The Tales of Bora Bazaar, Mumbai

“Get in the car. Where are you off to?” asked the boys.

“I’m going to Fort to help a friend buy some paper.”

“Rolling paper?” One of them grinned, and produced a joint from his pocket.

I smiled. “No, it’s –” I didn’t have time to explain; my ride had pulled over. I abruptly said goodbye to my friends, and hopped in the Uber.

Fast-forward 20 minutes and we were under a canopy of trees, aging grey buildings, and the clear blue skies of 3:30 pm.

Fort is like a maze. The lanes and by-lanes are never-ending. We found ourselves scurrying around the labyrinth like mice looking for cheese. Except we were looking for paper.

Along our expedition, we found a series of food stalls on the pavement selling pav bhaji, pulao, coin pizzas, ragda patties and — “You’re not well, and can’t eat any of this anyway, so let’s go.” And with that, I was dragged away from the sizzling daabeli that was gliding on the steaming pan.

The paper shop was in a lane adjacent to the one we were strolling in. The street greeted us with a tiny cigarette shop on one side and a corn seller on the other. As we entered Bora Bazaar, I couldn’t quite gauge the vibe — half the men wore formals and rode on bikes while the rest cycled around in their inner vests.

We passed a paper shop named The Papers Tailor. While we were caught up admiring the name, we arrived at Sun Enterprises Paper and Board Traders. It was a double-decker and we could view both floors from outside, although mysteriously, it had no stairs leading to the top.

The walls were filled with post-it-sized papers of every texture and colour. The distracted shopkeeper hastily showed us more paper tones like a deck of cards spread across the table. Every paper had a different story; every texture gave a different experience.

I became obsessed with caressing every paper on the wall. Fine, grainy, soft, hard, smooth, firm, sturdy, moist, slippery, glossy, thick, thin, or do you want something in the middle? We stood there like counterfeit experts, choosing what we thought might work.

On picking our choice of papers, we were sent into one of the ancient greying buildings. The stares of men in tight jeans accompanied us as we walked up a flight of stairs in the darkness. We reached a yellow-lit office where a sloth-of-a-man with a snail-paced brain gave us the prices and sizes.

After several failed attempts of talking to him in different languages, we politely pronounced him a dimwit. But through him we gathered that good quality paper could cost up to Rs. 36 a sheet, or maybe more.

To pickup our selected sheets, we were instructed to go alone to the godown and look for a “Ramu”. Exit lane, turn left into a lane and right into a by-lane.

The by-lane greeted us familiarly — with the stares of men. It was narrow, grey and black. Bikes were randomly placed with mechanic tools scattered on the ground. An old-school scooter with the side seat had a rat as its driver.

We found the godown and Ramu — the quintessential disinterested worker in a torn vest filled with holes. Behind his potbelly he hid, for as far as I could see, sheets of paper neatly stacked up to 30 feet high. A spellbinding sight for us. Not so much for Ramu, we gathered from his deadbeat look.

It’ll be fun if he forgets an un-stubbed cigarette here, I thought menacingly.

Once our sheets were inspected, rolled, and tucked under our arms, we began the last leg of our journey to the paper cutter shop. Opposite a fire station, a few lanes away we called, “Hey bhau!” With the chops of the guillotine, we got our papers sliced, rolled and taped for the taking. Who knew scissors had turned mainstream?

I was exhausted but our mission was accomplished, and how. The nooks and crannies of Bora Bazaar turned, what I thought would be a mundane job, into an adventure. It was a male-dominated, lazy market but their sluggish yet comical attitude made it an afternoon worth remembering.

As we sauntered out of the lane, my eye fell on the cigarette shop across the street. I nudged my head in that direction and said with a smirk, “Looks like there’s one last paper we need to buy.”

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