Sun 26 Apr 2015
by Andreé Robinson-Neal
If it were possible to have your eyes closed as you read, it might also be possible to feel, smell, and hear the story. You might be saying to yourself, “I can hear the story if I buy an audio book,” but that is not what is meant here.
Anjali’s fingers were hard despite the softness of the cream she was kneeding into Reena’s face. They were a worker’s hands, the hands of a woman who washed clothes, did the dishes and cooked the meals for the family along with her work as a beautician.
Abha Iyengar’s Many Fish to Fry is filled with touchable, smellable, hearable moments on each page. She takes us to Paharganj, a neighborhood in Delhi, to meet a variety of memorable characters, including Reena Vardharajan (which was shortened to “Rajan” because “Vardharajan” is so long, isn’t it?) and her family; Parvati, Reena’s part-time maid (who is a barely tolerable and weak replacement for Murali, the former full-time servant); Anirban Dasgupta and his wife Proteeksha, the Punjab/Bengali couple who live next door in Flat No. 69; jewelry maker Sanjay Singh and Neeru his wife; and the ever-effervescent private detective Harinmoy Banerjee. There is also the matter of fish, interwoven intricately throughout.
Thanks to her beautician, Reena’s love for jewelry making has been rekindled. She meets Sanjay as she embarks on her new career as a part-time business woman. Making jewelry provides her an outlet, something her traditional mother, traveling businessman husband, and busy children struggle to understand. She takes over the dining room table to craft her designs and spends afternoons visiting Sanjay and other merchants in the roadside shops to the dismay of her husband.
When [Reena's] seriousness with her work began to interfere with her attention to the little details around [her husband Anand], thing she had taken care of earlier because she had nothing else on her mind, he expressed his disapproval.
“You are getting too involved. Why do you need to do all this running around at your age? … I miss the hot rotis you make for me. you have no time to talk to me … and the dhobi just can’t iron shirts like you do … did.” …
She had expected him to be highly supportive.
But when a Hilsa fish shows up unexpectedly on her doorstep, followed closely by an unexpected meeting with Harinmoy Banerjee, a colorful private investigator and self-labeled Super Sleuth who rings Reena’s door looking for Proteeksha, the next door neighbor from Flat No. 69, Reena embarks on an adventure filled with intrigue, laughter, tears, and gossip. And of course, fish.
Iyengar skillfully mixes language and cultures into a delicious stew that will suit any taste. She intermingles traditional Hindi and Bengali words and phrases (there is a glossary of terms in the back for the less initiated) with Western terms familiar to any English speaker of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Her words come off the page to tickle the palate. The sound of the traditional words and phrases, when read aloud, are lyrical to the ear: phrases such as Na rehega bans, na bajegi bansuri (“If there is no bamboo, there will be no flute,” meaning “If the source of the trouble is removed, then the trouble won’t occur,” according to the glossary) and Daane daane pe likha hai khane wale ka naam (“On each morsel is written the name of the person destined to eat it”) are just two examples.
As Chris Galvin Nguyen, the writer of the book’s forward indicates, Many Fish to Fry examines Indian social issues and suggests what it is like to move beyond tradition through the use of “real-life trends of language and culture in India.” For weeks after reading it, you will be challenged not to end every sentence with Harinmoy’s classic Is it not, dear?
This is not Iyengar’s first book, but it is her first with Pure Slush. She has a number of other published works worth checking out and can be found at www.abhaiyengar.com and www.abhaencounter.blogspot.in.
Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury—both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.