Every day, this woman, possibly in her 60s, sits on a little durrie, a drugget, and sets up shop right next to the jetty. Ferries transport travellers — around 50 or 60 at a go — to and from Madh Island. It includes young star-crossed lovers, fisherfolk, families on Sunday outings, friends looking to get away. A ticket costs Rs. 3. The area is called Versova gaon. It’s a ‘koliwada’, a colony of fishermen, just outside Mumbai. Versova gaon, which hosts the annual Versova Koli Seafood Festival,is a few minutes from Yari Road, perennial home to younger Bollywood hotshots (like, say, Shahid Kapoor or, earlier, Priyanka Chopra) and also aspiring stars who’re known in Mumbai, both colloquially and condescendingly, as the “strugglers”. The jetty is packed with massive boats that aren’t in use anymore. A fisherman tells me casually that each boat costs Rs. 15 lakh or so (or 15,000 hundred-rupee notes). Within a year, it loses most of that value. The boats stationed here, he says, are now bhangaar, scrap.
The woman sells garlic. It’s garlic, but — oddly — you can’t smell it. That’s because the air is thick; smouldering with the whiff of fresh fish. It’s the kind of smell that moves upwards, from the nostrils into the space between the eyebrows before settling into your brain, where you can smell nothing else for the next few hours. During low tide, when all the fish wash ashore, it gets especially bad (or good — I’m no one to judge anyone’s olfactory preferences).
Before November 8, business used to be good, the garlic seller tells me. She’d make Rs. 800 a day, sometimes up to a thousand rupees. With that, she could keep her household running, and also buy some new stock to sell. She has three sons. She lost a son eight months ago to dengue. After November 8, she’s making less than half of that. Around Rs. 350 a day. Right now, she’s making just about enough to get by, but with no eye on the future. “People are burning thousand-rupee notes; they’re dumping them into the sea. No one’s giving us anything,” she says, with an odd note in her voice. It’s not anger, possibly resignation or dejection. Hope, though, remains. She’s hoping things will settle down in the next few days.
‘Feel the music and dance,’ says the poster at a dance studio called The Dance Floor, which is shut when I get there. Next to it is a departmental store aka supermarket aka kiraane ki dukaan. The man running it — teeth faded, hair grey, earring in one ear, dressed in a classic white shirt — is hunched over his desk, looking dreadfully bored. He points to a plastic jar that’s almost empty. It contains chocolates for Re. 1 each. These jars are such an inescapable part of growing up. You get hold of some loose change and you scamper off to the friendly uncle who runs one such store in literally every neighbourhood. You buy the latest candy that all the other kids are talking about. He can’t replenish the supply fast enough.
The owner, Dilip (name changed), talks about how demonetisation has affected the community around him. Business has been impacted considerably. No one is buying because no one has any cash. Which means his stocks aren’t getting over. If they do, he won’t have the cash to buy more. Down the line, his suppliers aren’t getting any goods. It’s a massive slowdown. Which means you sit and hope and wait. Grin and bear it. That’s what Dilip says. He’s not giving credit; no one in the area is, unless you share a good relationship with someone.
Just then, this little runt shows up in a red shirt and shorts and floppy hair. No more than two-and-a-half feet tall, he yells out ‘Uncle’ repeatedly. But Dilip can’t even spot him from behind the counter. So the kid hands me a two-rupee coin and points at something. The only word he knows, or is ready to say, is ‘uncle’. He refuses to accept the two candies he’s handed by Dilip, pointing instead at the Gems packet. Dilip tells him that the small Gems packet costs Rs. 5, so he should bring Rs. 3 more. Silence. “Run along,” says Dilip. The kid stands his ground. Within a minute or two, Dilip relents and hands the kid a Dairy Milk bar at a 60 per cent discount. “Khud hi dekh lo,” he says, “ab kya karein.” (You see? What can we do?)
Closer to the sea, there’s a little congregation happening under a shaded, half-enclosed area, sort of like a panchayat but more relaxed. There’s a man sitting on a makeshift bench. He owns the boats. He has a flowing silver beard, tied at the bottom with a red rubber band. Next to it is a small boat, on which a man sits weaving fishing nets. One net costs Rs. 300. Is anyone buying? Do you have change to return? “Ah, well,” he responds. It is what it is.
They’re all aware that business is slow. How do you pay for diesel in the boats? How do you buy the nets? Who’s going to pay for the fish? And in what denomination? Nevertheless, they’re trying to stay positive, hopeful that things will get better soon. They feel this will affect them for at least the next six months, although the immediate crisis should get over in the coming days. They’re telling themselves, and me, that it’s for the greater good. It’s not a lie; they do believe it’ll work out in the long run. But it’s also far more nuanced than that. There’s hope and resentment and cynicism and dejection and optimism all at the same time. They grin, then stop, then laugh, then stare quietly into the distance. One fisherman friend there rues the fact that their cause hasn’t really been taken up. “Humaara koi waaris nahi hai wahaan pe.” (We don’t have a voice.) His laugh sounds bitter.
The chaos after the demonetisation is being documented. Is it collateral damage? Do the ends justify it? These are legitimate queries, but walking through this urban fishing village, I suspend all questions. It seems to make more sense to keep my conversations with the people of Versova gaon to just their day-to-day life. I cannot pretend to understand their situation.
My new friends on the boat insist that I visit the fish market a couple of hundred metres away. While in school, we were accused of sounding like a fish-market every time we got too loud, so I go in expecting chaos. But things seem fairly calm. It’s around 4.00 p.m., so the freshest fish have already been sold. The four women I speak to are trying to get rid of the last batch of jhinga (prawns)in their bucket, and tell me the best time to buy is 2.00 p.m.
They go out to sea with their husbands, and come back to the market to sell the catch. They have to pay the boatmen who take them. The leader of the group tells me that they’ve struck up a weekly or monthly deal with these men, so that they don’t have to pay cash for each trip. It’s not credit, more like buying in bulk. An MBA graduate might have said “consignment buying”. The woman offers her last batch of jhinga for Rs. 250. I buy Rs. 100 worth of shrimp, some 40 tiny ones in a little black plastic bag, a little less than half of what’s in the bucket. “I was born in this village,” she says, “and I will die here.” She’s stoic in the face of adversity, maybe even proud, refusing to accept that the last 10 days have affected her. Her colleagues are willing to concede that it’s become quite hard; that everyone’s working extra hours to sell as much as they can. But not her. A young girl in her teens offers to clean the shrimp. I refuse awkwardly and walk away.
The mood, as far as I can gather, isn’t one of gloom or simmering rage. There’s barely any concern with the politics of the move. In fact, if anything, there’s empathy. The silver-bearded boat-owner tells me that someone like Rahul Gandhi didn’t need to stand in a queue but he still did. The Prime Minister’s 94-year-old mother didn’t need to exchange her notes, he says, but she still did. It’s all about making do and getting by. And this too shall pass.
Akhil Sood is a freelance culture writer from New Delhi who wishes he’d studied engineering instead.