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Madhushree Ghosh | Longreads | April 2019 | 18 minutes (4,605 words)
It’s been over a decade since the parents left. I still don’t say they died, because they didn’t. Not to me. All my American friends whose parents are still alive console me, “It’ll get easier, Madhu,” — shortening my name with the casual authority most non-Indians have — “it’ll get easier with time.”
I have been waiting for that ease for years now.
When I moved to America a quarter of a century ago, what hit me wasn’t what I saw but what was absent on the streets, in neighborhoods, near the ocean, in movie theaters, in parks. The absence of older people. Everywhere, there were only young families, young singles, children, and animals. Lots of well-dressed puppies and even more tottering, unbalanced children. The older generation was hidden in assisted living behind decrepit malls, in high-rises facing lakes for exorbitant rental prices, or in Florida around golf courses.
I used to tell Baba when I’d call home every other weekend for 15 minutes at $2.05 per minute on an MCI calling card, “It’s as if they are afraid of seeing old people, Baba. Like that reminds Americans of impending death.”
He’d reply, laughing, “Ah, but it’s more than death, though. The previous generation guides the newest generation. The stories pass from the previous generation not to their children, but their grandchildren. The white people seem to have forgotten that, shotti, such a shame.”
I laughed with him, our favorite pastime, rolling our eyes at the follies of ‘these Americans.” But then, it was 1993 when I arrived in America with two suitcases and two hundred dollars in travelers’ checks. In 1993, I was invincible, young and convinced that my Baba would live forever.
In 1976, when I was 6, we moved to the Bengali neighborhood of Chittaranjan Park in New Delhi. By nightfall, thugs, robbers and dacoits from nearby states of Punjab and Haryana drove by in search of weary travelers, and nervous Bengalis headed home from work. As the Delhi winter descended, Ma, Didi and I locked the sliding doors, turned off all the front room lights, and waited for Baba to return from work in the bank. Every other minute, Ma got up, peered outside, straining against the dim street light, watching for untoward movement, for Baba to return home. Untoward movement could be a leaf moving, a tomcat climbing roofs, or birds squawking in trees, but never a lurking bandit. And yet, Ma watched each movement, and each movement outside the curtain was deemed untoward.
Each time Ma turned from the window and said, “He’s late again.”
Even though Baba never returned before eight, Ma always waited from 6PM onward and claimed he was late. So every evening, Didi and I sat at the table, homework almost complete, waiting for Baba to return for two hours, because that was Ma’s routine. We did what Ma did.
Baba returned, singing a long forgotten Bengali song, and we heard him in the Delhi fog before he opened the gate. I, his 6-year old, the daughter who should have been the son — the one on whose birth, her Ma wept with disappointment that the Ghoshs were cursed with another girl — I rushed to open the sliding door.
“Baba, Baba, Baba!”
There wasn’t much to say. We aren’t, weren’t, a demonstrative family. We never jumped into our father’s arms or hugged our mother. We grinned at each other. That is enough.
“Yes, Puchkey, I can hear you,” Baba said every day. He called me Puchkey, the little one, the littlest of all the cousins.
Decades later, when I returned, and all the cousins were wizened, I was still Puchkey, the daak-naam, the name the family connected me to. Even now, I have to stop myself from introducing myself as the little one. Even now, when I am almost the only one remaining.
“Yes, Puchkey, I can hear you.”
Ma followed me outside, hands outstretched. Baba handed her the newspaper-wrapped parcel, not his heavy briefcase. The Statesman, a newspaper every Bengali reads, I noticed, was what wrapped the parcel. Ma didn’t ask if the pickpockets, thieves or dacoits from the villages of Haryana were on the streets, nor did she ask how his day went or how was traffic. All she asked was what mattered.
“Ki aanley,” she asked, “What did you bring this time?”
Grinning, his eyes crinkling behind his glasses, Baba said, “Surprise, Sila, surprise.”
I yelled at Didi, “Come, come, look, Baba brought us a surprise.”
Didi, three years older than me in age, decades in soul, walked to the package, stuck her nose close in, and announced, “Yech! Puchkey, it’s fish again.”
“It’s a surprise fish, Didi.”
Rolling her eyes, she continued, “Really? When you open it, it’ll stare at us with big eyes and will it yell: Surprise!”
I shoved her with the fish package so she squealed like the girl that she was. To this day, Didi doesn’t eat fish.
Ma was already in the kitchen, chopping onions, a few garlic cloves. The lentils were in the pressure cooker, simmering in cumin and turmeric.
Ma smiled at me. “You know what to do, don’t you, dear?”
“Yes, place newspapers on the floor.”
Baba returned from the bathroom, changed into comfortable pajamas and shirt, singing yet another Rabindra Sangeet half-song, stopping when he forgot the lyrics.
“Sila,” he said, “This time I got rohu. The whole fish.”
“The whole, whole fish,” Ma exclaimed, “That’s too much, how will we finish it, what’s wrong with — ”
But her anger melted when Baba smiled at her. That’s how they always stopped their arguments. No one denied my father’s charm, even when he bought too much fish, his wife found him irresistible, but would never confess to that.
The old newspapers were placed on the kitchen floor. The bothee, with the curved knife on a stand, was placed in the center. Patience was never my virtue, and at 7, less so.
“Baba, baba, baba!”
“Puchkey, coming, uff!”
That wintry night in 1976, I learned about fish, and what it means to us. Baba sat down on the peedi, the little stool, held the bothee between his big toe and middle, and held his hand out for the rohu. Ma turned on the lights so he could see clearly. Baba lifted the fish from the sink, ran more water, and then to the bothee.
“Stay away, Puchkey, it’s very sharp.”
“Looks heavy, Baba.”
“Help me lift it, Puchkey.”
He brought the head closer to the blade, and I held the tail. This was important work, and I had the apprentice’s role.
He said, “Look, the head, then the body, the top part is meaty, red, puffy. The bottom part, before the tail, has a hole running through. Do you know what’s in the hole?”
“Yes, what the fish ate. We want to eat the fish, not what the fish ate, got it?”
He asked me to hold the tail at an angle. “It cuts easier if we hold it that way,” he said.
“What angle is it?” he asked.
He nodded; his daughter wasn’t a bad student at all. “My mother taught me,” he said.
“What, about obtuse angles?”
“No, silly. How to cut fish. Clean the guts, cut the fish. It’s fresh out of the water. That’s life. Know what’s yours and eat that — not what the fish ate, but the fish. That’s life for Bengalis — you eat fresh, you live fresh, you live life.”
“You mean, we absorb the fish’s life?”
Ma entered the kitchen when she heard that. “What are you teaching my daughter now, huh?”
“Yes, we live because they did,” Baba said. He was serious. “Never forget, Puchkey, fresh fish. For fresh life. Always.”
Baba left to wash his hands. I watched Ma fry the onions in mustard oil. The slices sizzled and the pungent steam stung my eyes, but I had to watch. She added onion seeds, and a paste of turmeric, cumin, ginger and red chili powder. She stirred it, pushing me away from the gas stove if I got closer. My head just barely reached the counter, and mostly I saw her drop the fish and heard the sizzle of each piece cooking in the spices.
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“What do you want to be, Puchkey? Fish cutter, or fish cook?”
She laughed, and added water to the curry, lowered the flame, covering the karahi. The house smelled of onions and garlic. My stomach growled. She bent down, and pinched my still-chubby cheeks.
“Hungry, are you, my little girl?”
That night, Ma tucked me into bed. Didi flopped next to me, half-asleep. Ma left to tie her long hair before bed. Baba stepped in, and tucked the thick quilt around his girls.
He stage-whispered: “Puchkey, Puchkey…”
“Don’t bother her, ogo,” Ma called out, but he continued anyway.
“Be ready tomorrow at seven. We’re going on an adventure.”
“Maacher Bazaar. The fish market.”
Ma was at the door, her fingers twisting her hair into a thick plait. “Turning her into a boy, are you, eh?”
He smiled. I couldn’t sleep that night.
Baba wasn’t very reliable, nor was he punctual, usually. But this time, he was. I was ready in my new red wool coat, thick wool black tights, and two sweaters underneath. He dropped his briefcase, Ma handed him his tea, and he slurped it quickly. Holding out his big hand he said, “C’mon!”
I held it tight, and caressed the steel square ring on his middle finger, the one his mother gave him before she died.
I waved at Didi, “It’s an adventure! Bye!”
She stuck her tongue out.
Ma fussed over my wool cap and tightened it over my ears. Baba and I headed to the Chittaranjan Park fish market in the dark. He held a large flashlight, swinging it in front so we didn’t trip over the sleeping mongrel dogs. This adventure was ours. We walked in silence, accompanied by my excited heart beating kadunkakadunkakadunka.
“Is there a lot of fish, Baba?”
“Yes, the river ones, and the ocean ones.”
“Some fishes are fresh water. They can’t live in the sea water. Get it?”
“Oh, like rohu?”
“Yes, and hilsa, koi, maagur, the fish with whiskers, and chondona, the pretend-hilsa…”
“So how do you find out which one’s hilsa and which one’s chondona?”
“Practice, daughter, practice. The chondona fish’s body is slightly fat. It’s flat, chayptaa,” Baba said, letting go of my hand and slapping both of his against the flashlight, like he was squishing the beam. “Chondona flat, hilsa not, chondona flat, hilsa not….”
I ran to catch up, the rhythm of our feet echoing in the dark. Chondona flat, hilsa not. That’s how I learned about fish.
We neared the fish market. The lights were brighter. The Delhi Transportation Corporation buses zipped past on Main Street. Passengers jumped off running vehicles, and the fishermen out-shouted each other attracting their customers, “Magurmagurmagurmagurmagurmagur! C’mon sir! Fresh fish, just off the truck this evening!”
“Don’t look at his stinky fish — here, sir, good pabda, only 20 rupees a kilo! Ghosh sir, sir, come on, here!”
“Arrey, Ghosh sahib, how was the rohu? Wife liked it, right?”
The fisherman who sold the rohu smiled, flashing his paan-stained red teeth at us. Dark, as most fishermen-class folks are, his old ganji vest covered the knot of his striped lungi, covering his legs and expanding waist. On his wrist, a silver amulet; on his right ear, a ring.
“Fishermen class,” Baba nudged, “He’s from a generation of fish people.”
“Ki, your daughter, sahib?”
“Yes, Bhimu,” my father said, putting his hand on my head. I let him, even though his hand was so heavy I felt my neck collapse. That was one of the few times my father’s hand touched my head with pride that I was a Ghosh, his girl.
“Besh, besh,” Bhimu nodded, pointing at the pabda. The thin, silvery fish lying on the sloping cemented table in front of him, all faced left, like Muslims facing Mecca. Or that’s what I thought. Bhimu scooped water from a dirty green mug, splashing them. They seemed to jump in surprise.
“See, sahib? They are still alive. See? So fresh!”
Baba bent down to examine more closely. He pulled me forward. I hesitated. He said softly, “How will you learn otherwise?”
Between the table and us was a naala, an open gutter to let the fish guts and water pass by without spreading all over the path. I stood at the edge, careful I didn’t slip into the fishy moat. The place smelled of fish, sweat, and the chicken in coops across in the Muslim butcher’s shop.
Bhimu picked up an eight-inch pabda, “Look, Didi,” — he called me elder sister, even though he was gray-haired, and probably older than Baba — “fresh fish smell. It can’t get any better.”
Baba raised his hand. “Two kilos. Twenty rupees for two, no bargaining.”
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Bhimu rolled his eyes, raised his hands up to the sky. “Oh, Sahib, how will I feed my children? This is robbery, Ghosh sahib!”
“Dhurr, Bhimu! Stop. If you don’t give this fish to my daughter for 20, then I know you can feed your children the same fish. So, you decide.”
This went on for minutes. Tired, I tugged at Baba’s hand. He ignored me. Bargaining and Bengalis are like twins. One can’t exist without the other.
Bhimu finally agreed to 25. Baba sighed like he was doing Bhimu a favor. Bhimu pulled up a scale, like the justice scales at the government court house near Connaught Place. Only his scale was rusty, and the weights he placed extra knobs of metal pieces to level the balance.
Baba watched the fish land on the scale, a hawk eyeing his food. “Stop, enough!” he said when Bhimu added yet another pabda.
“What, Ghosh Sahib, only 10? Who can feed the family with only 10?”
Baba waved: “Clean it, will you?”
Bhimu pulled out his bothee. The blade was 10 times longer than the one at home.
Each time he removed the whiskers, the tail, the fins, the blade sang.
Baba pointed to the bhetki next to the pabda, “Here, look at the gills.”
He pulled the head and the flap up.
“The gills are red. The fish was breathing when it got in the net. The blood was flowing — ”
“Look in the lantern light. The blood is still liquid.”
“Of course, Baba, blood is liquid, what else will it be?”
He shook his head, no. “If the fish were old, the gills would be sticky. The blood would congeal. You need to know, Puchkey, that’s how you select good fish. Check the eyes.”
“Yes, there should be no red or yellow in them. That means it’s fresh. Check the fish scales.”
“If they are flaky and come off, even before the fish touches the bothee, then the fish is old, losing its oil.”
“Gills cannot be gummy, right?”
Money and fish changed hands. Bhimu said, “Salaam, Didi, come again.”
I waved back.
Baba carried the fish in the newspaper back home. On the way in the dark, I held the flashlight to show him the way.
With each step, he sang, “Aami cheeni go cheeni tomaare, ogo bideshinee.”
I recognize you, oh stranger to these lands. You may live oceans away, but I still recognize you.
Ma opened the door, a small smile on her lips, “What did you bring, Puchkey?”
I grinned back.
Almost three decades passed since that night. We moved from that house in I-block to the house Baba built for Ma across Market number 1 — we, creatures of habit that most Bengalis are, stayed in the same neighborhood, among Bengalis. The food remained the same, the prices increased exponentially. Didi and I left for America, I for graduate school, seven years before her. Now, as it was then, Didi still doesn’t eat fish, while the fish I cook is from organic supermarkets, sustainable, free of chemicals. I have no idea if they are river or ocean-fish. I don’t know the fishermen who caught the bass or the tilapia.
We returned home every other year, the annual and bi-annual treks of immigrants who believe they will return in the future. But that future doesn’t show up.
2004. I got the call that every daughter dreads when she lives in America and her parents are back home. This time, the flight was a blur, the announcements garbled, and when I landed, I craned my neck at the arrivals gate, just in case I could spot Baba’s wool cap and his twinkling eyes behind his glasses. Him searching for me as I was for him. Just in case. But he won’t be waiting for me at that gate ever again. Instead, this was a visit to cremate my father.
The daughters are to stay at home. The wife, more so. The dead are never accompanied to the cremation grounds by women. We aren’t allowed. Not in our custom.
And so, we went to the cremation grounds — Ma and her daughters, to cremate our father, her husband. I took Ma’s hand and guided her from our house. The priest shook his head in disapproval. The cousins, the men, looked on, grief-stricken, but now in shock that their aunt and their cousins, women all, were headed to the shamshan ghat, to give mukhagni, lighting the fire to the mouth of the deceased.
He looked asleep when we brought him to Lodi Garden cremation grounds. Didi and I went in to help my mother light the funeral pyre where her husband of over four decades lay. My Baba, felled by an attack to his heart that was meant to destroy. He seemed like an old man in his kurta and dhoti that we wrapped around him. We sprinkled Dolce & Gabanna — or was it Brut? — on his cheeks, a fragrance he loved. Ma couldn’t walk fast, arthritis reminding us of her mortality. Her half-blind eyes kept wandering, as if looking for Baba everywhere but lying right in front of us.
Baba, the honest, upright banker, was cremated first — he was first in line, because we had bribed the priests. The irony of this wasn’t lost on us, but we ignored it. My honest Baba wouldn’t have approved. But cremation is something we needed to do right away. He had already waited two days for his daughters to return home.
The priest gave Ma a stack of incense sticks. “Mrs. Ghosh, place them on your husband’s chest, his feet.”
He sprinkled ghee and prayers over Baba, who was covered with a soft cotton cloth, flowers, marigold, rose petals sprinkled over him like he was a meadow. He didn’t look like my Baba, so it didn’t register that it was the last time I’d see my Baba.
Didi and I helped Ma light the pyre. Agnostics at heart, Didi and I, we let Ma dictate us as to how she’d say farewell to her husband. Her purple sari, with a gold zari border, shone dully when she dropped the last incense stick on Baba’s chest. Her cries were soft, her eyes confused. We howled with her, as the floor underneath the wooden pyre where Baba lay, moved. The rails were like train tracks. Even the rumbling ahead made it seem as if Baba was headed to the next station. In the far corner, the fire wall opened with a whoosh of air, carbon and heat. Baba moved along the rails. We couldn’t stop it. We couldn’t stop him.
“Baba, Baba,” I cried, for no reason, and when I looked at Didi, she was calling out to him too. This was too quick. This was too soon. He was gone, and we had Ma between us.
We are the agnostics. But we had a mother who believed in tradition — the right way to bid farewell to her husband. Didi and I complied, silent. We took her to the temple, we invited all their friends and family members to witness the pinda daan ceremony. The card was white, written in black:
We, the bereaved daughters of S. N. Ghosh along with his bereaved wife, S. Ghosh, respectfully ask you to join us in the Shraddha ceremony in Shiv Temple, Chittaranjan Park.
That morning of the shraddha ceremony was bright, the early winter Delhi sun strong, as if by mistake. The air still smelled of the smoke from the dhunuchis used to fete Durga in her festival when she came down from the heavens to her father’s home on earth. Durga was long gone, her straw, clay and enamel paint sculpture immersed in Yamuna river by the young devotees and volunteers of the Chittaranjan Park Puja Committee.
We arrived early at the temple. It used to be a one-room Shiv temple. When we had just moved into the neighborhood in 1976, Didi and I used to walk from our I-Block home, my hand held tightly in hers, up the uneven steps up to the temple. Across the road, in the corner, was our home. Ma used to wait for us there, craning her neck, watching for us, and she would wave, wave. Back then, we’d wave back before walking back together again, Didi’s hand holding mine tightly still.
That same Shiv Temple was now three buildings, with donation plaques as tiny steps along the pathway, gifts from non-resident Indians glittering in donations of marble, gold engravings, and lush, out-of-place trees in corners. Heading to the first temple, we helped Ma into a chair. She couldn’t sit cross-legged anymore. Arthritis was killing the body slowly, painfully, but her mind, still agile, could only watch helplessly.
The priest chanted my father’s name, asked Ma for his ancestors’ names, the caste, his lineage. Ma provided them, her school teacher’s memory on auto-pilot, her eyes now permanently swimming in tears.
Baba didn’t like such pretend show. But I was sure he’d be appreciative of his family taking part in this ceremony together, in the same neighborhood we moved to, as children. Didi and I, the bereaved daughters, standing at the gate, gave each well-wisher a packet of shondesh, a savory, a rasagulla, and a thank you for coming to pay respects.
Eleven days after Baba left, we held the niyam bhongo ceremony, the breaking of the rituals. We invited the men who’d helped take Baba to the crematorium, the women who’d helped Ma repeat every minute of the last moments of Baba’s life, over and over till the words didn’t hold any grief for Ma.
We cooked Baba’s favorite foods, rasagolla floating in pure sugar syrup and no rose water — Baba didn’t like his desserts contaminated by North Indian additives like rose essence, so his rasagollas were in sugar water only. We cooked cholar daal with coconut bits, and cinnamon slow-cooked with garbanzo beans, cauliflower curry with cumin, and green peas, mishti doi, using only the best molasses and jaggery from West Bengal. Someone brought in fresh fish, I no longer remember who. Didi cooked it with mustard paste and green chilies in Baba’s memory. Didi didn’t touch the fish with her bare hands, but would awkwardly poke it with a fork, adding the spices and layering one spice over the other without touching the fish. I watched. I couldn’t grieve. I didn’t repeat the story of the phone call I received in San Diego telling me my Baba was gone. I didn’t repeat it to anyone. I held my grief and pretended to be fine. So, I watched Didi prepare the fish.
Two weeks later, she left, her visa preventing the luxury of mourning longer. I was left with Ma, in the cold November wintry night. Chittaranjan Park in 2004 had transformed into a well-lit, metropolitan neighborhood. Durga Puja festivities dimmed a month before, and the only thieves in the neighborhood were those who stole cable lines. Baba’s songs were missing. Soon the well-wishers stopped visiting, the neighbors stopped nosing around. Soon it was only Ma and me in the house Baba built for us, alone.
Ma’s tears became her constant companions. She sat in front of the heating coil, warming her frozen arthritic feet, hunched beyond her 68 years, staring at the hot red heat rod, half-blind, waiting for Baba’s footsteps, heavy, one step after another, waiting for Baba’s voice, him singing a line of a long forgotten song, one step, one step up to our floor of our three-level home…waiting, waiting, waiting. But he didn’t climb the stairs, nor did he sing, I recognize you, oh stranger, you come from oceans far away.
I told her, “It’s evening, Ma, drink some tea.”
“Where to, Puchkey?” she asked.
“I’m going to the fish market. Could you ask the maid to grate some chilies with ginger?”
That evening, I didn’t need a flashlight. The street lamps were fluorescent-bright. People walked without fear of pickpockets like it was daytime. Video parlors with Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee posters adorned the main street shops. Big buses hurtled through. The market crowd ballooned like monsoon clouds. Bengalis — now flashier, louder, wearing foreign watches, expensive saris, designer jeans — walked through the market, mobile phones in hand.
The fish market was still in the corner. The concrete floors were glazed, permanent-looking. The naala that in 1976 was made of mud was now permanent, covered so no one stepped on fish guts. The fishermen wore T-shirts with slogans of Just Do It and All Iz Well. They wore shorts instead of lungis, polyester, hibiscus-printed Hawaiian knock-offs. In the corner, a wrinkled fisherman, the only one in a lungi, and an old gray shirt, looked at me but didn’t beckon me to see his fish. His silence made me approach him. The silver amulet on his wrist winked at me.
“Ki, Didi?” Bhimu said, his eyes twinkling. “It’s been a while, na?”
I pretended not to recognize him. “Koto?” I asked, pointing at the bhetki.
“Your father taught you well, Didi. He taught you about fish …”
I gave in. “Yes, it’s been a while, Bhimu,” I said.
I opened the gills with my fingers. The gills fanned out like the lizards of Jurassic Park. I wiped my hands on the alcohol-wipe Bhimu offered me.
“All foreign-return children want these wipes,” he explained when I thanked him.
Baba taught me well. Fresh fish, fresh life.
So, I said, “Now tell me how fresh is this bhetki? How much per kilo? Don’t you try to cheat me, I know your wily ways!”
Fourteen years later, I am in my house in America’s Finest City. Didi’s in Boston. We are voices on each other’s phones, still close, still far apart.
After Baba, Ma’s gone too, though my friends say they feel her presence when I cook for them. A happy presence, her shuffle, her soft call to alert me to lower the flame cooking the cauliflower. Sometimes I hear her voice when I’m waking up early morning — she used to be my human alarm clock. She still is.
Each time I cook fish, as I drop the onion slices in the hot oil, and then the turmeric-coated fish slices after, I tell my Baba, “I am now that foreigner oceans away that you used to sing about. And you still recognize me, oceans away — I am not a stranger to the lands you sang about. I am still here. And you. And you.”
* * *
Madhushree Ghosh‘s work has been published, a finalist or Pushcart-nominated in the New York Times, the Rumpus, Catapult, Hippocampus, Atlas Obscura, Unearth Women, Panorama, Garnet News, DAME and others. As a woman in science, immigrant and daughter of refugees, her work reflects her roots and her activism. Current memoir-in-linked essays in-progress is called Hatke, about outlier women of color who have inspired her to be a tall poppy.
Editor: Sari Botton