Chandpur, Bangladesh | Hook, line, sinker5 min read . Updated: 02 Oct 2014, 04:07 PM IST
A personal journey to the world's unofficial hilsa capital is full of meals of fish straight off the boat
There was only one condition laid down for our family trip to Bangladesh: we would have to go there by train. Yes, it would be an 8-hour journey, as opposed to a 30-minute flight, from Kolkata. Yes, it would not be the most comfortable, but in that masochistic way that families can operate, there it was. Travelling in a rickety coach with dodgy AC that only seemed to exaggerate the humidity outside, we were compensated with two of Bangladesh’s natural treasures: unending views of its great water bodies, and a lunch of the freshest ileesh or hilsa fish. It was a mere sampler to what lay ahead.
For someone born and raised in a ghoti (West Bengali) family in Kolkata, there were several points of interest in a first journey across the border. Much of Bengali culture is split along the binary provided by the Padma river, the natural border between east and west. The food is spicy (east) or sweet (west); the accent nasal or straight; and, after the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal football match, the celebratory indulgence is either hilsa or prawns (golda chingri). Though Bengalis are united by their reverence for the works of Rabindranath Tagore, some of these writings were inspired by the rivers and fields on the eastern side and others by the red soil and urban landscape of western Bengal.
There was, though, a more personal reason for my journey: visiting Chandpur, around 150km south-east of Dhaka, where my grandfather had served in the years before Independence. There are no photographs of that time but the stories handed down of strolls along the river and of a large bungalow with a retinue of servants helped the mind’s eye build an identikit of a pleasant, if sleepy, provincial town blessed with a majestic vista.
In those days they moved en camp, on elephant and horseback and on riverboats. Our journey today was less grandiose, but probably matched them for speed: it took 6 hours to travel the distance by car on a very potholed and crowded Chittagong highway. We reached Chandpur—hot, dusty and a bit shell-shocked from the bumpy journey, but the view that greeted me was everything I had expected, and then some.
Chandpur’s main claim to fame is that it is the meeting point of Bangladesh’s three great rivers—the Padma, which is what the Ganga becomes in Bangladesh and which includes the Jamuna, the main distributary of the Brahmaputra; and the Meghna, which is a distributary of the Brahmaputra (just in case you weren’t already confused, there’s a third river, the smaller but evocatively named Dakatia).
All of this added up to a sight that, despite all the anticipation and Google-surfing, still took my breath away. It’s a never-ending stretch of water, which on this late monsoon day mirrors the muddy skies; the nearest river bank is several kilometres away; some suggest that the Meghna spans 12km at its widest point.
There is no sound but that of our motorboat and, with the engine off, the gentle gurgling of the three waters. Well, two of them anyway: the Meghna and the darker Padma are fairly distinct, but the Dakatia is a stream by comparison.
As the rain gets heavier and the sky darker (and the water infinitely, and disconcertingly, more choppy) we head back to the “Maachh Ghat", the central point of Chandpur’s other claim to fame: hilsa. This otherwise nondescript town is the world’s unofficial hilsa capital, supplying thousands of tonnes of the silver, shining fish to aficionados and pining expats the world over (Bangladesh has now officially banned hilsa export but the black market is thriving). Hilsa is to the Bengali what whiskey is to the Scots and wine to the French—not merely a commodity but a national treasure elevated to near-religious status. As food writer Chitrita Banerji puts it, “The differences between bangals (those from erstwhile East Bengal/East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) and ghotis, between Hindus and Muslims, disappear in an agreement of amity—there is nothing to rival the hilsa." The only point of difference would be which side has the better hilsa and even there most ghotis would admit, even if under their breath, that the best hilsa is from “opaar"—the other side of the Padma.
In Chandpur, any debate about quality loses relevance in the face of the sheer quantity. The Maachh Ghat is hilsa heaven: room after room stacked floor to ceiling with the fish. Outside are dozens of wicker packing cases in varying stages of readiness; they are first lined with blue plastic sheets, then crammed with alternating layers of ice and fish before being sealed with more plastic.
This is hilsa season; the fish, which is born in the sea and spawns in the delta, comes upriver to breed during the monsoon. By then it’s large and, in many cases, heavy with roe, itself a prized delicacy. What makes the hilsa so special? It’s the flesh, full of flavour; it’s the oil that the fish yields, which becomes a condiment in its own right, best eaten with plain rice; it’s the roe, it’s the head. It’s everything. And this despite—or is it because of—the countless fine bones one has to pick out while eating (though the British found a way around that with their deboned Smoked Hilsa). Luckily our lunch in Chandpur has enough hilsa dishes to satisfy everyone’s cravings: fried crisp, or in a mustard gravy, or the head cooked with vegetables, or in a sort of biryani. This is fish almost straight off the boat—fresh fish, and it’s lovely.
In these times of rewriting history, of wiping out the past and denying the contributions of those whose profiles are out of sync with the prevailing philosophy, this simple act of remembrance is touching and reassuring. The ideals with which my grandfather and his colleagues worked while building the steel frame that held together the Indian subcontinent have almost disappeared today, but there’s still a flame that flickers in a far corner of a foreign field.
Chandpur is off the Dhaka-Chittagong highway and so can be easily accessed by car or bus. The Padma Express bus leaves from the Jatrabari bus stand in Dhaka. Road journeys can take anything upward of 4 hours, depending on the traffic.
The best way to go, though, is by launch or ferry, a 6-hour river ride. The ‘Sonar Tori’ ferry leaves Dhaka at 7am and the ‘Eagle’ at 2pm; a ferry ride can cost 250-500 Bangladeshi taka (around ₹ 195-390) for a seat or cabin.
Prince hotel, Near Hawker’s Market Area, 880-1712044880, rooms start at 1,000 Bangladeshi taka, double occupancy for a night.
Taj Hotel and Café corner, near the Prince hotel, serves hilsa—a hilsa meal can cost around 200 Bangladeshi taka.
Eat hilsa, enjoy the river whether on the banks of the Padma or on the water. Then eat some more hilsa.