By Mitali Chakravarty, First Published in Different Truths
How do I fish? Let me count the ways.
I love to fish to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
(With due apologies to Elizabeth Barret Browning1)
Fishing is an activity that has always fascinated me.
After reading Huck Finn2, I realised the best way to meditate would be while fishing. You would put the bait in water and wait. Wait. Wait for the fish to bite. And when they bite, you would drag him or her (fishes have males and females) out and then roast them on slow fire! Or fry the creature, as my father would have recommended, in hot mustard oil after marinading it with salt and a smear of turmeric — typical Bengali cuisine! He even had that implemented at a family wedding in an air-conditioned hall without cooking or special exhaust facilities. As he was given responsibility for the menu, he wanted the very best for his beloved niece. So, the hotel staff was ordered to fry fish in mustard oil in front of the guests and serve it fresh! That the guests had to put up with gusts of smoke indoor and had streaming red eyes provided fodder for humour and very importantly, also served to imprint the wedding dinner in the minds of all the attendees. But we are not indulging in a discussion of wedding memorabilia or culinary recipes. We want to focus on fishing experiences!
In front of my house now, there is a river or a sea inlet — in Singapore most rivers are sea inlets. Now it is a freshwater reserve. They dammed the sea to collect rainwater — we have a number of them on the island. These collect not just rainwater but run offs too. I do not want to go into the water systems of Singapore but what I mean to say is, people fish there too. They stand with lines and the river is literally teeming with piscine life, turtles and otters. Sometimes you see the otters munch a whole fish. They just catch the fish with bare hands, rather paws, and have it uncooked, unsalted swimming in the river. You can hear the bones crackle as they bite. I watch some of them at play. They dive and disappear into the greenery on the opposite shore. They reappear again this time near their friends who are munching on fish. Their whiskers quiver when they eat. The latecomers try to grab the fish from him/her. The munching otters push them off and dive. The hungry bunch follows. Sometimes, the otters fight over the fish! Kingfishers and cranes too, dive down to fish. I do not know if the Brahmani kites ever eat fish, or, do they soar high to looking for mice or moles? Rodents scare me. But again, I remind myself, we were talking of fishing.
The monkeys I do not think fish. But they do occasionally swim in condominium swimming pools lining the river — like humans they prefer the privacy of clean chlorinated water to river water where monitor lizards, snakes, otters, turtles, fish live and eat. They once went into a home with open windows after a swim in an empty pool in the middle of tall stack of flats and munched on bananas on the table!
No. They definitely do not fish. But humans fish in the oddest places and postures. Sometimes, I have seen them leave their lines embedded in the sand by the sea or at an angle pitched on the shore while they sit nearby chatting with their friends or families. I have an uncle who I believe went fishing and he took lines and baits and wore a fisherman’s cap. He went, he fished, he returned home — except there were no fishes that rose to his bait!
My belief is fishes like humans are getting smarter as they evolve. While frogs continue to serenade me even in Singapore for cooking lettuce for tadpoles in China3 — that is another story where my sons told me to boil lettuce for ten minutes for the squiggly creatures they had adopted — fishes never react. Or maybe, they have a grudge against me because I was part of a fishing crew!
Long ago, while attending a summer school in Oslo University, I was invited by one of my father’s local friends to Fevik4, a beautiful seaside town in Norway where people keep summer homes. At least, my father’s friend did. They would go there and catch fish and eat and relax over the summer. They had a toilet with a long drop that catered to all the residents of their summer cabin. Brought up with plumbing in India’s multi-layered society where homes like ours had multiple bathrooms in marble, I found living with a shared common long drop tough! But they were very kind and made the most of my quick one-night sojourn. They took me fishing. It was on a motorised boat that…