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In Pictures: life in the fishing villages of Mumbai

Mehr Gill
13th Oct 2017
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The following photo essay covers five fishing villages of Mumbai I visited during my short stay in the city. It was unfortunate that when I visited, the beginning of the fishing season was just a few days away. From June through August, fishing is banned by the government due to monsoons and high tides.

While my primary aim was to speak to the Kolis, native fisherfolk of Mumbai, for whom fishing has been a livelihood for the past 150-200 years, I chanced upon non-Koli fishing communities as well.

Even today, Kolis stay together in areas referred to as koliwadas, scattered throughout the coastal edges of the city. The photographs in the photo essay are depicted in a chronological order. I visited the Catholic side of the Chimbai fishing village near Band Stand first.

My next stop was Danda Koliwada where I met a group of fishermen who were unwinding on a Sunday afternoon. They told me that all the kids of the area attend English medium schools, and they complained how people pollute the water and that streamers and cruises leak oil into the water.

I walked to the Juhu Koliwada, and the people I met reiterated the strong sense of community spirit that exists among the Kolis. I was fortunate to witness a heavily attended religious ceremony, marking the end of the Narli Purnima.My last visit was to the Versova Koliwada and Madh Island.

The Kolis I met did not feel marginalised in any way. They take pride in being a part of the community and do not want to adapt completely to the city life. Prabhakar Gowde of the Juhu Koliwada said, “Even if the government gave us flats, we would not want to shift. We like to stay together and our doors are shut only in the night.”

I met Cleophas Pinto, 19 who is currently studying in school and resides in the Chimbai fishing village near Band Stand. He was the first figure I saw when I entered the fishing village. After I approached him, Cleophas agreed to ask a fisherman if he would talk to me. The fisherman refused. As I followed him through the narrow alley, he asked me if I worked for the Times of India. Cleophas’ father is also a fisherman but was out at the time. His mother hails from Goa. Henceforth, Cleophas introduced me to two women, Della and Sheryl who told me about the village and its problems. Since he was getting late to go to church, he left.

 

Sheryl was teaching tuitions to a bunch of kids when Cleophas called her outside her house. Della, an older woman who was sitting on a bench with an infant told me that the fishing village is over 200 years old. Sheryl said that the oil rigs have been polluting the water, as a result of which fishing in the area has reduced. She pointed out the oil stains on the walkway and showed me a thick layer of oil that had amalgamated with the sand, further mixed with garbage. September is a good month for fishing in Chimbai, lobsters being their main catch.

 

The main concern of this fishing community comprising over 20 houses is the oil that leaks from the rigs. This picture shows oil that has mixed with sand. As a result of these leaks, fishing has reduced. In such cases, many women take up work as domestic helpers and men sometimes find work at the oil rigs. Sheryl (the woman in picture) also told me that a few fishermen had started raising piglets that roamed on the beach, however, that has also reduced now.

 

Danda Koliwada is 2.7 km away from the Chimbai fishing village. There were many overturned boats at the koliwada, a sign that fishing had not yet fully resumed. Pictured above is the sole boat that was in the water. In the far background on the left hand side of the photograph is the Juhu koliwada.

 

The first person I spoke with at the Danda Koliwada was fisherman. He was accompanied by a young man who was holding a black plastic bag containing small fish. The old man was trying to catch small fish with the stick.

 

The two women pictured above are not from the Koli community and were looking for smaller fish in the shallow water. They helped me to get in touch with the Koli men who were enjoying their Sunday afternoon with alcohol and dry moong. Two men, Bhanu Das, 44 and Pradeep Deli, 54 spoke to me about the situation in the koliwada, both of them residents of Danda since birth. Bhanu and Pradeep said that most people in the area knew english, hindi and marathi. The two, among others have been staying in Danda since birth. While many in Danda still depend upon fishing, some have resorted to taking up jobs in the private and public sector. Their complaints echo what Sheryl from Chimbai told me. Fishing has significantly reduced due to oil leaks by streamers and rigs. Fishermen have to go deeper in the sea to catch fish. They also complained about the garbage and plastic that is thrown into the water.

 

Malika Swami is a 35-year old ragpicker who was the first person I met at the Juhu Koliwada, whose husband died from an illness in 2016. She manages to earn rupees 15,000 every month, out of which rupees 5,000 is the rent of her 10ft x 10ft room. She has two children who attend an english medium school. Malika wanted me to photograph her without the bag in which she carried scraps and plastic.

 

The temple built in 1930 was bustling with people when I got there. Pictured above are Koli women who were enthusiastic to pose for photographs. The tallest woman with the blur face is Smita Concessao Gowde. She married outside her community and now stays in Borivali. When I asked her about the sense of community Koli people have she said, “This is our Bombay. You all and others have come from outside. Be it the Ambani’s or the likes of him. This is our Bombay.” There were about 15-20 Koli people present in the temple who were staying there as kaidis (prisoners) for a period of 8 days as a form of worship to their god. The stay ends on Narli Purnima, when they offer coconut water to the sea gods and the fishing resumes. Smita estimated that around 125 families stay in the Juhu Koliwada.

 

Saole Ram Narayan Gopal, aged 70 was playing a musical instrument at the temple. He did not understand Hindi, hence I took help from one of the Koli women to talk to him. When I asked if he was also a Koli, the woman whispered and told me that he was a ‘Ghati’, a term used for people belonging to the ghats. It is not a derogatory term, but careful writers and speakers should assume diligence if they plan to use it.

 

At the end of my interviews, the women insisted me to eat the langar which comprised of dal, 2 sabjis, fried papad, pickle and gulab jamun. The hands pictured above are of a very chatty woman, Manorama Koli.

 

Pictured above is the courtyard of the temple. Although fishing still remains to be the primary activity of the Koli people, the newer generations are pursuing other fields. Fishing has significantly reduced as a result of pollution and some productive creeks being encroached by the government. As a result many Koli men take up other jobs in the private and public sector. Prabhakar Gowde, a man I met at the temple told me that the sense of community among the Koli people is so strong that they keep their doors open in the day and that even if they were given flats, they would not like to stay in those.

 

Commotion at the Juhu Koliwada.

 

Versova koliwada is dotted with many boats, large and small. Pictured above is the jetty point, from where one can take a jetty to get to Madh Island. The ticket costs rupees 10.

 

My third and last visit was to Madh Island, a group of fishing villages dominated by the Kolis. The picture above is of fried fish that is commonly sold in small shops.

 

Raja Ram Mokul and his wife run a small shop that sells different kinds of fried fish. Since fishing on Madh Island had stopped since the last 3 months, the fish is usually sourced from Colaba and Malad, sometimes even from neighbouring states like Gujarat. The two directed me to go further ahead for a chance to meet a few fishermen.

 

Raja Ram Mokul.

 

Mokul’s wife preparing the batter for the fish.

 

Throughout the time I was at Madh Island, the rain did not stop. At one point it was pouring relentlessly, causing me to take a half-hour break under the shed of an ice factory. The heavy machinery is used for shredding blocks of ice into smaller pieces. This ice is used to keep fish fresh.

 

Augustine Pascol Koli, 49 and two other men were standing under a shed full of fishing nets. Augustine said that the fishing season would resume post 15th August, after 3 months of no activity. During this period, fishermen depend on their savings and carry out repair work such as fixing nets and equipment.

 

I was lucky to catch freshly caught fish and prawns at the Versova Koliwada. Pictured above is a part of the day’s catch.

 

More catch.

 

The fishermen carry the catch in crates and solid plastic bags, transfer it onto the trolley that is lined with dry ice. The letters painted on the crates refer to the name of fishing boat. The catch will now make its way to the fish markets.

 

The fish seen in the previous photographs came from these small boats. These fishermen are preparing to go into the sea again.

 

A few meters away from the small boats, were a bunch of large boats that were being loaded with ice and diesel. Dastur Solkar Koli(pictured above) is a fisherman who told us that the big boats sail into the sea for 10-12 days and each boat is manned by around 12 men. They sail for close to 48 hours to reach the centre of the sea and then they start fishing. They take the amount of ice that would be enough for the fish caught on the first day to stay fresh till they sail back. The boats are also loaded with a lot of food, water and diesel. Once they return the fish is taken back to the ice factory and from there to the markets.

 

For the group of big boats that will set sail for 10-12 days, a single block of ice is first put through this machine that breaks it into smaller, easier to handle pieces. The huge scissor-like instrument is used to pick up the block of ice and load it into the machine.

 

After the machine breaks down the ice, it is transferred into the big boats through a long sheet, supported by men on either side.

 

The canisters contain diesel, the men are transferring them into the big boats being readied for their voyage.


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