“Ghoti der ke toh amrai khaiye poriye manush korlam,” says my mother as she spreads across large luscious pieces of the mighty Hilsa for marination in turmeric and salt. In essence what she meant to say was that those who migrated from East Bengal after Bengal split into two in 1947, are the ones who educated the original residents of West Bengal (the Ghoti) to eat and drink right. As my mother’s face glows with pride over the supposed victory of teaching the Ghoti to eat like a true Bengali, she points to the Hilsa shining in all its glory and about to be submerged into a pan of mustard oil. For of course it is the Hilsa, the very pride of the Bengali culinary world, that the Bengal most fervently uphold as evidence of their contribution to the development of the Ghoti palette.
Much like my mother, several others who belong to the club of partition immigrants from East Bengal, consider the Hilsa much more than a fish that is to be consumed. It is a part of their cultural ethos that evokes nostalgia and pride over a home that was long lost by the stroke of a pencil that Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew to divide the once united Indian subcontinent into two nations based on religious demographics. This is not to say that the Ghoti, or their descendants, would under any circumstances agree with the Bangal assertion of superior food culture, particularly of their determined claim of consuming the best kind of Hilsa. The fish is an object of equal sentiment to them, who consume it with much relish and uphold it to the world as the finest among the finest of what the Bengali cuisine has to offer.
The majestic downpour of monsoons that take place in the middle of the year is a much welcome relief from the sultry, humid summers of Bengal. But for the Bengali epicurean, the monsoons are also a time to look forward to a large range of the best ilish maach (Hilsa) that come with the season. In the riverine landscape of Bengal, which includes both the East and the West, fish is of utmost importance. Not only is it the staple diet, a driver of the economy and that of pleasure, but the fish is also of customary significance with ceremonies related to marriage, birth, and death often having a ‘fishy’ touch to it. However, we can be certain that no other fish evokes the kind of emotion and pride that the Hilsa does.
“The mystique of the Hilsa can be understood only in the context of a larger Bengal that was split into two by the 1947 Partition of India-West Bengal (in India) and East Pakistan which later became the country of Bangladesh,” food historian Chitrita Banerjee writes about the Bengali obsession with the fish in her book.
The Hilsa and its split personality
If one were to get a bird’s eye view of an undivided Bengal, one would see a delta with a large number of rivers flowing across its plains. These numerous rivers, including the Ganga, the Padma and the Brahmaputra that ultimately flow into the salty waters of the Bay of Bengal provide Bengal with a climate and topography perfectly suitable for the unbelievably large variety of fish that forms part of the Bengali diet. Ask any person what he or she best associates with the Bengali personality, and one can be fairly certain of the response: ‘they love fish’.
Bengali’s love for fish, connected as it is to its riverine landscape, has been a common factor that links the two sides regardless of religion, caste or creed. However, when Sir Radcliffe drew the line of partition between the two Bengals, he also divided the rivers between the two sides. The Ganges was now a part of West Bengal, while the Padma and Meghna flowed through East Pakistan. Essentially a saltwater fish, the Hilsa is found in the Bay of Bengal, but it travels upwards through the various rivers and its tributaries during the spawning season. The nature of the migration is such that larger concentrations of the fish is found in the rivers on the side of Bangladesh. This is not to say that the Hilsa is not available in the rivers flowing through West Bengal. However, they are much lesser in number in the waters of the state which is more favourable to the breeding of Crustaceans. The division of the Hilsa between the waters of East and West Bengal eventually went on to become an object of cultural rivalry between the two sides.Bengali’s love for fish, connected as it is to its riverine landscape, has been a common factor that links the two sides regardless of religion, caste or creed. (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)
It is to be noted, that though the geographical boundary that separates the two Bengals is fairly modern in origin, the languages and manners of the people on either side have been different for centuries. “The languages and the ways of the people of the eastern side- people usually called Bangals by their detractors on the west, were for long an object of amused contempt in the western side of Bengal,” writes historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his article, ‘Remembered villages: Representation of Hindu-Bengali memoirs in the aftermath of the partition’. When the partition took place and a large number of Hindu Bengalis from the eastern side were forced to migrate to the west, the age-old differences between the two groups was suddenly heightened, with each making every effort to assert their superiority over the other. Food culture was one among many other aspects of rivalry between the two.
Whose Hilsa is it anyway?
“Renowned Bengali writer, Sunil Gangopadhyay had once remarked that the Ilish from river Padma is far tastier than the one from the Ganges,” says Prabal Banerjee. A third-generation East Bengal immigrant, he says that all his life he has been told by his predecessors that the Hilsa found in the Ganges is not even worth carrying its name. His enthusiasm in asserting East Bengal’s superiority when it comes to the Hilsa is shared by 78-year-old Dilip Kumar Chatterjee who believes that before the migration of the Bangal into West Bengal, the Ghoti barely knew anything about the large variety of fish specimens that today Bengal is so proud of. “Ghoti ra ilish maach er mohotto kono din bujhbe na (The Ghoti will never understand the true worth of the Hilsa),” he says smugly.
Commenting on the difference in the preparation of Hilsa among the two groups, Malabika Biswas says “the Ghoti add sugar to the fish they cook. A Bangal would rather die than doing so.” “Actually Bangladesh any day produces better fish than West Bengal, and that is not restricted to the Hilsa alone,” says Biswas. She explains that the reason behind Bangladesh producing better quality fish is because both freshwater and saltwater flows through its region, making it easier for a large variety of fish to breed there. Chatterjee on the other hand, explains the superiority of the Hilsa from East Bengal by connecting it with the British rule. “When the British ruled, majority of the industrial growth carried out by them was on the western part of Bengal. Hence, the Ganges has been polluted for a very long time. That kind of industrial development never happened in East Bengal, resulting in better quality fish there,” he says.
The Ghoti on the other hand, equally emotional about the Hilsa, can hardly agree with the Bangal assertion of rights over the Hilsa. “My mother makes a killer ilish bhapa; and I love it far more than any other fish. My parents, too, share my love for ilish,” says research scholar Anashya Ghosal. Rejecting the popular conception of Hilsa being more of a Bangal product, Ghoshal says that “it’s something that the newspapers and city hoteliers have constructed through memetics”.
Entrepreneur Srovonti Basu Bandopadhyay echoes Ghoshal in asserting a united love for the Hilsa among all Bengalis. “World has become a global platform nowadays so ilish is the favourite fish of all Bengalis regardless of whether she is Ghoti or Bangal,” she says. Food critic Jiya Chakraborty Prasad, however, prefers the Hilsa from Ganges over the one from Padma. “It’s mostly to do with the fish quality to be honest. The Padma Hilsa is fattier and chunkier. The Ganga one is sweeter and leaner. I have sampled both and from a foodie perspective I prefer the Ganga one,” she says. However, she too goes on to add that “it’s more of a cultural mix now! So I don’t think anything anymore sticks to d binaries regarding food at least.”
In the days following Partition, the Bangal and Ghoti both had a hard time coming to terms with the sudden changes. While loss of home was a cause of extreme pain for the Bangal, the change in demographics with the inflow of large number of migrants was reason for the Ghoti to be bothered. Eventually, though the differences and rivalries between the two groups have faded over 70 years and both come together to share equal enthusiasm in food, festival and sports. What remains today are jocular references to cultural superiority, such as whose ilish is it anyway.