Kolkata, India – A fresh shipment of replica sports jerseys arrives at a stall in Maidan Market, one of the largest sporting goods bazaars in India, located in the heart of the east Indian city of Kolkata.
Mohammed Nadim, who has been working at the booth for more than 23 years, takes out a plastic stool from under a frame with cheap soccer jerseys and begins to examine the shipment.
“Uhssee, theek-e ache (80, the count is okay)”, he mumbles in a mixture of Hindi and Bangla, before handing the counterpart of a signed receipt to the load carrier.
The delivery consists of 10 replica jerseys of each of the eight teams participating in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the largest Twenty20 league in the world.
The 2021 IPL edition starts next month and Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is one of the six host cities.
Nadim says the booth would order ten times as many before the tournament every year.
That was before the pandemic. Well, he adds, his store is unlikely to order a refill in the run-up to this year’s competition.
“Due to the pandemic, we still have stocks from last year,” Nadim told Al Jazeera.
“We only replenish them minimally as the business in the market has grown slightly lately. However, the current stockpiling in large quantities is beyond our means, as the virus has brutally cut our income. “
The Maidan Market is home to 449 stalls, 80 percent of which only sell sporting goods [Annesha Ghosh/Al Jazeera]The market, which was founded in 1954 for cloth merchants and artisans who immigrated to the western part of divided Bengal after the partition of India in 1947, gradually developed into the arterial sporting goods center of the country.
The bazaar, which houses 449 stalls – 80 percent of which only sell sporting goods – is a stone’s throw from the iconic Eden Gardens cricket ground near the Maidan and has witnessed several epoch-making changes that are essential to Kolkata’s identity.
The market sources most of its goods – raw materials and finished products – from cities in northern India, and the months-long shutdown of trains has hampered supply and demand.
When the stallholders stayed inside, another disaster struck the market.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic and the exodus of migrant workers triggered by the lockdown, Kolkata also carried the brunt of the catastrophic cyclone Amphan, which landed on the coasts of eastern India and Bangladesh last May.
“The waterlogging in this area was so bad after the storm that the local police let us open our shops for a day so we could rescue our goods,” says Sumojit Pradhan, who runs his father’s business.
“Over 50,000 rupees ($ 690) worth of cricket bats and shoes were damaged in our store alone,” Pradhan told Al Jazeera.
Kolkata’s booming mall culture had slowly started to affect Maidan Market’s business [Annesha Ghosh/Al Jazeera]Last November, Nadim lamented how the pandemic had brought the market to its knees.
“The nosedive in our sales has been so terrible that I’m drowning in debt,” Nadim said at the time.
“I got my kids to drop out of school and if someone in the family gets sick, I don’t have enough money to buy a doctor.”
A year after the lockdown, more and more customers are visiting the market and it has returned to its normal business hours of 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and thrown overboard the six-hour window that it held on to for a few months after it reopened.
“I’ve been printing around 120 jerseys a day since January,” said Sunny, who runs a vinyl print switch at Maidan Market.
“It was about 40 percent of the daily orders I received before the pandemic. It could get better or worse in the coming months. At the moment I’m just relieved that I’m getting an income again, ”Sunny said to Al Jazeera.
Kolkata’s booming mall culture had slowly started to affect Maidan Market’s business.
Given the pandemic that is driving down spending on non-essential products and accelerating the shift to online shopping, the lack of a digital presence is also hurting booth owners.
“The loss that has been made in the past 12 months … we may not be able to recover from it in even five years,” Sheikh Nazimuddin, joint secretary of the Association of Stallholders in the Market, told Al Jazeera.
“And so, in-demand items like cricket bats, helmets and guards are such that customers hardly prefer to buy them online. For this reason, this market has never had the need for a digital presence so far. “
In the first two months after the market reopened last June, vendors made good money on fitness equipment supplies while others struggled to stay afloat [Annesha Ghosh/Al Jazeera]Since the coronavirus outbreak, 24-year-old Pradhan has been one of the few traders in the Maidan market who have spent time and effort building or increasing their brick and mortar business online presence.
Pradhan admitted that the pandemic has forced a “rethink” of customer loyalty approaches, from listing their stores on Google to displaying selected patterns of inventory on Facebook and Instagram pages, to taking orders on WhatsApp.
Regardless of the changed consumption patterns, several longtime loyalists of the Maidan market believe that the bazaar’s enduring charm will help sellers weather the ongoing adversity.
“The Maidan Market is a great leveler. Players from all social and financial backgrounds are attracted to this place, ”said Jhulan Goswami, Indian women’s cricketer who learned her trade in Vivekananda Park in Calcutta.
“The affordability, variety and year-round availability of its products are its unique selling points. Ecommerce websites are not comparable in terms of these attributes, ”Goswami told Al Jazeera.
Manoj Tiwary, the Bengali and Indian men’s cricketer who has also played in the IPL, agreed.
“Since I first hit the market when I was 15, I’ve seen firsthand how every young athlete who comes here evolves with the market, starting with the purchase of equipment,” said Tiwary 35, Al said Jazeera.
“That relationship is then nurtured by the goodwill of the shopkeepers, who go out of their way to help you choose what is best for you.”
Most booth owners are hoping for a smooth IPL in April and May to increase sales [Annesha Ghosh/Al Jazeera]In the first two months after the market reopened last June, vendors made good money on fitness equipment supplies while others struggled to stay afloat.
“Since gyms are closed and outdoor activities are forbidden, dumbbells, resistance bands and weight plates are sold like hot cakes,” recalls Pradhan.
“Flag sellers, printers, jersey sellers and bat dealers no longer had any income.”
For sellers like the Islam brothers Rafique and Nurul, who run the oldest trophy shop on the market, barely a deal was made by December.
“Offices, academies and schools have been closed. Who would buy trophies or medals when there are no sporting events? “Said 64-year-old Rafique, who was one of the first stallholders to test positive for COVID-19 after the market reopened.
“It wasn’t until some local clubs started organizing small sporting and social events to congratulate frontline workers, for example, that we saw a slight increase in sales in December and January,” he said.
After most of the city’s sports coaching academies and local Cricket Association of Bengal tournaments resumed in late February, several classic cars and first-time buyers have since made their way to Maidan Market.
“The ongoing vaccination campaign has lifted the common man’s spirits,” said Somenath Das, helping his 14-year-old daughter try on a new pair of cricket shoes.
“We took all possible safety precautions and entered this market. When I grew up, I bought all of my soccer gear from here. Now it’s my daughter’s turn. “
Somenath Das went to Maidan Market to buy his daughter’s cricket shoes [Annesha Ghosh/Al Jazeera]But an air of resignation reigns over the market as a new nationwide surge in COVID cases has emerged and hit record highs in recent weeks.
Many stallholders fear that the profits Maidan Market has made in restoring a semblance of normalcy to management since the beginning of this year could be ruined by the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.
Most admit that, other than relatively better psychological preparedness, they have taken little or no action to counter the economic costs of a possible resuspension of all businesses if infections spiraled out of control, as they did a year ago.
Most booth owners are hoping for a smooth IPL in April and May to increase sales.
“When the IPL moved to the UAE last year due to the COVID crisis in India, the local excitement died down which means practically no business for us,” said Nadim.
“But even if the next tournament is entirely behind closed doors, the return of top-class cricket to Eden Gardens could generate enough buzz for fans and malls and restaurant owners to buy goods from us.
“Ummeed par duniya kayam hain (hope is what keeps people alive),” he added afterwards.