It was a scorching April Sunday. My friends and I were roaming along the seaside at Malpe beach and we could make out many trawlers and fishing boats in the water, their outlines contrasting sharply against the blazing sun. We were sweating in the heat, longing for some cool relief when we saw a truck carrying ice. We felt as if angels had heard our prayers and sent us manna from heaven. We ran to the truck and threw ourselves in. Only, there was a catch. We were smelling of fish!
I realize that a little context might be in order here. Malpe, situated about ten kilometres from Manipal, is a natural port and important fishing harbour. A sizeable population of this region depends on fishing and pisciculture related industries like processing, de-scaling, drying and transport, the major bulk formed by the Mogaveera community. The fisheries are looked after by the S.K. & Udupi District Co-operative Fish Marketing Federation. The federation has the Government of Karnataka as ‘A’ Class Member, 63 Primary Fishermen Co-op Societies (covering about 50,000 fishermen) as ‘B’ Class Members and about 12,200 individual fishermen as ‘C’ members.
We continued our walk along the shore. We could now see a huge assortment of fishes, entire shoals in fact, put on bamboo mats to dry. Fishermen were bargaining and negotiating with dealers about their haul. At one side of the open harbor, fresh stocks poured in with every trawler docking in. The harbor has excellent road connectivity. An endless line of trucks either bring in ice and storage crates or carry the fish to the packing units nearby. In the commotion, we could see hundreds sweaty laborers busy in various activities. Through our talks, we got to know that they start early in the morning and usually work till sundown. Although brawny people are preferred, the one who has the loudest voice attracts job for the day. There is a lot of yelling involved in their line of work.
Small-scale fishermen usually sell their produce to the local markets. These are the fishes we seldom eat at the restaurants of Manipal and Udupi. Given the fact that the first settlers of the old Udupi (Adi Udupi, as it is now called) were fishermen, the locals are choosy and know their fish well. Ask any fisherman and he will start advertising his stock to you! “Aanjal, Bangra, Disco, Mangur, eel …. I have everything”, was the standard response we got from most of them. Their life story somehow reminded me of ‘Old Man and The Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway. From the old world docks to the Chinese nets used, everything had a tone of sepia to it. We could imagine generations of fishermen and traders using the same boats, fishing nets and anchors.
Some days later, I tried visiting a few processing units, this time without my friends. The processing procedure is a closely guarded secret. I was shown out in the politest way possible. One of the managers asked me to visit the place at 8 in the evening, after they close. I was disheartened, but had to leave. I could spot large processing vats and complex machinery from the perimeter and was filled with burning curiosity as to what they did. I at least knew that the next time I had a fish on my plate, I would look at it with awe and respect. A lot goes into bringing one of these delicacies onto our platters.