Credit: Colston Julian

Nowhere in Mumbai is as cacophonous (or as malodorous) as Ferry Wharf at dawn. Here, on the eastern shore of India’s insomniac island city, the last scene of night—and the first of day—unfolds.

All through the night, battered fishing trawlers have sidled up to the pier, bringing cargo from waters near and distant. Under naked yellow bulbs, the fishermen begin sorting their catch: floppy Bombay duck and silvery mackerel, goggle-eyed red snapper and mottled skate, whiskery catfish and curly shrimp. Now, in the pregnant predawn darkness, hundreds of onlookers congregate—some here just for the spectacle, but most poised to pounce on the fishermen’s haul and disperse it across the city.

For a while, the noise on the wharf is just a low murmur, the sound of sleep given up for uncertain reward. Then, as dawn approaches, the crowd edges toward the water, gathering energy as it goes. In addition to the dialect of the Kolis—the fishing community indigenous to the once marshy islands of Mumbai—multiple tongues contribute to this chorus: Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Hindi and its many cousins. As day breaks, all are tense as sprinters in a race. It is time.

At an invisible signal, baskets of gleaming fish fly up a human chain between boat and land. The auctions begin: whole baskets of humdrum catch exchanged for a few hundred rupees, prize fish swung by their tails, their prices rising cry by cry. Traders lurk and sift; fish porters shout for right of way; women lay out their wares on tarpaulin sheets while light-fingered children in rags stand by, ready to gut fish with their bare hands.

One by one, the fish are absorbed into the tide of human life. Outside, the taxis are waiting, ready to rush their piscine cargo to the nearest railway station. Koli women will then carry the fish in baskets on their heads, dripping seawater through streets and apartment blocks, bargaining hard over each. Finally, a piece at a time, the catch will find its way onto a hundred aromatic tables.

No Mumbaikar is immune to the shabby, storied charms of Ferry Wharf. The pier is a link to the grand past of the city’s eastern bay, when Mumbai stood for seafaring and cotton trading. Now this side of the city, crowded with slums and black with grease, is the poor cousin of the west, with its skyscrapers and expensive restaurants, the stock exchange, the New Economy.

Above the roof of the pier, new high-rises gleam in the morning sun, their blank glass walls creeping ever eastward. Mumbai Port Trust plans to build a new marina here. Who knows if Ferry Wharf will still exist in five years? If you want the chance to savor it, go now.