By: Barnali Bose, Editor-ICN World
KOLKATA: When recently a popular Bengali actress of the Mumbai film Industry proudly declared that her favourite food is fish curry and rice, I smiled to myself. It brought to mind my experience in a state of west India years back on this particular issue.
Acquiring a decent house on rent, for a Bengali there, was as difficult as looking for a needle in a haystack. Keeping Bengali tenants was a taboo(it perhaps still is),the reason given being “You Bengalis eat fish.” The look of sheer unconcealed disgust on the countenance of the prospective landlord is etched in my memory even after more than three decades have passed.
At first, I was shocked at the proud, blunt, uncensored justification for refusal, but later amused when I delved into the geographical cause of the local people not being fish-eating and therefore considering eating fish a condemnable offence.
Let us explore the cause of Bengalis being fish-eaters.It is to be noted that Bengal is located on the banks of the Hooghly( a distributary of the perennial Ganga)as well as is in close proximity to the Bay of Bengal and fish as food has therefore been available since the times our forefathers gathered, hunted and fished for food.
The particular Western state has no perennial rivers except Chambal that flows through a small portion of it and therefore fishing could not have developed into a common occupation nor fish into a popular food item then.
Food habits in these two states and for that matter in all other developed according to the climate, availability of food and feasibility to grow crops.
The staple food of Bengalis is rice because of the alluvial soil and yearlong availability of water,that makes Bengal one of the largest rice-producing states in India. In Western India, shortage of regular water supply( although the Indira Gandhi canal has been a saviour since 1980’ s ) has necessitated the cultivation of crops such as bajra and maize( that need less water),besides wheat and barley.
Geography has always influenced the history of mankind worldwide. The habit of eating Rice and fish is a historical tradition that is deeply embedded in the geography of Bengal.
As a child,I had quite often been told that fish improves brain power. I was a little sceptical about it as I thought it was a tactical ploy mothers applied to make fussy children eat fish. I never gave much thought to it but with access to the internet, I have discovered that my mother’s theory is indeed a scientific one.
Fish really is ‘ brain food’ and eating it can not only make you ‘smarter’ but even help prevent Dementia, researchers say.William Thies, PhD, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association in U.S , says the findings support the group’s recommendation to eat a diet rich in cold-water fish that contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. These include halibut, mackerel, salmon, trout, and tuna.
Researchers at Massey University in New Zealand have revealed that a fatty acid found in fish and seafood can boost memory function by 15 per cent. According to a Swedish study,at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, eating enough fish heightens IQ levels in youngsters.
Well, Bengalis didn’t begin eating fish because of this fact. However, we Bengalis are proud to be a ‘fish-eating’ race and we are also proud to be much more.
Historically, Bengal has been the pioneer in many fields.Bengal prides herself in being one of the initiators of the Struggle for Freedom from British Rule and to be the home of Swami Vivekananda, acclaimed the most inspiring speaker at the Parliament of Religions in America. Raja Ram Mohan Roy,the father of Indian Renaissance who fought tooth and nail to get Sati eradicated belonged here and so did Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who gets due credit for the introduction of Widow remarriage in an India where child-widows were a pitiful reality.
It is Bengal that gave birth to Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel Prize Laureate and Amartya Sen another Nobel Prize winner; Jagdish chandra Bose,the first Indian scientist to demonstrate that plants are also sensitive to their surroundings ;Satyajit Ray,the first Indian to win a lifetime Achievement Oscar for his significant contributions to world Cinema was also a Bharat Ratna recipient; P.C.Sarkar ,the world famous magician;Sourav Ganguly the cricketer, to name a few have their roots in Bengal.
There is however, I admit, no proof to testify that it was a regular diet of fish and rice that enabled them to scale such heights.The sole purpose of these citations is not to glorify a particular race and its food preferences but to drive home the truth that there is no reason to subject to criticism, any race for its food habits.
To scorn a race because its food habits differ from one’s own sadly mirrors one’s conceited depiction of one’s own racial practices and lack of reverence and tolerance for the other. Not only “Live and let live” but also “Eat and let eat” (according to one’s taste ) should be the mission statement of today’s enlightened human beings.