Nobody really liked Dey Kaka in Usha building. The kids hated him. (Including mine). They had strong reasons. Just the other day he had kicked Chotu, a cross breed between a pig and a dog, who didn’t mind children riding him as if he were a majestic horse. During the Chotu kicking episode, Dey Kaka’s dhoti had come off. The kids had jeered. He had used the choicest of Bengali expletives at them. Naturally his grandson Soumen was outcaste. He sat in the balcony of A -17, feet dangling out of the grills, and watched the other children play. (Including mine).
The Deys had moved in recently when the ever popular Braganzas migrated to Australia. For a 400 square feet one ‘BHK’, it was a largish family. Seventy plus Dey and his paralytic wife, his older son-wife-Soumen, his second son – pregnant wife and his third son – new bride. There was much gossip in the maid servant circuit about cold and not- so-cold wars happening out there in A -17.
I had semi-smiled and mutter-greeted Dey Kaka a couple of times. He had looked through me with his magnified eyes behind the thickest glasses ever. He looked like a Bengali version of Popeye the sailor. Walking cane in one hand, a filterless cigarette in the other, crumpled kurta on his lean frame and dhoti precariously flashing wrinkled thighs. The screeching sounds his plastic shoes made, didn’t exactly add to his appeal. Nor did his spitting habit.
And then he pokes me in the ribs one day. I don’t like being poked in the ribs when I am ogling at shimmering Koli women selling shimmering sea water catch. Pomphret, Surmai, Rawas, Halwa, Bangda, Tarli, Mori, kolmbi…..Sangeeta, Gauri, Rekha, Revti, Laalan, Shevanti…YUM!
He points with his stick to a tiny river water fish enclave in the predominantly seafood market. Actually it’s a different country all together. No pretty Koli women here. Only burly lungi clad UP ‘bhaiyaas’/West Bengali /Bangladeshi men selling fish out of red and blue plastic tubs. Fish sold by weight. Fish cut differently with a different kinds of choppers. But then it’s different fish! Rohu, Katla, Mangur, Bhetki, Pabda, Parshe….
Before that day, I had only tasted Rohu a couple of times and heard of the almost mythical Hilsa. For any Konkani speaker (me), fish meant seafood. Period. But now this rude poke in the ribs was to change that notion…
Whispering secretively with child-like glee, Dey Kaka bathes me in the stale acrid smell of Charminar filterless cigarettes.“They have a seven kilo Katla! Seven Kilo! Seven Kilo! What are you standing here for? Come! Come! Let’s do fifty-fifty”.
He almost drags me to ‘Bangladesh’ but I politely tell him that ‘we’ don’t eat ‘that’ stuff. Promptly he lets go of me. His face turns in to a wrinkled moon of sarcasm and disbelief. He rasps “seven kilo!” for one last time, spits on the floor, and disappears. I see him poking his way through a cluster of Bihari migrant laborers, high class bespectacled Bengali expats and giggling dusky Bangladeshi bar dancers in sleeveless kaftans and dupattas, no make up but lots of gold on their voluptuous bodies. Anyway….
A few days later at a nearby park, I get my boys to play with Soumen Dey. He turns out to be quite an entertainer with his mimicry skills. He imitates my limp to near perfection making both my sons laugh out loud. My younger fella tells Soumen something related with bum or piss, and he cracks up. His laughter brings about a faint hint of a smile on Deykaka’s frowning lips.He gets up from his bench and sits next to me, puffing away. He says you are a good man but you don’t eat ‘real’ fish. I tell him, I really don’t know river water fish too well and we don’t know how to cook it. I tell him I have heard Hilsa is very tasty. He again looks at me with disbelief. As if I have committed blasphemy.
“Hilsa is tasty?? You have heard? Ha!”
The following Sunday morning, the missus and I have just fought. An extraordinarily rude door bell rips apart the silence between us.Dey Kaka holds up a foot-long silvery flat fish at my face. His face is no less radiant than the fish. “Hilsa” he announces with understated flourish and barges into our flat. Soumen follows carefully balancing two cups in his two tiny hands.Kaka knows the layout of the flat. All the flats in Usha building are the same. He goes straight to the kitchen.
The Missus is shocked. The boys are excited to see Soumen and the drama of having Chotu’s assailant in the kitchen.Completely taking over, Dey Kaka barks orders. The missus, uncharacteristically, obeys. He mocks at the sharpness of her knives; he grunts at her favorite frying pan and glares at her for daring to cut the hilsa before he asked her to do so. He screams at her to just get the blue bottle of coconut oil out of his sight. He makes highly cute castist remarks about our sickening race that uses ‘hair-oil’ oil to cook food!
He finally asks the missus to step aside and rolls up his sleeves exposing his Popeye forearms. He takes one of the cups from Soumen that contains mustard oil, heats it and begins to fry the fist in it. Then he takes the mustard paste from the other cup and makes a sauce in the left over oil. The fried Hilsa slices are released into the sauce. He garnishes it with raw mustard oil and slit green chilies. There is pride in his eyes and suddenly the Bengali Popeye is Mandrake the magician. A Bengali one ofcourse.
Soumen and the boys cannot see what he has made. He lifts each one of them turn by turn to show them the dish.He gestures to the missus to taste his creation. She does and grins widely.
He pats her back with sudden tenderness. And warns her…”dare you eat it with chapaties! It has to be rice. Only rice. OK?”
She nods.He lights up his filterless then and there.I love watching her silent rage, face turning crimson.
Dey Kaka asks me for sixty rupees that he paid for the fish. I promptly pay it. He says he bought three of them. Two for his family and one for us. I thank him and ask him to eat with us.
He looks at the floor silently. He mutters…
“I don’t eat fish”.
Before the shock can sink in, he drags Soumen away and in a flash, is out of our flat.
A few days later, one dark evening on the park bench, he tells me he gave up eating fish three years ago. “Why?” I ask gingerly. He says it was to atone for a ‘sin’ he had committed. I don’t have the guts to ask him what that ‘sin’ was.
He then tells me his eldest son (Soumen’s father) is a eunuch, his second son is a sly fox and the third one, an aspiring film director, has too much fat on his backside. After some silence, he asks me to see if I can arrange for an assistant director’s job for the third son in one of the television serials I write. I tell him I will try to do so. He quickly clarifies that the fish curry has nothing to do with the job request. I am embarrassed.
He looks at Soumen playing with my boys. He tells me he will ensure that Soumen becomes an expert goldsmith like himself. He asks me if my father is also a scriptwriter. It takes me effort not to laugh and say a straight faced NO. He says nothing.
A perky Pomeranian approaches us. Dey kaka stiffens. The pomp sniffs at his foot. Suddenly he kicks the dog really hard calling it a mother fucker. The dog howls away.
Kaka walks away in a rage and scared Soumen catches up, clutching his hand.
I sit stunned with my boys huddling next to me. The owner of the whimpering pomp, a sweat-soaked woman in leopard print tights, abuses in Sindhi and Sindhi accented English. Kaka does not turn. Soumen does. Kaka whacks him on the head to look ahead and they go out of the park. The woman crying hysterically picks up the injured dog and runs after Kaka threatening him with her Shiv Sena contacts.
My boys want to know if Soumen’s grandfather is a bad man.
I tell them its time to go home, the mosquitoes are out.