The Old Women and the Sea

After almost two weeks of being cooped up in Bandra, it was time to stretch my legs and add a little variety to my day. I was up before the sun rose, riding the western line as far south as I could go. The Mumbai train authority did well when they chose the woman to record the station announcements — she has a really pleasant voice that repeats “next station” and then the upcoming station station in 3 different languages — Marathi, Hindi, and then finally, English. Her soothing voice combined with the city rolling past my window — Mahim and Mahalaxmi, slums and tent settlements, abandoned fabric mills, and the towering skyscrapers of Parel — put me in a sort of trance, especially at 6 in the morning. There’s a little shiver that goes up my spine, something about feeling the thrill of being back in this crazy place.

By 6:30, I had arrived at my destination — an ominous looking lane filled with trucks, garbage, leering men, and worst of all — the unforgiving stench of fish. I had absolutely no idea where I was going, but my nose could do no wrong. Follow the smell.

Sassoon docks — one of the largest fish markets in the city. At dawn each morning, the boats come in a kaleidoscope of colors and faces, reaching land after up to 2 weeks at sea in some cases. An army of women wait anxiously on land, ready to collect, sort, and sell the fish at wholesale prices to fish vendors across the city. This is where Mumbai comes to get its pescetarian fix and it’s nasty! Nasty in the sense that it looks like all the ingredients for a perfect disaster. I am still unsure how I didn’t get buried under a rogue pile of fish or get pushed off the side of the dock into the water by an impatient little old lady. Also nasty like these-are-some-of-the-baddest-women-around-they-do-not-play. But also nasty like “Ew gross, fish and dead things and bones everywhere. I wish I had brought closed toe shoes.” All sorts of nasty.

It is a vast and frenzied but perfected operation where the sea and land transact, and after the initial shock, its a beautiful thing to witness.

You will get stepped on, by lots and lots of fishy, fishy feet.

You will get hit in the head when women walk by with tubs of giant fish on their head, tails hanging out the side. They rush past you and if you’re not careful, you’re gonna feel a wet, sharp smack against your ear. No need to wonder what it is. It’s a fish tail.

You will get elbowed and pushed, almost shoved off the side of the dock, and yelled at to move out of the way. You are a disturbance to the method they have made out of this madness after years and years of practice. It is practically automatic.

You will sweat profusely even though it’s barely 7am and you will probably smell like fish for the rest of the day.

Once you’ve come to terms with all of these things, just breathe in (I know, it smells horrible), and take in the sights. It’s the most intriguing transaction you’ll see — a measured and methodical exchange of fresh, slippery, silver fish, first sorted on the boats, then magically tossed through the air, from boat to boat to dock, flying when once they were swimming, landing neatly into the hands of a young man, who deftly passes it off to an impatient woman, who loads the haul into her plastic tub, which she places on her head, and walks off hurriedly and evenly, pushing past hundreds of other women doing the same exact thing, disappearing into a dizzying crowd of saris.

But it only starts to get better from there. If you’ve ever wondered about the art of bargaining, this is the place where it gets done, a hundred times over every minute, and done right every time. A couple of sharp elbows, hard noses, a rough tone, a few short words, moments of feigned desperation, a plea, a second plea, a shaking of the head, seconds of stubborn silence, a scoff or a sigh, a blink, a wad of cash. Respect.

Eels, mackerel, manta ray, prawns, lobsters, crabs, pomfret, fish I can’t even begin to name, fish the size of my torso, the length of my arm span. It just goes on and on and on and after a one, dizzying hour, when I tried to smell myself and see which of today’s catch I smelled like, I realized I couldn’t differentiate between myself and everyone else. It was time to leave.

I have big plans to come back. Next time with someone who speaks Hindi or Marathi and some solid research into tasty catch for frying and currying and I’m gonna do my Keralan heritage proud.

All fished out for today.

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Originally published at thebashfulmango.wordpress.com on June 2, 2013.

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