Unlike most middle and upper-class Bengali households, we did not grow up with fish. There were days when we did not have it at all. So whenever we visited our family home in the suburbs of Kolkata, our meals would begin with jethima, my aunt, expressing her concern about how fish-starved we were – ‘How will you get your nutrition?’ was her constant refrain. This complaint in many ways foreshadowed a comment later popular among my Hindi-speaking friends at Delhi University – that consuming fishhead was the source of Bengali intellect and intelligence.
Baba’s explanation of why fish was the staple Bengali diet found a permanent place in my mind, though I did not understand the complete import of his words then. Now I often think about how closely nature monitors and structures our food habits, how she offers us nutrition through things available aplenty locally. It is her way of ensuring that her creatures, humans and all, never starve.
My earliest memories of a fish meal are of elderly men having their food in large thalis with a bowl of fish curry, along with other items, beside each. The best pieces, the fleshy part, were reserved for them, under the matriarch’s supervision. It was my first unconscious lesson in food and gender. Though the scenario at our home was different, this picture had lodged itself in a permanent space in my memory. This was also the time when I realised that pieces of fish had a hierarchy and a politics of their own. The fish heads, of the bigger fishes like rohu and catla, were generally reserved for the men while the women got the tail parts. Was it because the fish head was supposed to be the source of intellect and women were not supposed to have much need for that? The smaller fishes like mourala, kajari and puthi were used to make mishmash like chorchori, head, tail, and body, altogether. Though a delicacy, it ranked a few notches lower in prestige. The real glamour lay in the big fish heads. I remember hearing stories in which the groom’s elitism was measured by his skills in tackling the huge fish head placed upon his plate during his first lunch after the wedding as well as at all subsequent invitations, to his in-law’s house.
Bangla literature is replete with anecdotes of fish heads – from Tagore’s mention of the fishhead as the best part of rohu fish, in Naukadubi, or Tarapada Ray’s description of boyal (a kind of cat fish very large in size) chochchori in Chorabari Porabari, to Trishna Basak’s reference to fishhead in her latest novel Chorer Manush. In fact, Chorer Manush, narrating stories of Hindus in Bangladesh, is full of references to various kinds of fishes, these becoming symbolic of the socio-economic status and gender of the characters. Even in child rhymes fish-head finds an important presence – in one, the moon is lured with the promise of a fishhead. It goes as follows
Dhan bhanle kunro debo
Maach katle muro debo
Kalo gaiyer dudh debo
Dudh khabar bati debo
Chaander kopale chaand
tip diye ja
When I husk paddy, I shall give you the chuff
When I chop the fish, I shall give you fishhead
I shall give you milk from the black cow
And a bowl to drink that milk
O moon, come and put a bindi
On my moon’s head.
(a very loose translation of the Bangla rhyme)
If literature is a reflection of culture, these references tell us the important presence that the piscean family has in Bengal. But all that appears to be gradually changing. Ironically, in a twist of time, I am the only person in my entire family, who has the patience to negotiate with the difficult task of eating a large fishhead, though it is only occasionally that I get that leisure.
When I look back to my childhood days, I find fish intertwined with almost all our traditions. . One of the traditions that I have observed during the centuries old Durga puja in our family is the offering of a piece of uncooked fish to the deity. Also, the feast on each of the five days of Durga Puja was never without a non-vegetarian item on the menu. But this was not a practice that I had come across in Bihar, the place where we were growing up. Non-vegetarian was a taboo during any religious festivities there. I could not understand the difference in traditions in different places until baba once answered it patiently. He told me how most of the rites and rituals of a community were a part of the lived experience of a place. He explained how rivers were the source of livelihood for most people residing in these deltaic plains, a means of trade and travel, and fish was their main source of sustenance. According to him, this offering of fish to the goddess was a way of paying tribute to the river which in many ways was the mother of the community living there. Those were probably my first lessons in organic living – a lifestyle that has been celebrated in our rituals but from which we are gradually moving away towards an increasingly plastic mode of existence.
I also remember Lakhhi puja and its association with ilish maach. The traditional dinner in our family on the day of Lakkhi puja used to be panta bhaat and ilish bhaja – fermented rice and hilsa fish fry, long before panta bhaat had attained a global fame via its presence in an international cookery show. I have always loved this combination both for its taste and simplicity. Now, with changing lifestyles and preferences, the fermented rice has been replaced by fresh rice but hilsa still manages to hold its place. Post-marriage, the change of address has led to the change in menu but fish has remained constant. My mother-in-law insists that a married woman must eat fish on the lakkhi puja evening as long as her husband is alive. This statement has never resonated with me but I do love the khichudi and maach bhaja combination that has replaced the panta bhaat and ilish of my maiden days. This also makes me think of fish and its association with the Bengali economy. Goddess Lakkhi, or Laxmi in other parts of India, is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. So, associating fish with her also points to the importance of the rivers in Bengal trade and commerce right from ancient times.
During weddings, both sides decorate a big and plump fish, generally a rohu or katla, with turmeric and vermillion and send them over to each other’s families. Some even make the fish wear a red sari. The marriage feast must have fish on the menu and often fish-shaped sweets are sent as a part of the wedding gifts from the bride or the groom’s side. So far, so good, but Bengalis stretch this connection even further. As a married woman, in most households, she is expected to like fish and consume it, irrespective of her food preferences. In some Bangal families, Thursdays are considered to be the day of goddess Lakkhi and the married woman must have fish that day. But the day she becomes a widow, this association comes to an abrupt halt. I look at this entire tradition of prescribing fish for married women and proscribing it for widows as one of the most insidious forms of patriarchal control.
This reminds me of a strong and independent woman I know, who, despite being a widow, did not shy away from the rites of welcoming her daughter-in-law home, a custom where widows are considered taboo. Yet, when it is the matter of food, she sticks to the age-old custom of a vegetarian diet only. When it comes to cooking fish, she makes extremely delicious items but never even tastes them for once. After my years of conversation with her, I have realised that her decision is only partly due to the social sanctions and partly due to misplaced anger or abhimaan at the apathy that her near ones had shown towards her well-being after the early loss of her husband. My thoughts go back to my late grandmother and her failing health. A diabetic patient on a widow’s diet, her body had eventually started missing the required proteins and that took a toll on her health. Finally, two terms of hospitalisation later, my mother had to feed her mashed pieces of fish to help her regain strength and that kept her with us for many years to come, before we eventually lost her to old age.
The fish tales in Bangal household will never cease because fish, here, is not just food – it is an entire lifestyle, it is a tradition. It is a mark of identity too – who in Bengal does not know of the ghoti – bangal rivalry of chingri-ilish! While the original inhabitants of West Bengal, referred to as ghoti colloquially, prefer chingri or prawns, the East Bengal people, or the Bangals, vouch for the supremacy of ilish. But has that ever stopped a foodie from appreciating the tastes of either of these two signature elements of Bengali cuisine?