Name: Stella Thavanis, Occupation: Fish vendor
The women selling fish at Shanghumughom beach are oblivious to the steadily darkening clouds in the horizon. They are busy attracting customers. Stella Thavanis has lined her ware: pomfret, mackerel, sardine, seer fish, sting ray, crab, squid, prawns… at her make-shift stall. “I woke up at 1 a.m. this morning and went to Vizhinjam where my friends, Teresa, Victoria and I, auctioned for the fish. We run the stall together and take turns to run it. There are many fish vendors like me at that time of day bargaining for the best from the day’s catch,” she says.
It is only during the Malayalam month of Karkidakam that Stella and her friends have to wake before the break of dawn to buy their daily quota of fish from Vizhinjam. “That is because the fishermen at Shanghumughom cannot go to sea due to the unpredictable weather. The months of November and December are also tough on us but we somehow manage. Otherwise, I wake by 6 a.m., head to the beach, buy the fish, and then set up the stall. My husband, Thavanis, and sons, Santhosh, Shibu and Baiju, who are fishermen,Kadalamma provide the day’s catch for sale if the Kadalamma [Goddess of Sea] is merciful.”
With a broad smile and good sense of humour, Stella seems to be quite popular with customers as many stop at the stall to buy from her. “I have been serving customers for the past 27 years at this spot. I live nearby. Regulars know that I will provide fresh fish at a reasonable price. The price of fish varies according to the availability and also depends on the price we pay for the fish. As the domestic airport is nearby, many who head back from the airport pause to buy seafood. Some of the residents living in and around the area buy from me too.”
She laments however, on how the number of customers has dropped since the international airport has moved to Chakka.
As customers on bikes and cars stop by her stall, Stella haggles with them and persuades them to loosen their purse strings. “I can’t read or write as I have never gone to school, but when it comes to calculating money, I am an expert. Whatever money I make helps make ends meet for my family. I have managed to pick up a couple of English words as I occasionally deal with customers from Male.”
The life of a fish vendor is a tough one, says Stella. She is used to it though as she was brought up by the sea. Their lives depend on the sea and weather. Their day, which begins at dawn ends at around 10 p.m. “While some days we are lucky and are able to close shop early as our sale for the day is done, on others, we are stuck with leftover seafood. We put some of the leftover in the freezer for the next day and the rest, we salt and leave to dry,” she says.
Sunday is their day of rest, says Stella. That is the day fish vendors around the Shanghumughom area take a break. “I go to church, catch up on my house work and spend time with my family.”
As steady drops begin to fall from the sky, Teresa, who is nearby, rushes to set up a beach umbrella as Stella sits and waits for the weather to clear so that she can earn her daily bread.