Alone, restless and bored, I was tripping over myself in our tiny hostel room. No TV no phone, no Internet (yes I have been around since those days! Okay fine, TV was around but we couldn’t afford one then) when there was a knock on the door.
“Look what I got!” My brand new husband said huskily with barely suppressed excitement. His eyes sparkled like the diamond I secretly yearned for.
Eyes misting over in anticipation, I cooed, “What?”
“This!” He held up a bulging black polythene bag.
My brow furrowed. Then not…
“And what’s that?”
I shrugged. “No idea.” I wrinkled my nose. “But whatever it is, smells!”
“Yes! Don’t you just love the smell? Ah! The sweet smell of fish.” He inhaled wearing a blissful expression.
“Fish?” I fell back. “Why? So much?” I had sudden misgivings. “Do you eat it raw? Well even if you do I am not eating it!” I made my position clear.
“No silly. We are going to have fried fish for dinner. The entire gang is coming. It’s been ages since we had fish.”
“They agreed to fry it in the hostel kitchen?” I asked, hoping against hope.
“No! Where’s the fun in that? We will fry it here.”
“Here? Where?” I asked beginning to wring my hands.
“On that heater – don’t worry. It’s easy as pie.”
“But I don’t know how to cook pie either.” I wailed. “I don’t know how to cook. You know that. I have never cooked anything in my entire life!” I was all but drumming my heels on the floor.
“Relax! There is always a first time. And I have fried fish a thousand times. Nothing to it. Just wash, sprinkle some turmeric and salt and deep fry in oil. Voila!” he drooled.
I took deep calming breaths. That didn’t sound too difficult. But the entire gang was coming. “That’s all there is for dinner?”
“Of course not. We will get the rice and other stuff from the hostel mess. The fried fish will infuse fresh zing and spice into our dreary ‘vegetative’ lives.” He zoned off into a blissful trance.
So much love for the fish! May as well have married it, I thought sourly. I was not the average Bengali. I did not love fish. I could take it or leave it – mostly leave it.
He roused himself. “I better kick start this. The others will be here soon. We have a meeting…”
“You have a meeting?” Panic clutched me again.
“Yeah, we have a meeting to discuss the arrangements for upcoming Saraswati Puja.”
“But what about the fish?” Sweat beaded my brow.
“Relax. I am on the job. See, I already put the kadhai (a deep frying pan) on the heater and here I,” he tilted the bottle of mustard oil and poured it into the vessel. “There!” he turned to me with a self-congratulatory expression. “All that needs to be done is wash the fish and sprinkle it with a bit of this and that,” he worked swiftly and efficiently. “Everything is ready. In a bit, you can slip the fish into the oil, give it a turn or two and take it out on,” he drew out a plate and placed it beside the heater, “this.”
There was a knock on the door and a head popped in and withdrew just as suddenly. “Hey! Aren’t you coming? We are getting late.”
I looked at him with wide pleading eyes. “Please don’t go! How will I manage? I have never done this stuff before.” I looked with trepidation at the overloaded makeshift kitchen slab.
He held me by the arms. “You are over-reacting. There’s nothing to it. Really. Okay, think of it as a new experiment. Don’t you love experiments?
“There you go! Cooking is nothing but an experiment with ingredients and tools. And frying fish is as simple as taking the height and weight.”
“Of little squirming wailing babies.” I said feeling the noose tightening.
There was another yell at the door.
“Okay fine.” He gave in gracefully (ahh those were the days!). “Relax. I will come back and fry the fish.” He went off.
After he left, I wandered back to the ‘kitchen’. He was right. It did look simple. I had seen Ma fry fish so often. There was nothing to it. I was over-reacting. Maybe it was time to overcome my childish inhibitions and prejudices. How difficult could it be? I pictured my darling hubby’s face when he returned to find it all wrapped up – pieces of evenly fried fish neatly laid out on a plate, just waiting to be crunched into.
The others of the gang would be hungry too – the right time to impress them. Wearing a halo, smiling benevolently at the dinner guests, I girdled my waist and entered the battlefield.
I gingerly picked up a piece of fish and plopped it in.
“Ouch!” I squealed and jumped back as the fish reared up to bite me on the cheek. Relax! That’s not the fish you idiot it’s the hot oil. I berated myself. Rubbing my cheek, I peeped cautiously over the kadhai. It lay sputtering in the oil, reasonably calm and apparently resigned to its fate. I took a deep breath and cautiously slid in another piece using the long handled flat ladle from as far as possible. Yes! Excited I slid in another. Okay enough now. Let these fry.
I hummed a bit, changed the radio channel, a couple of minutes should be enough – mom used to dish up hot crisp fish fries in no time. I decided to turn the pieces over. Hadn’t he said a turn or two?
The fish seemed to have formed an everlasting relationship with the kadhai. It dug its claws, gills or whatever into the kadhai and refused to let go. I pushed and dug harder and harder but to no avail. At the best and toughest attempts they yielded the battle – in little pieces. I upped my efforts – a crumbly misshapen congealed mass reluctantly turned over and almost instantly reattached itself with equal if not greater tenacity.
It was a bitterly cold January morning and yet here I was sweating. Despair stole over me as I fought and struggled to detach the fish. They remained unyielding in their determination to avenge the relentless slaughter of their clan by overenthusiastic Bengali pescetarians.
Why me? I don’t even like fish! I have always been force fed fish! I pleaded as I waged a lone and losing battle. A huge pile of raw fish glaring balefully at me and on the other side, a pitiful messy mass of crumbling shapeless fishy bits mocked me.
How could I serve this? They would all laugh at me and point me out at gatherings – look there goes the one and only Bong bride who can’t even fry fish.
I looked at the clock -two whole hours. Where the hell was he dammit? I would murder him I swore as I wrestled another fish and came up with its mangled remains.
“Hi! What’s cooking?” He smiled at me, all bright and fresh.
“YOU!” I bawled all over his shirt.
“Hey, hey. It’s okay. Relax. Put your feet up. I got this. You have never done this stuff that’s why…” he faltered as his eye fell on the broken remains of his dreams. He spied the untouched mound and made a miraculous recovery from a near death situation, “….you couldn’t manage it. I am a master in the art of frying fish.” He rolled up his sleeve and took my shovel and set to work.
I went to the other room for a quiet cry by myself.
And wait for the storm.
It wasn’t long in coming.
Curses, bangs and yelps tore into my sobs.
“What’s up?” a soft voice penetrated my consciousness.
“Shukla!” Never had two people been so glad to see her.
“What?” she looked from me to him.
“The fish won’t fry. Perhaps it’s rotten. Yes. Must have gone bad. I’ll throw it.”
“Hang on. Doesn’t seem rotten. Smells just fine.”
Shukla took in the situation and the kitchen at a glance. “Did you heat the oil properly?”
I shook my head.
Shukla tucked her sari pallu into her waist and kicked us both out. Within 20 minutes or so, she had placed a plate lined with neat rows of golden crisp shapely fish fry on the table. At the other corner of the table lay a forlorn messy mound of unknown antecedents.
Just in time for the gang arrived hungry and greedy for fish. They fell on to it like piranhas and didn’t even notice the difference. Or even if they did, they were kind enough not to mention it.
I refused to eat fish – I was stuffed to the gills.
Written for the Daily Post’s Discover Challenge – Mind the Gap (The distance between idea and execution can be a source of frustration — or of inspiration).
In this case, it was both – with a gap of almost 3 decades :D How about sharing your gap?
Thanks for reading🙂