My first invitation to dinner on Gosaba came from Toma Das, a 29-year-old physical education teacher at the local school, whom I’d met minutes earlier.
Toma, who’d recently moved from mainland West Bengal to the island in the Sundarbans archipelago, was finding it hard to adjust to the villagers’ old-fashioned attitudes about female athletes. She was relieved to meet someone on her wavelength, she told me as we walked to her place.
I was pleased, too. Living out of a dilapidated guesthouse while I worked on a book, with no cooking facilities on hand, I was forced to subsist on a local dry puffed rice snack. The thought of a hot cooked meal filled me with a primeval delight.
Inside the room she shared with her husband, Joy, and their twin toddlers, Toma hoisted her sari up to her knees, and settled down on a stool improvised from a handful of bricks. She unwrapped a plump, pink-hewed carp from a piece of newspaper. Joy had bought the fish down at the harbor, straight out of a boat. “I don’t like to cook,” Toma admitted after he left the room, while slicing the fish along the curved prow of a boti, a Bengali knife attached to a narrow wooden base. She’d rather be outdoors, she confided, running or swimming.
Toma coated the slices of fish in salt and turmeric powder and placed them carefully into a pan hissing with mustard oil. When the pieces started to separate, she turned her attention to a basket of vegetables, selecting red chiles, tomatoes, purple onions and a knobby finger of ginger that she pounded in a granite pestle. The fried fish was a golden brown color when she reduced the heat on the stove and removed the pieces onto a yellowing piece of newspaper to soak up excess oil. She threw the chopped-up onion, tomatoes, red chile powder and turmeric into the pan, infusing the room with an oily fragrance. A bay leaf fluttered in the mix.
They used to live with her family but had moved because of her teaching job, Toma told me while cleaving potatoes on the boti. Her husband had given up a promising career “in computers” to relocate to the village, which wasn’t entirely electrified. Toma slid the potatoes into the curry. Joy was a househusband, and Toma was grateful for his support, but when she returned home from school she still had to wash dirty dishes, cook dinner and put the twins to bed. She was happy to keep busy, she said, choosing to see her glass as half full.
Toma returned the fish to the pan and added water for gravy. “I hope you’re hungry,” she said. They couldn’t store food, she told me; it attracted flies and ants. She worried it might attract other, bigger animals. So everything she cooked had to be eaten the same day. She removed the fish curry from the stove and put white rice on the boil. We laid out newspapers on the floor, and Toma served us on steel thalis she stored under their bed.
Joy had taken the children to float paper boats down in the village pond so we could enjoy ourselves without distraction. Toma chatted about run times and protein shakes, and barely ate a handful in her excitement. Meanwhile, I wolfed down her delicious fish curry — my first proper meal in weeks — and didn’t speak a word.