Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A wave of nostalgia...

Who woulda thunk? No, really - who would have thought that I would be so awash with nostalgia in a - wait for it - fish market?

No, this is not your friendly neighborhood Unhygienix the Gaul speaking from exile... I had to visit India in order to deal with an urgent family medical crisis. In course of all that, I accompanied an aunt of mine to the local marketplace for the weekly procurement of groceries, rice, pulses, vegetables of varied descriptions, and of course, fish. After all, where would the Great Bengali be without the staple of their lives - fish?

In most such local marketplaces in my city, Calcutta, the fish market occupies its own niche in a secluded section. It is eminently understandable, of course. Though there are no physical boundaries between the 'Have fish' and 'No, thank you' sections, the moment you step into the piscine area, your nose is assailed by a variety of odors wafting towards you from the glistening piles of fish. To the less discerning 'fishless' shopper, it smells - well - fishy. To the discerning and sensitive epicurean gastronome, it is but a mixture of the salty tang of the sea, sweetness of the water of rivers and estuaries, gentle breeze blowing the East as the sun rises, and the blood and sweat of the simple fisherfolk who toil day in and day out regardless of the weather to bring us the gifts from the water gods. One has to enter that zone for the commencement of the daily ritual of fish procurement - the first step being haggling over the price.

No self-respecting Maachhwalaah (fishmonger) would ever dream of quoting you the correct price right at the first go. That sort of thing is just not done. Uh-huh. It is not - as they say - cricket. When asked about the price of a particular type of fish (sold by weight), they would start usually at one and a half times to twice the actual price. There is a fine balance at play here. The Maachhwalaah, being good a judge of human character, would never quote a price that is designed to irritate or disgust the prospective customer. The price is adjusted to just beyond the buying habit of the individual customer, so that the customer would find it worth his/her while to haggle over, eventually arriving at a compromise that would satisfy the customer's primal urge to get a deal and pay less than asking price, and leave a margin of profit for the seller as well.

Haggling at the local fish market is easily a performance art. One has to step back and enjoy the back-and-forth. It is not all dry business; the affair - lasting for several minutes - is invariably replete with pithy comments and clever repartees. One common theme is to ask the fishmonger how his multi-storied place of residence is coming along - the implication being that the money he gets from fleecing the customers is spent to fix him a palace. He may reply with a forlorn face, saying that he has only a single-story dwelling place. At this point, the neighboring fishmonger - perhaps a tad jealous that his neighbor is about to make a sale, or perhaps just enjoying the good-natured banter - would jump in and remind the customer to ask the previous fishmonger how many single-story houses he has had built and where. Such questions would be met with a cryptic, yet disarming smile, and the topic would be quickly changed to how to cut the fish - whether into large sizes or small, whether to de-scale or not.

While they speak nineteen to dozen, and easily handle a steady stream of customers with aplomb, their hands or the hands of their assistants are constantly moving about an extremely sharp instrument, termed a 'bnoti' ('bow' with a nasal twang, plus 'tea'), a curved scythe-like implement fixed on a flat piece of wood. The same bnoti is used for descaling and cutting the fish into pieces, and is constantly washed with a splash of water. A moment's carelessness can cost someone a finger or cause a gash, but that never happens. Through the banter, their concentration is unwavering. It is kind of mesmerizing to watch. My mind hearkened back to the flamboyance of the fish-handlers in the Pike Place market in Seattle, but would they stand a chance in this magical mêlée - not at this scale!

We got our fish and walked away, promising to return in a few days, looking for more varieties of fish that would be made into different delicacies. I was reminded, not without a twinge of sadness, of the sterile environment of our local Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi grocery stores in the East Coast, of the fish imported from Burma or Thailand, neatly cut into pieces and frozen in slabs of ice, and price-marked - completely devoid of life, of character, of that feel of having won a prize at the fish market through a battle of wits.

The price we pay...


  1. loveeeeeeeelyyy...write a book.. i'll be the first reader...

    never thought a simple haggle over fish could be portrayed so well..

    extremely well put together

  2. Who'd have'd get a wave of nostalgia at a haggling ground!
    Bargaining is *such* an essential part of life in India and other places. A friend of mine from Italy tells me that her mother dislikes U.S. supermarkets because she doesn't get the same satisfaction as she would, buying from a street vendor in her town after a respectable haggling.
    Very well written, Kaushik! Loved your picture portraits, and story telling style. The maachwala's multistoried home had me in splits!