by Pragnya Dasgupta
“Maach… Katla maach, rui maach, parshe…”(Fish… Katla fish…rohu…mullets)
“Nokul, ei Nokul… edike shon” (listen here)…
“Darao boudi, Mukherjee der peti ta diyei ashi” (Wait till I deliver the belly pieces of the fish to the Mukherjee.)
Now, if you have wondered that the negotiations were in the fish market of Jagu Bazar, or the roadside of Behala, or at best, in the narrow crossway of Bhawanipur, you are dreadfully mistaken.
It was miles away from the fish markets of Bengal, in a city far from the land of rivers, where monsoon brings flood, but not Hilsa.
Sheela, the wife of a government officer, has simmered the half-cooked gourd that she is cooking for her widowed mother-in-law and is waiting on the balcony for Nokul’s reappearance.
As she leans down again from her balcony, she catches sight of the school buses and men in their formals departing for the day.
“Monu has grown so fast!”
She whispers to the leaves of Aparajita that have turned yellow.
“Look! What I have got from the market today!”
Nokul shouted when Sheela was almost making her way back to the kitchen. He was back after delivering a handful of orders to the neighbours. Apart from them, a few Bengali families also resided in the vicinity, settled before one or more generations, who still haven’t outdated ‘machh-bhat’ from their staple course.
“Parshe?(Mullets)” her eyes sparkled.
“Look at its size!… and that too in this breeding season… they say it comes straight from the fish market of your country!” Nokul laughed.
By this time, Sheela has walked down the stairs, and now standing close to Nokul’s cart, she peeks inside the baskets.
Her eyes glittered like the shiny skin of the mullet.
“But is it not your country too!” Sheela smirked and picked up one of the fish.
“Boro shohor e ami ar kobe gelam! amader okhane lokera khal bil er maach khay”
(When have I been to any big city? In our villages, they mostly eat freshwater fish.)
Sheela recalls one of their early conversations.
“During those years when my father worked in the farmlands, the last two years were insufferable. There was no sign of harvest, and so the landowners had refused to pay…my father went all into debt. We had saved our lives running away from the money lenders.”
And then the story moved along the miles of roads, crossed in unslept nights, traveling on foot, in the unreserved bogies, managing infuriated ticket collectors, to reach their closest relative, his aunt’s house in Bonga(a place in Bengal).
But the account of how Nokul’s family had settled in a foreign state remains unrevealed.
Though he was a kid, Nokul recalls the days in Bonga when he accompanied his uncle and brothers fishing. “Their house was surrounded by ponds… all filled with fishes throughout the years. Soal, magur, lyata, morola…koi” and he would go on…
One would easily doubt his recollection, but Sheela would go on listening.
She possibly got inside the house for a while to check on her mother-in-law, Lata Devi. Although Lata is fit, she seeks close company from the other woman in the house.
Packing up the undelivered items and clearing the chopping tool( Boti), he finishes his thirty years past story by saying, “One day we had to return, but not to those farms again… the money lenders would kill us. When we were back, my father was lucky to get shelter in a house here. The owner was a kind merchant, and my father was appointed to run errands for him.”
“Anyway, there is no way of going back!” Sheela resumes. She had a little repentance left. Unlike her husband’s family, who have been old settlers in this city, Sheela grew up in Kolkata. It’s hard to tell when Sheela got any chance to meet with Samar before their marriage or fall in love.
With an eager but unassertive look, Nokul asks, “Shall I weigh some for you?”
“O, dear! It’s the Ekadashi! I can’t bring fish in the house.”
“What day is it? Saturday? no…Sunday…no not Sunday…Monu will be at home. She can hardly tolerate the smell of cooking fish.”
Sheela sighs and says, “give it to Das… they have recently shifted here, and her wife was searching for a fish market.”
Nokul was still not ready to give up on her. “But you would hardly get such quality… so fresh… and that too at this time of the year… best season for Parshe.”
“I know, I know… but see, I can’t cook only for myself!”
And that was another crisis in Sheela’s life, one of the many unthinkable difficulties she had ever counted before the marriage.
“A good cultural Bengali family just like us.” Her father had assured her.
Yet Mr. Ghosh, Sheela’s father, had failed to foresee many differences.
Thus Sheela, who lives with her widowed mother-in-law, who tirelessly sticks to all the customs of her fate, and her husband and children who are too reluctant about the fish business, had to exclude the item that was once a compulsory part of her meal.
They sneer at the aquatic bodies if it is cooked in the house by any luck. Sheela smiles and recollects the day with her family in Kolkata when they showed the same disgust for their neighbour’s food, displacers of Chottogram, who had offered them shutki (dry fish).
Nokul was familiar with her excuses. Yet he takes some time, out from his busy hours, to stand and talk and persuade Sheela to a bargain.
They had met each other on the first day of his work. He was passing by this locality, calling out in the local language but with an unconfident tone. Sheela knew the accent very well as she could easily make the difference when people from Bengal spoke in the local language. Down from her balcony, she instantly called him out, and he stopped for his first trade.
“O bhai, kono chhoto machh enechho?” (Hey! Have you got any small fish?) Sheela confidently spoke to him in Bengali.
He had brought only a few pieces of Ruhi.
“Tumi khele kal niye ashbo” (If you eat, I will get them tomorrow), Nokul had said.
Nokul had addressed her as if they were well acquainted.
After a primary exchange about their basha (country), Sheela said,
“but I will be on fast, you see.” Lata had recently advised fasting on the sixth day (shoshti) in the Hindu calendar for her children’s fortune.
The next day she was again curious to know what was in his basket.
“The Mukherjee family only eat Rui or Katla… don’t have any taste for anything else”. By this time, Nokul had found some regular customers in this area.
During these visits, they conversed about what gets cooked in their houses.
“Rice, dal, bhindi fry, paneer, and payesh for my mother-in-law.”
Sheela wondered if she had ever discussed it with anyone except her mother.
“Going back, I will cook khichuri and fry the fish left in this basket.”
“Why don’t you get married, Nokul?”
He would keep silent for a while and then wink his eyes and say, “Bou jodi ar machh na kene, tokhon!” (What if my wife stops buying fish!)
Both parties got equally embarrassed by this remark.
Seldom Nokul returns with a business deal. When Sheela’s mother, sister, or relatives from Kolkata visit them, the untouched food gets cooked in the house.
“Maa asbe?” (Will your mother be visiting?)
Nokul would visit their quarter more often, enthusiastically.
He would cut the best piece of Katla or get some fresh Telapia, catfish, or any other small fish she loved. It is hard to say if the efforts were to welcome the guest or captivate its dweller.
“One day, I will take you to my home and fry the Katla belly in mustard oil.” He would giggle every time he uttered it.
And for Sheela, it is a moment of rejuvenation.
“NokuI, I have to get back to cooking now…will you be coming tomorrow? Is there any tyangra in the market?”
The fish seller was never confident in making any exchange with the mullet fish. Yet he has made a good amount of investment. But now, as he leaves the quarter’s compound, a sudden fear swept over him.
“I shouldn’t have taken the risk of buying the mullets… how stupid of me!”
Though it was about his time to return, he had not sold any of it. He carried his cart across lanes, calling out in a weak and hesitant tone.
At the end of the lane, he saw his friend Jaydev, who was on his way home.
“Jaydev… will you take some of the mullets I got from the Bari Mandi? I won’t be able to sell them all.”
“Are you crazy! You hardly make any profit, and now you have bought such an expensive stock! I can’t sell door to door now. I have to rush home to take my wife to the doctor.”
Jaydev has his stall in the local market area.
It almost took the day for the fish seller to sell off half of the lot. If it were ten years back, he would have returned to his home without a thought. He had never cared to earn a living. Nokul started the business only after his father’s death. He was always very reluctant to work hard as it shouldn’t have been in their families, which was alarming for his parents. In spite of attending school, he couldn’t make up for any fixed job. Thus when his father died, his mother had to force him to go out for a living. But now they all thank the almighty for that.
The fish seller’s throat went as dry as the season. His lips shivered, and his voice went numb. He was scared to look into the basket. He constantly cursed himself for getting the mullets. He was determined to have a plan by the evening – “if needed, I will sell them to another dealer or return them to the wholesaler at a lesser price.”
But for now, it was impossible to make any trade. His hands went numb, cutting and clearing the scales in the cold water. Somehow he carried his tall, skinny body to the vicinity of his house.
“No cooking done for lunch yet!” he thought as he felt the cramps in his stomach.
The fish seller lived alone in a portion of the same merchant’s land, occupying some space under an abandoned stairway. His parents, who had worried about his future throughout their lives, died a few years back, leaving him uncertain. He had no other family or acquaintances of that sort who would find an accompaniment for the rest of his life.
Anticipating the uncertainty of their shelter, granted without paperwork, the fish seller’s father, in his time, had built a bamboo-fenced boundary wall surrounding their unplastered room to avoid other trespassers. Unlike his father, Nokul was devoid of practical senses, so he only managed to put up an almost permanent mosquito net to form his private space inside the room.
But it is all quite different now; even he is getting old; and faster.
Yet the place remained dim and damp, especially during the rains and winters.
As he took a few pieces of mullet out of the basket, cleaned, and cut them, he promised again, “no more being such a fool!”. Last month he had managed a stove on which he now put a pot filled with rice and little dal.
He pulled out a neat pajama and a cardigan from the wooden almirah, the one gifted during his mother’s wedding – the most expensive household. With all the weariness on his face, he smiled, looking at the cardigan.
It was one of his early days when Nokul was making his way home, and Sheela called him.
“I have packed some old clothes – please take them.”
Without giving it a thought, Nokul acted in accordance.
“Don’t you have any common sense?” his mother went mad at him, “she thinks you to be garbage or what!” Most of the clothes were either too small or completely worn out.
He didn’t respond.
After a few days, he saw his mother knitting something. “Look, I have found a few yarn balls from the almirah. I am mending an old piece.” And so she repaired it to a colourful cardigan that already had initials stitched on the collar, “S.G.”
Hearing the train’s whistle, Nokul woke up hurriedly. His eyes were still heavy with last night’s dream. He found it too dark, and half-asleep, he mistook it for the night. He was about to get ready to make some arrangements for the unsold fish, but suddenly he caught the smell. It was hard to bear it inside that small space. All the ice chunks melted, and the fish looked like they were never alive. It was neither possible to sell them nor return them anymore. A night had passed.
While all the dealers and sellers had finished their business for the day, our fish seller kept looking at his mullets, having no clue how he had slept for so long.
“How careless of me!”He kept muttering, not for the loss he made with the mullets but for not getting the tyangra.
About the Author:
Pragnya Dasgupta lives in Kolkata, West Bengal, and an amateur story discoverer who likes to uncover old stories and old faces.