Sometime in the past, we had listed a series of things we could chat about and we asked our faithful, feckless, faceless and fearless readers to vote on them. And no one voted for Fish. And none of the regular contributors to this blog (!) could remember what the hell the intent was. And apparently it had been me who put it there, so here we are talking about Fish.
I can tell you now, this is going to go nowhere, so if you did decide to read this, you can’t later complain that you were not warned.
Fish is a peculiar, or as Mam’zelle Dupont would have said, “piggyhoolear”, word. Fish can be singular and plural, while fishes is also an accepted form. Why is this so? How did fish become so, er, fishy?
Well, we’re not going to get answers here. What we are going to do is this. We’re going fishing down the rivers of my mind, looking for the shady and sheltered, the lost and lonely, the tired memories of “words unspoken and thoughts unclear.”
I met a fisherman on a cold autumn evening by the river side. I was preparing to leave and he was just settling in for a night of fishing. We got talking. His story was very simple. He was a taxi driver, uprooted from his native Bangladesh and transplanted thousands of miles away in chilly Canada. He drove a taxi by day and fished by night. I asked him about family. “She divorced me,” he said.
Bangladesh is a hot, humid country in the heart of the Ganges delta. It was once a part of India, then it was a part of Pakistan. It was created, by the partition of Bengal in 1947 and the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971. Fish is a staple food together with rice; sweet water fish, seafood holding no meaning for the Bengali. The river Padma runs through India and Bangladesh and is the source of that most delicious of delicacies, hilsa or ilish.
I was barely 19 or 20 when I started my 3 year apprenticeship in an audit firm. One of the major accounts serviced by the firm was ITC Ltd, a cash rich cigarette manufacturer that had seen the writing on the wall and had already started diversifying into food, hotels, paper and other areas. One of the foundlings it subsidized was the Sangeet Research Academy, a school, a melting pot, an amazing place where established classical singers of various gharanas and styles were able to meet, mingle, rehearse, research, teach and coach.
Of course as a callow youth, unversed in classical music of any type, I knew none of the names then and I cannot remember them now. One of the features of this gathering was the communal lunch every day and one day, a famous lady, an Indian classical singer of much repute ( I learned this much later) treated us all to smoked hilsa. Hilsa coated with fresh mustard paste, salt and green chillies, then wrapped in banana leaves and baked underground with hot charcoal.
I was then a vegetarian, but was curious. I had tried various meat curries before, but this was totally different. Anyone who’s had hilsa will know that taste comes at a price. The fish is embedded with a trillion little bones and eating hilsa is an art form. There are the utter inepts like me and the master magicians like my brother-in-law, who puts the fish in his mouth and the expels the bones in a fluid motion. If you’re a hoity toity fork and knife type of eater, forget about it. Hilsa *has* to be had with the hands, hands that touch and knead and explore and make sure there are no bones in the mouthful you’re about to put into your mouth and hands that bring out any stragglers. I’m sure the tongue and teeth come into play as well.
I remember the observers at my first meting with hilsa tut-tutting at my inability to do this fish dish (say it three times quick!) justice.
A few years later I married my Beloved Bangalan and shortly thereafter was driven off to the erstwhile French colony of Chandannagore just outside Calcutta to meet her grandma. The occasion was marked down in the neighborhood as a day to line the narrow streets leading to the large house that held about 60 people in the same family presided over by Grandma.
The very next day was the big celebratory lunch held in the large courtyard between the four wings of the house. Pride of place went to the new jamai, the first of many to come into the family. I made sure my wife was sitting next to me. When the hilsa came along, cooked in a mustard jhol, the crowds who’d come to see how the Abangali jamai would handle ilish and bhaat were highly amused to see the new wife dutifully deboning the fish and placing little mashed pieces on my plate.
I’ve never managed to learn how to eat hilsa.
<whew – I did manage to write a fishy story! I confess that when I first put down the topic I must have had a different idea in mind, probably some profound truth about the relationship between fish and life or onions. And when I actually started writing it I had no idea where it was going>