Friday, April 23

A Fish Called Hilsa

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Have you ever wondered exactly how many bones your favourite one-kilo hilsa has? Well, it has around 46-48 vertebrae, lots more than humans, and roughly 1,500 smaller bones. This includes the deadly-looking spear-shaped “pin bone” — freely lying “floating bones” within the fish muscles.

Salt Lake-based ophthalmologist Arnab Biswas’s seven-year-old research on hilsa, arguably Bengalis’ favourite fish — had prompted him to first do a CT scan on the fish to understand its bone structure and, later, over several days, painstakingly count every bone it had. And this is just one aspect of Biswas’s hilsa research.

And to think he just wanted to write a cookbook. Starting from that, Biswas has now ended up digging up every possible detail about the hilsa, instead. For seven years, he has worked with a myriad people — fossil experts, fisheries experts, oceanographers, local fishermen, just to dig up unknown nuggets about the fish.

Biswas, whose work ‘Way of the Hilsa’, in which he collaborated with Thailand-based researcher Pratchaya Phinthong and Bangladeshi artist Md Sajedul Haque for display in the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in Dhaka’s Shilpakala Academy on February 8, now argues that the hilsa’s origin may be even older that what available research suggests. “It is largely believed from the fossils found in Italy, Japan, Rajasthan and Mizoram that the hilsa’s ancestors, the Clupeidae family [a family of ray-finned fishes, comprising the herrings, shads, sardines, hilsa, and menhadens], can be traced back to 40-50 million years,” Biswas argues. But symbols traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation denote a fish closely resembling the hilsa, he says. “I have superimposed the hilsa on these symbols, and it matches perfectly,” he says.

And that is not all. “If you know about Jhulelal — a 1000 AD saint, the most revered deity of the Sindhi Hindus and revered by Muslims as Zinda Pir, you’ll know that he travels on a fish on the Indus river. This was the palla, the local name of hilsa in Sindh. Even in the Ajanta caves, in the pictorial representation of the Monkey God in Bodhisattva, there are fish visible on the river. And they, too, have the same shape,” he says. “The palla fish were all believed to come from the Saraswati basin. Also consider the spread of the fossils from Italy to Mizoram,” he says.

Biswas, who along with his wife and son, has been travelling to the coastal belts of India, Bangladesh and Myammar to dig more details, says too little is being done to save the fish. “From my understanding the Hilsa will always come back to the place where it was born. In their life span of 4-5 years, they will make three to four attempts to swim upstream in the river to breed. This is essential for many reasons,” he says. “When the Hilsa swims against the tide on the river to find a breeding place, it eats very less. It also forms polyunsaturated fatty acid. It also urinates more leaving out the toxins from the body. And due to the swimming, the muscles are softer. So, the taste is basically a culmination of all these,” he argues.

Another thing to consider is what hilsa feed on, Biswas says. “I tried to collect plankton samples from a depth of 40 feet in the Ganges. This is what the hilsa feeds on, primarily. However, due to pollution, their natural food resource is now getting sparse,” he adds. “Historically, we know that hilsa swam upstream 1,500km in the Ganges, up to Allahabad. In the Sindh river, it travelled 750km upstream till Multan. Now, that is no longer the case. Instead, we are fishing them from the seas and have set up the Farakka barrage. And by artificial production of hilsa, we are playing havoc with their in-built ‘GPS system’, which allows them to swim thousands of kilometres to breed,” he says. It’s no wonder, he says, that people often complain that hilsa these days don’t taste as good.

The changing patterns of hilsa migration — which has seen disruptions — is a large part of Biswas’s work, with Phinthong and Haque. “I had been in Rangoon and up along the Iravati river, also to several places in Bangladesh,” he says. Similarly, Phinthong and Haque have travelled to Farakka several times. “Viewed in isolation, the Farakka barrage, built in 1975, may seem to be one issue. But this is symptomatic of a larger issue of creating man-made obstacles on their migratory paths, which has large-scale implications.” The other factor, he adds, which may push hilsa to oblivion is the fishing of khoka-ilish or immature hilsa. The Bangladesh government has imposed a fortnight-long fishing ban immediately after Laxmi Puja, he informs, just to stop this.

Biswas says it is a “rarity” for a fish to be so fused with the socio-cultural ethos of Bengalis. “Recently, in Bangladesh, they tried to start a tradition on Poila Baisakh — the Bengali New Year — to have Panta-Ilish. This became so popular that the government had to step in to remind people that this wasn’t Bengali culture. But what the government was trying to do, and rightly so, was to stop fishing of khoka-ilish. In Bengal, too, we have witnessed similar efforts by the government,” he says. “Now, compare this with the much older ritual in Bangladesh’s Faridpur — of having Hilsa roe with puffed rice on Dashami, after immersion. That was the last time they would eat hilsa, starting again only from Saraswati Puja. In Bengal, jora-Ilish or a pair of hilsa is offered in the Puja. Now we understand the reason why people stopped having hilsa in this period. This was breeding time. This window allowed newborn hilsa, called jhatka, to swim back to the seas,” he says.

He signs off with an interesting question: If people could do it then, why not now?


Source: Times of India

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