Monday, December 14, 2009
leaving fishing behind
photographs and text by Anjali Pinto
The traditional role for women in the Koli community is to sell fish, but given the opportunity to do something else, the youngest generation is staying away from the marketplace.
the koli village
Made up of narrow roads that barely allow for two-way traffic, the Koli village is one of closeness, trust and familiarity. Although it is located in one of Mumbai’s up-and-coming posh suburban areas called Versova, the Koli village distinguishes itself by its strong sense of collaboration and community. Every evening in the village, inviting neighbors leave their doors open and make small talk with in the Koli language, a Marathi dialect.
“Living here, we have the support of our society. If we go outside of this neighborhood we don’t have the same interactions, even our language is misunderstood,” says Aruna Chandi, 37, who grew up in the village and is now raising her family there.
Her daughter Snehal Chandi, 14, is in the ninth grade at English school where she is among students from various religious, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. She is one of few classmates that are Koli, a tribe that was the first to settle in Mumbai in the 1100’s and has since been linked to fishing.
The sights in the Koli village are dominated by the fishing business. Salty, drying bombil hang in the sun on wooden rods that resemble a fence surrounding the village. On either side of the street, men are tediously mending blue fishing nets on their front porch. Before the daily auction begins at four o’clock, fishermen run through the footpaths sternly clicking their tongue to clear the way.
In the sand, on the coast of the village, Koli women list off the prices of their catch of fresh fish, squid and shrimp. The auctioneers show disgust if someone tries to bargain too low and women are yelling at each other from opposite sides of the beach. These lively interactions are all part of the accepted culture of the marketplace.
The landscape of the Koli fish auction is dominated by women and is exemplary of the values of the Koli culture. Women in the community are empowered to speak their mind and they are valued for their ability to run homes, raise children, and provide income from the fish business.
a new generation
Her wrists are decorated with scalloped gold and green bangles, her glossy dark hair gathered neatly in a low bun and her vibrant, patterned sari is looped up tightly between her legs.
She could be any of the many Koli fisherwomen in Mumbai that continue traditions of her seaside ancestors began centuries ago. Despite the profession being passed on for generations, the enduring lifestyle of sorting, transporting and vending fish is in a state of transition.
Snehal Chandi’s mother Aruna and grandmother Shanti had no choice but to follow a similar pattern: be married at 16, have a child as soon as possible, and sell fish to help support the family.
The youngest generation of Koli women in Versova, Mumbai are replacing the hours their mothers spend bargaining in the marketplace with managing assignments in a classroom. Snehal, unlike women of preceding generations, has had the opportunity to continue her education in place of beginning work at a young age.
The Indian government has provided free education to all children up to the tenth grade since 2005 and members of the Koli community have reserved seats in schools and government jobs. These efforts to improve literacy and raise educational standards have helped young Koli women, but there are still obstacles to becoming better educated.
In order to reserve a place for Snehal in the public school she attends, her mother had to sell her gold and pay an 11,000 rupees (160 euro) entrance fee to a school fundraiser. The average fisherwoman makes 300 rupees a day.
“My children will enjoy the fruits of their education. I look forward to them having an easier life than me,” says Aruna.
Snehal not only is pardoned of the responsibility to care for a family as a teenager, but she is also given the opportunity to make choices. She relies on her family, but she can be her own person. Brightly colored t-shirts and snug blue jeans worked their way into the closet she shares with her parents without much argument.
“We don’t fight about her Western dress because it’s part of the modern age. We have to go along with it. Even her grandmother doesn’t object to the way she dresses because she feels Snehal is part of a new generation,” says Aruna.
a changing business
During the monsoon season, small fishing boats can not manage to go out on the turbulent sea and fisherwomen are forced to buy from large, commercial boats at the docks in the center of Mumbai. By train, the roundtrip journey between Versova and the city center is 50 kilometers and takes two hours. Rickshaw drivers often refuse to transport fisherwomen who want to go home because of the smell of their fish.
Hardships are part of the life in the fishing business. Changes in weather, pollution, and the technology of fishing have all made life as a saleswoman in the market more difficult.
“When I used to come to the market with my mother when I was a girl, the business was much better than it is now,”says Shanti Chandi. People from other regions of India have poured into Mumbai for better job opportunities, and with the influx there arose door-to-door fish salesmen. The increase in competition has made the Koli business inconsistent. Shanti, like many other Koli fisherwomen, continues to sell fish the way her mother did - on a small platform and cleaning the fish by hand as people buy. This way of life will be lost to increasing modernization of India.
“We sit in the fish market with small wooden planks, but the business is now going to become more high-tech and the market will be replaced with malls,” says Aruna. The Koli people are slowly loosing their traditional work, but the Chandi family feels no sorrow with the knowledge that the young women of the family will persue other things.
“I have struggled in this business and I would like my grandchildren to have a more modern life,” says Shanti. With higher education as a possibility for the first time in the family’s lineage, her grandchilden are apt to fufill her wish.
For the eight hours her mother and grandmother are earning, Snehal Chandi is spending time and energy to be an excellent student. She wakes up at half-past seven in the morning to get dressed in her khaki, pin-striped school uniform and tie.
She rushes off to the bus and is not back until 1 p.m., with enough time for lunch and a bit of rest before she is off to after-school tutoring. From 4-9 p.m. she is among ten other Koli students that pay 900 Rs. (13 euro) a month to get a richer education than what is offered in public school.
Although her parents want her to have the freedom to choose her future job and develop her individual interests, she is still sheltered in ways that her non-Koli are free.
“They can go out and do anything without asking permission,” Snehal says, “but, I need to come home and ask to go out. They go to the movies or out shopping. If it’s not nearby, the answer for me is usually no.”
Some aspects of the future of Snehal’s life are uncertain - what college she will be able to attend, where she will find a job, if she will marry within the Koli community, but she has an idea of her future.
“I want to be an engineer, to do something for my mommy, for my parents. I want to stay here for my family,” she says.
The Koli fisherwomen are happy to see their children leave the profession behind, but will not let the community lifestyle of the Koli village be abandoned. And for Snehal, that is a shared desire.
“It will be okay if she gets a job outside Versova and outside the fishing business, as long as she still comes home at the end of the day,” says Aruna.