Ilish, and the two Bengals
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Diplomacy is often related to gastronomy. Bangladesh's export ban on the hilsa shows how
Not many of us are quite familiar with the reality that diplomacy is often dependent on what gastronomic delights are on offer. Now take this small matter of fish, in this instance the sweet-water fish Bengalis on both sides of the political divide call ilish. To be sure, the term we use for it in English is hilsa. And every time you refer to ilish or hilsa before a Bengali these days, you are quite likely to hear a sigh well up from somewhere deep within. And when the sighing ends, he will inform you the fish these days is as good as extinct for people like him. There are a couple of reasons why. In the first place, hilsa catches have been getting increasingly depleted in such rivers of Bangladesh as the Padma, Meghna and Jamuna. Second, prices of the fish have gone up horrendously. And the gourmand here? He simply hits the ceiling.
Which takes us back to the question of diplomacy and gastronomy. Bengali importers of the hilsa, in Kolkata, were outraged when not long ago the other Bengalis, or their government to be precise, decreed that all exports of hilsa to India and to other places would come under an immediate ban. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan came in handy, for the Dhaka authorities were not quite willing to have the faithful, those engaged in fasting and prayer during the month, go without the taste of a fish the very scent of which, as it is being cooked, makes you drool. Ramadan is now over, but the taste and smell of hilsa remains in Bengali homes in Bangladesh. Over in West Bengal, even as Mamata Banerjee's politics keeps throwing up newer sparks every day, this right of all Bengalis to partake of the hilsa is being asserted. Flustered fish importers in West Bengal have made it known that they expect hilsa exports from Bangladesh to resume. They have also made it known that were the Bangladesh authorities to stick to such arbitrary behaviour by refusing to let the delectable hilsa place itself on dining tables all across West Bengal, the Kolkata fishwallahs would be compelled to send their own fish to Bangladesh.
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