Shona! Come inside and have your dinner. The food is getting cold.’
Eight-year-old Shona heard her mother calling out from the kitchen and made a face. It was a Sunday and she knew what would be on the menu. She had spotted baba making his way to the market in the morning, whistling his favourite song. Completely out of tune, of course. It meant only one thing.
Ilish for dinner!
Shona hated fish – both the smell and taste. To her fish-loving Bengali family, it was nothing short of sacrilege. Her mother had tried to entice Shona into eating fish by pulling out all the stops – She tried steaming the fish, deep and shallow frying it, minced it, made it as a curry, and even batter-fried it. Shona hated them all. It was not just the Ilish that she disliked; She hated Rui, Katla, Prawns, Pomfret, Bhetki…if it was a fish and if it was lying on a plate, Shona made a face and ran away.
‘There you are!’ Her mother called out from the kitchen. ‘Go, clean your hands and legs and sit down to eat.’
‘But I don’t like fish!’ Shona protested and looked to baba for support but he was busy arguing with grandpa about which was better: the ilish from Ganga or the ones from Padma river. Shona scrunched her nose and picked a piece of the deep-fried fish and popped it into her mouth reluctantly. Immediately, she spat it out with a look of disgust on her face.
‘mechhobhooter shonge biye hobe!’ Her grandma said and snickered.
‘I won’t get married to a mechhobhoot!’ Shona replied with indignation and then added, ‘What is a mechhobhoot?’
‘Mechhobhoots are the ghosts who have an insatiable appetite for fish. It is said that those who die a watery death while fishing become mechhobhoots and roam around ponds, lakes, and rivers.’
‘Why?’ Shona asked in a small voice.
‘Because they lie in wait for fishermen and ask them for fish. Machh diye jaa… Machh diye jaa…That’s how they ask for the fish. If the fishermen don’t part with their fish, the mechhobhoot won’t hesitate to kill.’
‘Really?’ Shona’s voice trembled with fear.
‘Yes!’ Grandma smiled and said, ‘Do you want to get married to a mechhobhoot?’
‘Then eat your fish!’
‘Can I go eat in the garden?’ Shona asked.
Grandma nodded and smiled. Shona picked up her plate and made her way to the garden. She loved sitting on the grass under the mango tree. She remembered grandma’s story and forced herself to swallow a piece of the fish. The moon, suddenly, decided to take a quick nap behind the dark clouds. Shona felt a chill creeping up her spine.
‘Little girl!’ A nasal voice came from somewhere behind her. Shona turned to look but saw no one.
‘Little girl!’ There it was again.
‘Who is it?’ She called out.
‘Machh diye jaa…’