Where men cook and look after children

The men nurse the sick, cook and do household chores while the women go out to trade in fish. But the roles preserved for centuries are now threatened by technology, smart phones and migrants

Representative image
Representative image
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Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

It was my father who tied my ponytail and packed our lunch boxes for school,” recalls Meenakshi Tandel. The household chores were all done by her grandfather, father and brothers. They did the cooking and the cleaning while her mother and grandmother went out to trade in fish.

Yamuna in her seventies nods her assent. While she lost her husband early, all her five children were brought up by her father-in law while she and her mother-in law went out to earn. In her family Yamuna, from Mulund, is among the sixth generation of women, who are in the fish trade.

“When my children fell ill, it was my father-in-law who sat beside them. That is the role of a man in our community for generations,” she explains.

Unlike fishing in most places, in Maharashtra and Mumbai, Koli women control the trade.

Kalpana Tapori from Vasai recalls her mother and grandmother, laden with gold ornaments and dressed in the traditional Kaashtha Saree (nine yards draped below the waist and torso almost uncovered) leave home every evening around 8 pm.

The fishing boats, trawlers and ships would come in late at night. And the catch would be put on auction at 3 am. So, the women had to reach the port in time, gather information and prepare for the bidding.

“My mother would take the train to Crawford Market late at night but do not remember her ever expressing any fear. Early morning or late at night, she kept a koyata (sickle) in her basket but she never had to use it in self-defence.

The heavy gold jewellery might look like an invitation to robbers and miscreants but Koli women see it as tradition. For centuries they have flaunted the jewellery to signal their authority and power and see no reason to discard it. Their chatter in their dialect in the Mumbai local trains, says a commuter wryly, is actually enough to keep miscreants at bay. The women are businesslike, look menacing and rough and ready for a fight, he points out. Th chatter, which sound like loud quarrels, might have given rise to the terms ‘fishwife’ and ‘fish-market’.

Kadambari Koli and her husband Parag Tandel grew up in the fishing village of Chendani Koliwada in Thane. Both are artists and have closely studied the rich culture of the community. Parag says, “The women in the community are independent and self-reliant. They play a crucial role in the economics of the community. They are the powerhouse of the community, which is remarkably free of domestic violence and disputes.


For five centuries and more, the Koli men have gone out to the sea to fish. Once they return with the catch, the women take over. The men retreat to being ‘house husbands’ and look after the households.

But the community now feels threatened. The old lifestyle, some of them realise, is no longer sustainable. Mumbai city itself is said to host some 700,000 Kolis, who are resistant to change. But the men now are getting reconciled to find new vocations while the women fear their control over finances will be loosened and they will lose their independence.

Marathi ‘Manoos’ are no doubt fond of their fish. But, Kolis wryly quip, they are even more fond of their early morning sleep. They are no longer willing to go to the market for their favourite fish, opting instead to order online and home delivery.

Kolis, who mostly reside in Koliwadas, quaint little villages in the midst of the city in areas like Khar Danda, Worli, Mahim, Versova, Gorai and Manori Creeks, are grappling with fresh uncertainties. Nobody quite knows what would be the impact on their traditional lifestyle and how the upheavals will affect the women.

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