It is called the king of fish. It is silver in colour and tricks your tastebuds into believing you're having a slice of manna when you are finally done with the millions and millions of tiny bones. Bengal has sung paeans to it, right from Tagore to Didi. Bengal has now got Bangladesh to lift its ban on the export of Hilsa because of Durga Puja and Durga Puja is incomplete without Hilsa. Much like any other festival in Bengal. But Hilsa, the flesh-and-bone dream wrapped in silver, never really worked for me. Primarily because of the hype.
Now, I grew up in a middle-class Bengali household where Hilsa, or Ilish, as Bengal calls its priciest fish, was a rare delicacy. Like all things rare, it was a delicacy precisely because it was rare. Bengali women and men don't much care for stocks or investments as much as they care for their Sunday lunch. And monsoon marks the arrival of the plumpest of Hilsas, with eggs in their sacks, and makes the average Bengali swoon first over the price and then over the taste.
The price of the Hilsa has always been a clear case of demand and supply, and the overratedness, of course. (Photo: Reuters)
Like every Bengali household, my growing-up years were marked by this lesson of sorts: you need to respect Ilish. Something that has now become part of the folklore in my family is how I, one-year-old, told the paediatrician that I loved "Ilish maach, chingri maach, mangsho (Hilsa, prawns, meat)" when he asked me my favourite food. The doctor stared saucer-eyed for a while, then left me, went to my parents and told them how they were 'criminals' for turning a one-year-old (very fat) kid into this glutton of sorts. So what did my parents do? They changed the doctor, of course. Because no one interferes with food in Bengal. In a state like ours, very few things are held sacrosanct; and Ilish sits right on top of that list.
All through the later years, I never quite understood the hype around this fish. Yes, it tasted good. But have you seen the sheer amount of tiny little bones that this fish comes with? As cousins and their parents waxed eloquent about the Ilish on lazy Sunday lunches at family get-togethers, I would inevitably wait for the prawns, or whatever other, less treacherous fish the menu included.
The first bite into the Ilish is always scrutinised. The host couple would have their eyes fixed on you as you navigated the tunnels of prickly fine bones, then reach the main bone, till you finally picked out the flesh. Fish: 20 per cent, bone: 80 per cent is your average Hilsa. When you put that first mound of Ilish into your mouth, you are expected to close your eyes and let out a sigh of ecstasy. The hosts would not have it any other way. You are judged if you don't like Ilish. You can never really blurt out, 'No, I don't like it!' You want to be a social pariah? Sure, go ahead and condemn the Ilish.
Bengal has sung paeans to Ilish, right from Tagore to Didi. (Photo: Getty Images)
One of the main reasons behind this extreme reaction is the price. Money always decides what is tasty. So even if an Aar or Katla might taste far better than Ilish, it would have to accept defeat in front of the Rs 1500/kg Ilish. You simply cannot fight Ilish. Monsoon also coincides with Jamai Shashti in (my part of) Bengal, a strange festival where sons-in-law are treated like they have single-handedly rescued the world from an asteroid. The most expensive of fishes are bought, the most difficult of dishes are cooked and all of those are placed on a platter in front of this 'jamai', the miracle of a son-in-law. The menu simply, has to, include Ilish. Because Ilish in Bengal is not a mere fish. It is a symbol of social status too. No one wants to call upon themselves the curse of the Ilish. So the father-in-law sets out for the fish market on the day before Jamai Shashti, his nylon bag in hand, and lands up in front of the many, many fish stalls. Then begins the haggling. During an average Jamai Shashti season, the price of Hilsa might peak at Rs 2,500 a kilo. The father-in-law and the fish-seller eventually reach a consensus, and the ritual of buying the Ilish is complete.
The price of the Hilsa has always been a clear case of demand and supply, and the overratedness, of course. Ask any Bengali about their love for Ilish and wham, you have an entire stanza of silvery goodness. Some might even compose a song and tell you why Ilish is an inseparable part of the Bengali ethos. But they will not tell you about the time when a fishbone got stuck in their epiglottis and gallons of water could not wash it away. A ball of dry rice usually came to the rescue, taking that tricky little fishbone along with it. And once you've been through that amount of gagging, your eyes sticking out, the air knocked out of you, the fishbone not moving, tell me, can you love Ilish the King of Fish?