the bong and his fish
so, for those who wondered online and off where I was during the pujo, well, I was tucked away at my grandparents place for more than a week. it stripped life of all those things I thought was essential for sanity – the internet, for example – and still, still, I had a really, really good time. I did.
I came away after lunch tuesday afternoon, and contrary to traditional expectations, it wasn’t a huge affair. lunch, that is. in fact, it was laughably unpretentious bengali ‘shadharon ranna’, a simple everyday home cooked meal. and it was delicious. like meals at grandparents inevitably are. there might just be a post about my stay, I certainly want to write one, but not everyone has the evocative talent of this lady or this avuncular gentleman, so it might just remain in my mind, till the dust settles on it, and it takes on a sepia, forgotten tint…
but today, we’ll talk about fun stuff. the stuff I discussed at lunch with my grandaunt jhu and my granduncle’s friend binku. there was ilish for lunch (and kanti, I bow to you as well. ilish with a spoon! kid, it’s one of the more painful ways of killing yourself slowly but suddenly. they’re called fingers. use them. if you want to live.), and I was, as usual, much scorned for scorning the fantasy of , or so everybody insists, every bangali. however, being family, there wasn’t the usual shriek of “tui ilish khaash na!!!” instead there was much shaking of graying locks and shiny brown scalps in my general direction, and tut tutting under the breath while hunting for the tiny transparent bones embedded in the fish’s flesh.
“children these days…” sighed binku. “ilish, rui, bhetki, chingri. that’s all they know. isn’t it, phuldi?” phuldi being my jhu.
phuldi nodded sadly, and broke two green chillies in a small heap of steaming rice before topping it with bhaaja tel, the oil the fish was deep fried in. “true, true…do you remember, binoy (that’s binku), in bikrampur (that’s where the family is from; it’s in bangladesh) – actually, even sometimes in dhakuria (that, of course, is in cal, but this was during the second world war, when dhakuria was almost a village) when it rained too heavily…”
“we too!”, interjected binku enthusiastically. “went out to the banks of the rivers and the paddy fields for koi maachh. achha, did you eat khoyer maachh in your family? or kholshe? the kind that grew in dobas? small ponds?”
“khoyer…khoyer…ahhh, you mean fyaansha maachh? of course we did! and my mother used to speak of times when she and saraju khurima (this is not a relative I’ve heard of. but then she was my grandaunts’ aunt. so…) rushed out to catch kholshe and koi at the height of the monsoons. even back then, I spite of being the bous…their mother-in-law was…indifferent. she was keen on social work, distributing grains and rice and cooking oil to the poor ‘low caste’ women. she didn’t much care what she ate. or her daughter-in-laws…”
I’m a little surprised, satisfactorily so, to hear jhu curl the quotes carefully around ‘low caste’. I bet when she was a child, in the early 1930s, that was the general form of referring to people. their casts, that is. how fast times have changed, I wonder for a second. in some pockets of the country. there are no caste distinctions in my family, I know because I overheard a neighbour once tell my grandfather, in tones of mild regret, that all the children of the house married out of the caste. and my grandfather ignored the tone, gave him a sunny smile and said, “yes, they’re all so happy. I’m a proud father.”
and I’ve never heard of these fishes jhu and binku are suddenly speaking of. they’ve all lost out in the battle of place in the sophisticated urban cuisine. some have, perhaps died out. others have lost out ‘cause they’re too bony, too dark and slippery, maybe a little bitter. perhaps too icky to look at. or maybe just too downmarket. (this is a term I’ve picked up recently from my twelve year old cousin, and for some obscure reason, it’s a scary word). others have survived – barely – under other names. the more familiar khoyer for the bangaal fyaansha, for example.
or kaanklash maachh. if you know bengali well enough to read, say, bibhutibhushan bondhyopadhyay, you’ll know what kaanklash means. it means fatally skinny, a bag of bones, starved taut skin thrown over a dry skeleton at the brink of turning to dust. not a pretty picture. that’s what this fish looks (looked?) like. thin, very little flesh, the snout pointed and sharp, a sickly whitish green. not for the fashionable or healthy platter. I wouldn’t buy it to save a few pennies. I’d much rather just have plain boiled rice. but people with large families and little to keep them on ate this though. regularly.
then there were baan, baaing, lyata, chang and pangash (also known as ghaayir this side of the padma). some of them looked like small snakes at first sight, some like smaller shol maachh. good deep fried, but not usually for the gentleman’s platter. hmmm.
but there are cuter names. some you’ll ooh – ahh over too, maybe. baanshpata maachh, I think, is rather cute. shaped like the leaf of a bamboo plant, hence the name. or kanchki. which are a smaller version of the more famliar mourola maachh (like that’s possible. hey, I may not eat it, but I’ve seen mourola, okay?). and wait, there’s another rname for khoyer maach…or is it another fish that looks like khoyer…anyway, since I haven’t seen either, this one’s called chapila. please tell me it sounds alien and nice. I like it. it apparently smells like ilish as well. poor man’s hilsa, eh?
now for the good ones. there’s believe you me, a silvery, exquisite variety called the shillong maachh. it looks just like bacha maachh (that’s bengali for ‘living’ minus the ‘chondrobindoo’), except that it’s snout is not quite as sharp. both are silvery white and delicious. and extinct. apparently.
then there’s bele maachh, glistening white again, and eats sand, according to popular belief. hence bele. sand=bali, which lends itself to bele.
“with white stones in it’s head, na binoy ?” jhu looks up from her ilish, “we used to collect them in small wood and ivory boxes on the sly, ma would’ve raised hell if she knew there were fish parts in the bedroom”. and she laughed. jhu was a notoriously irrepressible tomboy as a child. and then they branch off, talking about the basin bikrampur became during the monsoons. people used boats, shaajimatir nouko if that means anything to you, to visit neighbours. sometimes when the river and local ponds overflowed, people had to build shaankos, narrow short bridges made of single or double bamboo sticks across rooms! can you believe that? the houses were flooded, so you had to use a bridge to go from the drawing room to the bedroom!
“aar uthone daariye borshi diye maach dhora jeto”, binku laughs uproariously and helps himself to more fish. I’m a little concerned. he’s had three already, and nobody’s getting any younger. but in true bangali style, nobody cares how much of what they eat at our place. I had finished, so I get up, wash my hands and get my tiny telephone diary. that’s all I’ve got by way of a notebook, but these names I have to write down. there’s no way I can remember them – two generations down the line, these household regulars have become remoter than an eskimo’s diet.
and there are varieties of poonti maachh, or small, bay fishes. there’s a variety, apparently, that has a perfect black circle, like a teep/bindi on it’s tail fin. another’s called shorputi. shor as in the layer of cream on milk? the yuck thing? what’s it got to do with fishes? binku didn’t have an answer. jhu shrugged and passed him the salt.
and then come a few familiar names. before some completely alien ones. foli, kaalbosh (which is notoriously difficult to bring to land, even if you’ve caught it), chitol, mrigel, gurjaali, which is known here (if it is at all) as omlette maachh. pouya maachh, known as bhola maachh, similar to bhola bhetki. mohashol, which, I’m given to understand, is nothing like the shol. then there’s the loitya, known in bombay as the, surprise surprise, bombay duck. why duck? perhaps our resident quack expert could explain...
fotka, which is poisonous but if blown into the mouth, its tummy enlarges and makes the sound of a small balloon bursting quietly.
or, this is wayyy stupid but you gotta know, bhyada maachh. which in west bengal is called nyadosh maachh.
and then there are the chingris. golda chingri, bagha chingri, shotinpora chingri, kucho chingri…but let’s leave that for another time, yes?
because binku and jhu couldn’t come up with more names, see? they racked and raked their brains, but all the old memories have evaporated…