Getting the fish is a task that cannot be trusted on the servants, so often it is the master of the house who goes about scanning the fish market soon after having his morning tea. Over tea, he quickly feeds his brain from the pages of Statesman, Telegraph, Ananda Bazaar Patrika or Bartaman. No self-respecting Bengali, after all, likes to be caught unawares about what's happening in the world (not just his city).
There are two kinds of Bengalis -- the British Bengali and the Bengali Bengali. The British Bengali speaks with an accent that makes you wish you should have been to Oxford. The Bengali Bengali is the one who speaks with an accent that is best illustrated by the following joke:
Britisher to Bengali: We fucked your motherland for 100 years!
Bengali: And uee weel phaak eur mathar taang phor ebhaar!
With both the varieties, you have to be 'mentally prepared' while entering into a conversation. For example, you should know which country won the football World Cup in 1986, or when was the petrol price hiked the last time. Anyway, the fish market is one place which levels the class difference between the British Bengali and the Bengali Bengali.
I could not have written all this if I was a Bengali bred in Calcutta. But I was brought up, in Uttar Pradesh, on the staple North Indian diet of daal-chaawal-roti-sabzi, with mutton or a river fish called rohu (rui in Bengali) occasionally thrown in. But marriage to a proper Calcutta girl has given me the ringside view of Bengali food habits.
What they consider a delicacy is a torture for me: stuff like prawn or varieties of fish such as the famous hilsa or pomfret or bhetki. "What do you mean you don't eat hilsa? Because of you I personally went to the market to get the fish," the husband of my wife's friend rebuked me. He was clearly more offended about a Bengali not eating hilsa rather than his effort going waste.
I have now got used to such rebukes after my recent trips to Calcutta. There is little I can do except watch others systematically devour the full Bengali meal: the rice first with vegetables, then with lentils and fried potatoes, then with fish and/or prawns, then with mutton or chicken. Finally comes the chutney, which is meant to be savoured individually rather than serve as an accompaniment, and then the dessert in the form of mishti doi or sweet curd. And even before the digestive juices could start working, the salivatory glands are already at work in the anticipiation of the next meal.
I love Bengali food -- minus the fish. What's risky for a highly fussy non-vegetarian like me is that bits of fish find their way even into the vegetables or lentils. A hardcore Bengali would like, for example, the daal to be cooked with the fish's head. My favourite is luchi and kosha maangsho -- pooris and mutton with thick gravy.
Before making my latest trip to Calcutta earlier this month, I happened to read a report about Satyajit Ray's death anniversary. A newspaper report said that the late director's family had invited select guests for the occasion and they were treated to luchi and kosha mangsho -- his favourite food. Secretly, I salivated for it. But alas, for the average Bengali, the combo is commonplace, and the focus is mainly on the varieties of fish when it comes to treating guests. Needless to say, I returned to Chennai after eating several meals of rice and daal and vegetables. It never occurred to any of my hosts to cook luchi and kosha maangsho.
Back in Chennai, I told my wife: "I really liked the luchi and kosha maangsho at your wedding."
"At my wedding?" she asked, smiling.
What to do! I keep forgetting I am a married man. I wish I could turn the clock back-- if not to my bachelor days, at least to the evening of our wedding, when the combo was on the menu and I barely had the time and energy to linger over the food.