Sunday, March 20, 2005
Morning. Not early morning, not the time when the body creeps reluctantly towards the day, not light-breaking crow-waking tree-shaping dawn. But the time when tea is brewed and road-side flower-vendors importune walkers, when conservancy trucks clear their throats hesitantly and judder forth, when the lights strung above the fish-market begin to pale in the sun.
Buying fish. The essence of the morning round for the good Bangali householder. If one image, one metaphor were to sum up grihasti for the Bong, it is this. Little bag in hand - usually plastic yarn, distinctly mildewed and with an odour that leaves no doubt as to the usual contents – most likely dressed in flapping crumpled wide-legged pyjamas and a shirt, rubber “Hawaii” sandals flip-flopping, the man of the household shuffles between lines of vendors perched on the long platform, peering suspiciously at the beady-eyed glistening wares and occasionally asking the price in a tone of deepest disgust.
Stone chips crunch underfoot as I approach the market. There’s a new “mall” coming up here now, to replace the sprawling muddy chaotic bazaar that I grew up with. My grandfather’s house is on the next road up, and over the years the bazaar has spilt its banks every morning until it laps at our front door and little trickles now run even farther up-shore.
I remember the huge black Brahmi bull that used to stand in the vat at the corner of the road, blinking as flies buzzed around his nose, occasionally putting his head down to sample some exceptionally choice piece plantain leaf. After the bazaar had packed up for the day, he would lurch down our road through the mess of leaves and peel, snorting at anything that crossed his path and pausing only to scratch his hump against the occasional parked vehicle. Mr. Gupta across the road eventually stopped replacing the wing-mirrors on his Maruti.
Now, as I enter the little alleyway into the fish-market, there’s the thump-pause-swing-thump of a man breaking ice in a plastic tub. Little flakes of fishy ice fly onto the clothes of shoppers who remain either unaware or oblivious. I sidle past, determined to shower at the first opportunity.
A chorus of blandishments rises from the fishmongers, excited by the sight of the first lot of customers. Mostly wasted on me, because I can’t even identify most of the more common kinds of fish. I am relegated to third-class citizen status the moment I ask about the difference between paarshey and bacha. I haven’t figured it out in 30-odd years, so I wonder why I even bother to try now.
Some of the vendors, of course, welcome my ignorance. The fatted calf, they must be thinking as I approach. My shorts and tee are not the attire of the serious fish-fiend. And I hesitate to actually touch the wares … eewww, to prod and part flesh that looks quite so mucoid round the gills. As a middle-aged man beside me leans over to prod the flanks of a vast scaly thing, I am reminded of W.C. Fields’ reason for refusing to drink water – “Fish fuck in it!”
I begin to think he had a point there.