It is December 1972 in Dhaka (then Dacca). A brilliant mid-morning on a back verandah in Rayer Bazaar. My mother and I are comfortably perched on old cane moras watching my maternal grandmother about to gut a fish. She is seated behind the dark, curved blade of an old boti, holding down its scarred, wooden stock with her right foot. The sharpened edge of the blade glints. A small, stained reed mat is spread beneath the boti. By her side, on the coarse red cement, is a little wicker basket. She is a tiny woman with a white, stiffly starched sari like a crackling cloud around her. I haven't seen her since I was a child. Our family, my parents, I, my brother and sister, had escaped from Karachi, from the old West Pakistan, to Dhaka, to the newly-risen state of Bangladesh barely a month back, and were staying with my maternal uncle till we could find our footing. I look up at the sky bordering the verandah roof, at the day glowing with the same liquid light in which we, five refugees lugging three suitcases, had crossed the Indo-Bangladesh border at Benapole. My grandmother had come down from Chittagong to visit with us, marvelling at her grandchildren's growth and clucking sympathetically at stories of our flight from Pakistan.
"Ilish mach," she had informed me with a smile, holding it up in the air. From the Padma. "Taja (fresh)," she had added, pointing to a startlingly clear, protruding eye. And indeed, the sleek body, silvery as a sitar note, faintly bluish-green on its back, had winked in the vivid sunlight. It is a medium-sized ilish ("they're small in the wintertime"), the downward slant of its mouth and the angular line of its lower jaw giving it a vaguely determined air. I cannot remember the last time I had seen one. Born and raised in dry, dun-colored, sprawling Karachi city, all this – fish, rivers, relatives, Dhaka's sudden swathes of green grass and toy-sized post offices – is new to me.
My grandmother is talking about 1971. Every Bengali in 1972 talked about 1971, about the liberation war, refugees, and the subsequent release from the daily horror.
"1971 was like 1947 all over again," she says as she holds both ends of the fish with her hands and vigorously saws it back and forth across the blade. Fish scales fly in all directions and a few sizzle upward, float momentarily at the top of their arc, aquamarine and topaz spangles, before gliding down on to the cement. In 1947, during the Partition, my grandparents had fled from Calcutta (now Kolkata) along with other Muslims. Whole neighborhoods slaughtered in a day, my mother had said. Babies thrown over walls. Trembling adults and crying children fleeing pell-mell.
She then cuts off the small dorsal fin on the gray, denuded body, brusquely ripping through cartilage and tendon, leaving a thin scar, a bloodied line, on top. Then snips the smaller lower fins off, tchk, tchk, till the tiniest stubs are left.
"Down the road from our house," she continues with an upward glance at us, the irises of her eyes black as amulet string, "there was a Hindu household." Her hands are betel-nut brown and turmeric-stained, a working matriarch's hands, ceaselessly directing, ladling, tucking in, handing out the daily bazaar money, smoothing out, folding a paan leaf, picking.
She neatly fits the blade under the crescent moons of the gill covers and shears them off, exposing the glutinous, intricate balsa wood fretwork of bone, spotted with scarlet moss and lichen, that knits together fish head. The gills, serrated flaps laid on top of each other, are a distinct, flushed maroon.
"Taja," she says again and nods approvingly, the corona of sprung hairs around her head stirring with the motion. Behind her against the far wall are two empty flowerpots and a red earthen bowl with drained rice starch for crisping her saris. Their shadows, peasant-dark doubles, are sharply etched on the peeling yellow limewash. A column of ants is marching up the sides and round the rim of the bowl.
“They were long-time residents of our neighborhood. We allowed them to use our big pond for bathing,” she says, vigorously scraping the last few scales off near the deeply Vee-d tail. Her words are in sync with her moving, working arms, spilling out, then halting, then spilling again.
“Well, you know, Chittagong is a conservative place, and our maulvi was a Peace Committe member.” Peace committees had been Bengali Islamic groups, largely in the rural areas, fostered by the Pakistan army for propaganda and terror. She turns the fish upward and makes an incision just below its throat with the tip of the boti, a precise surgical cut, then gingerly draws out tiny fish sacs and glands, gray and yellow snot strung on liquid lines like a surreal dhoba's wash. Out come micro pouches and bags, pearl and umbra, to be flicked on to the mat. The first flies appear.
She then grips the fish solidly with both hands, one clamped over the mouth and the other around its middle, and cuts its head off, the flesh on her upper arms jiggling with the effort. A snapping sound as the spine, after an initial resistance, gives way. Red specks spatter her spotless right knee. Ash-colored threads, supple links to an external world of water and weeds, are visible inside the hollow stem. The mouth gapes. She trims the head with casual, familiar little flourishes and puts it in the basket.
“One night – well, it was around two o’clock in the morning, we heard screaming and shouts of narai takbir,” she continues, referring to the Muslim rallying cry during the 1947 communal riots.
She holds the ilish lengthwise along the blade, grasping it by the twin prows of its headless neck so that its back is towards her and slices open the soft white underbelly with one single fluid upward motion. She then brings the fish closer to her and peers inside.
"Eggs?" my mother asks.
"I don't see any," my grandmother replies. "They get eggs only during the rainy season." My mother waves her hands to ward off the flies.
She pulls out the slithery guts from the marbled, moist cavity with practiced fingertips. Dark strings coated with clotted blood. Her agile fingers worry inside the gaping, boat-shaped abdominal hole, checking and rechecking for detritus. For life, wet, humid, mucous-laden.
"The next morning we heard that they had been attacked and killed," she says with another glance at us, pushing back rimless spectacles with the back of her right hand, careful to keep her fingers clear of the lenses. "They said the mollah himself had slit their throats." Her voice ends on an accusing note.
"Who said?" asks my mother.
"Their immediate neighbors. Muslims."
A silence, in which a breeze sighs through torn leaves. She deftly turns the fish over and under in her hands, scrutinizing her handiwork. A painter surveying an almost finished canvas, assessing shades and tones. Then, slowly, almost dreamily, she slices the fish into proportionate, heart-shaped pieces, bullying only through the spine and translucent rib bones, and plops them into the basket. The tail lands right by the head. Teardrops of blood, instant rubies in the hot bright gush of sun, well up from the chunks of pale pink flesh. The boti blade, like her fingertips, is streaked with blood and slick traces of gummy matter. Fishy secretions, around which the flies happily buzz.
"Where’s the maulvi now?" my mother asks.
"Oh, he’s still walking around, hale and hearty."
She had used the word "jobai," the language of Qurbani Eid, the day of ritual sacrifice of animals that I have been steeped in since childhood. It specifically means to slit the throat. In Urdu, in Pakistan, it is the sharper, metallic "zabai." On Eid day, scared, wild-eyed cows would have their hooves tied and brought crashing down on to cement courtyards or bruised grass, and then the mullah would step in with his kalma and his newly whetted knives. Mullahs' hands, nails bitten to the quick, raised in supplication or stroking a beard, an index finger reverently running along a line in an open Qur'an as if to underline its surging rhythms. Hands that ran orphanages, bathed the dead, performed marriages, went door to door on Qurbani Eid plying their trade.
The cow would draw air through its mouth in great heaving gasps only for it to vent noisily through the ripped, open gullet, dewlaps flapping, and as this noise would fill the air above our heads, we the children in our festive new Eid clothes (the littler girls spangled in flickering zari and silk hair ribbons) would stand in a circle and watch as arterial blood, red, viscid, slippery, would first spurt and then seep into the earth. Beneath Karachi's peerless, fabulously blue summer skies.
I look at my tingling palms, at my grandmother's cheeks, still smooth after all these ruffled decades, at the chipped tomato of my mother's toes. Bengali skin, tenderly being warmed by a saffron sun. Our flesh, the mysterious, particular, almost prim denseness of live tissue, its sinuous declivities, the cells and membrane stitched together, really, by faith and prayer.
What unmakes us, makes us.
Later at lunch, with sugary squares of siestatime light streaming in through thin white curtains and my grandmother's hair still wet from her bath, my mama notices that I am giving the fish curry a wide berth.
"You're not eating the ilish?"
"Can't sort out the bones, eh?"
"Yes. I think I need more time."
A pause. Another round of rice and daal for everybody except me.
"You're hardly eating at all."
"I'm not very hungry."
"So what do you think of our Dacca?"
"Bhalo (good). Khubi bhalo (very good)."
Khademul Islam is a writer and translator. He is also Editor, Bengal Lights.