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In clasp of the sea

April 1, 2016

 

 

Clank, clank, clink. The sound of conch shells rapidly clanking against each other and clinking on a

wooden surface sharply resonates in a small courtyard connecting homes in the Khar Koliwada. This

sound is competing with the sounds of loud chatter of women playing a game of Chillum (a game of

ludo played with conch shells) over copious amounts of khakhra, chai and endless friendly banter.

“Aye, play fast!,” says an impatient Kavita, a feisty looking young koli woman. The small play room

has an old, worn-out khatiya in one corner,  a wooden cupboard with trimmings occupying the

centre of a wall surrounding mother in-laws and daughter in-laws, most of them flaunting some

form of the traditional Koli attire; the scene easily teleports you to the sets of old movies, the kind

they regularly show on Doordarshan. “The sea is too rough to ride in the off-season. We will resume

work after celebrating Naariyali Purnima, in the end of August,” says Kavita, justifying their

merrymaking.

 

   An uncertain looking timid man is standing in the courtyard, looking longingly inside, wishing to be

a part of the game. “He is Bhalchandra Foman’s relative,” says the eldest mother in-law to the

others.

 

   Each clank of the conch shells is an euphonious reminder of the the Koli community’s proximity to

the sea, both physically and emotionally. The staccato notes of the shells and the chatter, a palpable

metaphor of the bond,  travels with the warm salty air, and invigorates the neighbouring houses,

including that of Bhalchandra Foman’s. At seventy-five years of age, Bhalchandra is a revered figure

in the Koli community. Dressed in an orange checked shirt and a short pair of shorts, he is seated on

a low table, with legs apart and is pouring over official looking documents with a nostalgic gleam in

his eyes. “These are official papers of my fishing boats and look at the photographs of the helpers. I

had a hundred of them at one point,” he talks proudly about his little fishing empire. This happened

Inspite of his aspirations to study and join the navy. But complying with his parents’ wishes, he

joined the ‘family business’ and became a full-time fisherman.

 

   “My grandfather often accompanied his father on short fishing expeditions and returned home

with tonnes of fish,” he says, tracing his work back to his ancestors. During the monsoons, the men

would mend fishing nets and boats and if time permitted, painted traditional motifs on them. “This

is also when my grandmother and one or two bahus would go to the markets of Kalyan, Bhiwandi,

Vasai and Virar to get ration for the year. They would rent a bail-gaadi for 4-5 days for a lump-sum

amount of Rs 15-20., load it with fish like bombil and gardi and would return with rice, jowari,

masala and sticks. Away from home, they would erect a make-shift tent in someone’s farm and

would take some fish, oil and masala along to cook up their meals,” says Bhalchandra, drawing

attention to the progressive spirit inherent in the Koli community.

 

   The small room in which Bhalchandra is seated is painted with shades of umber and dull yellow, as

if pigments from the sand have been splashed on the walls. Listen carefully and the faint sounds of

the sea waves ominously crashing against the pebbles and shell can be heard. It is a tough life at sea.

“Have you seen the movie Mother India? Our condition is worse than that of the farmers. If the

monsoons fail a year, crops for that year get ruined, but if anything happens to our boat, we will lose

everything. We faced this in the 1957 storm when at least 2-3 boats from every fishing village had

gone missing,” Bhalchandra says indignantly. “In this profession, try as hard as you may, but the

outcome is 75% luck and 25% hard work.”

 

   Bhalchandra Foman belongs to  the generation that has seen the fishing profession reach

unexpected peaks, but is also witnessing the lethargically expounding factors announcing the

profession’s slow but guaranteed demise. The impending coastal road proposed by the government

is surely going to deplete the stock of fish. “Now my kids are well-educated and they prefer white-

collar jobs over getting their feet dirty in the mud. Add to this the difficulty to get labour, the

increased production and storage cost, it is not gainful to continue with fishing.” In spite of this,

Bhalchandra possesses a unequivocal adoration for his occupation and his homeland. “This is our

only home. We do not have a native village outside of this, unlike most other people,” he says

earnestly.

 

   The sound of Radha teasing her friend breaks Bhalchandra’s reverie about the future of his

profession. “She's getting married next month to a South Indian, living just two houses away. Here,

there are more love marriages than arranged, and it's all within the locality,” says Radha attesting

allegiance to the land on behalf of  her Koli community. The Koliwada is akin to a ghetto. In

continuing with the progressive spirit, the  settlement is like a fishing net, expanding in volume as

fish gets collected. The net is not selective about which fish it holds; it happily houses all that will

contribute.

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The People Place Project is an initiative to chronicle the life and times we live in. Through a lens of people and places, we hope to pin together the narrative of how we have come to be here - our language, our thoughts, our attire, our structures - everything that defines us. The Project will travel through cities of the world to unravel fresh individual narratives that add to the whole. Started in 2014 under the title People Called Mumbai, the project now aims to travel across the prime cities of India and the globe. 

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