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Jagadish was a good man. A toothless grin lit his face whenever we met, the tube light above blinking on his bald pate. But his fish was going bad – too many bones, too bitter.
There was also someone else.
He would entreat me, just once. ‘Try my fish’, he would plead. He had long curly black hair and round fish-like eyes.
One evening, I took the plunge. Jagadish stood watching. “Come here, Sir,” he said. “I have good fish too.” I felt bad. I didn’t want to face him. I turned once, caught his entreating eye and told him, weakly, “Let me try this new one too.” Jagadish smiled back, the same weathered-man-of-the-world look. He knew this one had just passed through his net.
This new catch was great. His fish tasted like childhood, when my father brought the day’s best, probing the gills with thick bloody fingers. “Red is good, brown bad, black very bad,” father would explain, his eyes deep inside the fish, the half-opened gill pulled out like a flap, before being pounded. The smell mattered too. A good fish wouldn’t rot. Even a kid knew that.
This new one’s fish had something about them – even the ones that were stored in ice boxes and came from far away. The rohus come from Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. “Why don’t we get the best rohu from Assam?” I would ask my father. “The Brahmaputra is so near”. “Yes, yes,” father would mutter under his breath irritated, “but the people in Andhra work harder.”
At home, fresh with the newfound catch, dinners became occasions. After a day’s work at the office, traffic jams did not matter, for heaven was just a meal away. The new river fish tasted meaty, tastier than sea fish and somehow with fewer bones. There was a bite about them. Every week I looked forward to going back to the fish market – the reek and slime, mud and slush. The tongue spoke true. I liked the hubbub, the catch just round the corner. This new guy looked dark as night, his long hair all rumpled into a trance of ganja, prayer and dance.
“What’s your name?” I once asked.
He muttered something. I didn’t understand.
“What?” I asked again, my ears straining to hear over the fish market’s clamour.
Looking for a clue, I twirled my fingers at his assistant who sat on the stone slab, his bothi-dao-cutter between his legs. He would take the entrails out, the black and bitter bile. A puny fellow. He laughed, eyes perched on a delicate sol being chopped with firm hands. I heard him say something.
“ACTION?!” Were my ears wrong? ACTION!?
“WHAT?” I hollered.
“His real name is Biswajit,” the puny fellow finally raised his face, the pink sol pieces tucked neatly inside a polythene packet. “But in this market, everyone knows him as ACTION!” He said ‘action’ more like ‘AXN’ this time, slowly, A-X-N, where the A and X happen faster than the N, which lingered on the upper palate. A-X-Nnn, just like the villains Ajit and Prem Chopra would say it in one of those Bollywood flicks, lecherous at the sight of a demure eyelash fluttering. I laughed. A-X-Nnn indeed!
From then on, Jagadish was out and A-X-Nnn was in. He gave rohu at 170 a kilo. Jagadish was 180. A-X-Nnn had enterprise. He could smell money from a distance, and fetch it too. I bought rohu from him, the middle of the big fish, neatly cut and cleaned. Then I would look around. “What more do you want?” he would scream. “Morola,” I would say. Then with a giant leap, ingenious as his name, he would get more from other stalls, laughing. He got a cut, I guessed. A-X-Nnn had it in him, popular and charismatic. A-X-Nnn it was.
I forgot Jagadish. He did not keep up with the competition. I was the consumer. “My hard-earned money,” my father would always say. Rohu, morola fish, more fish, swarmed in my dreams! I slept sound, my dreams delicious.
I got a new mobile phone, with a hands-free wire. I loved the hands-free wire. I could talk without straining my ears or tilting my head. It was like a walkman. I was a walking talking man. Once upon a time, in those initial lonely evenings as a student in the USA, I used to wonder if those solitary souls walking, running past, talking, laughing loud, were truly mad. I would peer at them, looking strange myself. Then later, someone told me about hands-free. I laughed at myself. What a fool. What fun – madmen from top universities, geniuses, laughing loudly to themselves in the evenings, by those pine trees.
One day, my hands-free phone got disconnected from the wire and fell down from the third floor staircase to the ground below. My eyes popped out, my heart stopped. I only had the wire to my ears, just like my father who once came home one day with the fish hook but no fish. My mother looked at him in a strange way. “Where’s the fish?” she said. My father looked at the hook wrapped carefully around his finger. “Oh,” he said, sadly, like the sad-eyed knight Quixote.
I had my wire to my ear and the phone careened down. It was a movie in slow motion, choreographed, an aesthetics of nothingness, a phone falling from the sky, like a feather.
It fell finally, and as I rushed, I saw its contents tumble out. I ran down, breathing in Usain Bolt bursts, and picked it up.
Still intact; the body I held, amazed! I shut the battery in, closed the cover tight. A little stayed out. It wasn’t a cent per cent job, but I switched it on. It worked! It would make a brilliant advertisement! Truly, made for India! I put the phone in my jacket and rushed out. Time to celebrate! Time for some fish!
This time inside the fish market, I took a different route. The usual one was crowded. What delights! Fish of all sizes, shapes, colours. Rohu and morola, magur and bata, ilish and bhakua, talopia and sol, bhetki and pomfret, aari and kawoi, life and more life! The stench of life!
Men, bargaining as if their life depended on the fine cellotaped line of a tattered five rupee note emerging from the depths of a multi-coloured lungi. Others hauling it all up on scales. The market floor filled with the dirt, slush and mud, and discarded fish scales. The putrid pot of life, only better! My eyes held the scene. This was it! This was why my father went to the fish market every Sunday. This was why he found fish beautiful.
I reached A-X-Nnn’s stall. “Where’s A-X-Nnn?” I shouted, trying to make myself heard. “Gone out,” junior busy on the big bothi-dao-cutter replied. I asked for my usual rohu. He was cutting the pieces, sliced gada and pethi – long and flat – when A-X-Nnn turned up. “Where were you?” I said, smiling. “At the ice boxes,” he replied. I was in a good mood.
“Where do the fishes come from?” I asked.
“Ghazipur,” he replied. He was at his usual best. Darting eyes, curious, looking for the next catch. He wore a jazzy yellow shirt that nearly blinded me.
“Ghazipur? Is that where the chickens come from as well?”
“Yes,” he said.
The rohu was done. ‘What else?’ he asked, his long hair dancing. I looked around. “Morola,” I said. He rushed to the other stall and returned in a flash. “Five extra taka for cleaning it up?” he said. “Ok,” I said.
I looked at some lovely pomfret in front of me. Expensive.
My phone rang just then. I took it out from my jacket pocket. Another unknown number. I looked at the pomfret again; too alluring. I pictured grilled pomfret on my plate, all home-made in heaven! I showed the phone to A-X-Nnn and told him how it tumbled down from three floors up and still stayed intact.
“It is not intact,” he said, eyes intent, the dark edges of the phone. He took it from my left hand and used his greasy nails around the corners. Yes, the cover was still hanging out, by a centimeter. He tried again and shut it tight. “Camera phone,” he said, smiling. “Yes,” I replied. It lingered in his hands for a moment. Then I took it from him. How the phone must smell all raw fish now, I thought.
I put the phone in my jacket’s left pocket. I stared at the lovely pomfret. Yes, pomfret it must be!
Junior at the bothi made little incisions. He packed everything into a polythene packet and threw it at A-X-Nnn. Then the morola man from the next stall threw his packet at A-X-Nnn. A-X-Nnn caught both with one hand. He was cool. A-X-Nnn did not budge an inch to catch fish. He could stay next to me and still do it. I paid him his due. He deserved more, I knew.
Before leaving, I asked him if I could still grill the pomfret with the incisions.
“That’s where you put the masala,” he said, eyes gleaming.
I left his stall, very pleased. I had the three fish in three packets, clutched firmly in my right hand. I liked the feeling, really. I would not find this anywhere else in the world!
It was gone. It took less than a minute to reach the music shop where they sold old CDs. My hands searched frantically inside my pockets. The fish packets lay on the floor. Keep the fish somewhere else, the CD guy growled. I did not hear him. I rummaged the jacket and my trousers. My fingers dug the deepest corners. I twirled the pocket inside out. There were remains of some old saunf and a sticky half eaten chloromint also fell out. It wasn’t there.
I rushed back, fish in hand.
“Action! Action!” I shrieked. Heads turned.
“Action, the phone is gone! Someone has picked my pocket!” Action rushed out with me and then rushed back in. “Call the number, you there!” He shouted at the puny one with the dao. I took the puny one’s phone and called my number. In the noise, who could hear me? I tried again. The phone was switched off. It had happened.
I hung around there, with Action. He looked here and there. He asked someone else to call.
At the police station I filed a first information report – an FIR.
An old cop looked at me with curious eyes.
“How much worth of fish did you buy?” he asked grinning, as he stamped the paper and gave it to me. We knew the phone was gone. Cops did not exist to look for missing phones.
I walked out. The night wasn’t good anymore. It was a dirty street. I could not think of anything.
Then my thoughts relayed back. I played it like a movie. I investigated, snooped, trailed – scene by scene, sequence by sequence, frame by frame. Then I chopped, edited and paused. It was a brutal moment.
All roads led to him.
The only one who knew where my phone was, the only one next to me. The picture of him standing there with his long hair made me rage.
I felt ice cold inside.
I wanted to see it in his eyes. I went back.
“Keep the phone,” I said with a broken voice, looking at the fish, “whoever has done it. Just give me the SIM.” My eagle eyes roved, glancing for a sign.
“We are not that kind, babu,” he said. I looked at his eyes. He looked away.
I could not call him a thief.
He was back at business, brisk and busy. It was a phone, not fish.
I would not get my phone back, even if I shouted at him and everyone else. It was gone. It was just a phone.
Yet, later that night, it was not anger, but profound sadness that came over me. I mourned not the phone but something else. I could not place it, my sadness.
On the street, the silence came from the wind so heavy I forgot all about the fish I clutched so dear. A cat purred, its eyes glowing. I turned this way and that. It was the same old road glaring by, the rush of traffic roaring outside.
I could not blame him any more than myself. This – this blaming – had to end, but how?
I still go to the market. I have found a new guy, diagonally opposite. Decent catch. It’s just fish. I walk in and out from the other side. Now my fingers tighten suddenly inside the pocket. I feel relieved to find the phone still there, but my hands stay inside. They come and go these days, these phones. Every day, there is something new. I do not miss the old phone. Sometimes I forget what I felt sad about, but the memory remains, like a wire hanging from my ear.
He noticed me the other evening. “Come here, babu,” he shouted, “great fish tonight.”
I looked at him silent, from my distance.
~ Amlanjyoti Goswami grew up in Guwahati, Assam and studied at Delhi University and Harvard Law School. He lives in Delhi. His poems have appeared in the Caravan, Mint, IQ: The Indian Quarterly, Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi) and the North East Review. He has also published articles in the Telegraph, the Assam Tribune and the Financial Express.