The sight of the hilsa nets being drawn was something else. The dark net shimmering with silver-coloured fish struggling for their last breath. This was the only occasion when one could see the much-favoured delicacy alive, only for a few seconds, for the creature was delicate in every sense of the term. It survived outside water very briefly indeed,” historian Tapan Raychaudhuri writes in his memoir, The World in Our Time. This was the late 1930s. Raychaudhuri writes that one could get eight to 16 hilsas for Re 1 at his home district of Barisal (in Bangladesh today).
Barisal is today a much more prominent port of call for the hilsa. Commercially, that is. From February to October, life in the fish markets in the city on the Kirtankhola river in south central Bangladesh centres around the silver fish. Trawlers de-board their catch at the city’s auction centres around mid-morning, the honchos inspect the fish, often casting an admiring look at the streak of pink running across it, and auctioneering reaches fever pitch around afternoon, drowned at times by the bellowing of streamers or the honking of trucks.
The fish makes its way to different parts of Bangladesh, and, in a good season, much of it is exported to India. But good seasons are becoming rare, and the fish is many times dearer than what Raychaudhuri recorded eight decades ago. A kg of Bangladesh hilsa costs between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,500 in markets in India — at times even more.
For the Bengalis, the hilsa is much more than gastronomy. It is about identity, history and nostalgia. It is said that for a Bengali, the litmus test is to take a mouthful of hilsa and sort out the bones without showing any sign of discomfort — no mean feat given that the fish teems with bones. It is also loved in neighbouring Orissa. An early 20th century district gazetteer of Balasore notes: “ The fishermen are particularly keen in their pursuit of the hilsa, and a flotilla of sea-going craft will sometime drift along together for days, awaiting the approach of a shoal of that fish. When the shoal arrives, they at once fill their boats, steer straight for the shore and convert their haul into sukhuu or sun-dried fragments of fish — a favourite relish with the Oriya.”
The fish has inspired art, literature, even cinema. Hiranya Kumar Sanyal, the 19th century cultural activist, asked Bengali artists to look at rural Bengal for inspiration, and made special reference to the hilsa. Bengali auteurs have been more than equal to that calling. Kuber, the protagonist of Manik Bandopadhyay’s novel, Padma Nadir Majhi, loves the smell of the hilsa so much that it “rejuvenates him after a hard night’s labour”. In one flight of fancy, Kuber imagines fish markets in Kolkata — then Calcutta: “The wagons, with their huge store of fish, will reach Calcutta in time. In the morning and the evening, the urban men of Calcutta will return home after buying hilsa from markets. The smell of the fried hilsa of Padma will hover in the air of Calcutta.”
The novel — later made into a film by Gautam Ghose — pays homage to the hilsa fisherman. Kuber comes home in the wee hours under a delicately-clouded sky, with the light from a solitary lantern illuminating the niche in the boat where lay the hilsa he had caught with much effort.
Little wonder, then, that the hilsa is beyond cultural and religious impediments. “In its cooking, the fish breaks religious barriers. Bengali Muslims, who shudder at the thought of eating flesh that has blood, throw all such compunction to the wind when it comes to the hilsa,” says food writer Chitrita Banerji. Bengali Hindus, who would make sure to wash blood off all other fish will wash the hilsa only once even though a lot of blood oozes out when the fish is cut into pieces. The blood is said to make the fish tastier.
The writer, Buddhadeb Bose, notes of feasts in his home in pre-Partition Bengal, “The feast started with bitter gourd and crispy small fish with pulses, then appeared jet black koi (a cat fish),” he writes. “But on some other days, the meal began and ended with the hilsa”.
The fish’s versatility is the stuff of culinary lore. Banerji writes that her mother would fashion an entire meal around the hilsa. “We started with a few pieces of fried fish and the roe.
Then, plain rice was enlivened by pouring over it the oil in which these had been fried — the bare teaspoon of mustard oil in the pan usually increasing to half a cup with the rendered fat from the fish. The head came next, fried, broken up into pieces, and combined with the leaves and stems of a green called pui. The bulk of the fish was divided into two portions, one cooked with a ground mustard paste, its pungency merging into that of the mustard oil, the other (bonier portions of the back) made either into a jhal [a spicy curry] with hot red chilli paste, or an ambal [a tangy broth] with tamarind pulp,” she writes in her book, Life and Food in Bengal.
After Partition, nostalgia became intertwined with gastronomy. For people who came to West Bengal after giving up their homes in what had become part of a different country, the hilsa reminded them of the meals they had with their extended families. It made them recall friends they had left behind and brought memories of the monsoon rains in their former homes: they recalled the persistent monsoon drizzle — ilish guri — or the hilsa droplets. A meal of hot rice, dal, ghee and freshly caught hilsa evoked nostalgia of the first downpour of the monsoon when all creatures stirred back to life after a long and exacting summer. Endless debates ensued on which was the better hilsa: from the Ganga or the Padma.
The association with the monsoons was not just about nostalgia. Bengalis strapped gastronomy to ecology, which meant that hilsa was not eaten between late October/early November and February. Traditionally, the last hilsa of the season would be consumed after a pair would be offered to the goddess on Lakshmi Puja day. This abstention, timed to sync with the juveniles’ journey to the sea from the river, allowed the fish the chance to grow and then procreate. Both Hindus and Muslims adhered to this abstention.
Today, however, the hilsa is available almost through the year. It is gourmet fare. The fish that was once about meals with the family or bonhomie with friends is now a high-end commodity. Many upmarket restaurants — and increasingly, even the smaller ones — sell hilsa delicacies round the year. Bengali food festivals in restaurants throughout the country are incomplete without the hilsa. Inventive chefs have crafted their versions of the baked and smoked hilsa. Some even do a boneless version, while others have added the hilsa salad to their oeuvre: without the bones, and with smoky mustard oil, the hilsa makes a delectable salad ingredient. All this, of course, is sacrilege to the litmus of Bengali identity.
This means that the hilsa is becoming increasingly scarcer and dearer. At wholesale markets in Barisal, the fish sells at an equivalent of Indian Rs 250 to Rs 300; by the time it reaches India, its price goes up three to six times.
There are other reasons for the fish getting scarcer. Much of it has to do with human disregard for ecology. In scientific parlance, the hilsa is an anadromous fish. It lives most of its life in the sea, but goes to the rivers to spawn. It loves deep waters — the fish would once move from the Bay of Bengal and swim against the tide to the Padma or the Meghna in the east, or navigate the silt-laden rivers of the Hooghly-Bhagirathi river system in the west, swimming upstream from the Hooghly in Bengal to the Ganga in Bihar and UP. There were two migratory seasons — the peak upstream one began in late June and continued till early November; the other occurred between late January and March end/early April. The hilsa was known to be at its tastiest at this stage: the stay in the river waters would have given it sweetness and reduced its otherwise salty taste.
But all this was before the Farakka barrage was commissioned in 1975. The barrage intercepted the hilsa’s journey. Today, the fish finds it hard to move beyond Diamond Harbour in West Bengal.
The hilsa has found it difficult in rivers in neighbouring Bangladesh as well. The once mighty Padma and Meghna rivers are shadows of their former selves. Their water supply got drastically curtailed after the Farakka came up and pollution has played havoc with the quality of the rivers’ water.
Many hilsa fishermen from India and Bangladesh have taken to the sea or the estuaries. They catch the hilsa even before it begins its migratory journey. But the ocean near Bangladesh is full of dubo chars (submerged islands of sand), making matters difficult for the fish, which prefers unhindered movement. In any case, without the sweetness it acquires during its stay in the river water, the hilsa caught at the sea is not what will sate the traditional Bengali taste bud.
But, increasingly, many are satisfied with whatever they get. That includes hilsa from the Narmada and Godavari, somewhat inferior taste-wise and smaller in size, but less expensive. Fish researchers believe that the hilsa’s taste does not derive just from its stay in sweet and salty water. Individual rivers impart their flavour to the fish as well. Each river’s phytoplankton that the fish feeds on is different. It is this association with distinct flavours from rivers that makes hilsa connoisseurs sneer at the silver-coloured fish from the Narmada, Godavari or the Irrawady.
Francis Day, a colonial researcher on the hilsa, writing in the early days of river engineering, noted, “The Indian rivers spanned by weirs, destitute of fish passes, are causing injury to the hilsa.” Day, however, did not anticipate any threat to the hilsa, unless “man in his greed impedes or entirely arrests their ascent by means of fixed engines and weirs, and so annihilates their supply.” More than a century later, his words ring true. Dams and weirs on the Narmada have made things difficult for the fish in that river as well.
Bangladesh has, however, managed to set some things right. It has banned hilsa fishing in different stretches in between November and June, and has created five sanctuaries for the fish. The ban coincides with the period when the juveniles return to the sea. The government compensated fishermen who would lose their income due to the ban. The upshot of that has been a rise in hilsa population, while the fish catch in the Hooghly-Bhagirathi system is today a fourth of what it was at the turn of the century.
Hilsa researchers in Bangladesh believe that the fish could fare much better if India and Myanmar also impose bans. The hilsa is not very popular in Myanmar, but the catch from the Irrawady river is exported to India.
Bangladesh has also tried to impose export restrictions; there were outright export bans in some years. India’s eastern neighbour has linked the curbs on hilsa trade with the water it has lost once the Farakka barrage came up. “Give us water and let the hilsa live” has been a familiar bargaining catchphrase of the Bangladeshi government.
But the restrictions come up against demands for the silver-scaled fish. Fishing vessels often have to reckon with jal dashyus. These river pirates are known to seize the catch, abduct the crew and take the boatmen to Sunderbans, where they are kept till the owner of the vessel pays a ransom. The brigands are, however, known to have principles — a boat owner is given a certificate after paying a ransom. Usually on a betel leaf, the certificate is meant to ensure that the vessel is free from the ravages of jal dashyus for a year. A lot of the impounded fish finds it way to markets in India, through illicit channels.
In recent times, with the hilsa stock increasing in its rivers, Bangladesh has, somewhat, relented. When Mamata Banerjee returned to power a few months ago, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina greeted the West Bengal chief minister with 20 kg of hilsa from the Padma river. Hilsa lovers in India hope that the gesture is not merely symbolic — that Bangladesh will relax its export curbs.
Its success in raising hilsa stocks notwithstanding, Bangladesh remains beset with the problem of illegal fishing. There are frequent media reports of trawlers bearing juveniles, fishing during the off-season. A few months ago, fishery officials seized more than 3,000 kg of the juveniles in Barisal. These fish sell for anything between Bangladeshi Rs 150 and Rs 300. Called jatka or, at times, fry, they are a far cry from the pink-streaked silver scaled fish, whose netting delighted Raychaudhuri. The jatkas are culinary artefacts of an age of trawlers, fine nets and off-season eating. Whether they evoke memories of monsoon or not is anybody’s guess.