You do not need landmarks to reach the fish market. Just follow your nose once you reach Ukkadam bus stand and soon you hear the fish vendors: “ Aavoli, kilo 200 roova ...ayila, kilo 120 roova...mathi, kilo 50 roova ”. Flies circle around each vendor’s head. It is just eight in the morning but the place hums with men, women and children. People who take their morning walk around the Ukkadam Lake stroll into the fish market, bag a few sardines and rush back home.
The busiest day here is Sunday, says Jaffer Ali one of the fish shop owners. “You get the fishes at their cheapest prices.” Seer fish, nethili , katla , vanjaram , pomfret, prawn, crab, mussel and sardine are arranged neatly in the stalls. Most of them are from Cochin and Rameshwaram, says Naseer, a fish vendor. “At times, we also go fishing in the Ukkadam Lake.”
The variety is its highlight, says Benedict, an NRI who has just moved in to Coimbatore. “The vendors allow you to go inside the stall and check out the fish.” Sardine is the most popular and cheapest fish here, says Naseer. “The usual rate is Rs.40. Today it is Rs.50, because the catch has been poor.”
Vidheesh and his wife have come here for their usual Sunday fish purchase. “We usually get confused with the varieties and stick to our good old sardine.” Vanjaram seems to be a delicacy here. Priced at Rs. 150 per kilo it falls into the league of high budget fishes. For Narayanaswamy, a business man, it is worth its price. “ Vanjaram is my favourite. It is fleshy, and best to fry.”
“ Aehaa....Aehaa... ” A group huddle around Ashraf Ali and Mohammad Ali, boys who are at the cutting section of a stall. “This is our way of attracting the customers,” laughs Ashraf. There are two kinds of cuts. “Curry cut and the fry cut. Fry cut is easy but curry cut is tough as you need to cut the fish in the shape of triangle,” he explains. Another “aeeha” arises as the boys see a prospective customer approaching.
As one jostles past the shouting vendors and haggling customers, Bhavani, beckons you with her sing- song voice, “Come...come Buy some of my neymeen caught fresh from the sea!” Bhavani who has been selling fish all her life says she goes early morning to Lorripettai where there is a wholesale fish market to fetch the fish for her stall.
Tempos from Lorripettai carrying fresh batches of fish in blue tubs drive in. It is the fifth trip of the day for Ibrahim and Basheer, the tempo drivers. “I deliver fish to more than five stalls here. On Sundays, we make at least five trips. I earn around Rs. 50 for each basket.”
Apart from the main stalls, there are around 15 local fisher women who squat on the grounds in a single line, with weighing stones and knives to cut the fish. They sell the local varieties such as Kannadi , Jalebi, and Rogue caught from Ukkadam Lake and the Bhavani River. “Our husbands fish and we sell the fish,” says Susheela.
And just as when one is about to leave, happy with their purchase of fresh pomfret pieces cut in the curry style, Anil Singh calls out to you from a distance. “Knives of all shapes and sizes! Medium regular and large!” He and his set of Punjabi friends come here on Sundays to do business. His set of sickle-shaped knives is sharp enough to cut any fish.
And, those who would like to spice up that Sunday lunch, there is a vandi parked just outside the bazaar, which sells fragrant garlic that might give the perfect finish to your yummy sardine curry!
A journey that began on a cycle
Seventy-year -old M.A. Hameed, one of the oldest stall owners of the bazaar sits outside his stall, surveying the scene. A native of Malappuram Kerala, Hameed was barely 17 when he came to Coimbatore. He used to cycle on the kutcha roads of Coimbatore, calling out the names of the fishes and delivering them at people’s doorsteps.
Soon, he set up a stall in the fish market. “Those days it used to be in Town Hall. It has been in Ukkadam only for the past 20 years.” Initially, the local fishermen and politicians did not allow him to start a fish stall in the market. “I was an outsider. The fishermen’s association even filed a case against me.” He did not give up. He fought legal battles and finally set up his stall in the market. Now he has rented many more stalls in the bazaar. And he runs his business with the help of his three sons.