It was 4 pm on a Wednesday — a regular day in life of Kolkatans. Marquis Street, Free School Street and Sudder Street, crisscrossing one another in heart of the city, were teeming with people.
“Arre jaldi kar yaar. Shahid ko bahar bhej. Usko bol woh mobile counter ke samne khade rahne ko. Bus wohi rukegi, (Hurry up. Send Shahid out and ask him to stand near the mobile phone counter. The bus would stop there),” shouted Sujit Ghosh, manager, Kasturi Hotel on Marquis Street, to one of his employees as he cleared the reception desk.
Within five minutes a luxury AC bus smoothly swerved down the corner of Free School Street and came to a halt in front of a building complex that houses at least five hotels, travel agents’ and bus operators’ offices, money exchange agencies and offices of some reputed multi-specialty hospitals.
The excitement in the air here differs from the one found in other parts of the city. As the passengers descend from the bus and figure out which way to move in and which service to seek, it becomes evident that the locality is gearing to cater to the latest batch of travellers from Bangladesh. Scores of Bangladeshis pour in Kolkata every day and this New Market area specialises in catering to their needs.
“The area comprising Marquis Street, Free School Street and Sudder Street has almost become a mini-Bangladesh in the heart of this city. It has become a second home for Bangladeshis visiting the city. Stores here have developed over the past eight years or so,” said Rajesh Sethi, general secretary, Calcutta Hotels, Guest Houses & Restaurants Owners’ Association.
A second bus arrived in the next five minutes and a medley of people came out. They include women in burkhas with their family, a young couple, an ailing woman wearing taanter sari worn in the traditional Bengali style and teens in jeans and t-shirts.
“There are four travel agents – Shohag, Shyamoli, Saudia and Green Line – that operate bus services from Kolkata to Petrapole along the IndoBangla border. They bring thousands of people from the neighbouring country throughout the year,” said Kartik Chandra Ghosh, employee, Shyamoli.
About eight years ago, buses used to drop these passengers at Karunamoyee in Salt Lake. But then the venue for their arrival was changed to Marquis Street.
“One of the first things that travellers look for is local mobile phone SIM cards. I get around 10-15 customers every day. They provide photocopies of their passports and visas and photo to buy one,” said Sahil Khan, 20, SIM card-seller opposite Kasturi Hotel.
Kasturi Hotel on Marquis Street specialises in authentic Dhakai cuisine. Hotel manager Sujit Ghose said that the economy of the entire area, including their hotel, is dependent on Bangladeshis.
“Ninety per cent of our customers are Bangaldeshis. Thus our menu includes items like shutki mach, kochu pata chingri, tel koi and bhape ilish. Our hotel’s name is also meant to make them feel homely as in Bangladesh, Kasturi is a renowned chain of hotels,” said Ghose.
From these hotels to smallest cigarette and pan shops in the area, all are wooing customers from the neighbouring country. Popular cigarette brands like Gold Leaf, Marise, Pall Mall and Top 10, usually found in Bangladesh, sell like hot cakes here.
Moving down the three streets, one can see umpteen travel agents and currency exchange outlets along both sides of the road. The travel agents not only book air, bus and rail tickets for passengers willing to return to Dhaka and Chittagong or any other destination but also book tours within India. There are tours for Darjeeling and Sunderbans and even city tours within Kolkata.
There are around 200-odd hotels on these three streets and more or less an equal number of money exchange outlets, said a local shopkeeper.
“Even though most of Bangladeshis come to Kolkata for treatment, a handful of them come here as tourists. Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan is a hot favourite for them. Some even opt for short city tours,” said Somnath Bose of Travel Media on Free School Street.
For most of these visitors, Kolkata is a destination that offers better and cheaper medical care than their hometown. A special branch officer of Kolkata Police claimed that nine out of 10 Bangladeshis come here for treatment. To cater to their needs, a few premier private hospitals have opened city offices on Marquis Street.
“We guide them to our hospitals and offer help for visas, city tours, accommodation in our guest houses and money exchange among other things,” said an employee of the Calcutta Medical Research Institute’s city office on Marquis Street.
We met Md Jasimuddin, who came by the second bus with his mother Ferdous Begum, 58. Begum is a breast cancer patient. “I am coming to India frequently since the past one and half years for the treatment,” said Jasimuddin.
The other visitors come for business, shopping and spend holidays here.
“I have come here with my family to shop for my brother’s upcoming wedding. The cost of branded wears and other dress materials are much higher in Bangladesh than they are in India. So we decided to come down for better deal,” said 24-year-old Musharaf Hussain.
“Our daily transaction amounts to almost R1 lakh and 90% of it is through Bangladeshi customers,” said Pallab of Chittagong Foreign Money Exchangers.
“What I most enjoy about coming to Kolkata is that despite being so close, it is a completely different city to me. The heat and dust, the traffic and the teeming multitudes are similar to my own country’s. But the facilities and entertainment, say from films and shopping we get here, are something unique and something to brag about,” said Shamima, a newly-wed from Bangladesh who was stopping over in the city while on way to Simla.
The chief minister had ordered a high-level probe into the matter after she got a report about seizures of mobile phones in jails across the state.
However the recovery could not stop the practice. In recent times jail authorities have been worried about some high profile inmates getting access to mobile phones and controlling their evil empires outside .