In Kolkata’s historic New Market, tradition, life and decay co-exist under one roof
Stories of survival, joy and despair from a 141-year-old institution.
Pass between the front of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the huge bowler hat that perches on top of the gate to Charlie Chaplin Park, take a right onto Hogg Street and curve round until you get to the narrow entrance of what appears to be a darkened alley. Step inside, you’ve just entered the 141-year-old Sir Stuart Hogg Market, known locally as New Market.
Admittedly that’s the back entrance — and my preferred way in — but walk round to the front along Lindsay Street and you’ll see a fairly grand facade, reminiscent of a Duplo reconstruction of St Pancras station, which coincidently opened only six years before New Market’s public launch. Today, this dusty red colonial front with white arched windows and a tower, whose clock was shipped over from Huddersfield in 1930, is the site of Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) first municipal market and a legendary feature of the city.
Once inside the alley, you pass a stall selling coffee beans from Kerala and loose-leaf tea direct from Darjeeling. Next to this, two men smile and tempt you to buy a few — or more than a few — delicacies from a dazzling selection of sweets and treats. Walk a few steps further and look left — a cubby-hole barber is shaving an elderly Bengali man with a cut throat razor; directly opposite, a chai wallah pours tea and swaps gossip with the owners of a clothes stall, the walls of the little alcove lined from floor to ceiling with neatly folded jeans and shirts. This proliferation of trade continues on in a labyrinth of around 4000 stalls throughout the rabbit’s warren of halls, alleys and buildings that compose the New Market complex.
New Market’s doors first opened to customers on 1st January 1874, into an era where Calcuttan concerns about British benevolence were on the rise. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 had more or less finished off the hundred years of commercial and political rule of the East India Company, and a slow schism was widening between the colonial rulers and their Indian subjects.
One way in which this political and social dis-ease was made domestically manifest was by a group of petitioning British residents who persuaded Stuart Hogg, chair of the Calcutta Corporation, of their need for an upmarket space, away from the crush of the native’s bazaars. Designed and completed by the East India Railway Company, the market was birthed in the heart of the city’s elite precinct, fulfilling their segregative wish.
Much has changed since these early days and the market is full of locals of all caste, class and taste, as well as the occasional goggle-eyed tourist, nervously snapping the wandering goats and explosion of colour, powder and plastic. Today, the market is laid out in distinct sections, fascinatingly organised by the merchandise on sale, like a microcosm of the city itself. An old saying goes that you can buy anything from a needle to an elephant in New Market. While the elephants, lion cubs and other exotic animals have disappeared into myth, a staggering array of products remain.
I was fascinated by the market, first by reputation and then by experience. The celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain insists on visiting markets in the places he travels to, in order to ‘get a sense of what a culture loves most dear’, and as a photographer, I feel similarly. After several visits, I was most drawn to the area where fresh fruit, vegetables and meat were sold. Here I saw the fast turnover of perishable products and the raw materials of the famous Bengali cuisine. Expensive and hard-to-get items lie side-by-side with the cheapest staples in the city. Meat forbidden by religious taboos are available at one end of the meat hall, while mutton and chicken, stars of the Indian non-veg diet, sit displayed at the other. A lively and bustling place, attracting the greatest variety of people, this is the locus of the everyday, now aimed indiscriminately at everyone.
Captivated by the intense life of this side of the market, I decided to spend time photographing some of the characters sat behind the pyramids of fruit, feathers and flesh. Dragging cables and equipment through mud and puddles of blood and melted ice — at one point almost losing the entire lot to a group of passing sheep — I encountered a diverse group, from various backgrounds and with various views and experiences of market life.
The market sellers I met expressed a complex relationship to their place of work and home. Many sleep in the market overnight, dealing with drips from above, rats, cats and overpowering smells of meat and rotting food waste as they guard their stall. Some spoke reverently of this historic space while others were realistic and ambivalent. Some were proud to be working in ‘the best market in town’, for others it was just work, and even then — it didn’t pay very well. For many it was a move from a rural life of hard grind and poverty in the fields to the bewildering chaos of the city to find a better life. Some were grateful for the increase in salary, others had their eyes on the next move, up and away.
While some of the market’s early glamour remains — in the marble and mahogany of Nahoum’s 114-year-old Jewish bakery, or the rare Kalimpong cheese brought down from the hills near Darjeeling and only available here — these days the aura is more faded glory and layered grime. Many of the men I spoke to wanted to talk about the problems they face — the pervading filth, the leaking roof, vermin, mosquitos, not enough toilets, parking issues keeping punters away and a decline in trade. Others were zealously optimistic — their market was perfect. Away from the ubiquitous shopping mall, those global temples with their shining halls that sing capitalism’s hymn of postmodern homogeneity, it was a refreshing mix of affection and realism.
As I chatted away, a group would soon gather. I would ask a question to one and the answer would return from another or in bits and pieces from various group voices, their identities overlapping in collective unity. Products of cultural collectivism and 35 years of communist government rule, many I spoke to were economic migrants from the rural South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal. With a population similar to that of Honduras, the area has been listed as one of the most ‘backward’ districts in the country, with land and livelihoods highly vulnerable to climate-related disasters, and around 40% of the population belonging to the poorest scheduled castes.
Through these discussions I began to see how far the market had come from its origins of segregation and elitism, transforming into an inclusive space where many gather in an intermingling of rich and poor, rural and urban; a place of opportunity, but also decline. Of proud heritage and attention to detail, but also neglect and abuse. A place where freshness and decay sit side by side, where life and death dance close.
Parts of the market have been rebuilt twice following fires, temporarily inspiring the affectionate name ‘New New Market’. But more than this, the old market is being continually renewed by new produce, new customers, and new workers with new hopes and new dreams. Despite the challenges it faces and questions about its future, this is one piece of the past that isn’t afraid of the new.
Mohammad’s family has been working in New Market for around 35 years.
‘We have to wake up at three o’clock in the morning and come here, which is hard.’
While life can be difficult here, Mohammad left his wife and four children in South 24 Parganas 15 years ago to look for a better life for his family. He now earns £70–80 a month, which is a higher wage than he could earn in the rural countryside of his home. Every other month he is able to go back home and visit his family for 10 to 15 days.
‘My sons don’t want to work here, which is okay, we want them to study hard and find a better job. Any kind of office job where they’ll earn a lot of money.’
Asadullah’s name means ‘Lion of God’. When I met him, he was ferociously thrashing ice inside a plastic woven sack, breaking the large block down by pounding it with an iron pole.
Two years before, Asadullah was a rice farmer in a village 100 km away from Kolkata and moved to find better-paid work.
He paused, taking a momentary break from the hive of activity around the stall, and smiled. His two sons working alongside him,
‘I like to see the blood… I love everything about the market’
Normally closed today, Sheikh Alamgir and three of his staff have opened their stall to prepare a large order of beef for a local restaurant.
Crows caw loudly nearby and occasionally make a pass for the meat laid out on the stone slab, narrowly avoiding a swipe from Sheikh Alamgir’s knife.
Born and raised in the area, his father and grandfather owned stalls in New Market. At 15 years old, he finished school and started working here – living and breathing market life.
‘We have many old customers, and they are our favourites, the ones who have been coming back for many years.’
Originally from a village near the Sunderbans, where the Ganges pours into the Bay of Bengal, Ramzan started work in the market when he was only 15. 30 years later he now owns his own turkey (or ‘Chinese chicken’) stall in the bird section of the market.
On an average day he’s likely to sell around four to six turkeys, but his stall really comes alive at Christmas time, perhaps surprisingly the market’s busiest season.
Proud of the heritage and prestige of owning a stall, Sudeep enjoys mixing with all the different people that frequent the market.
‘Lots of people come here from every part of the city and I get to talk and interact with them.’
At this time of year, Sudeep’s stall is particularly green and he mentioned particularly enjoying the broccoli. Broccoli is one of the luxury items that can be found in New Market. Grown locally — although still perceived as expensive — when nearby supplies run out, imports are made from Bangalore to ensure the demand is met.
Akram has worked here since he was 20 years old, joining the flow of people from his rural village, and now delivers chickens to the market traders from all over Kolkata.
‘I don’t go home, this is more of a home to me.’
Like many others, Akram sleeps in the market, often waking at 4 AM to join the queue for those using the few toilets in the market.
Despite the difficulties of living and working in the market, he jokes around with friends as he talks to me of the fun they have in the market.
‘I have a lot of friends and relatives here, we have a lot of fun. We drink here, we go out, we relax and have fun.’
‘I’m looking for a girl to marry now. If a girl proposed to me, I would say yes, immediately, whoever it is.’
‘This is the only nice place to work. I was the first one in my family to come here, no one had owned a business here before.’
Working with some of his brothers, after 35 years in the market, Sairap now employs around ten people in his chicken stall. Also from South 24 Parganas, he has seven children but only one of his sons work here.
‘If you want to own a stall in New Market you need a lot of money, which we don’t have. This shop does not bring in enough money for all my sons to come and work here.’
Enjoying the hustle and bustle of market life, Sairap says the only difficulty working here is the availability of fresh water,
‘There’s another corporation market nearby with a tube well and we have to go there to get our water.’
Sanwar’s brother travelled from his village in South 24 Parganas and set up a shop selling chickens in New Market fifteen years ago.
Ten years later, Sanwar also moved away from his life as a farmer to join his brother in the stall in search of a better life.
‘If you work in the fields it’s very painful. Working in the fields in the summer and during the monsoon is a lot of trouble. I’m much better off here.’
He sleeps in the stall and complains of mosquitos and the many mice that share the market as a home.
Married with a two-year-old daughter, he visits his family once every two months.
‘Before I was married I went home once every six months, but now I want to go home more often. I miss my wife and my daughter.’
Umesh is sorting through deliveries of fruit in the store area of his shop when I arrive. He’s worked here for ten years and now runs the fruit shop that his uncle started. He’s busy and, at first, a little wary of the attention.
‘It’s my own business, so I have to like working here’.
Sitting amidst piles of fruit, and under the watchful eye of his uncle who sits opposite him, he doesn’t stop sorting through the delivery of apples once.
‘The best thing about the market is the work’, he says without looking up.
‘There are a lot of problems. The roof leaks during the raining season and the place fills up with water. They don’t maintain it properly, it’s very dirty. Parking is a problem.’
Rafique, Umesh’s uncle, has worked in the market for 25 years and notes how things have changed from its glory days.
‘At one point, this used to be the biggest market in Asia. It used to be much better here, now it’s no good. If you don’t clean and maintain the place properly, of course it’s going to be no good. The toilets aren’t even maintained properly and there’s rubbish everywhere.’
Ismael sits on the butcher’s slab in the ‘mutton’ section of the market, relaxing in the afternoon after a long morning’s work.
Many, like Raqueeb, start their career in the market at a young age. Learning the skills of their trade means getting stuck in with all parts of the process and an apprenticeship is often very ‘hands on’.
Golam has worked in the market for half his life, taking on the fifty-year-old family business from his father and his grandfather before him. He sells his eggs in bulk on large pallets, regularly selling over 4000 eggs in a single day.
‘Since I’ve worked here lots of new buildings have come up, the geography of the place has completely changed.’
Golam says that he’s seen a reduction in trade over the last few years.
‘The market is too dirty, there is a problem with parking making it difficult for people to come to New Market. There’s rubbish everywhere, it stinks, that’s why there are less customers these days.’
‘My children will not come and work here, but the business is not that good, so I don’t mind’
At the end of a day only a few pineapples, watermelon and two solitary papaya remain at Naushad’s stall at the edge of the market.
Belongings, bags and calendars hang from the multipurpose stalls, readily convertible spaces of trade and habitation.
Fresh from his studies, Atish has been working in the shop his uncle owns for a year. Now he’s about to start running it.
Excited about the prospect of taking on the business, he wants to work here his whole life, and has plans to decorate the shop and make it bigger.
Atish lives in Howrah, north of the city and across the Hooghly river. He gets in at seven or eight in the morning, depending on traffic, which is a little tough sometimes, he admits with a smile.
Purna stands outside the vegetable stall where he works. Vegetables are stacked up neatly, forming orderly blocks of colour.
Great care is taken over each stall and these flamboyant displays have a peacock effect, catching the eye of potential customers and drawing them in.
Mohammed selects a bird from the woven bamboo and string net baskets where the chickens are kept until chosen for sale.
‘The smallest chickens are the tasty ones’.
‘The whole world knows about this market, there’s something special about it.’
‘My shop is as old as the market. It opened in 1918 when my great-grandfather opened it. It’s been passed down four generations in my family.’
Sandeep talks proudly about how things have changed from his great-grandfather’s era, where they only sold bananas and papayas, to now importing and selling over forty different types of fruit. But the biggest change is the clientele:
‘It just used to be hotel and restaurant buyers coming to the market, but now all kinds of people come. Now everybody comes.’
‘Under one roof you will find everything. From fruits and vegetables to chicken, clothes, cosmetics, fish, all items! If you’ve been here once, you’ll definitely come back.’
His children, however, do not share his enthusiasm for the market.
‘It’s all about education now. They don’t want to get into the business, they’re interested in computers.’
When he was a boy, Jamsher was brought to Kolkata to look for work by someone in Diamond Harbour, his village in West Bengal.
Forty years later he is still working at the market.
‘This is the only work I know, so it’s fine with me.’
Sleeping at the stall, he wakes at 6 AM when the eggs are delivered and opens up shop. At any free moment during the day he will check vast quantities of eggs against a bare light for any sign of damage or spoil.
His sons aren’t interested in joining their father’s trade, choosing instead to learn tailoring and embroidery where they can earn thirty rupees (thirty pence) an hour, which is more than they’d earn in the market.
‘I like to think that what my father did, my grandfather did too, and now I am carrying on the tradition’.
‘I like everything about the market, but I love my shop the most. Look at the fruits — they’re so fresh! I love to look at them.’
‘New Market will always run. We have lots of customers and people coming here, there’s nothing to worry about. This is the oldest market in Calcutta, it’s always going to run. Whenever you stay in Calcutta, at some point you have to come to New Market to buy what you need. You won’t get mangos anywhere in India now, as it’s winter, but you can get mangos in New Market.’