“Is this a fish market?”
To be silenced, we’ve often come across this phrase in nosey classrooms at school. The fish market has always been a manifestation of everything seemingly ‘uncivil’ to the general population and a butt of the joke for the rest.
Holding the right to reserve the title of Mumbai’s native residents, Maharashtra’s fisherfolk population is the fifth highest in India. The Koli fishing community of Mumbai has been working in and around Mumbai’s coastal waters for over 500 years, even before Mumbai got its present-day name. In fact, Mumbai owes a lot to the community, with even its name being drawn from their goddess, Mumbadevi.
The community was first classified as a ‘backward class’ and unofficially considered a lower-caste community ever since the British Raj. Today the community is legally recognised under ‘Scheduled Castes’, although the Koli community has their own definition and understanding of their categorisation. Despite the legal recognition, the community is constantly neglected by the government.
The Koli community has stuck to its otherwise ‘unconventional’ traditional customs of work distribution and living where the women folk have rights and ‘privileges’ at par with the men. The fishermen go out into the sea for months and the fisherwomen, who make up two-thirds of the Koli population, take the forefront front of the post-harvest fishing business. In our male-dominated society, this kind of work distribution may be classified as ‘equal’, dismissing the dual burden of not just earning but also being responsible for the community, running the household and taking care of the children.
Koli women respond to the duality of their responsibility by placing emphasis on the women of the community being socially and financially independent. The fish selling license and tricks of the trade are passed on from the older generations of womenfolk to younger women of the community with pride like an heirloom. The women, just like the rest of Indian communities also believe in passing on gold, the only difference being the Koli traditional amongst women to invest their earnings into buying gold ornaments which serve as a means to not just save money but also have assets of their own.
With the men of the community away for months at the sea and the absence of support from the state, the women developed a close-knit community that stuck together to fill in for each other. While the women place pride in their independence, they also function in solidarity and place their faith in their collective power and informal networks. The community, as their faith in Mumbadevi reinforces, is structured around their cohesion. A balance of individual independence and communal dependence is a blend difficult to spot in our modern society; this balance shapes not just the collective identity of the community but also creates a space for individual solidarity.
In a suffocatingly patriarchal country like ours, women are often closeted and kept away from businesses as a form of subordination and segregation of gender. The Koli fisherwomen however dominate both the decision-making of the household and the business. They embody their feminine traits in the middle of this otherwise ‘rough’ man’s business and practice the trade clad in perfectly pleated sarees — kaashtha style and gold jewellery from head to toe.
The agency of Koli women reflects in the confidence they conduct their business and themselves with. In the Mumbai fish market, unlike anywhere else, men are a minority.
If you enjoyed reading this article, we suggest you also read: