For photographers, food markets are always a tempting place to shoot with their bounties of colors, shapes, textures, and people. Over the years, I have visited many food markets in various parts of the world, including many in India. So, when a good friend told me that the Koley market in Kolkata, the largest wholesale vegetable market in eastern India, was unique and should not be missed, I was a bit skeptical, but then again, who can resist? So, on a recent trip to Kolkata, I decided to spend some time at what could be called the “mother of all markets.”
The Koley market is a very large old structure near a train station, open 24 hours a day and buzzing with activities at all times, though the early morning hours seem especially hectic. One’s first impression is the sheer intensity of the place– this is not the place to go to pick up the last-minute ingredients for dinner. Trucks are unloaded non-stop, and busy sellers are peddling their fare to people buying for restaurants, hotels, or their own vegetable stands around the city. One quickly learns that this is a “get-out-of-the-way” and “be aware of your surroundings” kind of place as many people come and go carrying heavy loads. You do not want to slow anyone down or make them drop their enormous loads. (Plus, large hooks are used to lift bags from the floor, so keeping one foot away from these is also a priority. Only go there with someone familiar with the place.)
The scale of this old market is also mind-boggling. The Koley market feels like a city in itself as some vendors and porters, living too far away to commute, have established living quarters in the structure’s remote (or not so remote) corners. As a result, one can also find chai wallah, food stalls, barbers, and religious shrines to serve the needs of these full-time residents.
One of the most amazing things about the Koley market is the kaleidoscope of colors on display. In addition to the array of contrasting shades found on the walls, like everywhere in India, vendors have developed an interesting technique to make their vegetables look more attractive. They cover their lamps with tinted cellophane to make the colors of their vegetables more intense and vibrant. So, vendors of carrots are surrounded by red lights, while the ones who sell cucumbers appear to be green giants. It is eerie, frightening, and beautiful all at once.
But by far, what impressed me the most at the Koley market were the “turban wallah” or heavy load porters. These men are often migrant workers from nearby Bihar or Bangladesh and carry unthinkable loads all day. They wrap a long piece of cloth around their head and then work as a team to lift packages that can weigh up to 500 kilos (more than 1000 pounds). These packages are then carried by one, two, three, or sometimes four porters walking in unison. Their strength is unbelievable, and they have adopted a way of walking that almost makes them look like ducks waddling, maybe to add to their stability or because they need to walk so closely to one another when they carry the load as a team. These steel men earn very little for all their hard work, around $8-$10 per day. I chatted with one of them, Rabi, who, at 45 years old, had just carried a basket of 120 kilos on his own. He kindly gave me a handshake at the end of our chat. I can still feel his grip.
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