A Fishy Story
Avantika Bhattacharyya tells us how a fish vendor of the Citylight Market pioneered home supply during the pandemic
Shot by Avantika- City Light Market, Dadar
If the famous proverb "Where there is a will there's a way" were to be adapted to fit a Bengali's life, it would be "Where there is fish, Bengalis will find their way!"
It is something of a truism that Bengalis love their fish. In Kolkata, fish is not even considered non-vegetarian. In the old days when a Bengali lands in a foreign land, her first question is about the nearest fish market. Now she just goes fishing online. Maharashtra, with a coastline of 720 km, is one of the leading states in India for marine fish production. The major fish landing centres are New Ferry Wharf, Sassoon and Versova situated in Mumbai and they account for nearly sixty per cent of the fish coming in. Citylight Market (official name: Gopi Tank Vegetable and Fish Market) in Mahim is one of the oldest organized markets in the heart of Mumbai. A cursory glance in the direction of the market is enough to get an idea of the variety of fish that one can find here.
Of course, there’s the staples like mackerel and pomfret and Bombay Duck, the most singularly inappropriately named fish that looks like an eel. There are sardines and ladyfish, crabs and prawns, lobsters and shark. (The fins are thrown away. In Singapore, the fins are kept and the fish thrown away. Jack Sprat trade, anyone?) There are mussels and clams, and nearby, apples and yams. The market also sells veggies and fruit but it is the odoriferous to which we must turn. Speaking of which, there is a section devoted only to dried fish. Here the Bombay Duck, so soft and squidgy when just taken from the sea, takes on the consistency of a stick broom. Blame the alchemical magic of sun and salt.
Many say that the buyer’s hunt for the best river fish in this market ends with Nasir Ahmed aka Dulal, and his team, who cater mainly to the Bengalis in Mumbai. “Bengalis prefer to buy river fish which comes to Mumbai from Andhra Pradesh,” says Ahmed who gets his supply of fish from Akiveedu Fish Market in Andhra Pradesh. Trucks from Andhra report at two locations in this city—the Dadar Vegetable and & Fish Market at Dadar, and Crawford market near Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) in South Mumbai.
Ahmed’s uncle was the family’s pioneering river fish dealer. He shifted to Mumbai circa 1981-1982. Ahmed soon followed his uncle to Mumbai and landed here as early as 1983. Both of them started their journey of selling fish in the City Light Market at Mahim. From the very beginning, they decided to cater specifically to Bengali customers and therefore, sourced their supply of river fish from Andhra Pradesh. There were two reasons for adopting this strategy. First, they used to sell the same thing in Kolkata and hence, were well versed with the business. Second, they wouldn’t have to compete with local vendors who sold sea fish. To their surprise, people from several localities in Mumbai started buying river fish. The centrally located Dadar market proved to be a lucrative location of business since the Bengali population of Bombay was spread out between Colaba and Andheri.
During those days, Ahmed and his uncle were the only vendors who sold river fish at City Light Market. While standing out from the crowd was a smart move, the challenge was to spread the news about the availability of river fish among the Bengali population of the city. There was no internet back then and the only way to spread the word was through their patrons. They received help from the Bengal Club at Shivaji Park in Dadar. The club took the initiative of informing their members about the outlet. News spread and soon, Ahmed started getting orders for Bengali functions, where fish was a mandatory dish.
He took care of the specific instructions regarding the fish sizes given by his customers. One of their conscious decisions was to cater to all categories of customers. While some couldn’t afford to buy the bigger fish, there were others who preferred only specific varieties.
Shot by Avantika- City Light Market, Dadar
Their business came to a forceful halt in March 2020 when the government imposed a lockdown owing to the Covid pandemic. Things started looking up for Ahmed, albeit slowly when restrictions started lifting in June. He started receiving calls from desperate customers who were craving fish! Public transport was neither available nor suitable for carrying fish. They then decided to start home deliveries by scooter. However, it was more challenging than Ahmed had anticipated. There were orders from Colaba, Wadala, Dadar, Bandra, and Andheri, all the way to Borivali. Owing to manpower and transport constraints, they had to limit their radius till Andheri and on several occasions, they had to refuse orders from distant places.
Ahmed started using WhatsApp to keep track of orders. Customers were asked to deposit the payments directly to his bank account to eliminate any complications related to dealing in cash. He charged a fixed amount of Rs 100, irrespective of distance and order volume as delivery charge. The price for home delivery remained the same as the shop prices. His evenings were spent making account reconciliations to ensure that payments against all bills had been credited and all deliveries were billed properly.
His business gained several new customers since there were few fish vendors delivering fish to peoples' homes. He even supplied mutton and chicken from the same market to his regular customers. The endearing part of his business model as stated by him is, “Never let even a potential customer look for an alternative.” By the end of January, when markets were slowly re-opening, he says that almost half of his customers started coming back to his shop.
On one of my visits to City light market, I met Mr. P Banerjee, 57, who works at Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, who bought fish from Ahmed. He was very excited to talk to me when he said, “I have been buying fish from Ahmed for the last 12 years. During the lockdown, we bought fish through Ahmed’s home delivery service. I resumed my visits to the market since the restrictions were lifted. I not only wanted to avoid the hundred-rupee delivery charge but also wanted to pick up different varieties of vegetables and other non-veg items from the same complex. I appreciate Ahmed and his team for their prompt service and dedication towards serving customers within a large diameter. I still miss the bargaining culture in the Kolkata fish market, that is non-existent in Mumbai.”
During June and July when orders started pouring in from different parts of the city at different times, arranging the deliveries even after clubbing a few orders was hectic and cumbersome. Even then, we managed it all with some unintentional delays - Ahmed says.
Shantanu Basak, 45, who works at Small industries Development Bank of India, Bandra-Kurla Complex said, “Ahmed and his team very effectively pulled through what many other shopkeepers were not able to. The team was very cordial and cooperative from the very beginning i.e., from taking the orders to processing them and carrying out the deliveries. The whole initiative proved to be an efficient one and the outcome was very effective and fruitful.”
Summing up his experience during the lockdown, Ahmed says, “If you trust your customers, they also do not betray you.” By popular perception, Mumbaikars are well known for their professional and no-nonsense attitude, this story of adaptation in face of adversity should be appreciated and emulated by others.