Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fish market Mumbai

“Go to Sassoon Dock at break of day, and there before you are the two unchanging forces of Bombay – commerce and the sea – in jostling, clangorous, Technicolor profusion.” It is these words from Pico Iyer's essay on Bombay, in his book ‘Tropical Classical’ that keep coming back to me. I know that I have to go to Sassoon Docks someday. When I finally do, I wonder why inspite of growing up in Bombay, it has taken me so many years to come here.

I'm finally at the Sassoon Docks. I stand there for a moment watching the silhouettes of people and baskets in the first light of the morning. Sometimes, there is so much that one doesn't know about within one’s own city. I start to walk deeper into the market. The environment is changing rapidly - more people molecules and less space molecules. I try to be here without being noticed, try to not be in anyone’s way, which is so difficult to do, because there are so many koli men and women walking about and moving fast. You can’t afford to be in the way of a fisherwoman who is going past with an empty basket or a filled basket. In both cases, she is in a hurry and if you so much as fall within her path, she will either push you aside and move ahead or will swear at you.

The paths are not even defined, so you are always right in the middle of a path that you didn’t know would happen. This could be the only time you wished you wouldn’t understand even a bit of Marathi or had never heard any of these swear words to know their meaning. If they are flung at you, they sound worse than they ever did before. You sense your body mechanisms preparing their second and their third line of defense at this point. And later, as you think about it, you realise that you only like the fisherwomen for being themselves. That’s them and they don’t believe in packaging themselves in politeness.

This Fish Bazaar at Sassoon Docks is a place where the small boats and big boats arrive from the sea and the catch is sold at wholesale prices to fish vendors who then sell to customers all over the city. The fishermen in the small boats make one-day trips out to sea. The larger boats are out at sea for 7-10 days and there are 12-15 fishermen on each of these boats. The boats arrive at Sassoon docks by the evening or earlier in the day. They are offered for sale only the next morning. The smaller boats dock themselves on one side of the jetty and the larger boats on the other side. Baskets of fish are actually swung across to someone standing on the jetty, since the boats are not able to get closer than ten feet to the edge of the jetty when they dock.

The fish move through a series of people and locations, from small baskets that come off the boats to large baskets and plastic bags, from the fishermen who are still on their boats to the wholesalers who are stationed along both edges of the jetty. Along the centre of the jetty, there are roofed sheds and the space is primarily occupied by baskets that are waiting to be filled and taken into the city. Around this space and along the edges of the jetty is where the people movement is and where the bargains happen.

I begin to chat with one of the men who seems not in a haste. I'm sure that this man of quiet demeanour wouldn't mind telling me a bit about the bazaar and its flurry of activity. After all, he is not rushing like the others, with "no time to stand and stare". I learn that he is here to neither buy nor sell. He is a caretaker of fish baskets. While the fisherwomen are going about negotiating and buying the best fish for the best price, empty baskets and partially filled baskets are under scrutiny cover. The caretaker charges Rs.10 for each basket that he looks after. This man does not move from his place but his eyes are catching every movement around him. If there is a theft, he must take responsibility and he is expected to give back a fish-filled basket. He has only sixty seconds to speak to me. He then looks away. He has business to do. There are many such young caretakers all over the marketplace, minding the several baskets around them.

Perishability of the fish gives rise to another enterprise - the selling of ice. There are those who only sell ice to all the fisherwomen. The measure is a nine inch diameter basket, about 7 inches in height, which costs Rs.5 each. Fisherwomen buy the fish. It is put into their baskets and they immediately buy either one or two measures of crushed ice to cover the fish with. Outside the market gate, there are small ice factories, where these vendors buy the crushed ice for selling inside the market. It is a supply chain design strategy that interlinks various stakeholders who must each maximise efficiency to reach their peak values.

In the traditional shopping environments, bargaining has been an important communication channel. If one were to write a story about the art of bargaining in India, the best examples would perhaps come from a fish market. The fisherwomen are the masters of the art. If there are a hundred different ways to make a bargain, they are adept at all the hundred skillful nuances of the art. The words are sharp. The tone is sharp. It’s a completely no-nonsense interaction. On both sides of the bargaining divide, there is a fisherwoman. It’s like watching a sport, to see who will win and to silently rejoice in their victory and to move on to experience more.

I wonder about the marketing strategies. There are no publicity boards. Here, what works today is what worked years ago, when advertising was about how long you could walk and how loud you could shout. I see a young boy in a bargain with a few fisherwomen. He is trying to fix a price on a basket of fish that he wants to buy and must see who will give him a good price.

There are individual baskets that leave the marketplace, carried on the fisherwomen’s heads in which fish catch is moving out. Some baskets get loaded onto hand-carts which carry upto four large baskets each. You see these exit one after another once business is done. The hand carts go upto the gate onto the main road, where they are loaded onto tempos or trucks that travel as far as Andheri, Vakola and other suburban parts of Bombay. Some fish travel out by taxis, baskets are loaded into the back carrier and top carrier of the yellow and black cabs and are seen leaving the gates.

At Sassoon docks, I learn a little about the world of the fisherfolk community in Bombay – what they do, how they relate to one another, what is acceptable and what is not. The physical extent of the wholesale market is large, with no rigid boundaries. There seems to be a spatial organisation that is known to the daily visitors. It is undemarcated and unclear initially to a first-time visitor. But, as you stay here long enough, you begin to notice it. There are patterns of movement and patterns of behaviour that seem to govern the functioning of the marketplace.

There are some questions that arise as you try to understand the nature of the trading practices here. How is functionality achieved in this exchange amongst the vendors and the customers in a seemingly chaotic place? What establishes trust between the people? What is the history of interactions or what are the unstated, unwritten laws of relationships within a fisherfolk community? It is a long process from wholesale to retail vendoring. This is not an organised, systemised operation like that of a Fishing Corporation with its efficient trawlers and its iceboxes. And yet, there seems to be an intangible order influencing the commodity exchange that brings the fish from the sea through a series of stakeholders right upto its final consumption at a home or a hotel in Mumbai.

Even a partial experience of the marketplace is substantial experience for one morning – memories to cherish, sights to always remember in your mind’s eye. Once you are in there, you become an insignificant, irrelevant speck within this sea of people.

How to get there : Any bus going to Colaba bus stand would be ideal. If you are taking a taxi, you must say ‘Sassoon Docks’ but mention that you need to go to the Fish market there, because the market entrance is further down the road from the Sassoon dock main gate. The entrance is next to the Women’s Graduate Union or the Amy Rustomjee hall. The market is at its busiest from 5:30am to 7:30am. It is open until one in the afternoon.

Other Bazaar tours in India :
Bazaar Tour 1 : Dadar Flower Market, Mumbai
Bazaar Tour 2 : Antique market, Mumbai
Bazaar Tour 3 : Varkala, Kerala
Bazaar Tour 4 : Gandhi Bazaar, Bangalore


radha said...

Very well written. And you brought the place alive. I have been to the Malpe beach early in the morning and witnessed the fish marketing. But that was so long ago and it would have changed a great deal.

Jason said...

Nice evocation of the fish market at Sasson Market. Keep it up the great blogging.

AlpacaSuitcase (Jason)

(fellow LP blogsherpa)

Indian Bazaars said...

Radha : I haven't been to the fish market at Malpe beach. Would be great to know what it was like.

Jason : Thanks.

My Dream Canvas said...

Very interesting blog. Thank you so much for stopping by My Dream Canvas.

Anjali Koli said...

Love this post. I have blurred memories of Sasoon dock and all that happens there. Yes and like any person Koli women are completely focused on work and hate anyone coming in the way. The perishible nature of their commodity must have something to do with it I believe...

Indian Bazaars said...

Anu: Thanks

Anjali: I guess you are right. It must be the perishable nature of their commodity. I never thought about that.

atin said...

Marvelously written and evocative post and expressed poetically and almost cinematically with the pictures!

Anonymous said...

A very well-written piece. It helped a lot when we were preparing a documentary on the docks. Thank You.