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The Bengali who hates fish: The story of shame, suffering, and ilish

Gorkhaland. Jangal Mahal. Singur. And now Hilsa. Mamata Banerjee has added fish to her to-do list.

The “people’s chief minister” wants Manmohan Singh to get Bangladesh to knock down the export price of hilsa aka the Bengalis’ beloved ilish fish. At Rs 700 a kg, Bengalis aren’t getting enough ilish from the Meghna and Padma rivers across the border this monsoon.

Didi knows the value of symbols when she picks a fight. Tripartite agreements and hill councils are one thing. But in Bengal, fish is something else. Bhaatey maachhey Bangali we say. Rice and fish make us Bengali. By this standard, I have always been, at best, half a Bengali.

The not-so-good Bengali

Growing up, I was the quintessential good Bengali boy – bespectacled, obedient, diligent – except for this one fatal flaw: I didn't like fish. The slimy black skin creeped me out. It was too oily, too fishy. And that made me abnormal in Kolkata, where widows in plain white saris piously crunched on fish heads, and the mechho bhoots and petnis (ghosts) lurked near ponds to steal fish.

Nothing I ate was safe from the fish. Even the dal could come with a fish head lurking in it, one dull beady eye glaring at you. Surrounded by shining silvery piles of rohu, koi, pabda and bhetki, I developed a “fish problem”. It was obviously an illness. An un-Bengaliness that had to be cured by feeding me fish of every kind. Baked fish. Fish balls. Batter fried fish. Fish curry. With every new experiment my mother would ask hopefully, “What do you think? What about this fish preparation?”

I wasn't a total failure as a Bengali. I liked the tiny mourala, slimmer than my little finger, fried to a crisp. I ate magur, the whiskery cat fish when I was recovering from a fever. I happily wrestled with the needle thin bones of ilish cooked in pungent mustard paste while the monsoon rains pounded outside. I enjoyed topsey, the mango fish, batter fried and golden. But these were exceptions to the dismal rule that marked me as an outsider. I could never entirely belong. Weddings, for example, were pure torture.

“Eat another piece of rui,” the host would exclaim, catching sight of my empty plate, “Ei je Ramu, give the boy some fish.”

“No, it’s OK,” I would say feebly, covering my plate with both hands, “I don’t want any."

“What about this small piece? See, it has no bones.” I would shake my head, and realization would dawn: “You don’t like fish?”

Ramu would freeze. Time would stand still. Everyone around me would stop disemboweling their fish to digest this revelation. Then finally with the air of someone making a great sacrifice, the host would say, “At least have some jhol (gravy) with rice.”

I’d capitulate and look forlornly at the globs of fishy gravy slopped on to my plate' its faintly accusing odour staining my entire meal.

America: sushi and self-acceptance

A piece of Bluefin Tuna (Maguro) sits on a sushi plate. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

Many of my friends left Kolkata looking for opportunities out in the world – in America and Canada and Australia. Sometimes I think I emigrated to escape the fish bone stuck in my throat.

In America, I betrayed my mother a second time. I discovered sushi. To my astonishment, I really liked it because it was not… fishy. There were scientific reasons why: adenosine triphosphates, what the fish ate etc. It didn’t matter. Perhaps this would be the great moment of piscine reconciliation with my family. We could eat fish together.

“Raw fish? You eat raw fish?” my mother asked incredulously. The subtext was clear. I turned up my nose at the fish, she, my mother, had lovingly cooked with her own hands. Now I was happily eating raw fish sliced by some Korean stranger in San Francisco!

I realized at that point there was nothing to do but accept the sad truth: I just didn’t like Bengali fish. I never would.

Now that I am back in Kolkata, I eat fish at home. When I'm invited for dinner, I would just tell them beforehand, “I eat everything. Except most fish.” Nobody has ever dis-invited me, though sometimes they’d still cook a fish curry on the side, just in case I change my mind.

My “Don’t eat” list has not shrunk, but my mother gives me little grief about it anymore. Age has mellowed her zeal to make me “normal," and my fish tantrums have become part of family lore, a funny story to share with my nephew and niece.

Fish frenzy continues unabated around me. Earlier this year, at the height of Mamata's political campaign, there were billboards all across the city with the faces of Bengali’s cultural elite. Novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay. Actress Mamata Shankar. The tag line was always the same: Bangalir chokhey jol keno? (Why are there tears in the eyes of Bengalis?)

“It must be a Mamata campaign,” said a friend. “Something about the decline of Bengal.”

But it was soon revealed to be an ad campaign. Why are there tears in Sunil Gangopadhyay's eyes? Because he's overcome with joy after eating delicious ilish cooked in Emami mustard oil.

In the Bengal of fishwives, mechho bhoots, and Emami mustard oil, Didi is now promising us a fish in every pot – except, I hope, in mine.


Published Date: Jul 21, 2011 13:27 PM | Updated Date: Jul 21, 2011 19:58 PM

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