In the dead of the night

| Updated on February 07, 2020

The friendly chowkidars of Kolkata, once a presence in every residential street, are increasingly a rare sight today

Chowkidars lead hard lives, keeping wide awake and alert while the city sleeps, and often getting paid a pittance for their labours. To supplement their meagre income, they do odd jobs during the day such as washing cars, selling milk, making idols, working at construction sites or hawking on pavements.

In Kolkata, the ubiquitous chowkidar is an integral aspect of the city’s defining character. Many of them are senior citizens. Their work hours lend them an air of mystery. They often figure as characters in local detective fiction books and films, thanks to the nature of the job that often puts them at the scene of robberies, drunken and other antisocial offences, and even suicides and murders.

With the advent of security agencies, CCTV cameras and other advanced systems, the chowkidar is increasingly being seen as dispensable. The friendly neighbourhood chowkidar is being replaced by uniformed guards.

Yet, more and more people from several eastern states continue to migrate to Kolkata in the hope of becoming a chowkidar as jobs dry up back home with the shutting of small industries, jute mills, tanneries and cotton mills. Some of these men are appointed by police stations, while others are hired privately. The chowkidars generally start patrolling at 12 am, and continue till five in the morning.

Many areas are ill-lit and silent at that late hour. But trust the chowkidar to venture ahead with a torchlight, whistling and rapping the ground with a lathi — the sweet sounds of security for a city in deep sleep.

Jeet Sengupta is a Kolkata-based photographer

Published on February 06, 2020

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