I grew up in a city that boasts of a fish-market in every neighbourhood; near railway stations, under flyovers, coexisting with fruit and vegetable vendors, and sweetmeat shops – Kolkata. Needless to say, growing up as a Bengali meant visits to the fish-market, especially on Sunday mornings, a day for gastronomical extravagance. A walk down the soiled floor of any fish-market can overwhelm the senses. The formidable the boti (a cutting instrument), chopped heads and tails, blood, the smell of dead fish, and then the cacophony of sale, could well appear to be a scene of Madame Defarge knitting as heads rolled off the guillotine.
Years later, I came to Mumbai, a city with a ‘fishy’ coastline; home to a flourishing business of drying fish — a great strategy to save for spawning months, when fish consumption is rare. My longing for spicy fish curry drove me to a nearby fish-market. I was surprised at the cleanliness. There was no trace of the boti; instead, a sickle-shaped blade was used to slice the fish. After a few minutes, I noticed something unique; the sellers were mostly women. Kolkata’s lungi-and-banyan clad, bidi-smoking male fish vendors were replaced in Mumbai with women, young and old, in colourful silk sarees and fine jewellery with flowers in their hair, neatly cutting fish with their suri and doing business with grace. What a sight to behold!
It is common knowledge that work is often segregated along the lines of gender. Add to this, the problematic separation of space between the private and the public. Both have been instrumental in closeting women within patriarchal frames of subordination. For instance, cooking is normatively been considered a ‘woman’s’ job; but a cursory look at any of India’s industrial kitchens tells another story, with sheer invisibility of female chefs. There also runs a belief system that ‘feminine’ behaviour works in contradiction to ‘managerial behavior’. And research by Powell and Butterfield highlights this, stating that women respondents have described a ‘good manager’ to possess ‘masculine characteristics.’ (Powell and Butterfield 1979). But step inside a fish-market in Mumbai and witness the koli women paint a picture that questions all these norms.
According to a recent estimate there are about 850 registered fish-markets in Mumbai, mostly run and managed by the koli community – an ethnic group mainly involved in the fishing business. While the men go out into the sea to procure the day's catch, the women do the selling, across the city. The operational license received from the Municipal Corporation acts as an heirloom, which is transferred from one generation to another, from a mother to a daughter, or a mother-in-law to a daughter-in-law, and even grand daughter-in-law.
The fish market is a site that offers rich insights into issues of caste and gender. As expressed candidly by one of the fisherwomen, most buyers tend to be Goan and East Indian Catholics, who purchase fish regularly, and often buy expensive fish on special occasions. Amongst the Hindu customers, Brahmins are a minority unless they are from the Konkan coast, also known as Konkanis; others include the many castes that fall under the broad banner of Marathas, and the community of CKPs (Chandrasenia Kayastha Prabhu).
A typical fish market in Mumbai has mostly women vendors. Men are a minority. The women are usually dressed in traditional attire which is a nine-yard saree draped in kaashtha style. From glass bangles and mangalsutras, to flowers and heavy gold neckpieces, they appear as ‘feminine’ as the word conjures, visually epitomizing the concept of shringaar as it exists in classical Indian art. It can be difficult to imagine that women dressed in such finery, sit these long hours, selling fish; but therein resides the marvel: Their looks belie their action.
With musical rhythm, they separate the gills from the head, and cut fish with clinical precision with the suri, and not a drop of blood is spilled onto their sarees. And when it comes to selling their catch, a B-school graduate would do well to learn a thing or two from them. Their catch is displayed, and allowed to speak for itself. The smaller fish are displayed in clusters, medium-sized fish on steel quarter plates, the crustaceans usually in hand-made bamboo baskets, and the bigger ones in the farthest corner of the make-shift platform. They are quick to discern between buyers who know their fish, and those who don’t; but seldom do they try to cheat. They never sell tuna in the name of a surmai or a King-Fish. There’s a lesson in ethics for you.
Prices differ, but there is room to bargain, based on the variety of fish, and its availability. For instance, the women generally are softer when it comes to fish like Bombil, Tarli and Mandeli, found in abundance and quite popular in demand, leaving considerable space to negotiate. However, when it comes to fish like surmai or halwa weighing more than a kilo, there is little room, if any, for negotiation. Such catch is not common, especially in smaller markets, and buyers too are few. It is here that these ‘uneducated’ women display their skills. In addition to describing in detail the merits of the fish and its consequent price, they adhere to their selling price with a calm, but firm manner. Occasionally tempers do fly, when customers resort to bullying, but by and large, the women maintain their ground, refusing to sell at a cost that could hurt their profits. This kind of transactional behaviour sets a precedent that acts as an unwritten rule, cautioning the customer about negotiation norms.
Their ability to hold to their terms of the bargain at the cost of not making a sale is one of the reason that fisherwomen are often labeled ‘quarrelsome’. But it is also this that makes them thorough professionals who know their game well. In fact, one of them told me with an air of robust confidence that she would rather make a delicious fish-curry herself, than fill her purse with chillar or pocket change, by selling at a loss.
While there exists stiff competition among all the fish-vendors, there is also mutual respect and support. The pricing is competitive but the women never pull each other down or speak ill of one another in ways that affect profit. On the contrary, if anyone of them is harassed, the others intervene to resolve the matter. And such support extends not just to the women but the male vendors as well. Here, gender is secondary to their profession as fish vendors.
Little wonder then that such business prowess has equipped the koli women with financial independence. Through their kurga (daily earnings) they are able to provide financial stability for their families, and negotiate their position within the community. They work hard, with days beginning at the break of dawn, and do not shy away from dealing with unscrupulous fish traders at the docks. Behind the daunting demeanour, rests a businesswoman who negotiates on her own terms, refusing to be bullied and challenging prescribed gender roles to state in unequivocal terms that her identity cannot be reduced to biology; given wings, she will fly.
 This was a study done by Gary N Powell and D. Anthony Butterfield on 684 business students to understand if a “good manager” could be androgynous. Powell, G.N. and D.A. Butterfield. (1979). “The ‘Good Manager’: Masculine or Androgynous?” Academy of Management Journal 22: 395-403.
Anasuya Sreedhar is presently pursuing PhD research in Women and Gender Studies. Her research looks at the relationship between food and gender in the urban Indian space.
Photographs by Nachiket Parchure.
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