Ilish,and the two Bengals

Diplomacy is often related to gastronomy. Bangladesh’s export ban on the hilsa shows how

Written by Syed Badrul Ahsan | Published: September 11, 2012 3:52 am

Diplomacy is often related to gastronomy. Bangladesh’s export ban on the hilsa shows how

Not many of us are quite familiar with the reality that diplomacy is often dependent on what gastronomic delights are on offer. Now take this small matter of fish,in this instance the sweet-water fish Bengalis on both sides of the political divide call ilish. To be sure,the term we use for it in English is hilsa. And every time you refer to ilish or hilsa before a Bengali these days,you are quite likely to hear a sigh well up from somewhere deep within. And when the sighing ends,he will inform you the fish these days is as good as extinct for people like him. There are a couple of reasons why. In the first place,hilsa catches have been getting increasingly depleted in such rivers of Bangladesh as the Padma,Meghna and Jamuna. Second,prices of the fish have gone up horrendously. And the gourmand here? He simply hits the ceiling.

Which takes us back to the question of diplomacy and gastronomy. Bengali importers of the hilsa,in Kolkata,were outraged when not long ago the other Bengalis,or their government to be precise,decreed that all exports of hilsa to India and to other places would come under an immediate ban. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan came in handy,for the Dhaka authorities were not quite willing to have the faithful,those engaged in fasting and prayer during the month,go without the taste of a fish the very scent of which,as it is being cooked,makes you drool. Ramadan is now over,but the taste and smell of hilsa remains in Bengali homes in Bangladesh. Over in West Bengal,even as Mamata Banerjee’s politics keeps throwing up newer sparks every day,this right of all Bengalis to partake of the hilsa is being asserted. Flustered fish importers in West Bengal have made it known that they expect hilsa exports from Bangladesh to resume. They have also made it known that were the Bangladesh authorities to stick to such arbitrary behaviour by refusing to let the delectable hilsa place itself on dining tables all across West Bengal,the Kolkata fishwallahs would be compelled to send their own fish to Bangladesh.

And there you have it,this whole edifice of Bengali cultural unity (despite all that horror attendant on Partition) about to come tumbling down on the issue of the ilish. Bengalis are a passionate people and nowhere is this truth more evident than in their deeprooted attraction to poetry and politics. Have two Bengalis sit across each other and chances are they will move straight to Tagore and Buddhadeva Bose or to Subhas Chandra Bose and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. That is just as well. But then,do not forget this third factor injecting passion into Bengali lives. Yes,it is the hilsa,the ilish,which has been part of Bengali heritage. Housewives make a cooking of the fish a veritable celebration. You will have Bengali women tell you of the flavour of a dish called shorshe ilish,hilsa cooked with a dash of mustard. It matters little whether you are in Dhaka or Kolkata,the ilish follows you. Or you make sure it does not go out of your sight.

Now,Bengalis in West Bengal,who generally consume anywhere between 60 and 70 metric tonnes of hilsa a day,would like the embargo to end,now that Ramadan is over. That is a thought which cheers fish exporters in Bangladesh,for they too have been feeling rather morose about economic losses. It stands to reason,for the figures say it all. Bangladesh exported as much as 5,376 tonnes of hilsa to India in 2011. Considering that total exports amounted to 8,500 metric tonnes (those extra tonnes went to Europe and beyond),the figures for India are but a small hint of the ways the ilish continues to tempt the Bengali in West Bengal. Yes,but that ban?

You sense diplomacy coming in here,assuming that the Bengalis of Bangladesh are really not willing to have their hilsa begin going back to West Bengal. But,sshh! Don’t ignore the Bengali,here in a remote village in Bangladesh,who might ask you a pretty uncomfortable question: how is it that he often finds it hard to come by his silver-coloured ilish or,when he does come across it,must pay through the nose to have it on the table? Then might come another query: how does the Bengali on the other side of the divide get to have the hilsa from the Padma or Meghna cheap even as prices hit the roof on this side,the eastern part of what once was a united Bengal?

As you mull the responses to those questions,feel the smell of frying hilsa wafting across the timeless Bengali village in the twilight of a Bhadra day. Delight is in the air.

The writer is executive editor,‘The Daily Star’,Dhaka

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