You might think that it raises a stink, but Aparna Karthikeyan has a different tale to tell as she surveys the scene at the Chintadripet fish market

The fish are over three-ft. long, sleek and grey. They lie on a bed of ice, and stare with round yellow eyes. All around, there’s the sound of ripping packing-tape, the crunch of shovelled ice, and the squelch of flip-flops on wet floor. “You should have come on a Sunday; that’s when the market is really busy,” says K.S. Devendran. But, to me, at 5 a.m. on a Friday morning, the Chintadripet fish market appears extremely busy. Longer than it is wide, the brightly lit market is lined with raised platforms, selling big and little fish. A mini-lorry parks itself just outside and several men stand around with iron hooks, to drag down thermacol boxes. They seat them on orange plastic crates, and pull them inside, shouting ‘vazhi, vazhi’.

But it’s not easy to give way; the passage is filled with salesmen and customers crowding around crates and trays of fish; men tear unopened boxes and unpack the fish; they part a layer of ice, lift the fish with both hands, and gently place them on the cleaned cement platforms. “This is seer fish,” informs Devendran, as his assistants showers it with ice. “This is from Vizag; you get them at Kasimedu too, but not regularly. The fish in this market comes from all over the coast of India.”

I walk around the stalls, selling different kinds of fish. I recognise pale orange prawns, mottled brown crabs and limp foot-long sharks from old science textbooks. My ignorance about the rest becomes a source of amusement; sipping coffee from small paper cups, the shop-assistants educate me. “This is vanjaram meen; that is vaaval meen; the small ones are nethili.” A woman examines the nethili, heaped in yellow plastic trays; another lady, Rani, bargains with a wholesaler for kossuru (extra). “Today is Friday, give me kossuru,” she nags till he relents. Rani packs the fish in an aluminium tub, and covers it with an old saree. “I will take it by train to Pallavaram and sell it there,” she says.

I pass the Hosur Amman Alayam in the middle of the market; the door is shut. Sankara meen lie in a pink heap; men with earmuffs gather around it, while M.C. Sekhar, wearing a veshti, shirt and Crocs tells me more about the market. “Chintadripet fish market has been around for 150 years,” he says. Primarily a wholesale market, retailers and hoteliers from all over Chennai come here every morning. “The five-star hotels take delivery of the cleaned fish from offices further down the road. In the 40 years that I’ve sold fish, some, such as the salmon, have become very rare,” he says.

It’s just after 6 a.m., and a watery sunlight spills in through the skylights. An old man carries a big crate on his left shoulder; a younger one hoicks two sheer fish by their tail-fins; they’re long, and their open mouths dangle by his calves.

Big and baby shark are displayed side-by-side; a thin hook line curves from the mouth of the big one. Beneath the stainless steel weighing scales, three crabs lie discarded. “Oh, they’ve gone bad,” the shopkeeper says, squishing their tummy for effect. “Vanjaram is very expensive, selling for Rs. 500 a kg during Diwali. But now, lots of people are going to Sabarimalai, so the demand and price is lower,” another seller informs me. “But I prefer vaaval meen; what about you?” he asks. I tell him I’m a vegetarian. “But you have wasted your life if you haven’t eaten fried vaaval meen! Don’t tell your family, just try it!” he advises. I laugh and move on to the passage outside, where fish are cleaned.

“These are squids,” Manohar tells me, cradling in his palm two polka-dotted, pink creatures; their eyes and tentacles hang below his fingers. Cuttle-fish and lobsters, I’m told, are mostly bought by the big hotels. Women sit in twos and threes, shelling prawns; their fingers move quickly, and they manage nearly one kilo in five minutes. On the opposite side, a row of men sit in front of low worktables covered with plastic sheeting. Rajesh is busy cleaning rohu meen; he scratches the scales with a brush studded with nails; they flake away like thin circles of glass. Behind him, two men sharpen their curved knives on a saane kallu. “On a good day, we cut about 50 kg of fish,” he says, pressing the knife into the flesh. He lops the fins, severs the head, before twisting out the intestine and discarding it. The buyer asks him to make neat, cross cuts. ‘It’s for a hotel; the pieces should be 120 gm,” he explains. The fish are cleaned and packed into plastic bags; the waste goes into municipal bins outside; crows wait nearby for scraps. Incense curls upwards from several stalls as I leave; but there’s no fishy odour to displace, I think, as everything’s nicely iced over. Except, when I get home, I’m told I smell all fishy, and I reach for the incense…