Monday, May 12, 2008

Thanks for all the fish

My mother was schooled at a convent run by Bengali nuns. From what she remembers, the nuns were a nice (if slightly batty) bunch of women with a particular aversion to make-up which in those days consisted of, uh…kajal. One of her most vivid memories is of the nuns telling off a serial-kajal-wearer with a vehement, “Chokher GOO bhore daao!!” [1]

This probably explains why my mother never really took to kajal, but not why she developed the inexplicable fascination for all things Bong[2]. She can read, write and speak the language fluently, has been to Kalighat about fifty-million times, and has assiduously, over a period of seven years, acquired a collection of Bengali sons-in-law that would put your average laal-paar-sari-clad-shashuri [3] to shame. Lately, she has even taken to wearing the shaka-pola [4] bangles despite being of, and married into 100% Bihari stock (It is apparently (culturally) fluid stock).

Fortunately for us, she kept this fascination largely to herself, except for one distressing episode involving a certain Mr. Pannalal Bhattacharya, who found his way into the Skepticus household in the form of five audio cassettes of
Shyama sangeet. The man had a good voice — I’ll give him that — but what my mother did not realise, was that her brood did not want to wake up to the sound of it every sunrise. You know that state when you’re just drifting out of sleep and halfway between dreaming and wakefulness? It was surreal enough on its own, but when you added to it a deep and mournful voice singing in a foreign language, the disorientation reached new heights. Come early morning and instead of the twittering of birds, we would wake up to Mr. Bhattacharya’s sad baritone filling the house and our ears.

As we sat around the breakfast table, groggy and barely sentient, she would translate the songs for us, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘captive audience’.

And then of course, Art School happened, where 80% of the population (student and teacher) was as Bengali as they come. Robi Thakur was the presiding deity — spoken of in tones of breathless reverence — and Calcutta (if you had grown up there, or Raisina School, if you were Bong but grew up in Delhi), was Byzantium.

So by the time I graduated, I had had it up to *here* with Bangaliyat, and made up my mind to stay away from anything even remotely related to the state for at least a decade. And I managed, to a certain extent, to be Bong-free until about a month ago, when the menu from Meals on Wheels was dropped into our postbox and Oh Calcutta! was on the list of restaurants they had tie-ups with.

Now I've always had a deep and passionate love for that fish-in-mustard-paste dish that Bongs make (yes, even through the height of my stay-away-from-the-state-phase). To the extent that despite being incredibly queasy about handling raw fish or meat (it looks alive okay?!), I tried to make it at home. Many, many times. But there are some dishes that should come with the ‘Do not attempt to replicate at home*’ warning and mustard fish is one of them. Why, you ask? I’ll tell you why. Because if you screw up the proportion of mustard-paste to fish, you’re going to feel like you’ve swallowed fire. I kid you not. And if you attempt to brush your teeth after THAT, people, there is pain. Real, honest-to-goodness *pain* (in your mouth, of course. The next morning might be a completely different story, but for then, the pain is in your mouth). And for those who have never had to deal with a palate and tongue that actually hurt, let me tell you, it is NOT fun...not fun at all.

So now that Oh Calcutta! delivers to my house, I am a joyous little hausfrau (except for the hausfrau bit). I wake up on Saturdays humming happy songs because I know what we’re having for dinner. I smile at my monitor at work** while I dream about the glorious, glorious fish in that heavenly curry. I might drink dishwater-coffee all day long, but my taste buds tingle in happy anticipation of dinner.

I don’t know about Robi Thakur***, but just for the Shorshaay Bata Maach[5], I’ll put up with any number of Bengalis you throw at me [6].

[1] Fill your eyes with poop, why don't you!? (Is the essence of it, I think.)

[2] THAT would be the Stockholm syndrome.

[3] Umm...Bengali mother-in-law who wears the traditional Bengali white sari with a red border.

[4] Red and white bangles worn by married Bengali women. Equal to a wedding ring.

[5] Which is what it is called in Bangla.

[6] Theoretically, that is. If you really threw Bengalis at me, I would probably go hide behind my mommy. Not that she's any good at catching either, but at least she handles them better than I do. Also, YOU should consider an alternate career as a bouncer. Or a Khali competitor.

*Unless you are (at least partially) Bengali.

**Yes, NEW Bawa company has a five-and-a-half-day work week. Yes, I appear to be going through a Bawa phase.

***Okay, I do, but that’s another post altogether.