The Chambakkara market is the epicentre of fish trade in the city. As Shilpa Nair Anand finds out, the bustling market is a lasting visual experience

Daybreak is a hint in the sky. The morning is an angry grey and proximity to Chambakkara fish market a strong smell in the air. It is a little after 5.30, and except for the Sunday mass on at St. James Church, opposite the market in Poonithura, there is no sign of activity. In the darkness the backwaters are just a suggestion; the dark outline of a Chinese fishing net in the sky seems to form a logo for the market.

The market at that time of the day is a visual experience. The amount of fish and the sheer variety defies imagination and expectation. Fish, fish and then some more fish, some familiar and most complete strangers. Anchovy (kozhuva), sardine (mathi), mackerel (ayela), threadfin bream (kilimeen), tilapia (thilopia), barracuda (sheelavu), tuna (chura)–wax white, silver, pink, brown, white, black, spotted, long, tiny, fat–there is every kind of fish. They eerily gleam in the half light of bulbs and CFL lamps.

Chambakkara market is today a major hub in the city’s fish trade but in the distant past, it is said, it was a trading hub with coir as the primary commodity. Traders and buyers from adjacent areas participated in the trading. Today it is mainly fish.

Fish are neatly arranged on blue plastic sheets, the smaller fish in mounds, the big fish laid out and the bigger fish chopped into half. The business takes place in the open, outside shops. The makeshift stalls have blue plastic sheet, again, more a covering than a roof. On either side of the path are fish for sale.

In another corner of the market, fish is being unloaded, thermocol boxes with fish are being cut open and the rhythmic chant of auctioning of fish ‘boxes’ (the kind fish mongers carry on their bikes) provides the background score.

Most of these, “cent per cent” says a trader, come from outside. He shines a torch light on a box of pearl spot, “look at the karimeen. Where do you think they are from?” he asks. The improbability of it rules out China, so Andhra Pradesh it is. Maharashtra, Goa, Orissa and Tamil Nadu are the other places that put fish on our plates.

‘Naadan’ fish (locally caught) is sold on one side of the market. But there is very little of it. “Fish such as neimeen and moda come from places such as Munambam and Chavakkad,” says Martin M.V., one of the main agents in the market. There are around six to eight agents, who procure fish, like him in the market, he says.

The market, wholesale and retail, opens at 5 a.m. The fish reach the market at night and the ‘wares’ are ready for sale. Some reach after 24-hour train journeys and others by truck. “The fish are packed immediately after being caught and are shipped. For example, from Mumbai fish reaches here by road in 36-38 hours,” Martin says. The fish are dropped off on the way to the markets in places such as Ettumanoor and Muvattupuzha, which have night markets (wholesale).

As buyers (fish mongers) haggle for a bargain, men with black pouches slung across their shoulders jot down the dues in small diaries–buyer’s name, quantity of fish and the money due–every transaction is duly recorded. These are representatives of the agents. Some partially-open shops serve as agents’ offices.

Surprisingly, for a place with so much fish, there is no stench inside the market. Apart from fish the other presence is water from the melting ice. Hence folded mundus and rolled up pants. By the time it is 6.30 a.m., the retail buyers start trickling in. Mondays are busy days because on Sundays fish wholesale markets in other places are closed.

Pramila, a fish monger from Kanjiramattom, buys fish daily from Radha who has a business in the market. A discussion on the price and margin of profit elicits a defensive “I have to live don’t I?” She assures she doesn’t double the price.

This time of the year business is dull, says Shamsuddin, a trader. There are very few buyers that day, “the fasting seasons of Sabarimala and Christmas” he says.

A stall which sells dressed fish and is the ‘face’ of the market, isn’t open. A few shops selling bags, knives, ropes, magazines and other things are open. Cheera (spinach) sellers arrange bouquets of green and maroon, there are lemons and green chillies too.

A slightly bent Kalyani Amma, who looks at least 80, opens her shop and sweeps the steps. A papier mache statue of Krishna seems to be watching over her dried fish. “I have to light the lamp first, before any sale,” she declares. Dried fish in a place full of ‘fresh’ fish seems anachronistic but Kalyani Amma curtly says, “people buy this also.”

A meat shop, a vegetable shop and a stall selling chicken are also open. The business goes on till 9 a.m. when the fish are on their way to markets and plates.

The market opens again at around 11 a.m. and functions till 1.30 p.m. There are fewer traders and the buyers are mostly homemakers. It is a pale comparison to the early morning bustle. The other shops are open but the fish business is done for except at the fish stall, which is open and there is a queue for ‘dressed’ fish. Vendors sell fruit and tapioca outside the market.

As the day wanes, the activity ceases at Chambakkara market. Only to wax when the night comes with ‘fresh’ catch for the next morning.