Sheela Jaywant, a humour-columnist and writer-at-large, lives in Goa, India. Her short stories have been published internationally and have found their way into anthologies such as ‘She Writes’, ‘Vanilla Desires’, ‘City of the Gods’, ‘Carnival’, ‘Indian Voices’, ‘Shell Windows’, ‘Railonama’ and others. Her own collections are ‘Quilted-stories of Middle-Class India’, ‘Liftman and Other Stories’ and ‘Melting Moments’. Her story ‘After Seven Long Years’ was included in the South Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2009. Her short fiction has also won prizes on www.toasted-cheese.com and the Fundacao Oriente Competition. She has written two plays and translated (Marathi-English) several books.
If you go for the pre-dawn auction, the flat cemented space surrounding the jetty is so crowded that you can stand on only one foot at a time. When you walk, the moment you take your foot off the ground, someone else’s takes its place. You can’t fall; everyone stands shoulder to shoulder, abdomen to back. One can rephrase an idiom to read: “sardines packed like people in Sassoon Dock at auction time.” The din of voices yelling out prices drowns grating gears, loud horns and screeching brakes of the trucks, the buses, and the smaller tempos all plying outside the one hundred year old gate. This is Sassoon Dock, Colaba, south Mumbai, where fish from the Arabian Sea is exported all over the world.
The ground is slippery. Fish entrails, slimy rags, oil and water, polythene bags, soggy newspapers… things have actually improved. Until a couple of years ago, there was no point in wearing footwear. Bare feet gave a better grip, said experience. Now there are trash-bins which are used. People protest if someone dumps innards or fins outside the designated areas. There is hope that someday, one might drive on the road from Fountain to Colaba past Sassoon Dock without choking from the stink of putrefaction.
Such a far cry from our middle-class, at the time typical Maharashtrian Shivaji Park locality. Our building had mixed folk. Some were pure vegetarian, others, like us, had a staple diet of fish. What fare our fisherwoman brought home in a basket on her head was what we were likely to eat for lunch or dinner. If she didn’t get something Mother wanted, she would dress up and visit the nearby Citilight Market to check out the larger variety available. My Ikebana-loving Mother’s easy life suddenly changed when Father quit his job and decided to get into business. A heavy financial loss and grave illness kept him at home for a couple of years. Mother was catapulted out of her gentle environs to ‘do something’. The fishing-trawler-business that caused the loss had introduced her to the stinking Sassoon Dock. She switched over from cotton saris to synthetic ones that could be easily washed. The fishy-odour she carried back home is the smell I still get, forty years later, when I cross by the Docks.
The area where the fish is kept, in large- and medium-sized, grimy and blue rectangular plastic baskets, is cordoned off by a frayed coir rope tied from pillar to pillar. These pillars hold up the corrugated concrete-sheet ceiling that covers about a third of the platform next to the murky, grey sea. A few deep-sea trawlers, like the one Ravi Tandel owns, have a freezing facility on board. Tandel belongs to the fisherfolk community. Till his father’s time, all members of his family were involved in catching, sorting, cleaning and selling fish. They were happy with their lot. Ravi’s children are educated, they hold jobs and refuse to do manual labour. So Ravi now employs people. Since Ravi’s trawler is fairly big, they do the sorting, preserving and sometimes even transporting to a destination directly offshore. Most of the time it is here that the prawns, mackerels, pomfrets, crabs, squids, scampies, rays, and other seafood are sorted and gathered size-wise, by hand. The huge ghols, kingfish, sharks and tuna are scaled, sliced and cleaned in a demarcated section. Shrimps are shelled if a customer wants that done, and the mess is kept in a pile, just kicked to a side.
The kolin (fisherwoman) who brings fish to our homes, our neighbourhood, our Shaku, she buys her stuff here, too – sometimes at Byculla, a wholesale market not too close to the Docks. She carries her fare of local favourites, Bombil (Bombay Duck – ha, this is never called Mumbai Duck, is it?), the tiny silver vellyo, the shellfish or tisryo, the expensive rawas,on a basket that sits on a rolled cloth atop her head. She’s accompanied by one of her daughters-in-law, a crow and a cat. The latter two join her after she alights from the tempo. I miss those fish, marinated in haldi and red chilli powder, fried in coconut oil, eaten with soft rice and hot dal. No vegetables, thank you, not for me and my siblings.
Back at the docks, the ground has slush. It’s stupid to wear clean clothes here. Men fold up the hems of their pants and pin them at knee level. Some of the older fisherwomen wear the nine-yard saris which they tuck between their legs to allow for movement. The other women tuck up the pleats of their regular saris so that the dirty splashes reach only their legs… it’s easier to wash skin than clothes. Mother must have stood out like a sore thumb in those days. She was fair, delicate, sophisticated and wore a regular sari with discreet ornaments. The fisherwomen, then as now, wear whatever wealth they possess in gold around their necks. No thief would dare touch them. They’re armed with sickles and the knowledge and expertise to use them. Today, one sees more women, more attires there, but at the time, Mother was such an oddity that the fisherwomen actually reached out to ‘inspect’ her: where was from, why did she come to the Docks so early in the morning, how this, when that. It took many months, I’m told, for them to even accept her there. They’d try to shoo her off. But when they knew she was buying the fish, not observing them, they warmed up. Those acquaintances lasted for a long time.
Beyond Sassoon Dock, going southwards, one enters the hallowed Cantonment area: colonial bungalows, crisp uniforms, traffic that follows rules, giant baobabs and banyans, old-world elegance. The buzz of the Dock is kept out of the Cantonment. But stench has no barriers. Even the moneyed owners of ice-factories and holders of export licences who have air-conditioned, computerised offices in the premises, carry the smell with them in their Skodas and BMWs. They and their drivers, and other regular visitors to the Dock like the Purchase Managers of five-star hotels and companies with large canteens, have become immune to it. No matter who you are, at the Dock, everyone is equal.
Homeless young men from distant states like Bihar, Uttaranchal, or even neighbouring Karnataka, earn a living at Sassoon Dock by carrying the loads on their heads and doing sundry tasks. The Government and several Not-For-Profit Organisations have managed to put many of these boys through school, but poverty has its own compulsions. The rich dealers in marine life can’t do without the ‘labour’ or ‘coolies’ as the boys are called, and the latter can’t do without the money. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The original inhabitants of the coast, the fishing community known as the kolis, in some ways still live like their ancestors did centuries ago. Their methods of catching fish haven’t changed much. They read the tides and the weather to know when the catch will be good. Their women-folk carry the fish from home to home, or sell them in the market or along pavements. Haggling is a way of life here. No customer will buy at the first price quoted. Surprisingly, the bickering doesn’t lead to quarrels. Both sides know when to settle.
Mother used to take the number 1 (ek) bus route of the BEST (Bombay Electricity and Suburban Transport company), Mumbai’s first 24-service. Till the suburbs of Sion and Bandra, there are no three-wheeler auto-rickshaws. Fisherwomen and vegetable vendors pitch in to hire tempos or taxis to carry their wares to retail markets. Those who can’t afford to pay take the same ‘ek number’ bus to their destinations for a subsidized fare of about twenty rupees. This bus-route takes them to the major markets: Byculla, Plaza, Citylight, Mahim and Bandra. Mother had to reach in time for the 0445 hr auction, else she would miss the good maal. Also, the earlier she went, the easier to transport the perishable commodity: once the sultry temperature rose, and the traffic began to jam, the journey to the industrial estate in Thane would take longer.
The Government of India lists the fisher-folk, the kolis, under the ‘backward’ or ‘scheduled’ caste or class; they have reserved seats for admission into professional colleges, government jobs. These ‘quotas’ (the percentage of seats which are reserved) get the employees subsequent time-bound promotions. Many of the young ones prefer easy office jobs to the arduous risks and troubles of their inherited profession. Of those who don’t get the coveted jobs, the boys aspire to become drivers or peons, the girls beauticians. And yet, there is a reluctance to give up the traditional way of life, for it provides a sense of community. More importantly, there’s money in it, and why should ‘outsiders’ benefit from what should be theirs by right?
It was a right relinquished over five generations ago amongst those who built roads for them and gave them electricity and running water. Mumbai (then Bombay) was given away by the Portuguese to the British as the dowry of Catherine de Braganza. Spices and silk, but mainly cotton and dyes found their way out of Mumbai on the best contemporary vessels. The money that trade brought in was invested in the islands: mills, art deco-buildings for the rich, functional chawls for the workers, educational institutions and hospitals for all, trams, trains, street-lights, films for entertainment, western jazz and Indian classical music, Mumbai had it all. Stylish socialites, ship-building companies, banks, fish-net manufacturers, everybody prospered. The Gateway of India was actually India’s doorway to the world beyond the seas. Air travel added to the pros.
Who can believe today that several islands comprise this city? There is a common way of speaking, eating, resting that Mumbai shares with sister cities like Karachi or even far away New York. The language is robust and the people work without fuss. These are the places where dreams come true, where no one is shy of success, where disappointments and even terrorist attacks don’t bring daily routine to a halt. We wept at early morning yoga class, watching a burnt Taj Mahal Hotel on TV on a terrible 26th November morning. And went back to our routines an hour later.
Let the newspapers complain that Mumbai is bursting at its seams; Sassoon Dock throbs vigorously with every heart that enters it. The dynamism and energy of Mumbai, well-represented here, is undying, abiding. If you can’t be heard above the din, if you can’t jostle your way through the crowd, if you can’t spot the slick pick-pocket or the brazen thief who will snatch not just the fish from your bag but perhaps the full basket that you’ve bought, you’re new to Sassoon Dock. If, like me, you’re not unfamiliar with climbing in and out of Mumbai’s over-crowded local trains, you’ll manage.