My driver, D, likes to show me Mumbai. That’s a good fit, because I am probably one of the more curious people he’s ever driven around. (The correct word is probably “nosy”. I’m cool with that.) I’m always up for investigating some corner of the world. D loves to show me all the cool things and places in Mumbai.
The other day, we were having a conversation about food, and I mentioned that I loved fish, but that V didn’t seem to be able to find any lately. Some people don’t eat fish during Monsoon season. Maybe she’s one of them. Personally, I don’t care to listen to that sort of advice – if it comes out of the same body of water, I figure it is what it is, no matter what time of year it is. Then again, I eat street food; so culinary risk to me is something I throw caution to the wind about.
D thought that was silly too, and he told me that the best place to find fish was the docks. He also thought that the very next morning was when we should go, so that is how I found myself, in jeans and Wellies, tromping through fish guts at Sassoon Docks at seven-thirty in the morning.
We arrived at the docks and even though it was “late” by D’s standards, things were humming. People were peeling shrimp, and fishermen pulled up to drop off the day’s catch for the fishwives to sell. The place was packed.
I wandered in behind D, who led me all over to the end of the docks, past the ladies selling, and the children and women peeling shrimp and prepping the fish for sale. At one point, I asked permission to take a photo and a man gave me a dirty look and said no. I scooted along a little further and asked another group, only to be denied again. The third time was a charm.
It took me a while to figure out why I’d been told no earlier – and then I realized that the people peeling the shrimp were children.
Child labor in India is touchy. It exists, if only because without the many hands in the family working, the many mouths in the family would starve. For some, children can do more difficult and precise work because of their small hands and have job security that their parents may not. This is the same story told the world over, in developing countries, and for many it is a black eye.
The Indian government is well aware of the issue, and takes steps to improve the situation. Again, I’m not the diplomat, as I try to say over and over here, but in my opinion, I think they are making decent progress and handling it well. It’s a difficult line to walk between progressing on this issue to eliminate it, equipping children with a trade they could use in the future as an adult, and crippling families who rely on many hands to help support the household. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I’m hardly the one to go screaming off and demanding 100% compliance now, as tempting as it is from the standpoint of a citizen of a country that has already gone through this process. According to Save the Children and the 2001 Census, there are 13 million children under the age of 14 working in India. https://www.savethechildren.in/what-we-do/child-protection/child-labour.html Recent amendments to the law have made an attempt to restrict child labor, even as they are continually debated. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Cabinet-approves-changes-to-Child-Labour-Act-bans-employment-of-those-below-14-years/articleshow/47276324.cms
OK, so back to your regularly scheduled fluff. I can’t get too deep into the weeds – I’m not qualified. I’ll leave that to the experts.
Eventually, I decided what needed to go into the dinner pot for the night – some form of shellfish. Although that peeled shrimp winds up frozen and in bags in most of the Western-style groceries that I buy much of my meat and fish in, I wanted some that was fresh, and maybe a little variety. When we first arrived, V had brought some crab and made this crab masala that still makes me swoon whenever I think about it, and I was very much dreaming of a repeat of that. After a bit of poking around, I found it.
The fishwife (crabwife?) smelled blood in the water, but she was smart enough to start out at a price that was only slightly outrageous. Sadly, I have not paid as much attention to my numbers in Hindi as I should, and D had to do more translating than I had ever hoped he had to during the bargaining process. I really should learn by heart the numbers beyond 4. Really.
Finally, we decided that R800 was a good price. She was happy, D was satisfied I wasn’t getting taken advantage of, and I was about to start jumping up and down in fish guts, ecstatic that I got the equivalent of four-and-a-half pounds of whole crabs for $12.30. The one snag is that I hadn’t thought to bring a carry-bag or a cool bag. Ooops. The fishwife didn’t have one for us, so D and I left the dock momentarily to go purchase a sturdy plastic bag (ouch, I know) for R20 from a local dry goods store. As we were about to walk away, we rethought that and opted for two bags. Crabs have sharp claws, and they might stick through just one bag. We returned back to the fishwife, paid her, and then headed back down the dock.
I still wanted some shrimp though, and one lady had these very large ones that looked really good. After a few passes by, D and I stopped to inquire.
Me: Kitna? (How much?)
Fishwife: R2,200 (as translated by D — $35.48)
Me: (looking at D) ?????? Really?
D: Too much, madam.
Me: Apka dam betar dijie. (Please give a better price.)
Fishwife: R2,100 (translated — $32.30)
Me: D, that’s more than I’d pay in the U.S.!!!
D: (laughs, nods)
Fishwife: R1,800. Last price. (translated — $27.69)
Me: Tell her I’ll pay that only if the shrimp come to my house and clean all my bathrooms. Twice.
D: (laughs, we turn away)
Fishwife: Madam! Madam! Good price!
Me: Madam pagal nahi hai! (Madam is not crazy.)
Other fishwives: (laugh)
After a little more poking around, asking questions about catch, and watching the fishermen throw massive buckets of seafood to the dock with amazing precision,
we left the dock.
I wanted to get a few photos of the rest of the area, so D and I walked back towards the main gate.
The Sassoon Dock has been around for years, but was recently refurbished, and rededicated in 2014. I wish I’d know that there was a rededication – I SO would have snuck to the back of the crowd to watch the tower bell rung for the first time.
As we headed back to the car, we walked through a packaging area, where many buildings were busy processing fish for sale and export. As D explained, the main road forks off and there are two sides to the processing. The first side, he said, is for the actual fish and shellfish processing. As we walked through, I noticed many squat, long buildings with the names of fish companies painted on the side. One of the larger buildings was open, and I couldn’t resist taking a few photos.
Eventually, I think I’m going to get really good at taking photos waist high and without actually seeing what I’m taking a photo of. Everyone in the building, including the security guards, was pretty cool with my curiosity though, and barely looked my way.
At the juncture of the road, I asked D what was on the other side. “Ice, Madam,” was his reply. Ice? This I had to see. I peered down the street and saw an open ice factory, ready to be checked out.
The ice was manufactured for the sellers on the docks and the shippers to pack their wares in. As I stood there, I saw them process approximately 1,200 pounds of ice. It started out in large blocks of about 200 kg. (440 lbs.).
Then, one man would take the block and grip it with the ice tongs and cut it into more manageable chunks – perhaps 4-5 per block, and then pick up the smaller chunks with the ice tongs
and dump them into the hopper of an ice pulverizer.
Ice chips flew out into a crate, where they were dumped into large Styrofoam containers and then hauled down the docks to the shippers, the fishwives, or the fishermen.
This fascinated me. I thought the ice tongs were especially cool, as the only place I’d ever seen them used was in old photos in museums or books (or online) of an America before refrigeration when everyone still had to go buy ice for their “icebox”.
It’s an odd thing to hone in on, I suppose, but hey – that’s me. Give me the simple but unusual and I’m happy. (I know exactly where you went with that, but I’m trying to get through one post without poking fun at DiploDad, but it’s SO hard.)
Finally, after watching for about ten minutes, I became aware of the dripping bag of crab and realized that we had to get these babies home for cooking if crab masala was going to appear on plates that night. D and I took every single plastic foot mat out of the front of the car and stacked it under or around the crab bag, rinsed our shoes off, and then headed home.
D asked me what I thought about the docks, and I thought for a few moments before I answered him. I found it fascinating, I told him. The ingenuity, the use of tools I’d only seen in pictures, and the fishwives all in saris. Every single one of them. That I was sure that there were places like this in the U.S. where people packed fish, wandered around the docks with seafood, and ground ice for packing, but that I would never be permitted to go see things as a casual visitor. There would have been fences, security, IDs checked, and permissions to obtain first, and that it likely would not have been possible to enter. I thanked him for taking me here, for showing me this little slice of Mumbai.
I’m sure that most of the times I buy seafood in my life I’ll be doing it in front of a glass counter or reach into a freezer door. I do know, however, that whenever I eat crab, I will imagine that the woman who accepted it from the fisherman to sell it to whatever large distributor helps get it to my table was wearing a sari.