In 2015, while clearing the house before a brief relocation to Mumbai, I found a bunch of papers held together by a clip. Written in my mother’s neat hand, these were recipes she had collected over the years. Two years since her passing, most of her papers were still in the drawer where she would keep them. Among the entries was a jotting that seemed a little out of place. It wasn’t a recipe, rather a curious combination of a memoir and dictionary entry. As the monsoon clouds tantalise Delhi, my mind goes back to this note on hilsa’s links with the rains.
The fish wasn’t one my mother had grown up with. She was born and raised in Delhi — a category of Bengalis rather condescendingly described by people native to West Bengal as probashis. My mother’s parents hailed from West Bengal. Most of her relatives were known to mock the post-Partition migrants from the eastern part of the state — which went to Pakistan after Partition — as Bangals. The Bangals responded with their own term of derision for the people of the land they migrated to — Ghoti. My probashi mother would, however, get a taste of this rivalry only in the 1970s, when she married a Bangal out of love.
The one-upmanship between the two communities manifested in the two favourite preoccupations of Bengalis: food and football. Those from West Bengal were known to love the hilsa but thought that their neighbours from the east almost fetishised the fish. The family that my mother married into had broken ranks with their East Bengali community over sport when one of their sons turned out for the rival club, Mohun Bagan.
Food was a different matter. The kitchen would often become the theatre for grandma’s nostalgia. She was barely into her 20s when grandpa moved his family to Lucknow. The monsoon, my father would recall, would kindle his mother’s craving for her Barisal home. When the first droplets of rain came down, grandma would invoke the phrase: ilshe guri (literally translated to droplets of hilsa), which my mother noted in her recipe collection. Grandma, father would say, would look forward to the local fishmonger who came laden with the fish from the river Padma. But most times, she had to do with the leaner Ganga hilsa.
Well into her old age, the pitter-patter of rain made grandma head to the nearest fish market. She had become less fastidious about the Padma hilsa which were becoming rare in the Indian market. Grandma would be careful to avoid the fish with the roe. They don’t taste all that good, she would say.
Back home, magic would happen when the hot mustard oil infused into the sweet-salty fish. Grandma would splash a spoonful of mustard paste on the flat grinding stone — the shil — throw in a few green chillies, drops of water, and attack the mixture with a pestle, the nora. Ilshe guri, my father would say, is also a mélange of flavours. Before the main dish was served, my parents would vie with each other — like children, grandma would often say in admonition — to lavish their plate of rice with the mustard oil left after cooking the fish.
Occasionally, grandma would give in to my urge for fish roe. She would mix the eggs in a batter of gram flour, green chillies and salt and fry till they were light brown. But the pakodas were scarcely enough, my parents beating me and my sister to the lion’s share.
As the rain comes down, I promise to treat myself to hilsa soon. There would be no contests, though, over the hilsa oil, or the pakodas, that my mother notes on the ilshe guri.