‘Boy you are late, I told you to be here at dawn.’
The boy rubbed his eyes and said in a stifled moan. ‘It is sill dark, what difference does it make?’The old man glared at the boy, ‘Now watch your tongue, that tone does not work with me. If you are here to learn you must do as I say. Otherwise there are a dozen other fishermen at this ghat, you better be with them at your own time and mood.’
The boy lowered his gaze. A taut twitch worked across his clenched jaw. Only if any other fisherman would take him, he would have spat then and there at the old man. Fishing at the ghat remained by and large a family trade. The fishermen chose their sons or nephews or cousins as help-hands or apprentices. The boy was an orphan and the old man was a loner, they were both stuck with each other.
‘Now have you brought the nets?’ the old man asked without looking at the boy.
‘Yes, here they are.’ The boy let the pile of nets fall from his shoulder, ‘They were quite bad. I have mended them wherever I could, but I think you will need new ones quite soon.’
The old man hauled the nets into the boat, ‘Let me worry about them. They will do for now.’
They climbed into the boat. With the help of the oar, the old man gave a push and their boat was afloat on the lake. The old man handed over the oar to the boy, ‘Don’t use the oar till I say. Let the boat drift for now.’
‘Drift!’ cried the boy incredulously. ‘Shouldn’t we be rowing to the neck of the lake as fast as we can?’
‘Now why should we be doing that?’
‘Because that is where the most fish are caught and we should be there as early as we can, before others come cramming in. That is the whole point of getting up early at dawn, isn’t it?’
The old man chuckled. ‘Such idiocy! Where have you heard all that rubbish? The lake is full of fish. Not just at the neck, they are everywhere, but they keep on moving. The trick is to know their track. Everything else they say is just a pile of horse shit.’
‘But that is how everybody else catches the fish.’
‘Anyone who fishes like that is a moron.’
‘And you are not!’ The boy regretted as soon as he had said it. He bit his lip. Was it over!
The old man looked at him and fixed him with the depth of his eyes and voice. ‘Listen boy and listen it well. Fishing is an art – a very subtle art. Old fishmasters knew it. There was no rushing to the neck for them. They were artists, not gamblers like the ones you see at the ghat now. And that is what you are going to learn from me – fishing not gambling.’
‘Gamblers! How are they gamblers?’
‘What else are they! Look at the way they fish. They rush to a place where they think there are plenty of fish. THEY DON’T KNOW, THEY JUST THINK THERE ARE FISH. They throw their nets like gamblers rolling their dice, not sure what the result will be. Just hoping it would be favourable. And what if it isn’t? They throw it again and again till either they catch something or they are exhausted. A real fisherman never throws his net like that. His net never returns empty.’
The boy smiled, ‘Do you want to say you have never returned empty handed from the lake?’‘No… No. When did I say that! I have returned empty handed more often than most of those gamblers. But that is because I knew there were no fish to be caught on those days. I would return empty handed with my nets dry rather than throwing them like dice. I am a fisherman not a gambler.’
‘You are saying that you throw a net only when you know… when you are sure there are fish going to be caught in it.’
‘Yes. And that is how it should be. No rolling of dice for me.’
‘But how can you be sure! How can you know that?’
The old man smiled. ‘For that you have to learn the language of the lake. You have to learn how the eddies talk. You have to understand what weeds are telling you, what breezes whisper.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense…’ Before the boy could finish his sentence, the old man raised his hand in an imperial authority and cried, ‘Hush… hush… see.. See! Look at that.’
The boy felt it. The drifting boat had suddenly stiffened. Its stupor was broken and it had assumed some sort of conscious direction. The old man was excited, ‘Quick, grab the oar and ride the current. We are on it.’
‘See.’ The old man said with a royal flourish of his hand, ‘That is what I meant. The lake has started talking. The fish travel with the current. They leave their trail along, among the weeds and eddies. You must learn to recognise the trail. Follow it and soon you will be upon them. The current keeps on changing its path and direction every day. Sometime you would spend the whole day looking in vain for it. And those are the days when you return with your nets dry. So it is always better to start looking for it as early as you can and there is no better way than to let your boat drift till the current slaps it into its direction.’
The old man looked at the rowing boy and smiled, ‘We are lucky today, caught it pretty early. Ha ha… We won’t be returning with dry nets today, I hope.’
Well, he did make some sense after all, thought the boy to himself. Maybe he knows what he is doing.
For the next couple of hours it was hard toil for the boy. He rowed like he had never before. Occasionally the old man helped him with the oar as well but for most of the time, the old man was a figure of animated excitement – laughing and slapping the boy’s shoulder with bestial vigour. Every now and then he dipped his hands into the water, sniffing at it, tasting it and crying aloud, ‘We are on their trail… soon, my boy, soon.’
The sun was just above their heads when the old man said, ‘Finally here we are.’ He waved towards the boy, ‘Stop rowing, let the boat drift. Time to get your nets ready.’ The boy watched with awe how the old man swirled the net above his head and let it go in a wide spread over the expanse of lake. Even though the boy had seen a hundred fishermen throw their nets, there was an effeminate delicacy to the old man’s throw. When the old man stood up to throw his net, the net had grown into a part of his body as much as his arm or leg. He was not throwing the net but rather making a conscious movement like one makes when he walks or raises his arm – natural and effortless.
‘Now you throw,’ commanded the old man. The boy could feel his nerves jingling. He had thrown a net himself many a times, but the old man’s throw had made him conscious of how ugly his own throw was. He fumbled with the folds of the net and it all came undone. The old man shook his head. ‘Tut… tut… now then fold that net again and make it a hand of yours. Out here the net is the only hand a fisherman has got, so treat it like a hand, don’t you get lordly over it, trying to control and command it. Let it grow on you. Feel it. Let the net have a mind of its own. See where it tends to go and follow it, it will not lead you astray.’
It was better said than done, thought the boy. He somehow managed to throw the net. His throw was not as elegant or majestic as the old man’s but for all practical purposes it was a throw nevertheless. The old man was repulsed at his throw, but he didn’t say anything. He just shook his head and mumbled under his breath, ‘Disgrace!’ They hauled the nets back and just as the old man had said, their nets didn’t return empty. The old man was not surprised or elated, just mildly pleased. But the boy, well, here he was, with his first catch. He let go off a wild voracious hoot. He grinned and whistled. He even thought of kissing the old man’s forehead but instead he gave the old man a pat on his hand and cried aloud, ‘Old Man, now we are fishing.’ The old man said nothing in return. He just smiled, gathered his net and threw it again. The boy did the same. Every throw brought more and more fish. And each catch brought such a thrill to the boy that his cries and hoots could be almost heard back at the shore. But the old man just stood, content but not excited, like a farmer would be at the harvest, a farmer who is not surprised by his ripe fields but only pleased that his toil has yielded its fruit.
‘Enough.’ The old man said after an hour or so. ‘That is enough for today. Let us go back now.’
The boy acquiesced quietly. Though he wished to fish more, he knew it would be useless arguing with the old man. Besides, he wanted to return to the shore as soon as he could. He didn’t wish to wake up and find this a dream. He needed the assurance of the firm shore to guarantee him that all this was real. That he had thrown his net and fished next to the old man on that glorious afternoon. It was a memory for a life time.
So they rowed back.
It was late in the afternoon when they reached the hut of the old man with their nets and baskets. The old man had a change of clothes and then they had a brief lunch. ‘Now boy sleep, we will sell the fish in the evening.’
The boy fiddled with his fingers, ‘Why don’t we go and sell them now?’
‘Not now, let the fish season a bit. Give them a couple of hours and they will smell quite nice. Besides, the good customers come in the evening. Now is the time for hagglers.’
So they slept, the old man as soon as his head hit the mat and the boy after sometime during which he thought of talking to the lake and riding on the current and throwing his net as the old man did.
The sun was getting ready to set when the old man and the boy sat down with their baskets by the ghat. They had not been there 10 minutes before a customer approached. One look at him and the boy knew he was one of those wealthy city ones. He wore his clothes too well and had an air of lordly disdain, as if he owned the whole place and wished to get rid of it. With one hand on his hip he said with the same disdain, “The fish smell nice.”
The boy smiled and said, ‘Fresh from the lake, Sir.’
‘Hmmm… Are they! Now how much for them?’
The boy expected the old man to answer him, but the old man just stared at the customer. The boy could not tell what he was thinking; his face was set into a stone mask. He didn’t seem in any mood to answer the customer, so the boy said hurriedly, ‘For you 260 a kg sir.’
‘What! Ain’t that a bit steep?’
‘They are worth it, Sir, have a look.’ The boy raised one fish from the basket. The customer had a hard look at it and touched it with a careful finger.
‘Well, they are good. Though 260 is robbery but let it be. The fish smell good. How much for the whole lot?’
The boy could not help but grin. He hadn’t expected 260; it was just his starting price for the bargain. The boy was thinking around 220-230, but if the customer found 260 to his liking, who was he to argue! And he was going to buy the whole lot. Wow! This was fantastic.
Before the boy could start weighing the fish, the old man said in a stubbornly low voice, ‘We won’t be selling the fish.’
‘What!’ The customer exclaimed.
‘Have you gone mad?’ cried the boy.
‘We are not selling the fish.’
The customer made a weird face, ‘OK. I understand your game. Wrap them up quickly I will pay you 275 a kg. Now not a word more lest I change my mind.’
‘I said we are not selling the fish. Not for 275. Not for 300. Not for 500.’ The old man said with subdued anger.
The boy just stood there with his mouth wide open. He could make no sense of whatever the old man was saying neither could he decide what to say.
The customer made a disgusting noise with his tongue, ‘What is all this! What are you doing here if you don’t wish to sell fish? You old imbecile of a man. What do you think? I am going to beg you for those disgusting fishes? Off with you. Boy, get your father to an asylum or better still, throw him into the lake.’
‘He… he is not my father.’ The boy tried to say in a feeble voice but by then the customer had left.
‘Old man, what is your problem? He was paying 275. Do you understand, 275 for a kg? That is the steepest that I have ever heard anyone paying at this ghat. And he was going to buy them all. What are you up to?’
‘That was no customer for these fishes. He doesn’t deserve them. He can have those gambler’s fishes but not these. I know his type very well.’
‘What are you talking about? What type?’
‘His type. The type that come swaging along thinking that just because they have money in their pockets they deserve everything. He flashes his money, takes our fish and then dumps them on his maid or wife or anyone else. And by dinner he might or might not be in a mood to taste them. These fishes would be just wasted over him. He would never realize what art, what toil it takes to get fish like this.’
‘That is your reason! You are mad. For God’s sake he was paying us money. Much more than we could hope for. And for such money he might dump the fish or throw them away for all I care.’ The boy choked on his rage.
‘I just don’t understand you old man. You are selling fish not arranging a marriage for your daughter.’
The old man grimaced. ‘You won’t understand.’
‘Yes I don’t. And God knows when you will understand that was the best customer for our fishes. People buy fish because they can, not because they deserve. No one better is going to come.’
‘Well then there is always a better place for fishes.’
‘And what is that?’
The old man stood up with his baskets and started walking towards the lake. By then the setting sun had lit up the lake. The old man emptied the baskets. The fish bobbed up and down before they finally settled on the surface. They looked like an eccentric painting. Extravagant fish painted on a fiery canvas.
The boy, teeth and fists clenched, started walking away.
Shabir Ahmad Mir hails from South Kashmir’s Pulwama District. He is a poet and short story writer. His works (Fiction/Non-fiction) have appeared in Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Lit, Kashmir Life Kashmir Pen, Wande Magazine as well as in the Tuck Magazine, The international Page of English Ghazals, Aquillrelle Anthology, Roses and Rhymes, Feathers by Hall of Poets, Shakespeare Sings, etc.
He was awarded the 2nd prize by World Union of Poetry Prize for India as well as awarded 2nd place at the Shakespeare International Poetry contest organized by Farooq College, Kerala. His short story “The Djinn who Fell from the Walnut Tree” was shortlisted for FON South Asia Short story award-2016 and declared first runner up and will be published in their upcoming anthology (TERI press). One of his short stories is scheduled to be published in the upcoming 3rd annual print anthology of The Bombay Review.
He was recently awarded he Reuel International award for Fiction 2017.