- Brian Mendonça
When Jesus fed the multitude, all he needed were 5 loaves and 2 fish. Today it takes nothing short of a miracle to do that -- or a lot of money. 4 large white pomfret were selling for Rs. 500 last evening at the Vasco fish market. A medium-sized kingfish was for Rs 400. There were teesrios, modso, dodyare and lepe. I came away with 8 mackeral for Rs. 100 and a fistful of prawn for Rs. 50.
That was the easy part. These days to save Queenie the trouble of cleaning the fish – ever since our cooking maid dumped us – I stride manfully up to the cement slabs at the rear of the fish market and ask one of the gents who double up as fish cleaners, to clean the fish I have bought. (Earlier, dad says, I would not venture within a mile of the place!) The fish cleaner did not say a word as I placed my two poti’s of fish within inches of his cutting board which seemed like a sawn-off tree trunk.
We usually source fish from here as the choice is more. The fish market near Butteabhat, down the road from Mangor Hill where we live, could give the city market a run for its money, but the catch there is iffy. Also, on the last occasion the prawns (cleaned and kept) I had picked up in a spurt of misguided euphoria were a shade stale. The fisherwoman who has been coming to our locality at mid-morning since mum’s time advertises her catch by yelling the customary, ‘Nishte Zai Go . . .!!’ for the benefit of all those women who want to buy some. But she charges more than the usual price -- no doubt for the door to door service. The upside of it is that now baba-Dwayne has begun imitating her, and he even puts his hands on his head to balance his basket of fish! All of us have our tryst with fish, sooner or later.
Halfway through the mackerals, a man strode up to the fish cleaner with a single fish, whose length seemed endless. I smelt trouble. I waited as I sat on the makeshift plastic chair (sans arms) in front of the fish cleaner. Sure enough, the moment he was through the 8, he took the king-sized hisson and said he would not be able to do the shumta. ‘Chodd ha’ he said. What I had considered my good fortune at the fisherwoman’s largesse, now paled into a liability! What is more, that chit of a man who had just gate-crashed, began to hold forth on how people like me should not be bringing puny prawns to self-respecting fish cleaners.
Should I leave? -- For I saw no way of how the meek were going to inherit the earth. I indignantly pointed out to the fish cleaner that if he wasn’t going to do it he should have told me so in the first place. He would not budge. There was no succour in sight. The fisherwoman from whom I had bought the prawns would no doubt shoo me away now, I thought despondently. And it was nearing time to pick up Queenie from the gym.
To lose one’s shirt and stalk off in anger would have been the easiest thing. I took a different tack. I waited. I could feel my senses simmering with each neat fillet he cut of the kingfish. The rasping sound of steel on stone as he sharpened his knife took on demonic proportions. He was soon done though. The man threw down a large note and swaggered off with his prize. The moment he was gone the fish cleaner seemed to lose all his bravado. I waited for the right moment. Surely he was not too proud to earn a buck rather than sit idle? ‘Masso kor,’ I ventured, standing up, ‘Thodde kor.’ He shrugged. As he condescended to finger the prawns, he called out in what sounded like Kannada, to a woman who was pottering around close by. ‘Haath lai,’ he said, switching to Konkani. Seeing my perseverance she started cleaning and deveining the prawns expertly. Soon the mound was almost gone. More fish buyers lined up to have their fish cleaned. But the two stood steadfast until the prawns were done, grinning and sharing wisecracks about their work. I was wondering what turned the tide. We often have to think on our feet to rescue a seemingly hopeless situation. But it’s worth the effort for a tasty prawn curry with rice – you should taste Queenie’s!
Cartoon by Mario Miranda