Don't forget the kolis
Mumbai's seafaring community needs to be protected lest they lose their place in their very own homeland
My first memory of coming face to face with a koli goes back to one of my most favourite childhood routines: the weekly visit to the neighbourhood fish market with my mum. The koli fisherwoman's name was Rekha, and like the actress' look in most of her 80s movies, she, too, would wear a shiny red lip colour, and big bindi. Her vibrant saree prints and thick sets of bangles ensured everybody took note of her during their rounds of the market. Of course, it did help that she had the best catch on most days.
Loudmouthed, warm and ready for a laugh (only of the thunderous variety), she was naturally one of the most sought after koli fisherwomen at Mulund's fish market near the eastern exit of its railway station. Her friendly banter made her the centre of all the action, as she would engage in lighthearted duels with her loyal customers over the "best price". From her I learnt all about how to pick a good rawas, paaplet and surmai, and when to skip the 'jhinga'. The funniest moments would be her rather amusing trysts with the English language as she would do her best to impress my mum, the English school teacher — "only for you, madam, I give fifty rupees less," she'd say, with immense pride. And, on days when Rekha said the fish wasn't worth buying, we took her word for it. If Rekha ruled the silver screen at the time, her namesake in Mulund did the same at the fish market. Those early encounters with a member of the community were a much better education about them than the single page mention in our school textbooks.
Years later, as studies and work took us outside the environs of our suburban home, we grew to learn the importance that Rekha's community had in context to the island city and its evolution. Along with the East Indians, they were the earliest inhabitants of the original island city. As reclamation changed the shape of Bombay, and its interests took the commercial route, kolis' lives and livelihood also underwent a complete transformation. And, today, the community stares at an even bigger concern — saving their last surviving pockets, the koliwadas from being usurped by land sharks. These koliwadas, a quaint frame of sustenance and coexistence amidst the bustling cosmopolitan city, face an arduous challenge because of their vantage sea-fronting locations. Already, younger generation kolis are seeking opportunities outside of their original profession, which is a worrying sign.
Which is why the news as reported last week in this newspaper (Worli Gaothan Gets Owner Status, Won't Fall Under SRA Control, November 22) comes as a great relief. By being demarcated by officials from the Collector's office in Mumbai, it means this koliwada is safe, thereby giving them owner status and ensuring that they don't fall under SRA control. But, there need to be more guidelines in order to save this precious community that is so integral and critical to the city's existence. As commercial trawling, 'beautification' projects and mindless business ventures threaten the health of our coastline, the kolis find themselves at the pointed end of the stick since their livelihood is directly dependent on the sea. More recently, plans announced for a dedicated shipping corridor along the west coast of India, of which Sassoon Dock is a part, spells a new impending threat to the community. These are choppy waters, unlike anything that community has been used to combating in the past. Let's hope that the city in its rush to move ahead doesn't end up displacing the very community that feeds it. We owe it to them.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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