In the summer of 2016, I ventured from my parents’ home on my bike during curfew to stretch my legs and visit a friend I’d not seen for a long time who lived at the foot of the Zabarwan Mountains. On my way back, I saw a woman in traditional attire selling fish on Foreshore Road. I got off my bike to have a look at the fish in her tub. The fisherwomen in Srinagar usually hide their catch from the searching gaze of a prospective customer by covering their tubs with a moist cloth that also keeps the fish cool. They often take a big fish out to persuade a bargain-hunter to buy from them.
It is never easy for a man to bargain with these ladies because their smooth talk is so disarming and commanding of deference that they can out-bargain most potential customers. An exception was an uncle of mine who on one occasion encountered a fisherwoman in a market who addressed him as “brother-in-law”. Being streetwise, he told her that he was no one’s brother-in-law and she should quote a more realistic price for her fish.
One fisherwoman whom I saw sitting on the bank of Lake Dal on Foreshore Road poured all her fish into a plastic carrier bag and handed it to me before I’d even agreed to buy them. The fish were very small and I knew that my mother would be none too pleased with my purchase. I told the fish-seller that I didn’t want to be thrown out of my parent’s home. She took the bag back and offered to cut and clean the fish herself to save my mother the trouble of taking their guts out, a time-consuming business that requires expertise.
She cleaned the fish effortlessly in no time at all before handing them back to me in the carrier bag. When I asked her the price, she said that I could pay her the next time I was around. I told her that I didn’t live in the town and was only visiting my parents for a few days. She retorted that in that case I didn’t need to pay her anything at all, thus putting me in the position of being indebted to her, which would be very much to her advantage in any future transactions with me. I had to insist that she accept my payment.
When I got home with the fish I related the incident to my mother. She said that the fisherwoman was well-known for her bargaining skills and had once sold fish to my cousin, together with the tub, even though he is known to be a cautious businessman. It made me smile, knowing that I didn’t stand a chance of refusing the fisherwoman’s offer. My mother observed that the fish I’d brought her were such small fry that she couldn’t cook them with saag and decided to serve the fish as an appetiser instead.
An excerpt from Forgotten Foods published by Picador India (31 Oct, 2023).