Kolkata, India – A fresh consignment of sports replica jerseys arrives at a stall in Maidan Market, one of the largest sporting goods bazaars in India that is located in the heart of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata.
Mohammed Nadim, who has been working at the stall for more than 23 years, pulls out a plastic stool from underneath a rack stashed with low-priced football jerseys and begins examining the consignment.
“Uhssee, theek-e ache (80, the count is fine),” he mutters in a mix of Hindi and Bangla before handing the load-bearer the counterpart of a signed receipt.
The shipment consists of 10 replica jerseys of each of the eight teams taking part in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the biggest Twenty20 domestic league in the world.
The 2021 edition of the IPL begins next month and Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is one of the six host cities.
Nadim says the stall would typically order 10 times that number ahead of the tournament every year.
That was in pre-pandemic times. Now, he adds, it is unlikely his store would order a refill in the lead-up to this year’s competition.
“Due to the pandemic, we still have stock left over last year,” Nadim told Al Jazeera.
“We are replenishing them minimally given there’s been a slight increase in business across the market of late. But stocking up in bulk right now is beyond our means because the virus has brutally slashed our earnings.”
Set up in 1954 for cloth merchants and artisans who migrated to the western part of divided Bengal following the partition of India in 1947, the market, officially christened Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy Market, gradually evolved into an arterial sports-merchandise hub in the country.
Housing 449 stalls – 80 percent of which only sell sports items – the bazaar, nestled a stone’s throw away from the iconic Eden Gardens cricket stadium in the vicinity of the Maidan, has been witness to several epochal shifts integral to Kolkata’s identity.
The market ships most of its produce – raw materials and finished products – from northern Indian cities and the months-long suspension of trains hampered supply and demand.
As stall owners remained indoors, a further misfortune struck the market.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic and the exodus of migrant workers the lockdown triggered, Kolkata also bore the brunt of the catastrophic Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall on the coastlines of eastern India and Bangladesh last May.
“So bad was the waterlogging in this area after the storm that the local police let us open our shops for a day so we could save our goods,” recounts Sumojit Pradhan, who runs his father’s store.
“Cricket bats and shoes worth over 500,000 rupees ($6,900) were damaged in our shop alone,” Pradhan told Al Jazeera.
Last November, Nadim bemoaned how the pandemic had brought the market to its knees.
“So terrible was the nosedive in our sales that I’m drowning in debt,” Nadim said at the time.
“I’ve pulled my kids drop out of school and, if someone in the family falls ill, I don’t have enough money to be able to afford a doctor.”
A year on from the lockdown, more patrons are frequenting the market and it has returned to its usual 9.30am-8.30pm business hours, ditching the six-hour window it stuck to for several months after reopening.
“I’ve been printing around 120 jerseys a day since January,” said Sunny, who runs a vinyl-printing desk at Maidan Market.
“It’s been about 40 per cent of the daily orders I used to get before the pandemic. Things could be better or worse in the coming months. For now, I’m just relieved I’m earning an income again,” Sunny told Al Jazeera.
Kolkata’s booming mall culture had slowly been eating into Maidan Market’s business.
With the pandemic prompting a dip in spending on non-essential products, and an accelerated shift to online shopping, a lack of a digital presence is also hurting the stall owners.
“The loss incurred in the past 12 months … we may not be able to recover from it even in five years’ time,” Sheikh Nazimuddin, joint secretary of the stallholders’ association at the market, told Al Jazeera.
“And such is the nature of in-demand items like cricket bats, helmets and guards, customers hardly prefer buying them online. That’s why this market never previously felt the need to have a digital presence.”
Since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, Pradhan, 24, has been among a few traders at Maidan Market who have funnelled time and effort into either creating or increasing the online presence of their brick-and-mortar businesses.
From having their stores listed on Google, to displaying select samples of in-store stock on Facebook and Instagram pages and taking orders on WhatsApp, the pandemic, Pradhan admits, has forced a “major rethink” of customer engagement approaches.
The changes in consumer patterns notwithstanding, several long-time loyalists of Maidan Market believe the enduring charms of the bazaar will help the sellers weather the ongoing adversity.
“Maidan Market is a great leveller. Players of every social and financial standing gravitate towards that place,” said Jhulan Goswami, Indian women’s team cricketer who learned her craft at Kolkata’s Vivekananda Park.
“The affordability, variety, and year-round availability of its products are its USPs. E-commerce sites are no match when it comes to these attributes,” Goswami told Al Jazeera.
Manoj Tiwary, the Bengal and Indian men’s cricketer who has also played in the IPL, agrees.
“Ever since I visited the market for the first time as a 15-year-old, I’ve witnessed first-hand the kinship every young athlete who comes here develops with the market, starting with the buying of equipment,” Tiwary, now 35, told Al Jazeera.
“That relationship is then nurtured by the goodwill of the shopkeepers who go to great lengths to help you pick what’s best for you.”
For the first two months after the market reopened last June, sellers with stockpiles of fitness equipment made good money while the others struggled to keep their heads above water.
“With gyms shut and outdoor activities prohibited, dumbbells, resistance bands and weight plates sold like hot cakes,” Pradhan recalled.
“Flag vendors, printers, jerseys sellers and bat dealers were starved of an income.”
For sellers like the Islam brothers, Rafique and Nurul, who operate the oldest trophy store in the market, hardly any business came by until December.
“Offices, academies and schools were closed. Who would buy trophies or medals if no sports events take place?” said Rafique, 64, who was one among the first stallholders to test positive for COVID-19 after the reopening of the market.
“It was only after a few local clubs began organising small sports and social events, say, to felicitate front-line workers, did we notice a slight uptick in sales in December and January,” he said.
With most sports coaching academies across the city and local tournaments under the Cricket Association of Bengal having resumed by late February, several old-timers and first-time buyers have since been making their way to Maidan Market.
“The ongoing vaccination drive has lifted the common man’s spirits,” said Somenath Das, while helping his 14-year-old daughter try on a new pair of cricket shoes.
“We took whatever safety precautions we could and came to this market. Growing up, I used to buy all my football gear from here. Now, it’s my daughter’s turn.”
But an air of resignation hangs over the market as a new nationwide surge in cases unfolded in recent weeks, reaching record highs.
Many stallholders fear that the gains made by Maidan Market since the start of this year in restoring a semblance of normalcy to the way it conducts business might be ruined by the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.
Most admit that apart from relatively better psychological preparedness, they have little to no measures in place to counter the economic costs of a potential resuspension of all business if infections spiral out of control as they did a year ago.
Most stall owners are hoping for a smooth IPL in April and May to lift sales.
“With the IPL moving to the UAE last year because of the COVID crisis in India, the on-ground excitement around it died, meaning practically no business for us,” Nadim said.
“But even if the next tournament is held entirely behind closed doors, the return of top-flight cricket to the Eden Gardens could create enough buzz for fans and owners of malls, restaurants to buy merchandise from us.
“Ummeed par duniya kayam hain (Hope is what keeps people alive),” he added, as an afterthought.