Hundreds of women flock to the Khar Danda fish market in Mumbai twice a day to engage themselves in fish trading. We visited the market to get a glimpse of the lives of Koli women in this area and here's a brief snapshot of the same.
Suman was studying in std. 5th in a government school in Khar when she got her first periods. Her maternal grandmother, a fisherwoman from the Koli community, thus, asked her to leave her studies, following the custom of asking girls to leave their schools when they get their periods, as per Suman. Soon after, Suman was introduced to the trade of fish. Cut to 40 years from then, now, she is one of the most popular women in the indoor fish market of the Koliwada area in Khar Danda and much vocal about the lives of Koli women as Local Samosa talked to her recently.
Reportedly, Kolis are the original inhabitants of Mumbai who live all across the city in specific areas, usually called 'Koliwada.' The Koliwada in Khar Danda Road has a designated place for an indoor fish market which is at least 100 years old. Suman started visiting the indoor fish market of Khar Danda when she was 11 after leaving her studies. "My nani asked me to get habituated to the trade, and I started coming in here to learn the basics," Suman said, reminiscing about her childhood.
The market is a source to peep into the century-old fish trading exchange between the Koli women and the customers. Even though it opens between 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., for these women, the exchange starts in the wee hours. "We get up around 3 a.m. and travel to either Sassoon Dock, Malad, Madh, and other docks to procure different kinds of fish," Suman said, adding that the process has become complicated post-pandemic. "Before lockdown, we could get the fish from these docks till 8 or 9 a.m., but now (post-pandemic), they stop us from doing so at around 6 a.m. only," Suman said in a sorrowful tone.
Nevertheless, the women reach the marketplace from the docks, and on the platforms made of bricks, they sit on their designated seats as the exchange unfolds. The designation of seats has been an old part here that comes with paying around Rs. 5,000 annually to the local civic body, as Suman informed. On the other hand, not only does the trade of fishes takes place in this indoor market, but on the opposite of these platforms are a few shops aligned in the same row selling various household commodities and snacks. The place also includes a 60-year-old spices shop, whose current owner has not even changed the damaged shop's counter since he wants to maintain the structure made by his father, who first started the shop!
The worrisome daily-lives
As much as the sarees and the overall appearance of Koli women appear bright, their lives indicate a gloomy picture of the community as a whole. The majority of the women who come here are the sole breadwinners for their families and struggle with financial crises on a daily basis. Taking Suman, for instance, whose husband doesn't work, she finds it much hard to run the family. "I try to make my family run with the money I get here," Suman said. She also mentioned that sometimes, she earns Rs. 200 or 300 a day while a few days get her a thousand. "There are times when I don't get a deal and even run on losses."
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One of the reasons that undoubtedly affect the ability to earn money for these women is the inconsistency in the number of customers on weekdays. "We don't get customers on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, but they (customers) are in fairly good numbers on Wednesday and Saturday," Suman said, adding that Sunday is the big day for them. "Sunday is the most notable day," she said with a broad grin on her face. Moreover, Suman believes that it has become essential for her to save money. "I have no savings, but I have to work for that as things have become so costly," she added.
The problems for the women do not end here as the entire indoor area where the trade takes place is much rusted, with the pillars broken and the shield on their heads lost in the wake of harsh monsoons and sunlight. Currently, these women have been sitting by fixing their umbrellas at their seats. As the sun gets to the head, the ones who do not sit with umbrellas leave for their lunch at their respective homes while the ones who have, sit till late anticipating a few customers. However, even they leave for their homes at around 1 p.m., and the entire market is deserted till 7 p.m. when they start coming back for the evening trade. Meanwhile, a few herons eat the leftovers, and cleaners make the place a little tidy.
Not that the local civic body is neglecting the maintenance, as a few labourers were working on the repairs at the time of our visit. But even that is a partial scene. Talking about them, Suman said that usually, there are only two men for the work. "How can such a big construction work be completed without more men? What if the work does not end till the arrival of the monsoon? How will we sit under the rain," asked Suman. Additionally, the workers have asked Suman and other women to leave the place vacant so that they can complete the repairs. But as better as this sounds for these women, the verbal notice by the workers has troubled them by striking fear in their minds. "We are worried that we won't be able to earn livelihood if the place is closed for us even for a few days," Suman said.
Amidst the chaos and fears, however, Koli women at Khar Danda have learned to spare time for themselves. They recount their old days in school when they had time and take pride in mentioning how they would get good marks in some subjects, including the Arts. Suman excitedly told us that she buys clothes, footwear, and jewellery once in a while when she is able to save money. Even when she does not get customers, she hardly gets disheartened but engages in an "important activity." But what is that? " To relax. I usually take full rest that day. After all, taking rest and calming oneself is also very important, isn't it?" Suman said as she walked towards her home for lunch.