Thursday, August 5, 2010


I hate interrupting the travel diaries but what to do…? I’m not a happy man these days. Dinners aren’t the usual peaceful affairs they used to be in the Banerji household. We eat quietly and quickly and many things are left unsaid. A war of simmering silence is being fought every day at the dinner table and strewn around our plates lie the fish bones of contention.

The Bengali kitchen is an incomplete kitchen without the sweet aroma of well cooked ‘maach’. Fish is to Bengali cuisine what cheese is to the French… from bhapa (steamed) to bhaja (fried) and jhol (curry) to jhal (I’m a little fuzzy about that one but the literal meaning suggests a spicy hot flavour), the culinary arts of Bengal come into their own when fish is on the menu. And the presiding deity of Bengali fishdom is the Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) – or Ilish, if you care for the bong expression – a medium sized fish with silvery pink sheen.

Hilsa, more specifically Hilsa cooked in mustard sauce, is as much a symbol of Bengal as are Tagore and the tiger. There are odes written of lovers smitten, not by Cupid’s darts, but by the whiff of Hilsa well done. As a child I remember reading about the exploits of Gopal, the wise and witty jester at the court of King Krishnachandra, Bengal’s answer to Birbal. One of his most famous tasks was the challenge of buying a couple of hilsas and then walking all the way from the market to the king’s court without anybody speaking a word about the fish to Gopal or anybody else within ear-shot. That Gopal managed the feat is a different story but the fact that the whole court thought it an impossible task would give you an idea how childishly obsessive we Bongs can get about matters as diverse as fish and football (which reminds me, did anybody keep up the Bengali tradition of jumping off a building every time Brazil or Argentina got dumped at this year’s world cup?). Basically, Ilish maach is just ‘too maach important’ for the Bengali psyche.

Now back to the diplomatic snag at the dinner table. Now that you know where the Hilsa stands on the Bengali culinary pyramid, you also ought to know that July and August are the prime months for the Hilsa season. These intrepid fish live out most of their lives in the sea but around the monsoon, when it is time to spawn, they swim against the tide and go back to the river where their parents had given birth to them, to lay their eggs. And here in the delta where the rivers of Bengal meet the bay, it is said, swim the most flavourable Hilsas. So where’s the problem, you ask. Well here it is: I may be a bong but I’m also a vegetarian. Not a strictly very strict vegetarian, for I have been known, in exchange for a promise from the family to one day stop eating meat, bite into a morsel of lovingly prepared fish, on the odd, and might I add, extremely rare, occasion for the greater good (for didn’t George Orwell say in one of his books that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, or something like that?). So it’s been a running campaign at the dinner table where I’ve always gently tried to herd my family towards a vegetarian lifestyle.

But last night, I blew my top for not only was the family having fish but actually digging into a fair helping of roe (fish eggs). I’ve heard from my North Indian friends that they abstain from consuming fish during the breeding season because of ethical and ecological reasons but I guess we coastal folk just can’t get enough of fish in every season. And thus we’ve emptied our oceans and our rivers off all the fish. Fish numbers all over the world have declined at an alarmingly rapid pace. Dietary and the fishing industry mainstays like the blue-fin tuna and the sturgeon (caviar) are now highly endangered and closer home, fish like the Hilsa have grown progressively rarer and smaller over the last decade.

Once the pride of West Bengal, the Hilsa has all but disappeared from the state’s rivers. Of the tonnes of hilsa consumed per year, 80% come from Bangladesh, a country which has done a far better job of conserving Hilsa numbers than has the state government of Bengal, and the remaining 20% come from Gujarat. But even in these two regions, numbers are dwindling by the year.

And do you know why the Hilsa in West Bengal is practically extinct locally? Well it’s a fatal attraction. We have loved it to death. There are three prime reasons! One, it is illegal to capture juvenile Hilsas and fishing nets have to be necessarily designed with gaps big enough to let the khoka (juvenile) ilish escape. But since full grown Hilsas are rather expensive, there’s a big demand for khoka hilsas and fishermen, in violation of the law, capture these juveniles for our gluttonous consumption. And the government is apparently “too busy to carry out checks”.

Secondly, the Bengali habit of eating fish during the breeding season, roe and all, really damages the chances of recovery for a variety of fish populations. (And might I add, the dinner table debate has been unanimously resolved in the Banerji household with a resolution in favour of not consuming roe or fish during the prime breeding season. A decision that’ll hold all of us, fish, activist and hilsa connoisseur, in good stead in the future.)

Thirdly, the damming of rivers and pollution has severely compromised a river’s ability to offer habitat and protection for many of India’s spawning fish.

There are many matters beyond our control, but as consumers all over India and especially us Bengalis, it is important that we demand and consume fish like the Hilsa and others responsibly and sparingly, otherwise we risk losing forever the fish that inspires such passion and poetry.



  1. 我真心在追求我的夢想時,每一天都是繽紛的。因為我知道每一個小時都是實現理想 的一部份。............................................................

  2. Hi ! I really loved the way you have put a serious concern in such a bengali way...Good one indeed :)