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A Fisherman’s Son Who Cannot Swim

Boy at Sassoon Dock

Mayur does not know how to swim.

“How could I? You can’t swim in this,” he says, pointing to the Arabian sea. “And it’s not like I can go to some private pool.”

The tide on Mumbai’s Juhu Beach is low, revealing webs of plastic bags, bottles, and other detritus flanking each side of the cement pier where Mayur and I walk.  According to Mayur, the pollution has noticeably increased the last two years, and countless dead fish wash up on shore near his family’s home. Mayur is 19. He lives with his father, mother, brother and two sisters at the top of Juhu Beach. They are Koli, a indigenous caste who traditionally subsist on fishing and mostly live on the shores of Mumbai, the world’s fourth most populous city (20 million).

“The regular trash people throw is bad; but you know what’s worse? Vinayak Chaturthi.” Mayur explains the September festival honoring Ganesh and also marks the peak fishing season after the monsoon rains in Mumbai. Thousands of Ganesh idols are cast into the sea, and while these idols used to be made out of clay, consumers opt for plastic idols with chemical paints which the industry readily offers. While more “eco-friendly Ganesh” idols join the mix, the plastic ones still dominate the herd.

Even the United Nation’s Patron of the Oceans, Lewish Pugh, won’t swim in Mumbai’s seas.

“You can’t blame people for what they believe, though,” Mayur adds. As a devout Hindu, the bright temple in his neighborhood is one of Mayur’s favorite places, and one he is proud to show off.

“But you can blame capitalism!” I respond, but the semi-sarcastic remark does not translate for Mayur.

Mayur’s father is a fisherman. His father’s father was a fisherman. One of the best, Mayur’s mother, Bhavna, assures me. Sitar Laxman Divde would go out to sea before anyone else, 2 or 3 in the morning. Bhavna describes the time when her father-in-law got caught in a terrible storm at sea. She was praying day and night for his life. Over 20 fishermen went to sea in the middle of the storm to save him, and all came back alive.

Despite the family pride and tradition, Mayur does not want to be a fisherman. He is in school for commerce and loves working with computers.

“So what do you want to do after you graduate?” As the words exit my mouth, I immediately hate myself for asking a teenager that dreaded question.

“All I want to do is play football.” Mayur admits. “I play center forward for two teams already.” The potential reality brightens Mayur’s eyes, but I doubt he has told his parents about his wishes.

Mayur shows me his grandfather's portrait.
Mayur shows me his grandfather’s portrait.

Mayur’s friends who are Koli do not plan on pursuing fishing either.  Most of them think it is “gross” and rarely learn the family tricks of the trade.  Mayur likes fishing though, and still finds time most weeks to go with his family and learn a trick or three.

Like digging for tisrya, or clams. Mayur takes me to a clamming spot at Juhu Beach. I have always wanted to dig for clams. I never expected it to happen on the polluted beaches on Mumbai with a 19-year-old I met through a friend of a friend of a stranger who I connected to on Instagram… It’s not hard really. The clam-digging. Turn over some rocks near the water’s edge and dig–either using a stick, shell or hands. Just watch out for crabs. People have their spots, which they discovered somehow, or that used to be someone else’s spot. Mayur immediately finds a clam. My competitive spirit kicks in, determined not only to find more, but bigger, clams. Meanwhile, I do not notice the tide gently giving my camera and phone a bath behind me…

Mayur explains that women rarely do the fishing, but they are there when their husbands’ boats return to help take in the catch and sell it at market. Like at Sassoon Docks, the city’s largest wholesale salt-water fish market. At 7 a.m. on any given day, the docks are crammed like the sardines for sale. Fresh catch is tossed from the boats up to the platform, where women set up their vending space among rows of other women and their fresh fishes. Overturned crates and plastic bowls suffice for display. Auctions and bargains rattle off in the middle of the walkways, while others get momentarily trapped in the middle of crowds.

Woman sells local small fish catch with pomfret, baby shark and king fish.

Traditionally, Koli use small boats, simple nets, and do not go very far out to sea, so catch is usually small, like pomfret, king fish and bombil. Also known as “Bombay Duck,” bombil is the quintessential fish of Mumbai, despite its horrid mouth-gaping appearance. It is a small white fish, fried, dried, stuffed, or sautéed throughout most Mumbai kitchens.

Noted in the Indian Express, bombil populations have declined by 25 per cent in the last decade, while demand is only on the increase. While Koli voluntarily stop fishing during monsoon season to replenish stocks and protect themselves from dangerous seas, the two-month respite does not seem enough for sustainable consumption, especially with the pressures of pollution affecting fish populations now too.

“The prime minister has talked about several initiatives to help clean up the waters,” Mayur says hopefully.

I let out a snort.

Mayur laughs, “So you know about Modi?”

“I have some opinions…”

“You were here in November with the money thing?”

“Yes. Demonetization is the worst thing to happen here since the Green Revolution.”

Unloading shrimp haul early morning at Sassoon Docks
Unloading shrimp haul early morning at Sassoon Docks

After the abrupt announcement of demonetization (coincidentally on the same day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States), two of the most-used rupee notes were removed from circulation and deemed worthless — unless deposited — until new notes were printed in 2017.  Many urban dwellers of higher-income brackets with multiple credit cards were not deeply effected by this change, but the majority of Indians were. Especially those who work in more informal economies, like traditional food producers, who often do not even have bank accounts.

According to Mayur, during the first wave of demonetization, many fisherman had to sell on credit. They had no choice, it was in the middle of peak season.

“So when you say credit, you mean like ‘I owe you’, right?”

“Yes, everyone has to really trust each other.”

“That would never work in the States.”

Mayur laughs.

The market is already unreliable for small-scale Koli fisherman. Mayur’s father has had to pick up driving on the side to supplement the family income.  More and more, procurement favors larger suppliers who work with fisherman outside of Mumbai, especially because of the monsoon season fishing ban. It is not surprising that few Koli youth want to pursue such a livelihood.  And with the widespread accessibility of education and shifts in culture, many of these youth actually have the choice to operate outside of their caste’s predetermined occupations.

Women prepare their husband's shrimp catch for sale at market.
Women prepare their husband’s shrimp catch for sale at market.

Mayur and I put our collected clams in a shady spot on the water’s edge. The seemingly inert mollusks start digging back into the sand. The movement touches my heart, I cannot bare to eat them. I am also more and more convinced that these clams are fairly toxic. Mayur points to the white sands a couple meters east and tells me this is where a big Koli festival took place just the week prior.

“There is always one at another beach, but the Koli people in this neighborhood wanted to have our own.  It was awesome. So many people came from all over and there was so much good food.”

After Mayur’s parents stuff me with roasted dried bombil and spicy coconut fish curry, I leave their corner of Juhu Beach, spotting two giant trucks picking up trash along the coastline. A most Sisyphus-like of tasks, but an effort nonetheless.

Bhavna’s Simple Spicy Coconut Fish Curry

Ingredients:

1-3 handfuls of grated coconut

big pinch of coriander seeds

4+ garlic cloves

2 onion

1-4 dry or fresh red chile whole (depending on taste)

handful fresh curry leaves

1+ kg tomatoes, chopped

oil for cooking (coconut or mustard is recommended)

fish (whatever is local and fresh)

Recipe:

1. Sauté coriander seeds and coconut in pan in just a little oil until lightly toasted.

2. Remove from heat, add chiles and a bit of water and blend into paste. Set aside.

3. Heat oil in pan and add curry leaves. Fry leaves until fragrant.

4. Add onions and garlic and cook until translucent.

5. Add chopped tomatoes. Cook together for 15-30 minutes until tomatoes break down.

6. Add coconut paste and any water to get a volume that will cover the thickness of your piece of fish

7. Add fish and cook until done. Do not stir while cooking or else fish will break.

8. Enjoy with rice or toasted bread.

Comments

  1. Daniel Peach
    Atlanta, GA
    April 14, 11:45 am

    Awesome article Lauren <3 AND RECIPE :)))

  2. Hillary
    Philadelphia, PA
    April 14, 7:28 am

    Beautiful and insightful piece. Keep up the amazing work, we love reading about your experiences!

  3. Simeon
    Australia
    April 13, 8:30 pm

    Great article. Your writing translated India and your experience with character.

  4. Martin
    Schwenksville, PA
    April 13, 5:15 pm

    Wow, Lauren. You’re really finding your voice here. Thank you for documenting so beautifully.