SPEND A MORNING AT SASSOON DOCKS
WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA
The koli women walk down bylanes with loaded cane baskets on their head ever so gracefully. They’re sensuous. They literally smell a good catch from afar and are the sharpest businesswomen you will ever come across. Over the years they’ve built a reputation for themselves, and the story of their marketplace is as telling as their own. So I chose to follow them to their workplace.
It was 5 a.m. I’m certainly not a morning person, but there was a peculiar stench that tickled my olfactory senses and woke me up. I was barely at the gate of Sassoon Docks, but the smell was enough to tell me what I was getting into.
I’m vegetarian, and this was my first experience up close and personal with fish. Breathing in the smell of raw fish. Not just one fish. Not just any fish. All types of seafood, and so much of it. When I decided to go there I clearly wasn’t aware of what I had signed up for. But after dressing my shoes in shower caps, I marched ahead.
The seller with the freshest catch of the day was easy to spot. I simply looked for a man surrounded by all the koli women.
Swishing my way through the fisherwomen and trucks loaded with ice, I managed to get to the middle of the madness. There was so much happening I could barely decide what to look at. After dodging several koli women groups sitting intently with their baskets and the varied sea creatures (making sure not to stamp any, the animal lover that I am) I found some ground. By now the smell didn’t bother me much, and I could finally take a panoramic view of the heritage structure. It almost resembled the silhouette of a dilapidated fort, albeit with a jetty and a fleet of boats guarding its fence.
There was the one-of-a-kind fish game that froze my attention. Nearly 10 boats in a row manned by fishermen played a catch game of sorts with men on land. This oscillation of throwing slimy fish, big and mid sized, one-by-one, reminded me of the pendulum in an old clock. While one man (probably the only one good at throwing fish) was busy transporting his catch, the rest were quickly sorting and cleaning the hordes they had amassed on their voyage. Just around this time the chaos on land piqued, yet again capturing my attention.
A hand’s distance away were loud, numeric cries. That is where the buck stops, I thought to myself. The seller with the freshest catch of the day was easy to spot. I simply looked for a man surrounded by all the koli women. It’s hard not to notice their bright patterned sarees, noisy exchanges, and fierce buying behaviour.
Swishing my way through the fisherwomen and trucks loaded with ice, I managed to get to the middle of the madness. There was so much happening I could barely decide what to look at.
Almost led by women, the Koli community has special importance in shaping the Mumbai archipelago. They are the only ones who can be rightfully called the original inhabitants of the city that never sleeps. Soft at heart, the koli women are known to save the best fish of the day for their families, but they will never sell bad or infected fish to their customers either. And scoring a bargain with them is one of the most tactful tasks in the world.
The seller started bidding and the women took a minute or two to judge the products. After all, they’re particular about what they take to their customers with whom they have built relationship over the years. The women started countering the seller’s bid, and the best bargainer won the lot. The transaction was settled in cash, right then and there, and the deal was sealed. Off she went with her catch, sashaying through the crowds, hoping to come the next day for yet another lot.
Business continued at the dock. More fish continued to be thrown on land, followed by more auctions and more sales. Constructed on reclaimed land in South Mumbai’s Colaba area, Sassoon Docks and its fishing occupation have been feeding many mouths in the city both directly and indirectly. And the fisherfolk that have so far being operating purely manually are counting on the government’s proposed fund aimed to redevelop the fishing infrastructure at the busiest dock in Mumbai.
Albert Abdullah David Sassoon – the son of David Sassoon – built the Sassoon Docks in 1875. It is one of two docks that are still open to the public (the other being Bhaucha Dhakka in Mazgaon).
Sassoon Docks, Shahid Bhagatsingh Marg, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005