Shopping with Udupi’s fisherwomen…..

Mussel sellersIts been about 2 months since I began working at the Beedinagudde fish market at Udupi, interviewing fisher women about their lives and their collective organisation. The Beedinagudde market is one of the several fish markets in Udupi district and it is here that the head of the fish seller’s organisation sells fish. Its taken this much time for me to not stand out in the market. Each time I walked in fisher women would call out and ask me to buy their wares, not with 8 plus weeks of hanging around not to buy fish but for my research, women no longer call out to me. They now look and smile, and ask me if Ive eaten lunch. When I sit down now besides the women on the wet cement platforms, the women across and around no longer stare at me. I’ve now come to recognise some of the regular customers too, so the frequent glances and the questions customers would ask are not as frequent.

Ethnographic research with working women is always hard. The garment factory workers I interviewed during my doctoral research taught me that working with these women required more time and much more patience than with other women in the slums. Working women are so busy, always doing something. So called holidays are spent catching up on domestic chores or social get togethers. Social get togethers are often not leisure time for these women, as they often spend their time cooking for their guests. Get together are possible as women’s get together take place in the kitchen cooking together as men relax over conversation and television. In the case of the fisherwomen, the only time they get is for a couple of hours after lunch. Women open their lunch boxes, some even bring along hot cases, eat, chat, gossip and tease each other. The older women lay down for a nap, often closing their faces with the edges of their sarees to ward off the mosquitos; some complain that they can’t really sleep because of the noise, but they still lay down – a small respite from their busy day. Fisherwomen wake up early in the morning to head to the harbour to buy the catch of the day. Its amazing how alive the harbour is at 3 am in the morning. A few weeks back Melvin and I visited the harbour at around 4.30 and it was as if suddenly this part of Udupi was experiencing a busy evening. The place is so crowded and full of people, almost like the KR Market at peak hours in Bangalore. Men and women walk briskly by and we ethnographer and film maker are the only ones who have the time to look and observe. Women head loaders and fishermen pass by at amazing speeds, calling out ‘side side’. Auctions are held briskly and wares are sold in less than a few minutes. Baskets of fish, lobster, prawns, squid, mussels and crabs are sold as fisher women stand and signal their rates to the male auctioneers.

After buying the fish they load it into autos and head to the market where they spend a good amount of time cleaning and arranging the fish. Morning is brisk with customers coming in until lunch time and then after lunch and a 2-3 hour lull business picks up in the evening. The lull time is spent by many of these women to take care of odd jobs – a woman heads over to a tailor to pick up her son’s uniform, another goes to buy a raincoat, and I’ve had the pleasure of two such visits with them. One was with a woman who headed  to a saree house for a clearance sale to pick up some sarees and another with 2 women who went saree blouse & hot case shopping. Shopping is somehow satisfying. Going with these women and bonding with them not as a researcher but as one woman with another has helped me really build some much needed trust. Ethnographies are not easy, they are not regular interviews where you ask predetermined questions and get one line answers. It does not suffise for an ethnographer to know what women will tell anyone who asks, what we look for is to understand the world view of the people we work with.

Shopping is something you generally do with someone close, something that you do with someone you hang out with, someone you consider a friend. So accompanying them – with their permission of course – somehow brings us closer. The awkwardness of meeting and asking sometimes intensely private questions is no longer there when the ethnographer has spent sufficient time getting close. Getting close means telling them as much about your life as you expect they will tell you about theirs. But this is not just driven by the need to understand for the sake only of research. There is a personal commitment as well – a personal engagement with the field, that enables ethnographers to see the field not as a source of information but as an opportunity to engage, make relationships and understand for the sake of understanding itself, rather than to write that paper or that article. In my work with the urban poor women in Laggere, this kind of engagement was not merely material to write down, but often a source of ideas of life itself. Thinking from my own feet was during my work suspended to help me look from different positions and this often allowed me to think differently about my own life.

Coming back to shopping, what has shopping together done beyond helping me get closer to them? Well there is a lot I have learned. Ive visited some really high end shops in the last two shopping sessions and have seen the way the sales people interact with the fisherwomen. Still wearing the sarees they wore this morning while selling fish, they were welcomed in and spoken to in a friendly tone. Often while walking unto a shop or in a shop, they were recognised and greeted in a friendly way by regular customers. They were shown all the wares and were treated just like any other customer. Today a sales girl recognised the women and made her way to greet them and introduced herself as a fisherwoman’s daughter. They exchanged notes about her mother who now no longer sold fish. Today more surprisingly I picked up a saree petticoat on sale and the fisherwomen insisted on paying for it. I was told they did it out of friendliness. They told me being a friend meant gracefully accepting a gift when it was offered. When I insisted that they should not, the shop keeper sided with them and refused to take my money. This says a lot about the standing of these women in their society, the way they see themselves but also the way the others see them. It also says volumes about what friendship means to them.

Shopping with the fisherwomen is more than just an ethnographic interlude – it also evokes questions about our own world views. As one woman told me, what is the point in life if we cannot dress well, if people dont give us a second glance, if we dont feel good. Extreme care and attention is paid by them to their clothing, sarees are not repeated frequently, different blouses are teamed to give it a different look, their hair is neatly combed and adorned with hibiscus or jasmine flowers, their sarees are lifted high and many even wear plastic sheets to keep their sarees clean. As one woman said, what can we do with money, if we cannot buy, will we take it with us? We have everything we need. Shopping even if it is for less expensive sarees or blouses, brings light and energy to the faces of these women. They return to show the others what they have bought – they smile, they are teased for the choice of colours, they laugh… and then they continue to sell fish. Wearing a bright green and gold blouse one woman was examined by many others, asking what rate she had paid, who had tailored the blouse, where she had bought it. It amazed me how much joy material things can bring. As my sister recently said, looking at my son bouncing off the floors of a shopping mall in Mumbai after a toy purchase visit, ‘who says money cannot buy happiness?’

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