On August 8, we could finally manage to bring home the first Ilish of the season. By Bengali standards, this is a poor performance since the official start of monsoon is from June 15.
Ilish has been special in our house and more so, after Baba passed away. Every house has some unspoken rituals which act as a building block of changing the house to a home. Rituals like, who will make the morning tea, what biscuit comes along, how the salad is cut, who will lay the table and the list is endless. This particular ritual started in our home, post my marriage. Since Madhushree loves the fish and can do a proper justification of this queen, Baba started this ritual for her. Our dining table is a lot emptier now compared to the beginning of this ritual. Baba has passed away almost 4 years now and Ma, due to her ailment, does not have a meal at the table.
How time changes conversations, Ilish a rarity
It was 1634 gms of Ilish and Madhushree and I went berserk. How to satiate ourselves yet make the best use of Ilish. Few are mandatory like the bhaja, and Ilish er tel. The dispute started on the main dish and though Ilisher pani khola was close, finally Doi Ilish won. Tugga loves his fish yet he isn’t that much familiar with the fish and the bones. Above all, we tried to practice mindful eating for him, as a respect towards Ilish and also for a sense of caution in the wind. Tugga couldn’t clear some of the bones and we told him – This is a rare precious fish, so we shouldn’t waste it all. It struck me then, as a kid I was never told that Ilish is rare or I may not get it tomorrow. Ilish, as a kid meant, happy memories of Sunday lunches, relishing the monsoon and waiting for the next week if Baba will bring a better quality.
Where did it all change?
It was hard for Tugga to understand and accept that the fish on his plate could be extinct in the future. His knowledge of extinction is in Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was always on the cards. Ilish is an anadromous fish (ones which are born in fresh water, spends most of the times in sea and comes back to fresh water to spawn), which moves upstream into rivers for spawning and breeding. With time, for various reasons, the situation has worsened for them. Siltation of estuary mouth has caused hindrance to migration of the fishes. Barrages and dams built for various reasons have not only reduced the waterflow for spawning and migration but also an obstruction in the migration. The other main reason has been juvenille fishing where past numbers show that even 1 percent of the juvenilles or khoka Ilish can be saved, then it will result to increase of Ilish production by 4000 tonnes per year. In fact there are several other reasons also.
Why am I not promoting any Ilish festival this year?
I will like to take this opportunity to share why am I not promoting any Ilish festival in any restaurant this year. The Ilish festivals are a black hole of the demand supply ratio of Ilish. The logic is simple. This year the supply has been very bad. Even in Siliguri ,when I checked with a very popular pice hotel, they also shared the same thoughts. An elementary recap of Law of supply and demand means the price goes up when demand never meets supply. I am sure if Baba was alive, I would have asked for a sum more than 1000 from Baba. In simple words, the price of a good quality Tenualosa Ilisha has gone beyond reach.
No restaurateur will feed you out of their own pocket
While the 5 stars can offer the fish at a premium price which in turn allows them to buy the best quality fish (size wise), the smaller outlets cannot. We get emotional about Ilish when it’s monsoon, along with “on your face publicity across everywhere possible” makes the desire to have Ilish reach its peak. This has a domino effect and the mid/small level sized restaurants get lured in carrying out Ilish festival. In a free market, that shouldn’t be a question, as all restaurants are businesses at the end of the day. The APC of these restaurants does not allow them to sell the fish at a rate which will allow them to buy the right sized fish. Resultant action is to buy khoka Ilish, which in turn increases the juvenille catching.
For the last few years, I have written about Ilish festival across Kolkata. In 2017, there was an Ilish adda at Taj Bengal Kolkata with Kalyan Ray (link) . Last year, our recipe of Doi Ilish was included in the Ilish festival of Taj (Link)and even in ITC Sonar, four Rajbaris of Kolkata shared the Ilish stories which are worth remembering (Link) Let me tell you, this is the past.
What can we do to save this beauty
I will like to share few of the ideas which has been shared by a recent report of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of nature) (link) which is an exhaustive study of migration, spawning patterns and conservation of Ilish. Out of these, there are a few which can definitely be implemented at an individual level also.
- As we were sharing with Tugga, any wastage of Ilish is cardinal now. In this recently concluded food festival at Chilekotha, it was ensured that we followed a head to tail policy
- It’s easy to preach to buy the correct size but what happens to the desires of those who cannot afford the same? Can we think of a community eating and sharing of a larger fish between two families? Don’t forget to walk the talk and don’t buy a smaller Ilish (less than 1 kg is a strict no no)
- Please refrain from all promotions in social media on any festivals of Ilish, be it an authentic one or a fusion one. Lesser the consumption, lesser the demand. When the demand is less, the fishermen won’t be compelled to catch the fish which otherwise would have been allowed to breed freely.
- Traditionally, Ilish was not consumed between October (Ashwin) and February (phagun). Lokkhi pujo was the last offering and Saraswati Pujo was the offering for the beginning.This is the peak time of spawning and if we stop eating during this time, a lot can change. A lot of responsibility lies with the restaurateurs also, where they have to refrain from selling the fish during this time. Taking a step ahead, Ilish fishing should be banned completely. While in Bangladesh this ban is from March to April as well as possession of Juvenille Ilish from Nov to June, it’s not the same in India.
Ilish conservation – Easier said than done
There are many layers involved in this entire chain. There is the fisherman, an aratdar (someone who stocks and sells Ilish), a paikar (small scale wholesaler who can sell to resellers and can retail himself) and finally a retailer, before we, the Ilish lovers get the fish. Add on to that, the other ancillary industries involved in this. A lot of livelihood is at stake here, if any drastic step is taken. In West Bengal, 70 percent of the revenue of fishing comes from Ilish alone. It’s a question, whether we want to reduce the revenue now for a sustainable future or we see the dead end in 5 years? There are many steps which can be implemented at the micro level involving the stake holders in the entire Ilish management but that’s for some other time.
Adios Amigos for this year. I hope and pray you will be there when Tugga will teach his children how to eat Ilish without any threat of extinction.
- Thanks Tanusree for providing me an insight into this entire issue
- Thanks Auroni for writing this. (Link) . Auroni is one of those extremely talented chefs in Kolkata today and he creates some magic at The Salt House
- Thanks Pritha Sen for not letting a chance go to remind me that it’s not too late. I remember the golden words by scholar, author and environmentalist Amitava Ghosh on climate change – The least and the best we can do is start speaking about it.