Once there was a river

In the 9th century CE the Adi Shankaracharya crossed the Narmada river and met his guru. The foundations of modern Hindu philosophy can be traced back to that event. I decided to make a quick dash to this immensely historical place in early January, and drove across the Narmada. The experience is totally disjoint with the classic sanskrit poetry that one grew up with. As the car swept over the bridge, my mind played back the lines Maha gabhira niira puraa paapa dhutam bhootalam (Your deep waters which overflow the banks and wash away the sins of the earth). Those waters have been reduced to a thin stream.

Through the 1990s a protest movement against damming this river in the west was perpetually in the headlines. Now, crossing a bridge between Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, far to the east, I saw how limited was the scope of those unsuccessful protestors. Upstream barrages are much more destructive of ecology than dams downstream, since they affect longer stretches of the river. The Narmada is one of the main westward flowing rivers of India, but almost nothing about the barrage upstream of Omkareshwar, entered the public discourse.

I was not surprised when I read that this tells on the fish population in the river. The mahaseer and the hilsa which the Narmada was known for, even a generation ago, has been replaced by imported catfish and carp. The trickle of water below the imposing bridge is a reminder of the lost connection with history. Have people gained or lost? Talking to farmers around here, one has the feeling that the water diverted to irrigation has been a gain. But if you talk to fishermen, you hear a different story. If these problems were not complex, we would have solved them by now.

At the other end of the country

2012-05-12 19.44.43Yesterday as we ate mawa jalebis, we noticed that there was a rival shop just across the lane. The two shops facing each other had the same name, each claimed that it was the original and oldest, and that it had no branches anywhere. The Family and I laughed at this petty display of what was clearly a falling out of partners. That, inevitably, reminded us of a trip to Tripura several years ago, and of our best meal in Agartala.

To get to Tripura from Mumbai you have to cross two countries: most of India, and then Bangladesh. Tripura is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh and connects to India only through a narrow neck in the east. We flew to Kolkata, and then over Bangladesh to Agartala. On the plane The Family found that we must eat in a restaurant called Adi Shankar. This was well-known in Agartala. We set out on foot from our hotel near the old palace, and eventually, after asking for directions a couple of times, landed up in front of four restaurants in a row, all called Adi Shankar.

I was flummoxed. The Family looked around and found a small shed with a tailor’s shop. She asked the tailor which of the Adi Shankars was the best. The old man replied that the four restaurants belong to four brothers, who quarreled about their roles in their father’s establishment after he died, and ended up dividing the restaurant. He told us that the best food was made by the eldest brother, and pointed out his shop. Since this was the only review we had, we took it at face value, and walked in.

2012-05-12 19.44.13We were early for dinner by Bengali standards, and the place was completely empty. The result was that we got the owner-cook’s undivided attention. Adi Shankar specialized in Ilish, a fish whose name can cause some Bengalis to launch into interminable reminiscences. (It is the national fish of Bangladesh, one of the triumvirate of countries with a national fish.) The tastiest of the fish is supposed to come from the Bangladeshi river called Padma. We were assured that the fish served in this restaurant comes every day from the very same Padma. We had Hilsa four ways: fried, as a starter, cooked in a thin curry, fried and then cooked into a curry, and, finally, cooked in a mustard paste.

What can one say about a meal after three years? Only that the memory still remains fresh in our minds. We must have eaten other things that evening, but we remember nothing else; the memory of the taste of that fish has overwhelmed everything. We took photos of the owners of the restaurant before we left. We went back for dinner once more, but that evening a large party had apparently finished all their Ilish, so we had to make do with other fish. I hope the family is still in business, and that their love of food remains fresh, because some day I want to go back there.