Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Visit to the Fish Market

A simple, square room, open at one end. Two sides have raised platforms. Fish scales scrunch underfoot. A couple of dim bulbs hang from the ceiling and invest the room with a surreal, golden glow. Sharp knives, shaped like inverted ships' prows, stick out of the platforms at intervals. Skin and scales and blood and bone fragments and pieces of flesh form a pyramid near each. An aluminum vessel filled with bloody water, a swing-weight (with blood-stained weights) and blood-stained money complete the picture. There are two men to each shop. One deals with the customers, one prepares the fish. Which one has the easier job, I wonder. 

The fish lie in parallel rows on newspaper sheets on the platform. Their sightless eyes touch the paper. They are beautiful: their silvery scales glint mysteriously in the dim yellow light. Ice surrounds them. Their tails drip water onto the narrow drain lining the platforms. There are all kinds of them: big, small; long, wide, narrow; silvery, pink, blue. Unnamed and unknowable, yet they attract some deep sympathy in me. They will soon be fed to those sharp knives: their skin will be ripped off, scale by glinting scale; their blood will anoint the paper underneath; their flesh will be cut into minute, carefully proportioned pieces. 

"Ayla! Matthi! Choora! Nemmeen! Karimeen! Chemmeen!" the man yells on seeing us. What good does it do him, I wonder, to know the Malayalam words for the fish? Are his customers mostly Malalyalees? Do many people know of this remote corner of Sarojini Nagar - this place that makes me feel as if I've stepped back in time, that makes me start in amazement when I look down and see my Levi's jeans and my New Balance shoes, because, surely, I should be bare-foot and clad in the black and white clothes of yesteryear movies? 

As the man prepares the large fish that we have ordered, a small boy - no more than six or seven - comes in out of the dark. He is wearing nothing more than a pair of trousers and a cotton shirt. He slips off his sandals, climbs on the platform, washes his hands in the aluminum vessel filled with blood-stained water and sits down next to (apparently) his father. The regular customers, waiting for their fish, exchange banter with him. He responds expertly, keeping up his side of the teasing while deftly handling the weighing of the fish and the exchange of money. He is quick and nimble with the blood-stained weights: he obviously has a lot of practice. 

Suddenly, everyone is disturbed by the arrival of a Mercedes. A pair of high heels, topped by a lady in black, steps out. The lady proprietedly holds the hand of a four-year-old boy. The boy is well-protected from the cold: his leather jacket shines in the golden light, he holds up his jeans carefully to avoid the dirty floor. The couple walks up to one of the shops. The lady indicates the fish she wants. How many do you want, she asks her son fondly. FOUR!, the boy replies, showing four fingers to the shopkeeper. He smilingly takes four of the fish and gives them to the other man for preparation. 

I notice that the other boy is now a bit distracted. The weights slip out of his now-bloody fingers. He makes a mistake with the calculations. His father scolds him. 

The boy in the leather jacket stares wide-eyed at the other boy. His mother calls him. He trots off, with one last look back. 

The Mercedes drives off into the night. The boy continues his work, albeit silently now.
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