Translated from Kokborok by Bibhuti Debbarma
Fish is an important part of the diet of Tripura’s tribals. Dry and fermented fish is used in a lot of Tripuri delicacies and fish dishes are prepared quite frequently in a tribal household here. This 2018 report states that the total consumption of fish per year in Tripura is 92,000 million tonnes, of which 72,276 million tonnes are produced in the state. The per-capita fish consumption is reported to be around 22 kg in the state.
In Tripura’s Bishramganj, the Debbarma tribe produces dry fish for commercial purposes. It is a common source of livelihood in this area.
Ashit Debbarma, a resident of Laltilapara, is one such dry fish producer. He has been associated with the sidol (a variety of dry fish) trade since 1990. Initially, he was working with Bengali sidol traders, which is how he learned the techniques of this trade. Now he is in this trade himself.
“In the beginning, my wife and I started our business with a capital of about 1000-1500 Rupees. Now we have completed 29 years in this business. Our biggest learning has been that whether there is profit or loss, we have to have enough to pay the wholesalers and labourers.“
His wife Manurani Debbarma, also in this business, says, “When we started our business, we didn’t have to sit in a shop to sell sidol anymore. Our business has done well, and now we are training our children to hand it over to them. When we were one of the few people running such a production, our profit margin was about 1 lakh Rupees a year. However, now as the number of similar businesses has increased, the profit is no longer that high.“
Chikonmala Debbarma, who works with Manurani and Ashit, tells me that is a good job for her. “I work on many different activities in the process of making sidol and I earn around 200 Rupees daily. Additionally, the owner also provides me with food. I stick to this work because it is indoors and I don’t have to go out in the open to endure the harsh sunlight and heavy rain.”
Jamuna, another employee, has a similar opinion, “I have been working here for almost three years now and I am happy to be here. I work from 8 AM to around 4-5 PM.”
To make sidol, a lot of ingredients and equipment is needed, like matkas (big pitcher), jute sacks, bamboo baskets, oil, soil, and above all dry fish.
After winnowing the sidol, it is moved to a different place. It is then washed in a bamboo basket and around 60- 70 baskets full of sidol are cleaned with water. These are then dried for a whole day, without drying they tend to become soft. The sidol is then put on a chalon for drying, which is made with bamboo. This chalon can be found in the market for 80 Rupees.
Sukumar Debbarma also works with Anshit and Manurani. “Here the entire processing is done by the labourers. I support my family with the money I earn from here. (around Rs. 700 per week). I have just washed 70 baskets of dry fish and kept them aside for drying. This dry version of Puti fish will be left as it is for one night. After one night these fish will be put in a big earthen pitcher, before which edible mustard oil will be applied to the bottom of the pitcher on the inside. While putting the dried fish inside, the leg covered with a jute sack (to prevent sand particles from getting mixed) is utilized. Everyday, around 50 pitchers are filled with fish.”
The photo above portrays 2000 pitchers of sidol. These pitchers will be left underground like this for about 7-8 months. When the pitchers will be taken out from the ground, traders from different areas will crowd here to collect them, or they will be directly sold in the market.
This is how the tribals of the Debbarma community earn a livelihood with the business of dry fish production. The delicacies tribals prepare with these fish are definitely worth tasting!
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.