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  • Shelley Dark

5. to market to market

This man is selling chai at the Koley fruit and vegetable market in Kolkata. What a day!

We are in the hotel foyer at 5.30am again to refuel before our early morning our - coffee and totally wicked Danish pastries, donuts, cake or biscuits. I opt for a Danish pastry and then a biscuit. John a donut and a biscuit. Or two.

Manjit our guide arrives with another tourist in tow, Jamie, a charming and friendly American woman who is keen to go. Manjit is unfailingly cheerful and we appreciate it. He said on Sunday that all gods have a ride. When I laughed at that, he said, no, really, the Hindi word for it actually means 'ride'. For instance, Ganesh's ride is a mouse. The goddess of art and literature, Saraswati, who is to be feted in a couple of weeks, rides a swan. Shiva rides Nandi the bull. I make a mental note to investigate further the rides of the Hindu gods.

Our first stop is at Sealdah at the Koley wholesale markets - the fish market on one side of the road, followed much later by the fruit and vegetable market on the other.

The road is lined with other vendors, sellers displaying neem 'toothbrushes', locals warming themselves over tiny wood off-cut fires. This woman's cleaver looks sharp.

You can see much more clearly in the photo below how the stick is trimmed at the top to make a small 'brush'. Clever isn't it? My model very graciously consents to the photo, but is a little unsure of the process.

The word market scarcely describes what we see and hear. It's firstly about noise. Deafening noise. Yelling. Haggling. Informing. Summoning. Advertising. Laughing. Reckoning. Paying. Counting.

I am unprepared for the enthusiasm with which the workers in the fish market greet us. They are so excited to have their photos taken, pushing each other forward, pointing at each other, jostling and laughing. All the while carrying huge flat baskets of fish on their heads. Proprietors are adding money, tipping fish and prawns from one basket to another, weighing stingrays for sale. One wears headphones. When Manjit puts them on my head, a head-banging reggae belts out. Men on low platforms write details on clipboards and count out change.

The variety of seafood is quite staggering in quality and quantity. Piles of fish are displayed on the wet floor. Ice is being scraped up with spades and dumped on top of polystyrene boxes of fish.

The workers are predominantly men, but women make up some of the customers. With a few exceptions they seem to be enjoying their work. They present themselves or their friends unabashedly for photos. Manjit explains that when he takes printed photos back to the market, as he often does, the workers are thrilled to have something to send or take home to their families in far flung areas of Bengal. It's as close as their families will probably ever get to their husband/father's workplace.

This man laughs and then throws up a smoke screen.

The huge fruit and vegetable market is laid out under cover, in a grid pattern. Big open areas in the middle are divided by sand-filled hessian rolls on the floor. Low lights covered in cellophane paper cast light in colours complimentary to the produce. The sides are divided into cubbies, where men sit counting money, negotiating prices. Everything is displayed to its best advantage. Tamarind, garlic, coriander, turmeric, basil, potatoes, tomatoes.... On and on.

The most amazing sight of the day is the strength and determination of the men carrying huge packages into the vegetable market in tandem - three or four men to a package, legs moving in time. Workplace health and safety has no place here.

On the street, there are heavy bound packages of goods on the ground, unloaded from lorries. Large groups of up to 10 men hoist the package high in the air with much straining of muscles and grunting.

Then one man slips in underneath, followed by another and another until there are 3 or 4 men holding the load. They move off in unison, in time to their own beat.

The vendors here are busy. They don't mind us being there but they are concentrating on what they do best. Selling their wares. The man just below is selling cakes made of date palm molasses.