What the Fish!

Reading Time: 7 minutes

A fisherman, Gokul, catches a fish that can speak. The fish warps his reality. We are introducing a weekly new column, from this Sunday, Fantasy Fiction, by Bangalore-based Tapan, exclusively in Different Truths.

Gokul shivered and woke up. It was third consecutive night, the same dream. The door knock – his opening the door – Keshava standing there, his face glowing in the moonlight.

He was sweating profusely. The ceiling fan was still, perhaps a power cut.

It was about 6 am. For the last three years, his wife Savitri had to take half a sleeping pill daily. She was still deep in sleep.

After ablutions, Gokul picked up his accessories and went to the coast. His trawler, Kaveri, was to be serviced that day.

“It can wait another day, Thamma, nothing will happen.” Gokul prevailed upon his assistant.

It was one of those days when Gokul wanted to be alone in the sea. Everyone at the harbour understood that. The contractor, his assistants, the coast guards – no one stopped him. He sailed out as soon as the mechanic gave him clearance.

Gokul stopped the engine at about three nautical miles from the Karwar coast. Then, he gave his usual shout, “Keshava! Keshava!”

The sea was unkind. It never returned his call, or his son.

He lit up his chillum and sat outside the door of the cabin under its shadow. With eyes longing to see that one face at the horizon, the herb slowly made him drowsy.

A commotion in the water woke him up. It seemed a careless big fish had fallen into the net laid.

He pulled up the net. It was a good haul. Gokul recalled that the sea was generous to him on the Tuesdays. He thanked Maruthi Swamy. After long, Savitri might speak to him on seeing such a catch.

Among the usual mackerels and sardines, Gokul saw a fish about three feet long. It had a shining, scale-less body with five fins of unequal sizes parallel on either side.

It had an unusual head. Unlike any of its fellow piscine, its head was pretty flat and featureless on one side. On the other, it had both its eyes and its nostril. Even after 27 years in the sea, Gokul had to admit that this fish was bizarre.

The fish was saying something. The local fishes spoke mostly in Konkani and some Kannada or Tulu. Gokul couldn’t figure out first the language in which this fish was whispering.

Exhausted out of water, it was losing out on breath. Its tone was confident, however.

“You need me more than I need you”, Gokul could understand the fish after some efforts.  It was Mumbaiya Hindi that the fish was speaking. Gokul knew some Hindi due to the movies he watched on Keshava’s doggedness. Keshava was very fond of them.

Gokul searched through the trawler to get a container which could allow the large fish to swim and live. He put the fish in such a vessel. He wanted the fish to be alive when Savitri would see it.

In about 10 minutes, the fish found its composure and said, “You seem quite kind for a killer.”

Gokul got irritated. The sarcasm was disconcerting.

“Don’t push your luck”, he kept his tone harsh and menacing.

“So you are going to kill me and eat?” the fish spoke with a familiar pout.

“Not if I get a good price to keep you alive. You look quite unique, you know that?”

“How much?” the fish was now swimming and manoeuvring in that little place to keep its muscles from seizing.

“What?” Gokul was planning to return to the shore, as the haul was good and he needed to complete his sleep. He was unmindful.

“How much money can keep me alive?”

Gokul calculated mentally. Though he had no compulsion to discuss such details, he was amused at having such worldly chat with a fish.

He played on, “At 200 a kg, about 700, plus another 300 for you being exotic. Give or take, a 1000 looks possible.”

The fish fell silent and still. It began to float with its face side up.

Gokul was a little perplexed at such behaviour. Usually, a fish floated like that when it was dead. Somehow, he sensed that was not the case with this fish. It seemed quite comical.

In a while, it began to swim again. “Such a small value you put on me? No wonder you are so poor and ordinary.”

Gokul could barely understand Hindi. His slow mental conversion had already made him irritable. On that, this direct assault caused Gokul’s amusement give way to anger.

Insulted, Gokul picked up a wooden stub lying on the floor of the trawler and hit the fish at its tummy, hard enough to make it squirm but soft enough not to injure it.

If the fish got scared, it didn’t show. It kept swimming in that constrained space, though it kept close to the edge of the vessel.

Gokul noticed that and remembered how one day, he had yelled at Keshava on his way back from school, “Don’t walk stuck to the walls, idiot!”

Friends and family had rarely seen Gokul angry. That day was different though.  Principal had called Gokul. Keshava had failed in the half yearly exams of class six.

Gokul always had an ambition that Keshava should get educated enough to get an office job in Bengaluru. He hated his son’s strong pull towards the sea. Keshava’s horoscope had a clear caution against ‘accident in water’.

That day, Gokul had beaten Keshava black and blue with his chappal. The helpless child cried for mercy but heartlessness of a loving father had possessed Gokul. It had taken half a dozen neighbours to physically restrain him.

After the beating, Keshava had run away to his uncle’s place. To placate him, uncle had taken Keshava on his fishing trip the next day.

They had gone quite deep into the ocean for a rich evening haul, ignoring all the weather warnings. The patrolling steamers had flashed rockets for their attention. The fishermen hadn’t seen. Their greed had carried them afar.

When the storm had struck, they had no way to return. Gokul waited at the shore for them. He had to be dragged back home after the third day.

That was another October, three years back. Since then, every Tuesday he went to the Hanuman temple to pray for Keshava’s return.

“Life goes on”, quipped the fish. It was not possible for the fish to know what he was thinking. “You can’t live with guilt forever. Let it go.”

“Now, what’s that? You speak so much gibberish, you could become a leader some day!” Gokul sat in the shade of the cabin and lit up a bidi. This conversation would take time, he felt.

The fish, however, quickly cut to the chase. “I am a leader. My school has 2500 followers, give or take, on an average.”

The fish started floating again, with its eye side up. Gokul realised that the fish favoured this posture when it tried to look serious. “I am sure my followers can find out your son.”

The bidi caught between the index and the middle fingers of Gokul slipped out of his numb hand. The burning stub fell on his left foot. He sprang up, erect.

Was his call for Keshava too loud for the fish to hear? Yes, that must be it.

“How do you know about my son?” He asked with his voice quivering. However, he was quick to doubt that this fellow might be a fake. So, he asked a logical question, “If your school has 2500 members and they are all so close to you, how come none of them are caught in my net?”

“Oh, that’s simple. I am the only one in the school who looks like me. Due to my good looks and intelligence, I was made the leader by all.” Gokul got unsure of its fictional limits.

The fish paused and looked at Gokul. “If you don’t believe me, let me go down and get the rest of my school up for you to see.”

“Do you take me for a fool? You are talking me into releasing you? That, too, using my dead son’s name?” Gokul was panting with nervous expectation.

Yes, he needed to stop waking up at nights hearing a knock on the front door. But to trust a fish, whose skin can match its tongue in slippery manoeuvres? That was too much!

“I can understand your anger.” The fish was calm.

“I am warning you. Don’t play with me. You are risking your life. Are you in a hurry to die?”

“Your net got me close to death. Your tumbler is keeping me alive. What do I have to lose?” Gokul found that the fish was cooler than an accused politician he had recently seen on TV.

“And what do you have to lose? Even if I am fibbing, I am just one catch. May be the loss of a thousand rupees? What more?”

Gokul found himself slipping into the beliefs of the hopeless. “What if I am right? What if my followers trace Keshava out? We have seen miracles down there. Deep at thousand feet, reality warps.”

It took another 10 minutes of negotiation. Finally, with his hands trembling, Gokul released the fish into the sea.

Its style of hitting the water and then doing three somersaults to express its happiness reminded Gokul so much of Keshava! During vacations to his native, he would dive and dodge in the pond the whole day.

As the ripples and bubbles subsided, Gokul felt his breath easing. It was about afternoon. He lied down in the cabin and counted the oscillations. Slowly, a deep sleep descended upon him.

A search boat traced Kaveri well past midnight. Gokul was shivering with high fever. The Kannada words that he kept mumbling during his evacuation loosely translated to “if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”

©Tapan Mozumdar

Photos from the internet.

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Tapan Mozumdar has been a practising engineer for 29 years. At 50, he began to write short stories. Now, he is practising quite hard to be a writer. He was shortlisted, in 2016, for the Star TV Writer’s programme and Bangalore LitMart. He was published in the February edition of The Spark. He writes short stories, poems, and non-fiction.