Sassoon Docks, Mumbai: photo essay of a unique urban experience

20/10/2015 Mumbai/Bombay

They say, this city never sleeps. But have you ever tried to find a taxi at 5.30am on a Saturday? It takes exactly 10 min. I guess it does sleep, for 10 min, every Saturday morning.

On this particular Saturday morning, I (with Colin McFarlane) was headed for a unique urban experience, a fishing dock on the southern edge of Mumbai. I hadn't heard to the docks before but when Colin McFarlane recommends a place in Mumbai, you go. So we woke up early and woke Mumbai from its 10 min sleep, hitched a taxi and headed for the docks.


the city that never sleeps

Everyone was in a hurry, everyone was headed in the same direction. On the way we saw many people, overwhelmingly women with tokries or baskets on their head, waking briskly in the same direction as us. Were they all headed to the dock? May be! After about 10 min on the taxi, I smelt something fishy. We were there.

Very colonial entrance of the docks
The board in front of the dock gates, which was mostly covered with names of India politicians, said that the docks were excavated in 1871 by David Sassoon and company and purchased by the (British) Crown in 1879. It was initially used for military purposes but as other docks were built in Mumbai, the use of Sassoon docks became limited to civilian purposes. That's the little bit of history  and below are some pictures to illustrate the contemporary life of the docks.

morning tea
The first thing I noticed was familiar to every other commercial centre in India. In a narrow ally on a side, under the light of one bulb, people lined wooden benches to sip cups of morning tea, before, between and after work.

silence before the storm
As we approached the main docks area, there was a beautiful scene. Small fishing boats bobbing on the water.  

dhanlakshmi - lakshmi who brings prosperity: a popular name for something which is a source of livelihood
Like many other fishing boats, dhanlakshmi had just docked. It was preparing to unload the fishes.

setting shop
As many people were running around to buy fishes, this women had already set shop. Early bird gets the worm.

brijeshwar icing the fish
We were told that fishes from here are often sent to other parts of Maharshtra. Ice becomes important to keep them safe for their travels. There were a couple of ice factories in the dock area. We were invited to see one of the factories (probably because of the white man with me) but were strictly told not to click photographs. The constant negotiation between hospitality and its limits was apparent. 

more boats lining up to unload the fishes

light and dark
Often mega cities like Mumbai are seen as spaces in which light and dark signify the boundaries between classes. Night photographs often show lighted up skyscrapers where often light and life are active through the night. That's the city that never sleep. But early morning, this boundary between light and dark is inverted. The skyscrapers are dark and sleepy and the docks, filled with working classes, are lighted up and bustling. Does this being to light some different aspects of the everyday urban life?

not a inch to stand on
Walking through the crowd of buyers and sellers of fishes, we found a safe corner to watch the proceedings from. There was no way to move forward or backward. Rotating on our own axis was the only option.

with a purpose
Everyone at the docks had a purpose, everyone at the docks had a more important purpose than us. They were determined to get in early, buy the best and often the cheapest fish and get out of the docks early, to reach their local fish markets before others. So not only was there a hurry to get into the docks but also to get out. There were unmanaged, automatic queues of of people apparating and disapparating in different spaces of the docks, at different times. We were slowing people, and their mutually practised movements and negotiations. Result: We were pushed and shoved, often in an attempt to conform to these movements.

another shot
In the middle of all the movement and running around someone set a shop and the movements changed. Some queues split and automatically people started going around the shop. Nothing said, nothing done.

queues of buyers and seller going around the shop

a row of negotiations
As I looked to my left, suddenly a row of negotiations at appeared. Some sort of pre-existing knowledge of the space led many fish sellers and buyers to line up, facing each other. Hand, face and vocal gestures begun to determine the acceptable quality, quantity and prices of the fishes. 

modern equipment
A few years ago, I visited the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Tsukiji was full of modern equipment. Electric saws, big freezers, electric trolleys, the full works. At Sassoon, the only modern equipment one could see were these wooden carts with iron wheels and the colourful plastic baskets. So, how is this traditional fish market interacting with modernity around it? How is it slowly transforming (if it is) into a modern space?

its 7am now and the crowd is slowly subsiding

cranes wait on the roofs for a healthy breakfast
Sassoon docks was an amazing experience. One can imagine how a brain trained in social science will react to this experience. Too many ideas and thoughts to pursue in the future.


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