“Ew, fish”

Was a very common phrase I heard while growing up. The repulsion that fish has the power to bring about in vegetarians around me was something I was used to witnessing.

Fish was supposed to be disgusting. Of course, those who thought this way had never bothered to try it. It was disgusting because of the way it smelled- stinky, apparently.

When the outbursts began, I would grow very quiet- just looking and nodding. That’s how I react when anybody gets violent feelings about something that I don’t necessarily think ‘weird’ or ‘disgusting.’ Perhaps in this case it was guilt- I was hiding something.

Fish is an everyday occurrence when you grow up in a Malayali household. In fact, the absence of fish is what is weird for us. I was leading a double life. I would go to school and listen to people hate on fish, and come back home and eat it with renewed vigour. To this day, fried fish, rice, moru curry, and cabbage thoran remains one of my favourite meals.

When in school, it is easy to brush these comments aside. I didn’t know enough to be embarrassed or upset. I didn’t think enough to realise that when she said I smelled like fish she was hinting at something else.

They were talking about how South Indian- how non-veg, I was.

When I started living alone in Dubai, I began to cook a lot of fish in nostalgia. This scared my mother. When I joined a new job, she had only one piece of advice- “Don’t take fish for lunch.”

At first, I thought this was about the smell. Only the smell. Sure, granted, fish does have a very strong piercing smell. But over the past few months, I have been realising that it also has to do with the many divides in India, that are specially packaged and brought into Dubai.

Where does this inability to tolerate fish come from? They lift their noses in the air and put their hands on their chest attempting to control their gag reflexes. How can something so repulsive be consumed in front of me? how can it be offered to me? The offence intended is carefully masked by claims of vegetarianism. Is your choice really that liberal if it comes at the cost of my culture? Is your hatred justified if it stomps all over my memories and feelings?

She came and told me about how she likes South Indians a lot. We have a unique look- which she likes. She has a clear idea of how south Indians must look and must not look, it allows her to get offended when someone asks her if she is South Indian, and retort with comments like, “You look more South Indian than me.”

What do you do when your culture- one that you only began appreciating over the past few years- begins to get threatened? belittled? You have two options- forsake it, and blend in with the norm because you have the privilege to do so; or fall in love with it even harder and defend it from the effects of ignorance.

Of course, I chose the latter. After all, I eat fish, I’m too smart to give up all that I’ve learned so far.