The Lily Pond Complex housing the traders who lost their shops in the 1985 Moore Market blaze is just a shadow of the famous landmark. But Anusha Parthasarathy discovers that it supports many families and continues to display a variety of wares

I stare at a withered copy of Wuthering Heights. The wind flays open the pages and drops of water begin to fall on them. Suddenly, there’s a flurry of activity at the otherwise laidback Lily Pond Complex, behind Ripon Building. Everyone scurries for cover, the traders holding plastic sheets over the stacks of books and other ware displayed on the roadside. The owner of the stall I’m standing at quickly pulls out a sheet of tarpaulin. By the time he covers the books, the rain has stopped and he sighs loudly.

“Why are you taking photographs,” asks a curious passer-by, munching on a chilli bajji bought from a nearby shop. I notice that the parotta stall not far away is also doing brisk business. I smile and walk away. Moore Market is now just a memory. Parents recall childhood shopping trips, students of the early 80s reminisce how they scoured the market for books. In fact, everyone from Madras has at least one experience of bargaining with the traders for the little trinkets they had bought in this once bustling market. I wonder what lies buried beneath the new Moore Market Complex, after the tragic fire in 1985 put an end to the business the old one enjoyed. It was reconstructed in 1986 as the Lily Pond Complex but nothing has ever been the same.

Customers haggling with stall owners over a heap of silicone phone cases, hawkers trying to sell rubber slippers, a family negotiating the price of plastic flowers, tea stalls smelling of biscuits and boiling milk, antique stores selling everything from old gramophones to precious gems… all these greet you outside the complex, apart from the many makeshift stalls selling second-hand books. Their owners surround you with loud cries of “Books, madam? Engineering books? Story books? Come this side, Madam.” I weave my way through them, passing tall piles of packed books before I run into Bommi.

Her stall sells precious gems, jewellery and antiques. An interesting collection of Buddhas is lined up in front and I ask her permission to click a picture. She obliges and explains that she runs the store with her husband, who has gone to Rajasthan, on business. “We get most of our wares from Rajasthan and nearby places. I can’t remember where exactly,” she says, as I aim the camera at her.

Inside the complex, the first thing I notice is the chirping of birds. It cheers up the dreary, poorly-lit corridors. There are bookstores and more bookstores. Near the staircase, I land up at a store selling knick knacks — little knives, the odd doll, liquor bottles (which I learn are used in television sitcoms and big screen movies). The owner is chatting with five of his friends seated on the wall opposite. In a small bylane nearby is Siddiq’s Military and General Stores. The shop, which was in the original Moore Market, shifted here after the fire and sells second-hand and new uniforms for the armed forces, the NCC, the Scouts and so on. Owner Siddiq is attending to a couple of customers; so I turn around and follow the loud music emanating from the floor above, passing by a dog curled up, fast asleep on the ramp.

The musical trail leads to Rhythm, a store that sells old vinyl records and antique gramophones. Most of the small crowd gathered here seems to know one another. They chat and drink tea, the retro beats reminiscent of a bygone era. Others passing by tap their feet and bob their heads to the familiar strains. There are more pet shops on the first floor which smells of fish and feathers. The owners sit along the corridor reading the newspaper. The second floor is deserted, so I find my way back downstairs.

A tea shop by the ramp is well-lit and busy. I hear eggs being cracked and the clink of glass. Nearby, a wall serves as a convenient shelf to display a row of old telephones. A store selling medical textbooks has quite a few customers who are busy bargaining with the owner. I walk out through one side, looking at a row of shops selling flex and plastic sheets, and others selling fluorescent overalls and helmets.

A bystander tries to peep into the frame as I click pictures. “If you pose properly, maybe she’ll take one of just you,” his friend laughs, pushing him forward playfully.

Bommi waves as I leave and the man at the parotta stall grins when I zoom in to shoot the food. Moore Market is a shadow of what it used to be, holding on feebly to its glorious past. What does shine through though is the many lives it supports, like Siddiq and Bommi, and the variety it continues to offer.