December 15, 2013

Enroute To Vengurla, A Sea Of Fish On Land

Soon it was time for us to head back to Goa from Malvan.

We left Malvan at half past three soon after lunching at Bamboo Atithi. People were still queuing up outside the restaurant, a covered space raised on steel fabrication and favoured for seafood by visitors to Sindhudurg fort and the nearby beaches of Tarkarli and Devbagh Sangam.

Rosary Church stood down the road from Bamboo Atithi. Cars and jeeps crowded the road while their occupants lunched inside the restaurant. Still others waited outside, wanting in. 

Across the road stood sloping-roof houses common to the Konkan. This one had two windows looking out on the street and flanking a doorway reached by a single step that ended at a raised threshold. It's easy to imagine homeowners standing in the door in the evenings to make small talk with passersby from the neighbourhood.

Little boys in half pants waited roadside, running up to vehicles slowing down as they approached Bamboo Atithi before waving their hands and shouting “Lunch, lunch”, all the while pointing ahead, down the road toward what I can only imagine were other restaurants desperate to get some footfalls away from Bamboo Atithi.   

Desperate times called for desperate measures. 

It’s likely that the owner of the restaurant, Malvani Mejvani, frustrated in his attempts to draw Bamboo’s clientele to his own restaurant probably showed his last hand, painting over the wall of a house bang opposite Bamboo Atithi and inviting travellers to his restaurant, Malvani Mejvani, promising authentic Malvani fare.

If that wasn’t enough a line at the bottom assured the traveller that the restaurant lay only a short distance away, an arrow pointing in the same direction the little boys soliciting customers for his restaurant, had.

Visitors chose to wait out outside Bamboo Atithi in the shade of an adjoining double-storeyed house rather than walk further down and try their chances at the rival offering. Maybe some did walk down after all.

Atithi Bamboo is owned by Sanju Gavde and operates out of a largish covered seating area raised on steel fabrication with an outhouse serving as the kitchen. Plastic chairs seat visitors. Plastic tables hold their meal plates. The restaurant is set back from the road and is reached by walking through a garlanded entrance between a stolid double-storeyed building with projecting balcony and an adjoining property.

A large framed painting of Swami Samarth sitting cross-legged hangs from a wall. A plastic garland of plastic flowers, plastic fruits and plastic bulbs seek majesty for his persona.

Wall mounted fans cool the patrons sweating over finding seats at the tables. An open wash basin raised on a platform stands in the corner.

The four of us had waited 20-odd minutes for seats in the roadside restaurant to open up, eyes constantly on lookout for foodies finishing up, feet ever on the ready to rush to emptying tables before others did, a drama Bombayites are familiar with, and even prepared for, but not those on the unhurried west coast.

For twenty-odd minutes we were beaten to the tables by travellers smarter than us, and Ajay was beginning to wear of the wait and the indignity that demands of competing with fellow lunchers for seats invariably entails.

One of the waiters tells me that they’re short-staffed at the moment as some staff-members are yet to return from their Diwali leave. Unlike cities where employees are lucky if they get more than two days off at Diwali, in small towns, absenteeism during Diwali often stretches over a week.

The three waiters on duty were flitting about crazily, not unlike butterflies caught in the heat of the morning sun, flitting this way and that.  

Of the four of us, only Raju was non-vegetarian, and was not about to let go of the opportunity to sink his teeth into Bamboo Atithi’s reputation for serving up some delicious Malvani seafood.

A large poster on the wall listed the seafood menu on offer at the restaurant and illustrated the options with their pictures so no one was left in any doubt as to what to expect on the table.

Pomfret (Paplet)
Black Pomfret (Saranga)
Red Snapper (Tamboshi)
Mackeral (Bangda)
Squid (Makul)
Lobster (Shevand)
Clam (Tisriyo)
Seerfish (Surmai)
Shark (Mori)
Prawns (Kolambi)
Crab (Kekda)

English names were paired with their local, Konkani equivalents.

I had vegetarian thali and as did Ajay and Don. The Kokum was particularly good. For Rs. 70/- the vegetarian thali was a bargain. The non-vegetarian one was costlier, about two to three times as much depending upon the sea-food option ordered by the customer.

The waiter was surprised when I asked him for a receipt upon payment before composing himself and scribbling the total amount on a piece of paper he found somewhere. I didn't insist further on the validity of the piece of paper he stuck in my hand.

At any given time over 60-odd were lunching at the tables, averaging 30-40 minutes on their meal. Lunch-time apparently stretched between 12:00 - 4:00 pm. I thought I could've have earned the Govt. some money by insisting on a valid receipt.  

It was nearing 3:30 pm. It was getting late. We left Sindhudurg fort for later, maybe another sojourn back here sometime in the future. A quick stop at the paanwallah out the entrance and we were ready to roll, and loll.

This time around we chose to stay closer to the sea than on our journey into Malvan from Goa earlier in the day.

We were never really far from the Arabian Sea from the moment we left Malvan on our return journey along the road that winds through Chippi, Parule, Mapne, and Mochemad enroute to Vengurla, and beyond, to Goa. But we were never really near the sea either.

We were somewhere in between, equidistant from the hills on the inside, and the coconut trees along the shore on the outside, in that narrow strip where the West Coast and the Western Ghats mountain ranges jostle to cast the strip in their own character.

But every now and then upon cresting an incline or sweeping wide, we’d occasionally alternate between nudging the hills and the shoreline, and the sea would rise in the breaks to remind of our proximity to the Konkan coast, an experience markedly different from our morning ride into Malvan when we had swept wide off the shore, having kept to the Bombay-Goa highway until it was time to turn west, in the direction of Malvan.

This narrow strip of land, flatter near the sea, runs along India’s west coast a long way, through Maharashtra, and Karnataka, and is known as the Konkan. It has a railway line named after it – the Konkan Railway.

 A temple courtyard in Malvan
Sheltered by lush greenery, punctuated by rivers flowing out to the Arabian Sea, temples in quiet compounds, and inhabited by a largely peaceful people in sloping roof houses, the roads that wind through it are a traveller’s dream and the meanderer's paradise.

The Karli at Chippi 

Meandering through quiet, quaint hamlets with the empty road for company for much of the way, each bend in the road promising to reveal a Konkan secret, make for memorable journeys.

And it’s for this reason alone that the four of us decided to drive through the Konkan hinterland via Vengurla on our way back to Goa, sticking to the coast now that the back roads are no longer as crowded as they once were, before an alternate route servicing Bombay and Goa came up.

And what a ride it turned out to be – at stops along the way.

One such stop materialised, almost out of nowhere, shortly after leaving Malvan.


A burly policeman in a civilian shirt and giveaway khaki pants and standard-issue policemen boots broke his stride roadside as we slowed down near him soon after leaving Malvan town. We were looking for the road that turns off the NH 118 for Vengurla.

“A kilometre ahead, turn right,” he said. “It goes to Vengurla.”

Sure enough, a kilometre on, a kaccha raasta (dirt road) materialised off the NH 118 just like he said.

‘This one?’ I wondered aloud and A, R, and D were likewise in doubt. We had expected the road to Vengurla to be a proper one, asphalted, even if worn, rutted and bumpy. This looked more like a road a construction company would lay to allow trucks carrying building material to reach the site.  

A bunch of local boys whiling time away by their bicycles confirmed that this, bumpy dirt road, would indeed lead us to Vengurla, but not before assuring us that it ran muddy and bumpy only a short way ahead before making way for a asphalted one.

And sure enough it only ran muddy and bumpy for a little further on and we were back on asphalt and rolling quick through flat country.

The road ran straight, disappearing over gentle inclines every once in a while, but never deviating, at least not for a while.

But there's only so much a road can run straight in the Konkan, typically nearer the coast, before the hills exercise their pull, curving them this way and that, and then the coastline takes over again, straightening it. It's a tug of war, no 'wills' actually.

On either side of the road flat, rocky ground abounded, much of it was exposed laterite burnt just a shade dark in the sun. Or was it moss-covered rocky surface darkening upon the sun still-frying laterite that'd only recently been covered over in moss from lingering rains.

The monsoons ended late this year, raining in October like it used to in August.

To the right the rocky laterite expanse ended at Malvan’s shoreline. To the left it stretched a long, long way to gentle rolling hills that nature had fenced parts of the Konkan just as surely as it tangled other parts in folds of hills covered in dense vegetation that ranged from shrubbery to tropical trees.

On the road one never knows what the Konkan landscape will give way to just two or three kilometres down the road, making road journeys a delectable affair of the heart and the mind.

Sometimes the Konkan will surprise the traveller with a sea of fish on hard rocky ground like we found out shortly after the muddy, bouncy road had given way to asphalt as we made for Vengurla.

Six kms. short of the bridge over river Karli in Chippi and thirty-nine kms. short of Vengurla we pulled over the shoulder of the road no sooner we were buffeted by overpowering smell of fish.

And what seemed an unusually dark shade to the flat stretch of laterite turned out to be fish drying in the sun, bits and pieces that didn’t appear destined for the table. 

Empty eye sockets, skeletal remains, shrivelled bodies, exposed fish bones, the whole lot.

Most seemed left-over from catches that went unsold, diverting them for preparing fish meal for poultry. Chicken feed rich in protein is favoured by poultry farmers.

Rows of upright jute sacks dotted the open ground. The ground had turned dark from fish drying in the sun and in the distance resembled the aftermath of a brush fire that had swept past.

Elsewhere small dark mounds of dried fish stood in rows of their own waiting to be collected and deposited into jute sacks to be transported to fish meal manufacturers where I imagine dried fish will be ground and powdered for the market as fish meal.

Clearings where dried fish had been gathered into mounds dotted the area until they merged into one uniform stretch of dark patch. The workers must have begun gathering drying fish into jute sacks early in the day. But much gathering and packing into sacks still remained.   

At first there was no one around as I crossed the road with my camera and approached the sacks spread over a wide area.

Seeing me cross the road, a large group of men sitting in one corner of the field rose one by one and began walking toward me, likely taken by surprise to see a car stop and find me walking up.

Did they think I had stepped over to check what they were upto, or maybe I had been sent over to report back to whoever had tasked them with drying fish. They had no way of knowing what I was upto though they would soon found out. A few women were among the group.

They were talking among themselves in Kannada. They were a long way from Karnataka in this part of coastal Maharashtra.

“No, they aren’t meant to be eaten by humans. These will feed poultry, to feed chickens,” one of them responded to my comment directed to no one in particular that this lot didn’t look like it was destined for the table for human consumption.

A little boy sat among heaps of dried fish, his backside resting on a face-down steel-claw. He played with his shadow when bored with sifting among fishes for unusual shaped ones.  

Fish meal is prized as poultry feed for its protein content. In addition to protein, fish feed contains calcium, phosphorus, other minerals and vitamins favoured in poultry feed. Fish meal is typically by drying and grinding fish.

Poultry feed rich in protein and minerals is designed to improve poultry health and the quality of eventual poultry produce. Mackerels, Sardines, Anchovies are typically preferred to make fish meal.

Out there it was difficult to make out in the mass of dry fish sitting in sacks, in small mounds and still spread out on the ground, drying, what species made up the lot.

Two women were turning over the fish with the steel claws, ensuring they were uniformly dry.

It was nearing four and light was mellowing, casting a golden hue about me. In times such as this, life seems fair and just, and liveable.

A lone truck stood in the distance where the earth curved away, outlining the goods carrier against the sky. Sometimes I am amazed at how objects once outlined against the sky, freed from exercising their presence in a backdrop of other objects, acquire a distinct personality that seems to breathe life into them.

A man emerged from the truck carrying a bundle of rolled-up jute sacks on his head, to where some other men were busy scraping dried fish off the ground with steel claws before filling cane baskets with them.

Then as two men held a sack open, in went the contents of the cane basket.

“We usually let trash fish dry in the sun for two days, sometimes three to ensure there’s little chance of mold that can decay and spoil fish feed,” a youth volunteered as I watched them go about their job smiling and teasing one another in rustic Kannada.

One by one more sacks joined the upright army of sacks of dried fish.  

Thousands upon thousands of fish drying in the noon had rent the air with that distinct smell of dried fish, one that hits you hard, overpowering senses and staggering the mind. In time one gets used to it and is no longer as intolerable as it seemed at first.

Some will crinkle their noses at the strong smell, others will be reminded of their mothers reaching into the family pre-monsoon stock of dried fish stored to help the family get through rainy seasons when fish is difficult to get by or is too costly, and to yet others, the smell of dried fish reminds of the sea, of the rhythm of waves breaking, of days spent looking out to sea under a mellow winter sun.

We got back on the road to Vengurla with the smell snapping furiously at our wheels before slowly loosening its grip once we picked up speed, only to get back to chasing us when a second, equally large patch of earth showed up on the right and more workers stuffing dried fish meal into sacks came into view.

Then nothing, just us and the road, and houses that ducked from view at the sound of the motor.

And somewhere to our right, behind tall trees and gently rising swells of rocky earth, the sea meandered within earshot of four friends out roaming the Konkan on a pleasant day.


Riot Kitty said...

I'm in love with vegetarian Thali. And I can only imagine so many fish out of the sea.

☆sapphire said...

Thank you so much for this fantastic post. I learned a lot from you. I was really impressed by the story, particularly by "Thousands upon thousands of fish drying in the noon....," and also by the photos you took. The first photo is really good.

Anil T said...

Wow - reads like a poetry - great narration. -Anil T

Balachandran V said...

What a sky! And that truck faraway... your observation is quite correct. There is a kind of detached, aloof air about the truck.

A beautiful day,as easygoing as its narration...

Anil P said...

Riot Kitty: The thali is largely a south, west India phenomenon. I think you'd like the offering that varies from place to place.

Sapphire: Thank you.

Anil T: Thank you.

Balachandran V: Thank you. The sky was striking indeed. Something one gets to see when you drive away from cities.

Meena Venkataraman said...

Wow.. Brilliant as always :).. Now I want to have the vegetarian thali

Anil P said...

Meena Venkataraman: Thank you. Vegetarian thali vary in taste and offerings along the West Coast.

Nisha said...

Of all the things I loved that thali most!! Haven't seen such a variety of things on a veg thali. :-)

Anil P said...

Nisha: The Thali back there is characteristic of the region.