Burma Bazar - In the early 80's

It has been ages since I ventured to that corner of Chennai. At the Parry’s corner (called so since EID parry were headquartered there) in erstwhile Madras, during the early 80’s, there existed a long strip of ramshackle ‘hole in the wall’ shops where all kinds of smuggled (or more correctly (!!) stated these days as ‘grey market’ goods) were displayed and sold. The customs department had very high customs tariff’s on imported equipment and there were strict limits on what one could bring into the country and to what meager value. This promoted smuggling and the Burma bazaar catered to those who wanted that CASIO calculator or Yamaha music keyboard or a Panasonic Two in one and were willing to pay a bit more of a price..

I used to work in Madras then, right at Parry’s corner at the Bombay Mutual building. It was a great period that, with few college friends living in the nearby YMCA, I would bus down from Triplicane…great lunches at Hari Nivas…and sometimes real funny encounters & incidents. Lunch time was when everybody would get out and stretch their legs, though it was hot and humid out there in Madras.

Back to the Burma bazaar story. Go past the Lingi chetty and thampu chetty streets (where they still make 777 brand masalas & pickles) to the beach road and you will find it. It sure looked promising; there were plenty of lookers and askers, but not so many obvious buyers. Most would walk by like tourists to take a look at the forbidden stuff. Stories floated around that it was duplicate stuff, not Japanese, but made in some other place, or that they were damaged stuff which won’t work. These purchases had no warranty policy or anything. You buy it you are stuck with it. In the evenings, the shops would be shuttered and the guys took all the stuff home. Policemen walked by, turning a blind eye most of the time. I guess they were on retainers.

Some of the shops that sold music systems (big Two in ones or three in ones) displayed only catalogs, not the hardware itself. It was in front of one of these shops that I was standing with my cousin who was visiting Madras. He wanted a two in one and we were trying to locate one at Burma Bazar. We found a Panasonic system, and started the bargaining process. You had to do that in Burma bazaar, you see. Prices firmed up eventually at 30 to 50% less, after a half hour heated discussion. We were reaching nowhere today; prices were still 20% higher than our budget when this guy says ‘come with me’. With great trepidation, we accompanied him in an auto to some other part of the city, somewhere far down Kasi or Thambu chetty street - a dank and dark gully. We were then taken to a room on the second floor where a lot of hustling and bustling was going on, it was the main ‘godown’ for all the stuff.

Freelancers would row to the ship anchored beyond territorial waters and bring aboard, the smuggled stuff. The items would be packed in plastic gunny bags, weighted under water and towed by the boat to distant parts of Madras shoreline and then brought to the Kasi chetty street ‘Gudam’.. Sometimes water seeped in and eventually destroyed the stuff. Sometimes it arrived safely. If wet, they dried it and cleaned it and gave it to you without your knowing a thing, an on/off test was allowed, no warranty beyond that, after a while the corrosion set in and the stuff sometimes conked out. Sometimes the stuff was a Korean look alike but stating Made in Japan (ironically Korea is more advanced compared to Japan, in many areas, today!!)

Seeing all this, and fearing our safety (we had Rs 500 cash in our pockets) we were no longer interested in buying and wanted to vamoose ASAP. In fact we were quite terrified being in the den (much like one pictured in Hindi movies with Ajit but no Mona).There was the Bossman Chettiar lounging in the corner back to a pillow & barking orders. We were formally presented before him by the shopkeeper. He asked us what we wanted, and what price we were willing to pay. We stuck sheepishly to our price (without further negotiation – as we were scared shitless) and the deal did not go through. We were then told in nice & no uncertain terms to get the hell out. There ended the encounter with the man. The guy who brought us there was understandably furious ( he had lost face) and walked away uttering dire threats - if we ever went to his shop again etc etc , We had to find our way back to Parry’s on feet and have since then avoided Burma bazaar like plague..


After writing this I checked out if Burma Bazar exists these days. The first hit on Google was from the Tourism department of India!!! So the whole thing is legit now???

Parry's Corner is one of the biggest markets of the city and deals in wholesale as well as retail trade. Trading in almost all kinds of goods from plastic goods to textiles and stationery, and from ready made garments to household items can be had here for reasonable prices. Nearby is the famous Burma Bazar where one can find all sorts of imported goods ranging from electronic gadgets to readymades and perfumes.
Burma Bazaar gets it name because originally Indian refugees and traders from Burma would sell their wares at the Bazaar..

Incidentally a tamil movie is being released with Burma bazaar as the backdrop titled ‘Vattaram’.

These days, I understand one goes there for pirated DVD’s and VCD’s. Burma Bazar has even provided a proposal to regularize this business!!

Picture courtesy - The Mizzima News

Anybody remember the Moore market neighboring Madras central station? I recall reading a report years ago; stating it was all lost in a fire!!! That was one hell of a place, one could find rare books at MM!!


Sudhir syal said...

Great post Maddy,

You should blog on Sulekha, you probably will get far more response for your writing.

This really helped give me an insight, as I'm currently working on an article on Burma Bazaar.


Maddy said...

thanks sudhir - for stopping by & commenting, BTW had been contemplating this for a while, finally with ur prodding, I have just started cross blogging on sulekha - http://manmadhan-334718.sulekha.com/