The Fish Test: Why Does Every Bengali Have to Know Their Maach?
My friend asked me to go ‘fish shopping’ with him to put me to the fish test – which I am delighted to say I failed.
At one point during the 2012 movie Vicky Donor, Vicky’s Bengali girlfriend Ashima’s father turns to her in the middle of a bitter argument and shouts, “Yes, but can he pass the fish test?!”
The question is left hanging in the air like a particularly nasty stink bomb, until Ashima chooses to bypass the landmine and argue some more about her Punjabi love interest.
We are left to ruminate what Mr Roy meant when he extolled the virtues of the ‘fish test’. One can, however, safely assume he wanted the Punjabi boyfriend to be able to swallow a piece of telapiya without pinching his nose.
Years of living through “pin the nail on the Bengali” stereotypes have taught me that the other great fish test is whether you can recognise your eilish (or any other fish) in its raw, bloodied form.
I am both sad and delighted to say that I failed this test.
Early on a Sunday morning, I was woken up by an excited friend who wanted to visit the Ghazipur Fish Mandi, arguably one of the largest wholesale fish markets along the Delhi-UP border.
“You’re Bengali, aren’t you?” was all he offered by way of introduction. “Last I checked,” I grunted. And that was it.
Within minutes, I found myself whisked a little away from the city as I knew it, and standing at the entryway to what looked like labyrinths of slippery, silvery fish. Reassuring him of my ability to walk through said labyrinths without so much as a squinted nose, I promptly dodged a puddle of basa and walked in.
Very soon, my reputation was in shreds. My very excited friend had brought me along to put me to the fish test – one he was certain I would pass. I was expected to recognise the species of fish, the quality of said fish and bargain prices like any self-respecting Bengali would do.
Now, I had failed to inform very-excited-friend that I had visited a fish market in Calcutta only thrice while growing up. Moreover, these visits were with a father who knew far more about fish species, quality and prices than I could ever hope to know. He would have been the better choice, not me.
Nevertheless, with dogged determination and with a misguided sense of what-made-a-Bengali, I plodded on, anxious to make myself count.
“That is a tangra maach,” I lied glibly, pointing at a pit of lively black fish, as we passed it – and then quickly steered away my friend as the fish-wallah opened his mouth to correct me. “And that a rohu,” (which I knew was not a rohu, thanks to the raised eyebrows of the elderly Bengali gentleman who’d clearly come to the mandi as part of a weekly ritual).
The farce couldn’t last, however. After I had skirted several fishy questions with ahem-ahems and used more than one person’s share of “I don’t know… it looks like a so-and-so...”, I had been caught out.
“You don’t know much about fish, do you?” he asked.
“No,” I told him resignedly, letting the 7-kilo-kaatla I had cradled in my arm like a baby to look cool, drop with a resounding plop. “But we can buy prawns!”
A compromise was reached when we’d scooped up enough prawns to make a feast out of them, and some fish which we’d let the traders school us on, and left the mandi.
My heart was beating fast as I waited for the other shoe to drop. “My family doesn’t know I eat fish or meat,” the very-excited-now-subdued-friend told me slowly, as an offer of reconciliation. “Ah,” I assured him in contentment, “we can’t all be exactly the way our families and communities expect us to be!”
And I knew I meant it. So, until the next maandi visit or the inevitable conversation of how little I know of phish at the next friendly reunion, I am going to filter out the anxiety.
The what-makes-a-Bengali (or any other community) game is stupid and I’m not playing. I will, however, ask mum and dad to point out the right kind of tangra to me the next time we’re out shopping – but only because I can’t bear the anonymity of little black fish.
(We all love to express ourselves, but how often do we do it in our mother tongue? Here's your chance! This Independence Day, khul ke bol with BOL – Love your Bhasha. Sing, write, perform, spew poetry – whatever you like – in your mother tongue. Send us your BOL firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)
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