On the banks of Dal Lake— towards the fore-shore road in fisher colony — the muezzin’s lilting call merges with the cacophony of a fish bazaar. Before the crack of the dawn men, women and children clad in their warm pherans (a closed-cloak Kashmir people wear) huddle outside a makeshift shop.
A truck arrives moments later in the fisher-people colony and as the engine goes silent a few men– workers at the shop– offload neatly packed boxes. Refrigerated in these small asbestos boxes are kettle of fish grown in Punjab and Jammu region– popularly categorized as panjaeb gaad (Fish imported from outside valley)– always a ‘second choice’ for the locals.
As men open the boxes, children play aimlessly in the wintry air, women smoke from the hubble-bubble and warm themselves with Kangris (wicker-earthen pot used to heat). The Kashmir varieties which the locals prefer - categorized as Kashir gaad from the rivers and lakes are in huge demand but owing to sub-zero temperatures their production dwindles and the traders from the India have taken over.
While a miniscule part of locals associated with the trade continue fishing, most now buy the imported fish and sell it in various markets of the valley. It is the women who rule the roost in this centuries-old indigenous trade that is now dependent on imports.
Uzma Falak traces days in the life of a community that supplies fish to Kashmir households.
Owing to low temperatures in the region the fish production in Kashmir is much slow than in the plains.
A worker unloads refrigerated asbestos boxes, containing fish from Punjab, outside a shop in fisher-people colony on Fore Shore road in Srinagar.
The fish production stated in Jammu region has yielded much higher results while the experiments with trout fish have yielded marginal results particularly in the winter months.
Refrigerated neatly in small asbestos boxes, these fish are bigger in size than those found in Kashmir. The supplies reach twice a week, about 200 to 300 quintals in one turn, says a trader.
Women carry fish in tin-containers and commute to far off places to sell the fish. Reports suggest the number of people selling fish is nearly 4,000 a majority of them being women. Fish varieties like Rohu, Catla and Mrigal are imported from Punjab and Haryana besides Kathua and Basholi areas of Jammu region. The fish production stated in Jammu region has yielded much higher results while the experiments with trout fish have yielded marginal results particularly in the winter months. The asbestos boxes are usually burnt after being used. The material hazardous when burnt and is dangerous especially in populated areas. Gadhanzen (Kashmir fisherwoman) is also known for her unique dressing style which includes embroidered cloaks, kanewaje- large ear-danglers and headgear. Each morning they arrive at their place of business carrying weighing scales and other handy tools. While catching fish in the lakes and rivers is usually a night activity, owing to sub-zero temperatures men leave in the morning in winters and catch fish during the day. In summer fishermen catch at least 1 kg fish in one throw, says a fisherman Fayaz Ahmad. “Wandas manz tche gaed tchoori behwan” (In winters fish hide), he adds. The fishing-net has small pockets inside and as it is thrown in to water fishermen shove a stick called as trishool (a wooden stick with split end) in to the net. Fayaz says the stick is shoved to trap fish into these pockets and the chances of escape are minimized. Beside the net is dotted with amulet-like metal capsule which help it to sink to deepest areas in the lake. The net is of many types, says Fayaz, adding they are used to catch different size of fish. Fishermen leave for fishing early morning in cold winter and work till the dusk. After the day’s toil fish are stored at home for the night and women from the household go to different markets and sell the fish. Fayaz laments the youth from the community are not taking up the profession as the trade is not lucrative. Although there a couple of shop selling fish with various varieties coming to Kashmir from outside, besides some locally produced fish, in Srinagar. But it is the fisherwomen who hawk the fish at footpaths or sell door to door.
(Uzma Falak completed her MA in mass communication at Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia and is currently working on a short-film on Kashmir women.)