During the afternoon, at low tide, the sea retreats across the Mumbai shore line, leaving in its wake a jagged wilderness of rocks and stranded fishing boats. Although the terrain is particularly muddy, I had made a business investment of two hundred rupees to buy a box of equipment for a persistent shoe-shiner which, he reliably informed me, would propel him into a new league of shoe-cleaning. This also meant that, thanks to some fine print I had added in the deal, my shoes would enjoy his services free of charge and I thus had a blank cheque with regards to where I walked. He had originally tried to escape his charge by hiding out in Burger King and dimly-lit alleyways, but I had contacts in the shoe business and was determined to get all of the one hundred cleans which would constitute breaking even on my investment.
I was thus able to trudge confidently across the rocky beaches, a band of some of Mumbai’s numerous wild dogs momentarily joined me and I passed a policeman pissing nonchalantly across a boat’s hull. A sight, I thought, that might interest the graffiti-artist Banksy for his next work of art. This relative calmness was broken by the shouts of a few locals, who scampered towards me waving their arms. At first, I saw this as a warning sign that I had inadvertently strayed into gangland dog territory, and indeed the dried coils of shit placed tactically across rocks supported this theory.
(At this point, I would like to deter those who, thanks to the title, thought the story was heading in a different direction. You may depart, and shame on you…)
As the crowd drew closer, I noticed the plastic bags that were dangling threateningly by their sides and reassessed my original feeling of gratitude to them. But when the bags were opened, rather than the novelty junk I had expected, I was confronted by a seething mass of crabs. As appetizing as it was, seeing them silently fighting for their lives, I trusted neither my culinary ability nor my flat’s medieval pot to cook them, and turned down the opportunity of a purchase. I was more interested in the group that roamed the shores to find them.
Their ringleader, who also held the title of eldest, sported an authoritative moustache to show for his seniority. Whilst he preferred to operate as a lone wolf, the other three kept together and so I followed their lead as they crouched next to a large rock. The most obvious mark of their profession was a thin metal pole with a jagged hook on the end, which they brandished with the pride of a toddler holding a toy sword. As I soon discovered, this tool was thrust and jammed around the gaps between the rocks and beach, like someone picking a lock.
This activity went on for some time and, just as I had begun to lose interest, the pole was swiftly withdrawn to show a medium-sized crab flailing helplessly, its shell caught on the hook. From other viewings, and with the benefit of some theatrical hand movements, I worked out that the technique was to use the hook to taunt the crab as it lay in hiding and, once it had clamped the pole with its claw, to pull it out into the open. For more passive crabs, the claws were bypassed and the hook went straight for their hard exterior to latch onto an edge or gap. Once the crab was exposed in the open, another member ripped off the right claw impassively and jammed it between the crab’s shell and its left claw to nullify any risk to the fingers.
Thanks to a translational error, I had been given the name of Ocross, and I unconsciously fulfilled its prehistoric connotations as I scrabbled across the rocky landscape to keep up. One thing that interested me was the disparity in techniques. One member, who was known as the beggar due to his lack of success, was very tender with the movements of his pole and whispered gently to the rock as if reciting an ancient incantation. On the other end of the scale, the youngest hopped from nook to cranny with lightning speed and was so prolific that he had become a veritable danger to the beach’s crab population.
During a more prolonged hunt, the team had become so desperate that they had turned to my relative inexperience to remove a particularly stubborn crab. It was then, as I was forced onto my hands and knees to rummage into the far reaches of the rock’s underbelly, that another tourist appeared on the scene. Vulture-like, he had circled the group, but I was glad to see the loyalty displayed by my compatriots and his infiltration efforts were in vain. As he began to retreat to the path, I felt a tug from inside the rocks and pulled out the pole to reveal this brute of a crab clinging desperately to the hook.
As ‘the beggar’ tore off its right claw impassively, I saw a small wave of hesitancy flash across the outsider’s face. Sensing an opening, I pressed home the advantage and, wild-eyed with my hunting success, I gave him a look to say, “yes my friend, this is how we roll.”