[During Mohan Agashe’s troubled tenure at the Institute, my office was once subjected to a double doze of vandalism. A small fire set through the window, followed by water charge of an overenthusiastic fire brigade. The churning threw up—butter like, I now think—a typewritten second or third draft of this present story which I found floating the next morning.
Dated December 10, 1990, this is an account of a Sunday morning when my children were truly children. Born to a filmmaker’s family they have been extensively photographed. But without an account such as this, it would be impossible to picture them as they really were.
I strongly recommend setting afire all offices once in a while!]
Gyan has been after me to make him something to catch fish with. And without actually saying so, he manages to keep reminding me that I have not done so for a long time. This morning, for example, he brought me the large kitchen strainer and asked if he could ‘borrow’ it to play with downstairs.
“Borrow it from mummy,” I said. “It’s her empire.”
“I know,” he replied, “but she’d say no.”
“That’s why you should think of something else.”
“I don’t know. Look through the house again maybe.”
It being Sunday, the newspaper was going to be late. So with Gyan on my mind I set out for a walk and took a route along a rainwater channel that flows through our neighborhood. Normally at this time of the year it should have been dry but for some reason it was flowing as though in monsoon. At one point there was a break in the thick bushes lining the water on both sides and it was possible to step on a couple of stones and reach the water. I did that and saw that the water was quite clean.
And then I saw the fish. Were they really fish or tadpoles? No, they had to be fish because some of them were bigger—about an inch or so—and these were more definitely shaped.
It was just about eight in the morning; so mentally scanning the house, I came back on the quick. Gyan had meanwhile switched interests.
“Could you find a substitute for that strainer?”
“Forget it Papa,” he said without taking his eyes off his immediate concern. “It has to be the strainer.”
Then, putting two and two together, he knew that some excitement was afoot and began following me from room to room. Soon I stopped at a pair of shopping buckets standing collecting dust on the kitchen loft.
“Can you find that piece of nylon netting left over from the curtains?” I turned to Gyan. “If you can, we can go catching fish today.”
“Oh wow, where!”
Within minutes, we set up the sewing machine. Then, with him turning the handle to my speed, we stitched a bag from the net cloth and even provided it with an elastic band on the mouth. This we slipped over the smaller plastic bucket up to the handles, so as to collect whatever fish escaped through the ribs.
“It’s an excellent idea of yours, Papa,” whispered Gyan as we gently clicked the main door behind. Indu and Sonia were still in bed.
“You never can say with fish. I hope it works.”
“I’m sure it’ll work Papa,” he said bursting with excitement, then jumped all five steps of the last flight of stairs to land directly on the ground. “But why don’t you say where we are going?”
“Oh you’ll be there in a moment. And you’d see for yourself.”
“Beautiful!” he said, as soon as we came upon the break in the bushes. Promptly he planted his feet on the stones and bent over looking.
“My God, so many of them Papa!” he exclaimed. “Look there! And those! And that big one Papa!”
The big one was among the biggest there, but strangely alone. And static. Gyan advanced towards her.
“Make sure, if she’s alive first.” I cautioned.
But deftly he dipped the bucket near the fish and picked it up without any problem.
“I think you have caught a dead fish.”
“Not a chance Papa,” he got up and peeped into the bucket. “See, its fins are moving.”
The fins were indeed moving. “But what is this white bulge under its belly?”
“Nothing, it’s a part of its design,” said Gyan snatching the bucket away for fear I would find further faults with his catch if I stared at it too long. “Sure it’s living—and breathing too! Look at her gills!”
But the next moment—“Oh shit!” he looked at me. “Papa, I made a mistake. We should have brought a plastic bag!”
“Whatever for?” I asked him. But he had already started looking around for discarded plastic. There was none however, so he came back.
“How shall we take it home now, Papa?”
“Oh, are we going back right away?”
“Yeah, otherwise this one will die. And I never, never would let it die—this is the biggest fish I ever caught, and it can’t die. Not until Chotu has seen it. And alive!”
I hardly saw any problem in carrying the fish home. It was all a matter of holding the bucket lightly so that its half an inch of water could be kept from spilling. The fish was doing fine in that water as we could see.
“OK then you hold it all the way,” said Gyan. “I can’t.”
“Oh you can too, I’m sure.” I said taking the bucket from him.
“I’m too excited, Papa. Just look at my hands?”
Returning every now and then to check how the fish was doing, Gyan ran all the way home. On the stairs however he took it from me and called for Sonia. I was of course itching to lay my hands on the newspaper but true to most Sundays…
So, much against my liking, I switched on the TV and began pressing channels.
Suddenly it occurred to me that the children would put their prize catch in tap water. I rushed and saw them fussing around a big collection of pots in the balcony. “What water is this? Tap water, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but it was absolutely clean, I checked Papa,” certified Sonia, surprised.
“Yes, but clean for whom? That water is not clean for the fish. In fact, it’s poison!”
“Sure! Drinking water is treated with all kinds of chemicals. Look, she’s already gone slow—.”
“My God, I was wondering—,” began Sonia, but Gyan pointed out that it had been slow all along.
“No, but you know what I thought Papa? I thought she was pregnant. Did you see the swelling on the tummy?”
Sonia was spot on—that fish couldn’t but be loaded with eggs, and Gyan had probably gone and caught her just as she was preparing to lay them.
“Run!” I said. “Run to that same canal, and bring her her own home water! And fast! It’s not just one fish to save now but a whole family!”
Both children ran in panic; first looking for containers from the kitchen or the bathroom, but shooed off by Indu, both returned looking for possibilities in the living room. Recently I had got a couple of glass tumblers cut from Champaign bottles for their knick-knacks. On a flash, both were snatched and emptied in one go.
“You needn’t go to the point where we got the fish,” I called after them down the staircase. “Where Chotu and you go to fish is much closer! And careful as you cross the road, both of you—!”
“What is it you are starting them on now?” Indu came wiping her hands from the kitchen. “No bath, no breakfast! They haven’t even brushed their teeth so far. And when would they study?”
“But they just finished their exams?”
“Tch, don’t for God’s sake keep calling them exams; they were just tests!”
“A’right tests, but just see what we caught this morning.”
“I know what you caught this morning—an inch of fish, what else.”
“This one is closer to one and a half,” I corrected her, “and pregnant, if you don’t mind!”
“Pregnant? The fish?” Indu was stumped. “Where is it, where is it?”
It was 10.30. There was still no sign of the newspaper; nor of the children. Chotu had come calling Gyan and I had sent him after them, but even that was a good ten minutes back.
“Forget it,” said my wife, “why do you worry? You got them started. Now it is up to them. Maybe they have already lost interest.”
“Yes, but whatever happened to this newspaper fellow? I have been just whiling away time since the morning—.”
The fish was now quite still—but living. I wished we had brought another one along, a normal one to judge how fast the tap water was actually affecting them. And indeed whether it was affecting them at all, because I had only heard that chlorine of the tap water wasn’t good for little animals. And moreover, how often is water chlorinated in our taps anyway?
I got up and came downstairs looking for another passing vendor who could possibly spare a copy for me, but it was late for that. After a while I called Indu and asked her to throw me the scooter keys. “I’ll just go and see what is keeping the children—.”
Passing through the lanes, I got to the canal and started driving along the walkway. Where had they drifted? Finally I saw the three of them—Chotu slow cycling and Sonia and Gyan holding their tumblers—returning through one of the by lanes.
“What the hell!” I said losing my temper. “Does it take you half a day to collect a little water from a whole flowing river?”
“Papa, look we have caught so many more of them! And directly, without the net, see—?” This was Gyan.
“Get you on the scooter, both of you!” I said.
“A little slow Papa,” said Sonia, as we started. “The water is spilling all over me.” “I don’t care how you manage,” I said. “All I want is to reach a little water to that poor dying thing!” “Sorry Papa.”
I must have raced the scooter in anger because I heard all kinds of panic reactions at the back. But then it was important that we lose no further time.
“Soni, hold the glass away from the body like I am doing,” said Gyan. “Just like you do in a train.”
“Is it alright now?” I asked, relenting somewhat.
“Yes Papa. It’s fine, isn’t it Soni?” said Gyan. “In fact, we can go even faster.”
But it was too late by the time we reached the fish. It was completely still and sunk at the bottom. Hoping for a miracle, we tried changing water, then agitating it and finally even releasing the other living ones to somehow wake her up.
“So, that’s it.” I said getting up.
“So what happens?” said Gyan defiantly. “We’ve got many more.”
“Yeah but not that one,” said Sonia. “That one is gone for ever—that’s what Papa is saying, isn’t it Papa?”
“So what happens?” Gyan persisted. “I’ve got others.”
“OK and how many of them are pregnant?”
“So what happens? They can always get pregnant! And in any case, I had caught it!”
“She’s my property, I can do what I like with her.”
“What can you do with her now? She’s all dead.”
“Why, I’ll cut her open—dissect her.”
“NO!” Sonia was aghast. “NO! You wouldn’t!”
“I would.” He began to reach for the jar.
“Papa, stop him—he’s—.” Sonia pounced upon him and they both rolled into a scuffle.
Just then I heard the newsboy! A musical shuffling of feat up the stairs, followed by a solid thud of the heavy Sunday newsprint hitting the door. Nothing could come now between my reading and me. I don’t think I shouted after the newsboy either; I never do. Nor do I remember how the fish ended up eventually—under Gyan’s knife or under two inches of earth from the ‘decent’ burial that Sonia had been fighting to give it.