Almost Built A Mall Here
Mansoor talks of places of interest, around the market, though their history starts much after bazaar’s. He conducts walking tours through and about the market.
“Fathima Bakery was started by V T Francis who came from Kerala with just Rs 5 in his pocket. Koshy’s here was the first mechanised bakery in the city, and then there is Fanoos that is famous for its rolls,” says the Bengalurean who used to spend evenings here with his cousins.
In 2014, along with other markets in Malleswaram, Shantinagar’s Johnson Market was to be demolished and make way for a mall. The traders protested, and the city corporation dropped the plan. In 2016’s budget, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced a `5,000-crore grant to develop this market along with Russell Market and KR Market.