“That’s where they landed, the terrorists who attacked The Taj Mahal Hotel back in 2008,” my guide cum driver says, as he points to the right towards a small bay. He asks me if I remember and I tell him that it happened on my birthday. “It’s not allowed to stop or park the car and police are always posted”, he adds.
I didn’t see any police although our car was hardly moving. But maybe I was not supposed to.
We were on our way to Sassoon Docks, another Mumbai tourist attraction in Colaba, in the very south of the megalopolis.
Several web pages had pointed out that photography was not welcomed by the workers, some pages even used the word prohibited. I ask my guide who shrugs and says he couldn’t really tell. “You never know, maybe it depends on their mood that could be marked by the catch of the day,” he says without enthusiasm. It was clear that he wouldn’t be of any help. I tell myself to be polite, and not too intrusive.
Sassoon Docks, built in 1875, is one of the oldest docks in Mumbai and was the first wet-dock constructed in Bombay. It is also one of the few docks in the city open to the public. According to The Maritime History Society of Mumbai, the Sassoon Dock was formally inaugurated on Tuesday, 8th June 1875. The Times of India dated 09 June 1875, in an article titled ‘The Colaba Sassoon Dock’, describes the dock in the following words: “The dock is about 690 feet in length, 300 feet in breadth, 40 feet from gate to gate, has therefore an area of about 195,000 square feet, and has a 15.4 fill below the wear tide. A substantial stone bunder encloses the dock; and flood gates are provided at the entrance on the east side.”
The docks were built by David Sassoon and Co., a banking and mercantile company which was run by David Sassoon’s son at the time. The dock is no longer in private hands, that happened years ago.
We walk through the big gates and head towards the quay while trying to avoid lorries, busy men with hand-carts and the many puddles of water. More men are working outside the ramshackle buildings, while beautiful women in their immaculate working attire – a beautiful sari – are sailing past us, bowls on their heads.
I had braced myself for the smell of fish, it had been raining and the sky was painted grey. But as always in India: colours prevail. From the shining yellow boots worn by men shuffling ice, to the bright orange and blue plastic crates, the colourful trucks and boats – and again, the women in colourful saris.
The fishing boats lay shoulder by shoulder, row upon row, in the water that seems to glister with oil. They look wrecked, like a colony of sinking ships. Everywhere around us, men and women rest on plastic chairs or on the ground in front of fish unknown to me. But as I later knew would be pomfret, Indian red snapper, cuttlefish, swordfish, stingrays and shrimps. Baskets, bowls, crates – many types of storage were lying carelessly around – or placed on top of somebody’s head. The whole place is bustling, and I make it a point not to be in anybody’s way.
The fisheries are run by the Kolis, a group of people who helped develop the harbours and coastlines of Mumbai back in the days when the city was named Bombay, a scattered amalgamation of seven islands. The Kolis live in Koliwadas, modest quarters of the city, distinguished from the rest of Mumbai in their traditions and social life. I had read that the women, in particular, were aggressive and prone to shouting at tourists – especially those with cameras. I experience no such thing; the women are either smiling or busy with their work.
I sneak around, trying to make myself invisible. My guide seems uncomfortable, it’s obvious that he wants to avoid any form of provocation, I am after all his responsibility – for the time being. But nobody seems to pay me any attention, the shrewd Koli women have more important things on their mind. While the men catch the fish, it is the women who sell the catch and thus are responsible for the family economy.
It’s getting warmer and the overall stench seems more persistent. The guide is ready to leave and I tug along. As he turns the car and starts to drive towards the north, he points at some shacks and tells me that many of their residents earn their living from the docks. “They’re not poor,” he says, “although it might look like a slum. Inside these shacks you’ll find millions of rupees in cash, and gold. But this is how they prefer to live.”
It could be the truth, or part of the truth, but possibly also a myth – popular among guides.
If Sassoon Docks will outlive further urbanisation of Mumbai remains to see, so don’t miss it should you get the chance!