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Watching The Ice Men Of Mumbai’s Fish Trade Is Like Watching A Painful Game Of See-Saw

Watching The Ice Men Of Mumbai’s Fish Trade Is Like Watching A Painful Game Of See-Saw

The hard work, sweat, toil… and ice, that go into putting that fresh fish on your table.

I can smell the fish even before I enter Mumbai’s 142-year-old Sassoon Dock. As I walk into the city’s largest wholesale fish market, stepping over rivulets of blood and innards, I see Koli fisherwomen in their bright saris, slicing and dicing away. Sitting in front of walls that have become a canvas for artists from across the world, it’s impossible to miss the hundreds of trawlers wobbling with their fluttering flags on the wet dock, in search of a catch in the Arabian Sea. Walking deeper into the dock, past the workers taking quick naps on the very handcarts and fishing nets that they ply, I see a section of ten to fifteen parked yellow lorries. Run by a group of immigrants from the village of Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, these lorries transport a crucial component of the trade’s supply-chain: ICE.

A worker on his break and in between his turns at a game of cards, informs me that fishermen spend a long time out at sea and that it can take up to 3 days to travel to their fishing spot. Some of them take as long as 4 weeks to meet their target. It is the tonnes of ice they carry beneath the boat’s footboards that preserve their highly perishable product. When the catch finally enters the dock, it’s quickly placed in carts of ice to enable local sales as well as transport for the export trade.

As I stand behind a lorry and observe the men at work, I feel a familiar sensation; it’s as if I’ve entered an air-conditioned room. A worker manoeuvres massive blocks of smoky ice with kainchis – heavy, rusted pairs of iron tongs. As he slides the ice out of the lorry and turns it over on a platform I understand what a serious test of strength the whole exercise might be. He repeatedly stabs the block of ice with a tocha – a screwdriver of sorts – to break it in half. Then a strong kick sends the block into a crushing machine that is reminiscent of the bloody woodchipper from the film Fargo, except for the tika mark adorning the crusher from that morning’s pooja.

As crushed ice spits out of the machine, two teams of two – one team to service the boats heading out to sea, and the other to service the lorries driving out with the day’s catch – scoop it up in a shovel and deposit it into tonne gaadis - long wooden carts reinforced by steel. Seven blocks of ice equal a tonne and a tonne of ice is shovelled in just 5 minutes, these men, as I could see, work very efficiently.

One of them then connects a rope to the tonne gaadi, wraps the other end around his shoulder, takes a deep breath and pulls. His partner pushes the cart from the back. It is like watching a painful game of see-saw as the two jump, tilt and level the cart before starting the arduous journey to the fishing vessel, which could be as far away as two kilometres. Once they reach the boat, they slide the crushed ice from the tonne gaadi to the several empty compartments on the boat floor. Each vessel carries 15-20 tonnes of ice; so it takes multiple trips to satiate a boat before it heads out to sea.

On an average day, which starts at 4am and goes on till late in the evening, each team of two transport 50-60 tonne gaadis. Depending on the amount of work they get, they could earn anywhere between Rs. 15,000 – 30,000 a month. Younger men in their late teens and early 20’s move rapidly with the vigour of youth. But as the days and the months progress, the aches and pains from the job catch up with them too. Several workers from Unnao have spent three to four decades on this job, and the older ones complain to me of deep blisters on their palms and severe shoulder and lower-back aches. They turn to alcohol to get through the day, just enough to numb the pain and yet stay productive.

Sassoon Dock is built on the backs of various micro-ecosystems and communities that come together. And, like the city of Mumbai, the Dock too is filled with immigrant stories. As in many of these stories, the protagonists here view their burdens with a very matter-of-fact lens.

Yeh mehnat ka kaam hai na?” (It’s hard labour, isn’t it?) asks the man operating a pair of kainchis as he kicks another block into the crusher. Crushed ice spits out of the machine, and the shovelling continues.

The boats await. So does dinner.

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Each team of two transports more than 50 carts of ice a day

Each team of two transports more than 50 carts of ice a day

A tonne of ice is shovelled in 5 minutes

A tonne of ice is shovelled in 5 minutes

Shovel and scoop. Shovel and scoop

Shovel and scoop. Shovel and scoop

A decisive kick into the crusher

A decisive kick into the crusher

Reminiscent of Fargo? The crusher at work

Reminiscent of Fargo? The crusher at work

Kainchi and Tocha: the tools of the trade

Kainchi and Tocha: the tools of the trade

The process can look chilling, in more ways than one

The process can look chilling, in more ways than one

Stepping inside the lorry feels like entering an air-conditioned room

Stepping inside the lorry feels like entering an air-conditioned room

Seven blocks of ice equal a tonne

Seven blocks of ice equal a tonne

Picking up and stabilizing a cart of ice looks like a painful game of see-saw

Picking up and stabilizing a cart of ice looks like a painful game of see-saw

Related: Goa's Oldest Community of Fishermen: The Ramponkars | 101 Wild Wild Chef

Ice is present in almost every step of the fishing supply chain

Ice is present in almost every step of the fishing supply chain

Related: This Fisherman Uses Coke And Pepsi Bottles As A Boat

The toil takes a toll: deep blisters, backaches and shoulder pains

The toil takes a toll: deep blisters, backaches and shoulder pains

 

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.

By Niyantha Shekar
Photographs by Anirudh Ganapathy