‘If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on Centre Court.’ — Samanth Subramanian, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast.
“Who on earth says no to fish?” shouted Mashi Ma (aunty) on the top of her voice.
The angst-filled question was directed at her would-be son-in-law, who was meekly trying to cite a reason for his inclination towards vegetarian food. The handsome man had a feeling that a lot depended on his answer. Any wrong move and he might lose this matrimonial battle, and with it the beautiful Bengali doe-eyed girl sitting in front of him. Tentatively he looked around for support. Unfortunately, there was none coming from any quarter.
It wasn’t Mashi Ma’s fault at all. For a Bengali, a meal without fish is as incomplete as Hindi movies are sans melodrama! The Bengali house in Noida always had a good stock of fish. If, on any given day, she found the stock dwindling, she would make it a point to leave all other things unattended and rush to the nearby fish market to cajole and coax the friendly fish seller to give her the best of every fish he had. In fact, so excited she usually was about the trips to the fish market, that she even offered to drive friends and acquaintances with her for some well-meaning company, who also added up as a witness to her fantastic bargaining skills, to be discussed later at get-together’s and kitty parties.
And then, much to her chagrin, her girl had brought home a vegetarian to be evaluated on the matrimonial scale! Tirelessly she tried to educate him about the benefits of eating their very own water nymphet. She couldn’t believe that her family would soon have someone who did not swear by the limbless cold-blooded vertebrate.
Mashi Ma closed her eyes in denial.
For Bongs living outside West Bengal, the typical Bengali fare was not available easily. Especially, living in a non-Bong neighbourhood made it all the more difficult to acquire fish from a trustworthy source. Locating a good enough fish market to cater to the tastes of the family was by itself a tedious job, let alone ‘fixing’ a guy who would sell the best fish in the world keeping the information about her not being able to distinguish between the fishes she had planned to buy. Since all her childhood, she had seen her father buying fresh fish from the local market in Calcutta. The fact that she still couldn’t tell the difference between the fish of yesterday and that from the day before, felt like a personal failure. And she would be damned is she admitted it!
Initially when she started going to the market, the only question she asked herself when it came to buying fish was, who would provide fish which was ‘almost’ fresh? That was a potent way of impressing those waiting at home during lunch and dinner.
After all a man’s heart lies in his belly; and a Bengali man’s heart lies inside the belly of the fish!
The exercise of finding out whether-or-not-the-fish-is-fresh was quite time-consuming. And serious! The latter because one would have to pointedly ignore the unwanted contents of the fish gut strewn on the ground with delighted flies hovering about. Mashi Ma would also have to turn a blind eye to the mounds of muck and focus on the herculean task of buying the fish on display. To keep the fish as fresh as possible, the fish seller, at regular intervals, would splash water on them, turning the ground around wet and muddy. When Mashi Ma’s family moved to Delhi, a few years after her wedding, Mashi Ma had to ditch those expensive stilettos she had been gifted by her husband. Rubber slippers seemed to be the best bet while walking through all that muck. Yuck!
Back in those days Runa was small. Runa, her only daughter. Her upbringing was of utmost concern for the mother. What face would she show to the Bengali community or to the rest of the family, if Runa didn’t clear the engineering or medical entrance examinations when she grew up? Wasn’t fish the only way to help Runa’s brain develop faster? Mashi Ma’s brain was working overtime as she kept dodging advice and suggestions from the elders in the family.
“Rohu, hilsa and chingdi (prawn) are the best for her,” opined the grandfather, as he lovingly caressed Runa’s hair. “I agree hilsa is the fish with 10,000 bones. But hilsa is the king. Don’t settle for anything less than the king,” he reiterated, looking at his grand-daughter. Runa nodded happily. She couldn’t agree more as each fish her grandfather spoke about was her favourite.
The youngest son of the grandfather, an engineer from Kharagpur IIT, butted in. ‘Don’t forget koi, maagur (snakehead), pomfret and bhetki. They boost brain-power.’
He looked at the uncle next door listening to their conversation from a few steps away. Interpreting that glance as a perfect invitation for him to join in, he walked inside through the open door, flipping his slippers loudly. “Small fish such as punti, shutki, tangra, mourola and small prawns are what Runa must be fed. True that the awful smell of shutki gets difficult for the cook, but you guys want her to progress, or no?” He looked around from above his glasses. “Doctors say small fish are loaded with calcium, so they are best consumed every day. The small fish have to be popped whole into the mouth and chewed carefully so that all the calcium is squeezed out of them. It’s the small fly that go places, you see!” He added wisely.
But kids and fish rarely work.
Mashi Ma had a difficult time explaining to little Runa the significance of those family discussions that were mandatory during their vacations in Calcutta. The fish bones posed a problem for her initially. Mashi Ma took time explaining how important they were as a part of her diet. Mouth-watering dishes like mudo ghonto or rui maachher maatha diye bandhakopee (cabbage cooked with pieces of the rohu’s head) came out of her kitchen to lure the daughter. Eventually she learnt to tactfully remove the bones and eat fish without choking to death. She mastered various on-the-spot methods of making an errant bone go down the food pipe, in case it had entered by accident. Soon Runa gulped rice, banana or even curd to help the bone slide down the throat gracefully.
Fish fetishes became stronger when Runa was in her teens. As she ate more and more fish, she knew how to tackle the fish without bothering about the bones getting stuck. Runa’s success in sailing through the difficult engineering course today was solely because of Mashi Ma’s Bengali small-fish recipes like aamchorchodee, patudi and bhorta. Or so the mother believed!
Mashi Ma looked at the ceiling and frowned deeply. Her afternoon nap had gone for a toss. She had planned this lunch for ten days, discussing and debating what to cook and what to spread on the table for the boy Runa wanted to introduce as her ‘choice’. Not even in her wildest dreams had she thought that Runa could bring home a vegetarian! In fact, when Runa declared that the boy she had selected wasn’t a Bengali, her mother had grimaced.
‘The biggest drawback of marrying into a non-Bengali house is not being able to cook fish the Bengali way. If you can somehow smuggle a Bengali cook into the house, then apart from yourself, she would be the only other person enthusiastic about cooking fish. How would you adjust there? Your taste buds would revolt!’
Runa, however, paid no attention to her mother’s concerns and avoided this discussion altogether. Now Mashi Ma knew why!
What will the rest of the family think when they know that Runa wants to marry someone who doesn’t eat fish? She thought miserably. What will happen when they have kids? Keep them undernourished without fish? Her woes were endless.
Only a Bengali can come to the rescue of another in the food department!
When Runa refused to entertain the worries of the family, and they had no other option but to proceed with the alliance, Mashi Ma’s co-sister came forward to help. This was the same lady who could never balance the red chillies while cooking fish; everyone stayed warned every time she entered the kitchen. Mashi Ma always suspected that she did it to avoid cooking herself when too many members were present in the house. Obviously she never managed to get her doubt cleared, but the lady’s shrewd sense of politicking only made her suspicion grow stronger.
“As part of her wedding gifts, decorate a thali with paanch phoron.” The lady advised. She finely packed the five spices — cumin, fenugreek, nigella seeds, fennel and coriander, in a five-chambered fancy box. “I’m sure they would like to taste these spices. Food cooked with these would be our first step towards transforming their tastes.” She smiled wickedly. “Slowly and intelligently, introduce our recipes to your in-laws. Once, only once let them taste our cumin and ginger-blessed dishes soaked in mustard oil. They will chase you for more then.” Her eyes sparkled, and Runa looked at her in utter disbelief. “There will then be the day when it will dawn upon them that they have been living utter useless lives without fish and they will beg to be fed the water nymphets. Unless they eat fish how will they match up to Runa’s intelligence?” The lady looked around. There was pin-drop silence; everyone seemed impressed with her clever ideas.
She bent towards Runa and whispered in a way that everyone could hear, “Take the boy to a fish market some time. When he finds those slinky maagur fish swimming about nonchalantly in a tub of muddy water, unaware that they can pounce upon him any time, he will become friends with them.” Her eyes were big with excitement.
“Then, when the iron is hot, hammer it with bhaja (fries), bhapey (steamed), jhaal (fried and cooked in ground spices), or jhol (thin gravy). Add whole green chillies in the last stage of cooking and coriander leaves for seasoning. Once tasted, he’ll not forget it for life.”
The wedding day arrived. Clearly the would-be son-in-law had passed the acid test and had been able to convince his mum-in-law that he will do justice to fish of all kinds. But he, of course, did not send fish with the turmeric pastes to the bride’s house before the wedding, as per Bengali customs. The huge family survived the heartbreak when Runa’s father ordered a special hilsa to make up for the loss. After the elaborate rituals that went on for one and a half days, when the bride and groom left for their matrimonial home, Mashi Ma raised her hands and joined them together over the forehead.
Among myriad thoughts that crossed her mind concerning the mother’s heart, the most crucial one was, “Oh Lord, let there be fish!”