Syed Waseem brings down his cleaver repeatedly, swiftly reducing a plump-bodied seer, or mackerel, to a pile of diagonal slices. I watch as he dips his hands into a bowl of blood-red water, rubs them along his jeans, and brings the cleaver back down smack-dab between the eyes of the fish. With assembly-line speed, one of Waseem’s five employees bags the pieces for a young man in a Superman sweatshirt. The customer nods at Waseem, but the fishmonger has already started on another fish. He is precise, unsmiling.
Waseem works at the Russell Market, inside an imposing Indo-Gothic building. Like many markets around India, the historic Bangalore institution, established in 1927 by the British, contains in its mazelike corridors endless baskets piled high with bright fruit and vegetables, wreaths of white temple flowers, tubs of fish, hanging poultry, and meat.
In one shadowy hall bathed in gloom, butchers in bloodied aprons await customers beside lean, glistening carcasses on meat hooks. Behind the meat hall is the fish market, an open corridor with 35 stalls that receive as much as 22,000 pounds of fish daily from every corner of coastal India and echoes with the rhythmic “chik-chik-chik” of fish being scaled. It’s a scene that plays out in cities across the country. But each vendor behind these stalls has his own story.
My eldest sister, Shaila, who lives in Bangalore with her family, connected me with Waseem when I was visiting her last winter. As is typical in this fast-moving, tech-savvy city, their relationship plays out not in person but over the phone. When Shaila wants fish, she calls Waseem, he tells her what he has, and she has her driver pick up the fish from his stall. They have never met in person.
Still, when I introduce myself to him one late afternoon in December, he greets me with warm familiarity. Waseem is 32. He has watery eyes, a big head of hair, and a bit of a belly. English isn’t his first language, but he named his stall, which he operates with his partner, Mohammed Irshad, “Fisheries.” He says the English word attracts upper-middle-class families and expats. Like the other fishmongers, he wears neither apron nor gloves. After observing his interaction with the customer in the Superman sweatshirt, I ask him why he never smiles.
“I don’t deserve to be happy,” he tells me.
His father, an auto rickshaw driver, first guided him through the tall archways of Russell Market. Twelve-year-old Waseem was a wayward boy, cutting school to roam around with his friends in the slum. If Waseem wasn’t going to school, declared his father, he was certainly going to earn money, so he put him to work in the fish shop of Akram Pasha, a friend of a friend.
For more than ten years, Waseem worked for Pasha. He learned how to scale, slice, and source fish. He learned how to determine which language to speak to a customer—Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, or English—in order to make a sale. At 21 he was known around Russell Market as a master cutter. He was also known as an alcoholic. His tendency to fall in with the wrong crowd had caught up with him. “I got drunk and created chaos,” he says. “I started fights wherever I went.”
He was fired from his job and entered rehab. As the only son, Waseem was supposed to look after his family. But by the time he came out, eight months later, his father, who had been ailing with cancer, had died. Two of his three sisters were trapped in unhappy arranged marriages. All Waseem could do was work, and hope his family would forgive him.
The next day I arrive at the market at 5 AM to meet Waseem. The city is still dreaming, the air sharp and moist. He buys tea from a vendor and takes it with him into his office, where he dials fishermen in Mumbai and Vizag. He orders 200 pounds of fish. When his employees arrive, they unpack the new cargo and lay it out with swift precision.
By the time the sun cracks open the night sky, the market is full and bursting with excitement and impatience. Restaurant chefs and grocery owners clamor for attention, and Waseem’s employees are only too happy to give it to them. “What do you want? What do you need?” they holler. “We have the best prices!”
Waseem plugs his ears with headphones. He rolls up his sleeves and reaches for his cleaver. “I can never make up for what I have done,” he tells me. “But I can work hard.”
Sonia Faleiro is the author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars. A shortened version of this story appeared in SAVEUR Issue #167.