The distinct smell of fish lingers in the air a kilometre from the Kasimedu fish market. The narrow lanes leading to one of Chennai’s major fishing grounds appear calm, but as you near the market you are greeted by a whole new world that only exists between 4 am and 7 am.
Hundreds of boats that dock at the Royapuram fishing harbour carry tonnes of seafood including seer fish, crab, pomfret, prawn, shark, sardine, silverbellies and mackerel. The catch is unloaded from trawlers and are brought to shore in smaller boats, where men segregate them in small buckets.
The produce is fresh and the men waste no time to try and sell them first to get the best deal. “The boats and trawlers start coming in at 3.30 am. Some of the men sail for 15 days and bring back at least 500 kg of fish. Our job is to bring our produce to the market first,” says 29-year-old Ganesan, who has been doing this job every day from when he could remember. By 5 am the fish reaches the market and the madness begins. There is barely any space to walk. The men form a human chain while carrying the day’s catch to the market. They balance small baskets containing the fish between one and another. The discarded fish are left on the ground and eventually even they too magically disappear.
And in a matter of minutes, the highlight of the morning begins — the auctioning of the fish. The women who lead the auction shout the prices of all the fish. They don’t mince words due to the years of experience they have behind them. The biggest catch of the day includes seer fish, grouper fish, shark and king fish. They are displayed one by one by the auctioneer. The auction for the basket of fish starts at Rs 3,000. Fish vendors from all across the city come here every morning to make their purchases.
Sekar K, a vendor, just paid Rs 3,000 for a 5 kg seer fish. This is his fifth purchase of the day. “I supply fish to all the major restaurants along East Coast Road (ECR). I come here every day at 5 am and wait for the auction to begin. The larger fish cost Rs 500 per kg. You can judge a good fish by the size and the weight. A fish weighing 6 kg is considered good and the minimum price we pay is Rs 3,000. Depending on the rarity of the catch the price may go upto Rs 10,000,” says Sekar. The auctioning area is chaotic as multiple auctions happen at the same time but according to Sekar, it takes skill to be at the right place at the right time. “You have to keep hopping around and keep a close watch on the freshest catch. I bring along two attendants to help me. We buy fish worth Rs 50,000 – Rs 75,000 every day, for which we make a profit of Rs 3,000- Rs 5,000.”
J Pushparaj, another vendor, however, has no interest in buying large fish, “I sell fish on my two-wheeler in and around Avadi. I come to the market by 5.30 am and buy pomfret, prawns and crabs. Every day, I buy fish worth Rs 500 and sell it for Rs 800.” Locals say that everything is sold by 7 am. When the smell of fried fresh fish fills the air it is an indicator that business has concluded.
‘We have all lost friends or family to the sea’
Sixty-year-old Vardhan G returns after 14 days at sea. Before heading home, he needs to finish his business at the harbour. He has been fishing since he was eight years old. He has seen the best and the worst of times.
“For me the sea is everything,” he says, adding that the vast waters have taken away some loved ones too. “Last year, I said good bye to my friend when he left to go fishing but I haven’t seen him since.”
Every fisherman here has a story to tell. Vardhan himself remembers the time when he was stuck in the sea for three days, without any food and water. “It became windy and we got lost. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere. Only on the fourth day, a boat came to rescue us,” says Vardhan. The life in a boat can get challenging. “When we set out, we take everything we need to brave the sea. We start at 4 pm. We usually sail for days and go up to Andhra Pradesh for a good catch.”
However, the trawlers have enough facilities for entertain ment. “We carry food supplies that includes sacks of rice, barrels of drinking water, ice, some alcohol, oil and other ingredients that we need to cook food. We also have a TV for entertainment. It is almost like home. We also take along with us a cook and eat fish biriyani every day made using the fresh fish we catch,” say D Maran, who also agrees that alcohol helps them through the rough journey.
Most of them dread the 45-day ban on motorised boats entering the sea to protect fish stock. “The business drastically falls. The government gives compensation to one fisherman per family but each house has three to four men who get nothing. We earn around Rs 100 to Rs 200 around this time,” says G Armugam, who adds, “People who live here do not live an easy life and wouldn’t want their children to continue in the same profession. My son is in Class 12 and my daughter studies in college. I want them to do regular jobs because surviving here every day is a challenge.”
These women ‘meen’ business
They mean business from the moment the auction starts. They don’t waste time talking during peak business hours. “Instead of taking pictures, why don’t you buy the fish,” snaps Valli, who was just about to begin auctioning the fish.
Her voice is loud and clear. The decibel level would even jerk a dead man back to life. She sells the first fish in her hand for Rs 3,500 and takes Rs 50 as the auctioning charge. Each transaction ends in less than two minutes.
These auction specialists are often the family members of the fishermen or are hired by them. Saraswathi V, has been doing this job for the past 23 years. “I lost my husband a few years ago. So this is my only source of income. I am employed by one of the fishermen. I auction the fish and get to keep the commission. I also receive a monthly salary from my employer. How much I earn depends on how much I sell,” says Saraswathi, adding that arguing with rival auctioneers is part of the job.
Hub for fish and fashion
Seeing men and women wearing crocs is a common sight at Kasimedu Fish Market. Needless to say that the floor of the fish market is perennially mucky and one is likely to slip when not being careful. Here, the colourful Crocs come in handy. “I stand in water all the time. Last year, I suffered from a fungal infection on my legs. I was asked to always wear footwear, that cover a good portion of my feet. Normal flip-flops were of no use, then someone suggested these bright coloured plastic footwear,” says M Santhi, who auctions fish. Original Crocs cost nothing less that Rs 1,000. When asked how she purchased the Crocs, she giggles and replies, “I got it for Rs 300 from a local kadai (shop).”
When fishermen give the day’s catch for free to those who help
After the trawlers dock at the shore, catamarans go back and forth to bring the day’s catch to shore. Buckets full of fish are loaded onto them, so much so that every available space on the catamaran is utilised. During the return trip, a few fish invariably fall into the water and there are people, mostly women hired to collect them. “These are usually the smaller fish. We are not paid for doing this. We help the fishermen to bring the catamaran to shore and do the physical work like pushing the boat and gathering the fish that fall into the water. They, in return give us some fish that we sell elsewhere and make some money. Daily, we manage to make between Rs 100 and Rs 200,” says G Nandini.
Innumerable associations of Kasimedu leaves much to be desired
If one gets to counting, he or she may have to spend an entire day counting the number of associations the Kasimedu fishing community has. “Everybody present here is part of some association. There are bigger associations like the Boat Owners’ Association and the Indian Fishermen Association, there are smaller ones for net makers, catamaran riders, prawn sellers, for the boat launchers and what not. The only problem is when the need comes, most of the smaller ones are of no use as there is no unity,” says a fisherman, who himself is a part of two associations.