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     Volume 11 |Issue 30| July 27, 2012 |


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Plebeian fish curry and the taste of steamed rice!

Aly Zaker

Just got the news from back home that water has penetrated deep within the rice fields and inundated all plain land.

This is not uncommon. Ours is an area of low land. And monsoon means we'd be water bound. This persists for seven months of the year. Each house during this time becomes an island. One has to travel from house to house by boats that become the only mode of transport. Since our childhood, whenever we went to our village in this season, we simply loved to paddle boats all day long, often forgetting food and other chores and ignoring our parents' possible reprimand. Recently, of course, a number of narrow clay roads have been built so people can move from one place to the other on land without having to travel by boats within the village. This, far from solving the problem, has added to the misery. Firstly, most roads go under water in monsoon impeding movement either on foot or by boats and, if not, they hinder the flow of water causing unwanted flood. Secondly, these roads also eat up considerable amount of cultivable land in this country, already groaning under the misery of over population and food shortages. Beseides, these marshy blocks of land caught between criss-crossing roads become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other unwanted insects in the dry season.

Photo: Star File

I read, the other day, in a column in one of the local dailies that in northern Bangladesh the inundation caused by incessant rain brings flash flood. So, the area was hit by something uncharacteristic, and the people, men and women, came out of their homes to catch the fish that came in to the plains with the flood water. The reporter titled it "Rupali Pu(n)ti, ei borshaye" or something similar. 'Pu(n)ti' is a small "plebeian" fish that really provides protein subsistence to our poor village dwellers as opposed to the Patrician fishes meant for more prosperous platters. More importantly, since they have to make do with this in the absence of other more potent and expensive forms of protein, these fish come as blessings. This report created a kind of empathy in me. I travelled back in time to my childhood and adolescence. I went back to the advent of monsoon when the overflowing river flooded both banks and all kinds of fish entered the submerged land in profusion. Men, women and children went out in the torrential rain to catch fish. I was reminded of an uncle of mine who used to catch huge fish with his bare hands when monsoon came. It was like a festival that greeted the coming of monsoon. But over the years, because of the population explosion, the numbers of fish in the rivers have become scarce. And big fish are netted before they can enter small rivers by businessmen involved in the fishing business. The poor people of the villages are quite happy with the small fish that come with the monsoon deluge. The journalist who wrote the report imagined how happy the people were after the day's catch. They must have carried those silvery fries home to cook curries and steamed rice to relish the maiden bounty of the monsoon.

This narrative on monsoon and the curry of the fresh fish took me back by years. Closing my eyes I could still see men, women and children crowding the flooded fields catching fish in profusion. Their joy still touched my urbane heart so full of pang for what is not! I mull over the life that I left behind, a life so simple yet so pleasurable. I am instantly transported back in time. How happy we were with such simple things in life. Come to think of it, even today, curried small fish and a plateful of rice is all that makes the majority of our people happy. I sit in my car stuck in traffic on the roads of Dhaka and think that just about twenty miles from this town there are places where such simple things of life still bring divine pleasure to our people. Why are we then so agitated about our worldly desires? Why should we then be so remorseful that we are not producing eight or twelve thousand mega watt of electricity? Why should the nation dance to the tune of the unfulfilled desires of a few city dwellers? Some of my friends say that I am overtly sensitive and emotional. Of course I am. I grieve for the days when such things as social inequity bothered us. Those were the days when egalitarianism was a virtue and cut-throat competition a vice. I dare say, despite partaking in all urban comforts, I feel we are perhaps overdoing it.

Just look at the sky-line of the modern Dhaka. It resembles any affluent city anywhere in the world. To keep this affluence going we need elevators, air-conditioners and all other modern amenities that eat up the meagre amount of electricity that this poor country is able to produce. The values have gone lop-sided. Even a decade or two ago there was a semblance of normalcy in this society. That has since been decimated. Now it is a world of free for all. I shudder. It's just that I have lived most of my life and would not be called upon to join the party to address this state of utter chaos.

I give up thinking. For the present I turn my mind away from the labyrinth of this quasi-modern city life to where the silvery fish are and am delighted to see faces light up with bliss on their success with the day's haul.


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