My father and I don’t share a lot in common, but what we do share is a love of good food, and a keen eye for a bargain. As a child, I normally accompanied him on his trips to the fishing docks, holding my nose and gripping the back of his shirt, observing as he bargained hard for the best fish, vegetables and meat.
A year ago, I was back in India for a visit with my family, and I felt like I needed to revisit the docks with dad. Dad was reluctant to take me. With my Westernized ways, I was likely to drive up the price of fish. ‘Come on, dad’, I pleaded, and he grumpily agreed. We were up at the crack of dawn, and I precariously balanced myself, side saddle, on his rickety motorbike, and we rode off to the market. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, but the dusty haze was rising – the day promised to be hot. The spicy-sweet smells of cooking and wood fires were in the air and the sounds of the city awakening were loud and strident. There was a time when riding with dad like this was commonplace, but on that day, I clutched at his shirt and the back of the bike, trying not to wince as he recklessly bounced over potholes, all the time trying to balance my notebook and camera.
The smell hits you long before you even see the fishing docks, also known as the ‘bunder’. Dad parked his bucket of rusty bolts next to a small shed, and then turned to me and shooed me away. I wasn’t to follow him, go get your pictures and stay out of my way while I bargain, he commanded. ‘We’ll meet back here in an hour.’ I slunk away, losing my battle to stop the bloody, fishy water sloshing on my feet in their skinny sandals. Even though I was wearing a kurta, a traditional Indian outfit, I still got many curious glances. The camera does that, but I am fluent in Kannada, the local language, so a smile and a cheery ‘good morning’ and a casual wave towards dad – who was still trying to disown me – smoothed out my path through the crowds of bargain fish hunters.
'Fisherwomen at the Fountain', mixed media by Zena Colaco
Older ladies, more experienced in the way of the docks, shoved me aside when my camera and I got in the way of their prized fish. Some stopped by and interrogated me – why was I here, who were my folks, when did I get back to Mangalore? It was obvious that, even though I grew up in the city, I no longer lived there and therefore details about where I ended up must be obtained (soon to be shared among the rest of the community). I even got a marriage proposal (very good boy, lives in the USA, makes a lot of money, can I send his details to your father? – that poor lady was highly miffed to find that I was married and had a child to boot!) Mangalore, at its heart, is a small town and as soon as the ladies heard who my dad was, they helpfully pointed me in his direction, sure I was lost. My smile came in handy more than once.
By seven AM, the market was already slowing down. Dad found me and indicated that we’d better be on our way. Older men and ladies stopped him as we picked our way back to the bike, asking him what his price was, alternately disappointed that he’d got a better price, or crowing when they got the upper hand. I shook hands with all of them, and told them all stories about my life in Canada, promising to email their daughters and sons about prospects in the country.
Dad swung his bags over the handlebars, and I took my life back into my hands, as I sat behind him. We stopped at a local restaurant for a idli-sambar-dosa (steamed rice cakes, a spicy vegetable stew and a crisp rice pancake) and a cup of strong, fragrant local filter coffee.'Take a photo of this', dad says – there is something about a camera that makes people want to tell you what to take a picture of. I dutifully did.
Back home, mum was already up, as were my baby niece and my six-year old daughter, who wrinkled her nose as I walked in – ‘what on earth is that smell, mom?’ I grumped at her to mind her own business, as I went to grab a shower. Mom was inspecting the seafood when I got out. She expertly filleted the pomfrets, peeled the prawns and threw the fish heads at our neighborhood cats. Half of the catch was frozen for later use that week, and mom turned to me and asked me what I wanted to do with the prawns, seeing as I was the one who got them. I wanted to make Kerala style prawn fry, and we did.
Mom stood around, explaining everything that I was doing wrong (according to her), while I ruminated that I could be a food writer in Canada, but when it comes to mother, I’d always be doing everything wrong. Still, between the two of us, we managed to get lunch ready. We rarely, if ever, sit down at the table to eat in India, so we each grabbed a plate, filling it with the red rice that is local to Mangalore, and scooping in the prawns, some leftover dal and some spicy homemade mango pickles. I wandered out to the balcony to eat – the sun was blazing down on my head, but if I craned my neck, I could just about see the Arabian sea in the distance, framed by lush mango and coconut trees gently swaying in the lightly brine-scented sea breeze. There really isn't much more that is magical about life than this.