Anadromous. They swim up the river from the sea to spawn. The ganoids, endowed with scales adamantine in brilliance, and at once possessing a rich complement of omega-3 fatty acids that the neighbourhood daktaar babu prescribes as the tastiest preventive to cardiac ailments, they make the trans-border Bangal – as distinct from the cis-border Ghoti who elects to swear instead by the chingri, and which the just-mentioned epicure dismisses with ill-concealed disdain as lowly, foetal, aquatic insects at best – drool at the mouth. The passion has however, over time, especially since the Partition, due to the consequent vastly-increased intermingling, proved infectious: the Ghoti, if grudgingly at first, has since developed a partiality too that now borders on the salivating. Acquired taste, the erstwhile East Pakistani does not lose an opportunity to remind. Tenualosa Ilisha. Says the pedantic pisciculturist. Hilsa to the Anglicized. Ilish, insists the true-blue Bangalee.
Lore has it that ilish tastes the best during the monsoon when it swims up the Hooghly, Rupnarayan and Padma – it has been accorded the status of the national fish of Bangladesh -- to lay eggs. The more discerning aver that the flavour is bestest – one strays from the puritanically grammatical to lay accent on the quality -- around Kolaghat when they are the most gravid, to borrow once again from piscine vocabulary. Full of roe, in plain English. Dim bhora ilish, is how the incurable Bangalee smacks his lips in greedy anticipation. Around August and September. In bhora borsha.
Small wonder then that the hilsa festival – ilish utsab would have been more appropriate in the circumstances, one feels – is held extensively across the breadth of the city at this time of the year. The utsab, unfortunately, is on a much muted scale for the average Bengalee this year: the price of a kilo has shot up to an extortionate Rs 1,500. Usurious, he seethes with impotent rage. “The rainfall has been scanty”, offers the fishmonger apologetically. The gleam in the bhadralok’s eyes fades as he looks wistfully at the fulgent flaked fish – alliteration incidental -- and wills himself with a resolve that can aptly be attributed as steely, to veer away with palpable reluctance to the humble Rui. Ma used to prepare infinite varieties, he reminisces: bhaja, bhapa, tel jhal, kalo jire diye jhol, shorshey ilish, Ilish er khichuri, lau ilish, phoolkopi-potol diye jhol, ilisher paturi, ilisher matha diye chanchra, matha diye ambol, ... the list goes on. He rounds off with a nostalgic but distinctly tactless “Ah, ki shwaad hoto Mayer hatey!” The modern, tech-savvy but not-so-kitchen-savvy ginni – the missus -- promptly treats him to a look that could well nigh result in fatality. He withers.
To steer back from the momentary discordant spousal digression, DI, in its eminently laudable exercise of upholding the tradition, held the festival on Sunday afternoon, the 18th of August. And so it was that members, predominantly Bengalees, gravitated to the commodious Indoors. In hordes. One hundred and eighty four, provided steward Pratap, looking up from the register. The platter, not as exhaustive as the delicacies enumerated above, -- could not possibly be, that would call for a festival lasting a week -- was a lavish spread nonetheless: hilsa tele bhaja, chanchra with hilsa head, hilsa jhol with begun and kalo jire, hilsa bhapa, to quote from the notice circulated by the Secretary, Michael Rao. These were complemented with mishti ghol, basmati rice, bhaja moong dal, pineapple chutney, papad and rajbhog. Aware that such a scrumptious feast necessarily calls for a stout digestive, the fare concluded with paan. Thoughtful of the caterers, one noted with a sonorous burp of appreciation.
Ayojan had been doing aayojan, preparation, since early morning, their Manager, Tapan Dey, informed, as he showed the undersigned around. From procuring the fish from Jadubabur Bazaar, the price there is a trifle lower but sky-high nevertheless, one concluded as he motioned towards the firmament, to scaling the fish, to slicing them into gada-peti, – the sizes were not big enough for separate gadas and petis, the ventral and dorsal parts, – careful not to waste the tel in which to fry the fish. The culinary expertise, in the deft hands of Tinku Giri and his team, showed. Just shy of ambrosial. And DItes accorded ample justice to their diligence and craft by delving into the plates with unfeigned pleasure. Finger food, not here the dainty implements of tableware, the knife, the spoon and the fork. The final, clearly audible licking of the fingers echoed their supreme satiation. Of the patrons, not the digits.
The adda – in the unlikely chance that the word sounds double Scotch to the reader, ceilidh is the closest, though still distant, approximation -- that preceded at the Main Bar ushered in the right atmosphere. It whipped up the right appetite. Article 370, the Trumpian bid for Greenland, the unbridled global warming, the aquaplaning skills of the citizenry in negotiating the waterlogged streets of the metropolis, India’s Caribbean outing, the latest films to hit the screens and the latest creations of Sabyasachi Mukherjee were discussed and debated with animation and at considerable length. Gossip, though, was too whispery to eavesdrop. All this, aided in good measure by the complimentary beer. Yours truly guzzled three; I reasoned with teetotaller Aditi that it would not be prudent to waste her coupon on a soft drink when she would be getting the ghol in a short while. She concurred – this in an aside, for a change! The third coupon, Minu di was supremely kind to offer; she did not want a drink, soft or otherwise, she declared.
And the collective supplication of the nearly two hundred members must have wafted up past the dense strata of cumulonimbus and reached the tympanic membranes – eardrums, in case you, dear DIte, are not the professional referred to in the first paragraph -- of the weather gods; they obliged. The incessant precipitation of the earlier two days, -- predicted correctly for once by the met gurus – with its attendant misery that is inevitably the hapless Calcuttan’s lot, eased to just an overcast, the right ambience for savouring this delectable member of the herring family,
In fine, all of the above was possible because of the efforts of Debra Saldanha and Michael Rao, who never once tired of supervising the entire initiative. From overseeing the cooking, to shepherding the laggards from the bar to the dining table, to superintending the catering. We raise our complimentary steins of ale in toast to this silent, efficient, ever-smiling, backstage duo. The first cheer for Debra, the second for Michael. And a lusty third for the manna from the rivers.
[Photographs by Shubham Poddar]