As this old wooden and tin bus starts her day from Howrah Bus garage with few initial jerks, so is this old lady with hers. Both seemed to be in habit of each other. She would usually get up early in the morning, have a bath. And then would offer prayers to God, which was something part of a silent pact between God and her. She would then feed her adorable and talkative “Tiya pakhi” (Parrot) Chon-moon, her only companion in a lonely small two bedroom house. Chon-moon sometimes even is noisy as Shakuntala Devi took some extra time to offer her prayers, you know sometimes those special days. Chon-moon would be by then grumpy as he would become impatient for his breakfast of Bhejano Chola (Soaked Bengal Gram).Chon-moon would start taking rounds of his cage, up then down and he would repeat until he felt bored and would rest on the small round swing inside his cage. As Shakuntala Devi would be ringing her brass bell while offering her prayers to GOD, Chon-moon would know that his breakfast will be ready in two more minutes.
As the bus caught speed and slowly the driver changed the gear and pushed the accelerator extra hard over the road that leads to Howrah Bridge, everything started to flash in front of her eyes. As she looked out from the window, she can see Kolkata on one side and Howrah on other side. River Hooghly a diverted branch of river Ganga seemed so mighty and mesmerizing. Dark grey cloud started hovering around from South end. It seemed Howrah will soon get her share of rain while Kolkata will be waiting for her turn to get some for couple of more hours.
She liked seeing outside rather than having conversation with strangers. And today, that teenaged boy gave his seat to her, as if he can sense her disliking of mingling with strangers in bus. He could feel that she was even more eager to feel the fresh breeze blowing from river Hooghly.
Again she was engrossed in her thoughts.
Last year in summer, she sold her ancestral property in a small village and severed all her ties with the place she came there first after getting newly married. But then she has reasons too. For widow materialistic things doesn’t show any charm.One cold winter morning , Shakuntala Devi’s husband Shantanu Mitra died of a massive heart stroke. They had planned earlier of settling their life in a peaceful village of “Shankrail” after retirement. But destiny had some other plans for them. As with one strong wind, house of cards come crashing, similarly fate played a cruel joke in her life. There were all the relatives she knew, she called them up to help, but when you need them the most, and they don’t show up. She was constantly questioned about the property she owns now as per her late husband’s will. Suddenly people round her had started showing their true colors like a foliage having fall colors, although this time very ugly. She decided that its time to start a fresh chapter in her life, so what if it’s too late. When you can be friendly with yourself, your situations outside also starts to ease out. Peace within yourself can only guide you to more stability outside.
She and her late husband Shantanu Mitra were working as school teachers. Theirs was a love cum arranged marriage as both were teaching in the same school. While Shakuntala Devi was teaching Chemistry at senior secondary level, Shantanu Mitra was teaching Math at secondary level. When love happens, it doesn’t give you any notice or reasons. Both their parents were more than happy to hear their decision of getting married. They started their new married life in Kolkata in a small one bedroom house located in a very middleclass locality. Years passed by but they were deprived of the joy of having a child. Nature can be rude sometimes to a woman who has a pure mother’s heart, there was no child in her lap to call her own...Shakuntala devi and Shantanu Mitra had accepted the painful fact/truth that they will not be able to bear a child.Slowly ,they had found joy and hope in every student they had taught so far.Their face would brighten up whenever an ex student of the school ,would show up in school all of a sudden .They would seek blessings from these two genious, noble and kind hearted souls.
After her husband’s death, she was now more engrossed in teaching and school was her probably a place to hide. To hide from the demons of cultural and moral police that were scattered all the way, at her living place, to also in the journey she made from her home to her school by bus.
For Shakuntala Devi, she was now the mother of those some 50 students that she would be teaching Chemistry daily. She would be bidding her last bye each year with tears in corner of her eyes, as each batch would be passing their Board’s exams and leaving the school for the future they would be creating for themselves. As for she ,she would be there standing in her same class, holding the white chalk with the black board behind and waiting to open the first chapter of the book in every fresh summer terms.
Batch of 2000 was special to her. For it was Naren who caught her eyes for his sharp grasping power and intelligence. She knew it that this boy has something above average. Today was special, as Naren called her up and told that he would be coming to visit her. Naren was here in Kolkata for a short period of time. He was now in his last phase of doing his research from one of the prestigious College in India. He had been already offered a good job in a leading pharmaceutical company also which promises a good future and a great career, something that made her pride of him.
She told him that she would be preparing his Favorite Kalo jeere, golmorich diye Tangra mach er Jhaal and Rui Mach’er kalia .Naren was in hurry as he had some more work to do in Kolkata before he would be coming back to Howrah.
Naren was never a part of group, there was something mysterious and unique about him and so his liking for foods. Over a period of two years Shakuntala Devi was familiar with Naren’s capabilities and up to an extent even his eating habits. When Naren’s real mother died, he was devasted .He came running to Shakuntala Devi’s home on a rainy day and cried like a baby. There was nobody that Naren can call his own and then there was Shakuntal Devi who was struggling to live life of a lonely widow. A son got his new mother and a mother embraced his son with all the love she had stored in her heart over these years. Destiny can also be sometimes healing and giving.
A long honking by the bus driver and suddenly a break, jerked all the passengers including Shakuntala Devi from her chain of thoughts.
A rickshaw puller was coming from the wrong side, everyone in the street and including the passengers started scolding the rickshaw puller.
“Aro ekto hoto, tui morey jetish, ki kore chalash bol to, dekhte parish Na eto boro ekta bus asche” (Are you blind, that you couldn’t see such a large bus, you could have died in that moment)
With a feeble smile, Gorong-the Rickshaw puller apologized to all, as if he was quite habitual of this facing daily. Life can be so learning sometimes, makes a timid, brave, brave enough to face up the realities of being a rick-Shaw puller.
Shakuntala Devi got off from the bus, took Gorong’s Rickshaw and asked him to take her to mach’er bazaar (fish market).
“Mashimaa, aajke ki Naren baba asche?”(Is Naren coming Today), asked Gorong enthusiastically.
“Hain rey, baba, chal amake mach’er bazaar e niye ja to” (took me to fish market Gorong)
Fish market was bustling with whole lot of activities. Shakuntala Devi could hear other machwala calling her to buy fish from them. But she knew where she should be going. She made her way to a machwala where only two customers were buying fish. She had purposefully avoided others as there were so many customers at other fish vendors, and moreover she wanted to avoid all roving eyes there.
Bhola the mach-walla was not the first choice, when it comes to getting fish .Several times people had complained Shakuntala devi that he weighs inappropriately and that the fishes were also not fresh. He was famous as Bhola-the cheater in fish market. But yet when it came to Shakuntala Devi, Bhola never cheated her.He would take out fresh fish that he would be hiding in a separate bamboo basket and weigh the fish acurately. You can say it was his way of making up for the things he would be doing with others.
“Mashimaa, aajke Naren Babu ashchen, tai na” (Is Naren coming today?)asked Bhola, the machwallah.
“Hain rey!,toder kach thekhe kicho lokano jaye na ”(I can’t hide this from you ,can’t I), grinned Shakuntala devi.
She was seeing and checking the freshness of tangra fish and then rui fish pieces.
“Mashimaa niye jaan, apni to jaanen, ami apnake khokhono thokabo na.”(I assure you, these are fresh fish and I can never sell rotten fish to you, and you know that well) said Bhola nervously.
She took the fish in her vegetable bag that she has made with some old curtain cloth using a sewing machine, and then she headed to the vegetable market. She purchased some tomatoes, onions and garlic. She came back with a heavy bag with loads of vegetables and fish near Gorong’s rickshaw at rick-Shaw stand .Gorong hurriedly took the bag from her hand and helped her to get on the rickshaw.
Gorong took another 10 mints to reach her home.And he stopped near the main gate of her house.She got off from the rick-shaw with a little Gorong’s help and paid Gorong his fare. Then she hurried to get inside her house.
Chon-moon could sense that Shakuntala Devi has come back from her school as she tried to open the door with keys. He would again start creating noise. In a very err voice he would say “Chon-moon khabar kheyecho” as this is what Shakuntala devi would ask him everyday after coming from school. He would then repeat in a very similar tone but in a very cultivated voice-“Chon-moon Khabar kheyecho”. On some day he would have finished all the bhejano chola (soaked Bengal Gram) and some day the small bati (bowl) would be all tumbled. She knew Chon-moon would be feeling bored when she is in school and could easily scatter all the chola with his sharp claws by now. For this she had made a plastic sheet, cut it into a small round and clanged it just below Chon-moon’s cage.
She changed her plain tant'er saree and went to fresh her up in bathroom. Meanwhile Chon-moon kept repeating “Chon-moon khabar kheyecho” many times in frequent interval. He had finished his share of Bhejano Chola.
When Shakuntala devi came in the kitchen, it was already 6.30 in the evening. Naren will be here in few minutes or so. She cleaned fish pieces hurriedly and then smeared holod (turmeric powder) and noon (salt) over each pieces well. She then started to make the jeerey/kalo jeerey/golmorich bata in Sheel nora.Then she quickly put the Kadai over gas stove. By the time kadai and shorsh'er tel (mustard oil) was getting hot, she was finished making the bata moshla (masala paste).
She then fried the rui mach fish pieces well in hot oil and after it tangra mach /fish pieces. She started to prepare tangra mach’er jhaal first.
It took her almost one and a half hour to prepare aloo bhaja, monger dal, Tangra macher jhaal and Rui macher kalia.She then thought of making some tomato khejurer chatni.She was putting chopped tomatoes in hot kadhai/saucepan, then suddenly the door bell rang. She lowered the gas flame and covered the pan to let Chatni slowly simmer.
When she opened the door, Naren was standing at the door smiling. He touched her feet immediately without any effort.
At the dinner table, while having such delicious food, Naren was looking for some words to start a conversation. Shakuntala Devi knew this.
“Naren, tumar research final phase e esheche, shone khob bhalo laglo” (I am glad your research is finally coming to finish) said Shakuntala Devi with a sense of contentment that she was kind of deprived of all these days.
“ Hain mane aro ek mash er kaaj ache amaar kache.” said Naren with little hesitation. Hesitation was part of his conversation as he wanted the research to finish before time, but it was going to take some more extra time.
“Madam, apnar to aro kicho mash ache retirement e, apni ki bhebhechen er pore kothaye jaben” (have you thought of anything where you would be going after your retirement) said Naren with a deep concerning look. His eyes were enquiring and Shakuntala Devi could sense that he was worried about her.
“Na, ami eyikhane thakbo, chon-moon ke niye” (I will live with chon-moon here) said Shakuntala Devi with mixed feelings of calmness and commotion at the same time.
“Apnake ke ekta kotha bolar chilo”(I have to tell you something) said Naren with a voice that sounded more like a murmur.
“Apniki amaar sathe Delhi jaben, ami okhane ekla thakte ekto osobhidhe bodh korchi, aro ekta chinta ache apni eyikhane ekla thakben” (I am worried about you, will you come with me) said Naren with an enquiring and yet in an assertive tone.
That night as they finished their dinner there was a storm going on inside Shakuntala Devi’s mind. There was this long pause after that small conversation that both don’t know how to break. She said nothing at the dinner table after that.
The other day, Naren woke up late, it was Sunday .Shakuntala Devi brought morning tea with marrie biscuits to Naren.He can see several rows of wrinkles on her somewhat glowing face. He assumed she has made her mind about coming with him to Delhi.
She went near the chon-moon’s cage and opened the cage gate.
“Ja, Chon-moon khola akashe or, ar kotodin kanche te bondho thakbi” (Go Chon-moon, go live life like a free bird, you don’t need anymore this cage) And she smiled. Naren holded her with his strong hands and Shakuntala Devi rested her head over his son’s broad shoulders. Her hands were shaking as she was waving her hands. They both saw chon-moon struggling to wave his wings in an open, vast sky.
(This is all part of fiction writing for Chalks and Chopsticks, no part is written on keeping anyone living or dead in mind.Even the incidents mentioned are all fictitious)
Now to the recipe for Tangra mach'er Jhaal.
(This was saved in my draft from last year)
Tangra fish- 4-5 (serves -2-3 )
For the fish-
Marinate with 1 tsp of turmeric powder and salt.
Heat up a saucepan (that is what I am using right now for frying fish, however back home, I have always used kadai).
Prepare bata moshla in sheel/nora or dry grind the seeds.
You need to add little bit of water while grinding all the spices over sheel/nora-a type of mortar and pestle.
In a masala grinder/coffee grinder add 2 tsp of cumin seeds/jeerey , 2-3 tsp of nigella seeds/kalaunji/kalo jeerey and 10-12 whole black pepper.dry grind them to a coarse powder.
Cooking the fish with gravy
Add 2 tbs of mustard oil, let it heat up well, drop some cumin seeds, if it sizzles and starts floating on top, this is now time to drop fish one by one.
Be careful, while tangra fish, as they are slimy and shiny fish, a lot of oil droplet may splash out.
Fry each side of fish for 3-4 mints.
Take out each one of them.
Now add some 2 tbs of oil more, add 1and half cup of water, 1 tsp of turmeric powder, 1 tsp of red pepper powder and 1 tsp of salt approx.
Add chopped tomatoes if you wish. Cut and chop 1 medium size tomato and add in the gravy.
Now add the bata moshla or the dry grinded powder of cumin/Nigella seeds/ Whole Black pepper.
Add in fried fish pieces. Cover the saucepan with lid, or Kadai with a plate. Let it slowly simmer for about 10-12 mints. Take out when the gravy dries up.
Serve with garam bath.