When I came out about my deep dark secret, it was met with howls of disbelief. It is not possible. What does your mother say? How will you manage? How can you still be a good Bengali boy?
But it was true. I was a Bengali who disliked fish. It was a betrayal as sharp as the crooked bones of the devilish koi fish that hooks onto the roof of your mouth with vicious tenacity.
It was not quite a black-and-white binary. There were fish I liked, even loved — hilsa, prawns, tengra, small crispy fried mourala (but only when crispy fried), the bewhiskered magur in a summery stew, a roe-laden paarshey, freshly fried. But in general I dislike fish, am terribly picky about it, avoid it if I can and cannot stand the staple of Bengali lunches — rohu curry and its kith and kin with names like gurjali, charapona and tilapia.
An All India Fish Protection Committee has surfaced on social media to protect fish because after all Lord Vishnu had a matsya avatar.
And then I read that something called an All India Fish Protection Committee has surfaced on social media to protect fish because after all Lord Vishnu had a matsya avatar.
It looks like a joke and it certainly reads like one:
Matsya-avatar bhogobaner ekti roop.
Matsya bhakkhan ishwar bhakkhaner samatulya.
Amader matsya rokkha committeer sodoshyara shob jaygaay lokhho raakchhey. Matsya bhokkhon dekhley udom pituni hobey.
(Matsya or Fish avatar is another representation of God. Eating fish is like eating God. Our fish protection committee's members are keeping watch everywhere. As soon as they see fish-eating they will deliver a sound thrashing.)
Honestly, that sounds like a spoof of the ultra-zealous anti-Romeo squads and gau-raksha vigilantes that are so much in the news these days. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, we must not believe everything just because it's on the internet. Not even the most militant vegetarian crusader can be planning to ambush Bengali gentlemen with their famous grubby striped nylon (and thus easily washable) maachher tholi (fish shopping bag) in order to see if there is anything fishy inside.
I cannot imagine the fish crusaders setting foot in the smelly fish market where the floors are wet and covered with silvery scales and fish guts, and the huge bontis stained with the dripping blood of giant rohu and katla fish. Watch how scared CNN was when it accompanied acclaimed chef Gaggan Anand to a fish market in Kolkata.
"A fish could win the heart of a Bengali or could destroy your friendship with him," Anand tells CNN. The Fish Protection Committee should pay heed.
But for one moment, it's delicious to imagine the soldiers of our cultural purity flailing as they try to save not just cows but fish and all other avatars of Vishnu from abuse — tortoises and boars and dwarves.
Of course, fish in Bengal is the holiest of holies. It is worshipped, smeared with turmeric and sindoor, given to the newly-arrived bride to hold in her hand as a promise of prosperity. It is also eaten with gusto and relish — in kaalias, jhols, paturis, tawks, bhajas. Even its debris, its head and bones sneak their way into dals and veggies to terrorise the unsuspecting like myself.
This is a state where the chief minister conducts international diplomacy with neighbouring Bangladesh, not about sharing the waters of the Teesta but about hilsa or ilish fish. Sheikh Hasina did not make it to Mamata Banerjee's swearing in ceremony but she did gift 20 kilos of hilsa from the Padma as a gesture of the importance she gives to the relationship. When the two leaders met in Dhaka the conversation went like this according to NDTV.
Mamata Banerjee: We are not getting enough ilish in Kolkata from Bangladesh
Sheikh Hasina: The more water there is in the river, the more fish there will be.
It was a joke but in Bengal, when it comes to fish, you never know. This is a state where declining hilsa catch is a state level emergency and Mamata Banerjee has tried to shore up her support base with subsidised hilsa when the prices shot up to Rs 1200 a kilo. The Trinamool Congress counts among its achievements the fact that its scientists at Kakdwip's Institute of Aqua Culture have come up with a way to cultivate hilsa in tank water with induced salinity, a research that began in 2013.
This is a state where declining hilsa catch is a state level emergency and Mamata Banerjee has tried to shore up her support base with subsidised hilsa when the prices shot up to Rs 1200 a kilo.
The AITC news release says "Some apprehensions have been expressed if the unique taste of the fish will be retained as it travels through Pacific Ocean before coming to the shores of Bengal, scientists are hopeful that as the feed consists of 'phytoplankton', the taste will be intact."
Kolkata cannot boast too many firsts these days but it does plan to have the first fish hospital in the country to diagnose and treat ailments in fish bred in the state — a super specialty hospital for fish as it were.
Certainly the BJP, which wants to expand its footprint in Bengal, would do well to not fall for any anti-fish platform, whether it's a joke or not. It's already facing charges about ham-fisted "socio-cultural engineering" because it wants a Ram Navami rally with trishul and swords in Bengal, something that's never been popular in the Durga Puja-loving state. As Devdan Chaudhuri writes in The Wire, "The soul of Bengalis is related to ponds, river, ocean and fish. If something fishy happens here, there is no chance of the BJP advancing beyond its support base for a long time to come."
But whether it's a real organisation or just a red herring, I am thankful to the All India Fish Protection Committee because it made me realise that Bengali blood still flowed through my treacherous veins after all. It's easy to stand up for the right of something you love, but to fight for the right of something you dislike, slimy skin, beady eyes, fishy taste and all, that's the real test of tolerance in these intolerant times.
If only we could all understand that.
Also on HuffPost India