Chaos and mayhem. Unknown to the western world, these words were coined expressly to describe the atmosphere that prevails in the Great Bengali Fish market. Should you, in the course of your lifetime, come across one that conducts its business in a quiet and organized manner, you may be sure that you haven’t come to the right place, and that whatever they sell you as fish may well be merely silver-coloured slabs of plastic.
To the average Bengali, the aroma that hangs in the air of the fish market is soul stirring, a force that drives him to greater things in life. For others, the opposite holds true. The odour is unbearable, the surroundings too filthy, and the sight of bloodied hands exchanging money sets the seal on an already uncomfortable fish-buying (fishing?) experience.
The fishmongers themselves, though, are nonchalant, and tackle their work quite merrily, thinking nothing of scooping out the insides of the fish with their bare hands. Ruhi, katla, hilsa, parshe, tangda, pabda and a host of other unpronouncables comprise only a part of this aquatic species. Each specimen falls under the careful scrutiny of the mongers, who then chop it into the fine pieces that will hold centre-stage at the buyer’s next meal.
The task of enticing the customers to the stalls falls to the fishmonger’s henchmen. They name all the species at their stall in breathless succession, thus holding the audience of prospective clients captive to their resonating voice.
Even though fish finds favour in all the coastal regions ofIndia, unfairly enough, only the Bengalis are ostracized for being voracious fish-eaters. As my father says, the first reaction of a new acquaintance on discovering his Bengali roots is “Bengalis eat too much fish!”
This misconception possibly arises from the Bengali attitude, which implies that a meal without fish fares little better than a snack. If a Bengali family sits down to a meal bereft of a lip-smacking fish curry made using dollops of mustard and mustard oil, one can only assume that they have fallen on evil days, and pray that prosperity returns to their abode.
But I can’t elaborate any more on that now. A succulent dish of hilsa-fish curry and rice awaits my nimble fingers and tingling taste buds.