Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Fish at 5

It's time. For the rumble of fish carts, dripping blood and salty seawater and scales, hand manouvered through the city's fog by wirey, barefoot men proffering these elongated rickshaws. Bare chested machi marathoners all, crossing the city from the fat vessels berthed at Sassoon Dock, from the gaudily hued boats lining the sands of Cuffe Parade, met by their Koli sailors' thin and dark Maharashtrian wives with their nine-yard sari's tucked between their legs, their giant red tikkas, heavy gold earrings elongating their lobes, and forearm gondans.

Each spot disgorges white fleshy pomfrets larger than my face and bouncing silver mackerels to be magically, lovingly basted in soft, yellow caldine curries for the Goan fish on Friday Catholics, or to end up mysteriously enveloped in coriander chutney-filled banana leaf in Colaba's Parsi kitchens. And then, the fat prawns that curl pink into my grandmother's indescribable dry-fry of golden tipped onions and scattered salt grains and a smell so crisp and potent and lightly caramelised my stomach aches with the juice of remembrance.

The blood and wet leaves pungent possible dinner clues, as crows swoop in, slick opportunists in black, tucking ripped fish heads and entrails into their beaks for festering feasts, amidst the overhanging trees. It's 5 am. The bells on the carts are tinkling. Now, the machi walli will hoist her spoils, glistening in a newspaper-lined basket, onto her head, and begin her daily pitch, gliding door to door as housecoated ladies peek from around back entrances and haggle in the early morning air.

The smell of catch reeks through my grilled windows, the sea shushes a kilometre behind our home, where the flags and fisherfolk stand, now still. I cuddle deeper into my nana's soft breast, and breathe. Even now.

Machi: fish
Machi walli/walla: fish woman, fisherman
Gondans: tattooes
Koli: Bombay's fisherfolk clan
Tikka: religious forehead mark

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I am ready to run away. The only things that keep me in place are a series of particular olfactory memories of a time when once, I was free. They have come to symbolise a dreamy point in my existence, before I left those smells, before I fell full thrust into my bewildering new life that began promisingly with a shiny blue bike but eventually became a tale of grown ups and grown up troubles and raised voices and emotional roller coasters and sadness and joy and sorrow and happiness and gloom, cemented with cheap cement that cracked under the slightest pressure.

All my 8 pounds kicked away painfully down the canal of my mother's womb, screeching to sniff the earth, so they say. I arrived on cue, as my mother was asserting her rights to be herself. It turned out that this robust baby with curly hair and plump skin and shiny eyes inadvertently became a physical, mental and ultimately, emotional symbol, of my mother's fight and eventual flight to freedom.

A freedom which remains deep within me, passed as it was from mother to daughter in a blood flow of thoughts and pain. It is a primal call, that seeks to knock, harder and harder upon the inside of my skull, desperate, caged, and screeching as I did on arrival into the world, but politely tucked inside my folds of innards and blood and cells, where no one can hear or see.

When I want to run away, I remember kerosene. Its smell. Its vapory essence filling my nose with comfort, as the large stove it lit boiled our daily bath water, how the same water spilt and burnt my grandmother's foot, leaving its imprint as a mysterious white map for years to come. How the roaring, noisy blue flame said efficiency and calm and warmth and comfort and towels and powder. Despite the dog-eared fact that any build up of its gases could blow the apartment right out through its windows.

My first olfactory memory. Kerosene.