What is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Bengalis? That we are a race of proud and prodigious fish-eaters. Alas, no longer. A government report, the ‘NSS Report No 558: Household Consumption of Various Goods & Services in India, 2011-12’ reveals the terrible secret — far from being numero uno in fish eating in the country, we are a lowly number six. The average consumption of fish in urban Bengal is a mere 1.032 kg per head per month. Tripura, the Andamans, Goa and Kerala beat us hollow. The champion fish-eaters are to be found in Lakshadweep, with the average urban Lakshadweepian (yes, there is such a thing) gorging on 3.801 kg of fish a month.
Have you ever wondered at the dramatic degeneration of West Bengal? Hardly a day goes by without reports of rapes, or killings, or political mayhem. The old Bengal of books and music and culture has almost disappeared. The bhadralok is an endangered species. How did the Bengal of Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose become the Bengal of Mamata Banerjee? We now know the answer. The fault, dear Bongs, is not in our stars, but in our food. Gastronomy, not astronomy, is at fault.
Consider a normal day during Bengal’s golden age. The typical bhadralok has just had an excellent lunch of hilsa fish. Sated and stuffed, he retires for a siesta, where, under the influence of the hilsa, he dreams up an entire epic composed in iambic pentameter. The first thing he does when he wakes is write it down. By evening, after a light snack of fish cutlets, he goes for a walk, humming Rabindrasangeet. At his friend’s place, he settles down for an adda and perhaps a peg or two with fish fry. The fish stimulates his brain and he holds forth superbly on literature and politics and what not. Back home, after a bhetki dinner and an essay or two, he goes to bed, the fish working all night to swell his brain. Can these things be done without fish?
But if Bengalis have given up on fish, what have they substituted in its place? The NSS report tells us the awful truth — West Bengal has the highest consumption of potatoes per head, with the average rural Bengali shamefully tucking away an awesome 3.794 kg of potatoes per month, well above Bihar, which ranks second in potato-eating. It is this shift in diet from glorious fish to measly potatoes that is at the heart of the decline and fall of Bengal.
As the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said long ago, man is what he eats. What happens when the Bong, denied his favourite fish, is forced to eat potatoes instead? Naturally, he first gets irritated, then cranky and finally he sees red. It’s probably the reason why Bengal turned to Communism. It is clearly the reason for the lowering of standards, for the erosion of Bengali culture. As for the lack of safety for women in Bengal these days, we have a term for it, loosely translated as ‘the fault of the potato’. For those interested in further details, please read my forthcoming paper ‘The Potato-isation of Bengal.’
But if Bengal is in decline, which region will take its place? Look no further than fish-eating champ Lakshadweep. Although the Lakshadweepians may not know it yet, what Lakshadweep thinks today, India will think tomorrow.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal