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Voices From Kashmir: An Excerpt From 'A Desolation Called Peace'

'A Desolation Called Peace', written and edited by Kashmiri authors, is a collection of essays that explore the desire for 'azadi' in Kashmir

Cover of 'A Desolation Called Peace: Voices From Kashmir'
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In Memory Lake

Mirza Waheed


The Big Fish

FISHING was forbidden. Only rough kids did it, or those who were in want, or tourists in pursuit of freshwater trout that wasn’t really freshwater trout, and in any case, it was probably illegal to fish in the lake nearby. The ‘probably’ was key, because it allowed the elders sufficient ambiguity behind which to hide their unjust disapproval and invoked just enough fear of the mythical guard from the fisheries department to make the children think hard, or at least exercise extreme caution in choosing their spot.

But I caught a large fish once. It was startling to see a fluttering, shining, probably cursing, creature appear from the willow-covered channel by the houseboat in the Nigeen Lake near our ancestral house in Srinagar. We had been angling for some time, with prayers on lips and dough balls the size of rat droppings for bait, mostly hooking in baby fish not much bigger than adolescent tadpoles but also medium-sized, edible fish every half an hour or so. We deposited the catch in a water-filled polythene bag, occasionally distracted but also reassured, perhaps even pleased, by the writhing little creatures.

Back then, that this might be cruel, or just ordinary, didn’t enter the discussion, because there wasn’t a discussion.

I was probably twelve or thirteen, I don’t remember. It remains unclear why this activity was expressly proscribed not just by my parents but by the entire elder corps at home. We simply weren’t allowed to go fishing like some of the neighbours did, but, clearly, there was more to the ‘ban’. People who lived around the lake had for centuries depended on it for their livelihood, growing vegetables and flowers on near-magical floating gardens, and harvesting the lake for lotus stems or weeds with which to weave straw carpets, and, most importantly, for fish that they then sold by the ghat of the marble shrine at Hazratbal on the western shore of the larger Dal Lake. And yet, I had heard it was a crime to fish in the adjacent little jewel of Nigeen Lake favoured by foreign tourists, their backs shining swatches of flesh on the sun decks of the houseboats. They too were like fish. Carp perhaps. (As a matter of historical fact, carp were artificially introduced in the lake in the 1950s.) I suspect this was a highly successful rumour disseminated by the houseboat owners. How could they have pesky little locals disturb the siesta of Western tourists?

My partner in crime was a boy named B, the Tailor Master’s son. Being younger, B was both a friend and sidekick. When the little beast shot out of the water, it didn’t feel like a threat at first, its enormous weight still not subject to gravity. When the line had suddenly tightened we just yanked at it in surprise. I also cried out B’s name aloud. Now it landed on the mouldy muddy grass – there may have been a rose bush by the side too – and began to dance with a vehemence I’d not thought fish capable of. Instinctively, we brought down the improvised fishing rod on her – what kind of early gender politics in men makes you think all fish are her, she? – and pressed all our weight on it, B clasping hard at the other end.

When we felt it may still escape, overthrowing us, we beat it with the willow rod. Eventually, it calmed down, passed out or died, and we put it in the bag, which smelled of fish breath, I thought, and then put another bag on top because its tail, protruding out, must have felt like evidence of murder.

This was the catch of my life, a prize worthy of a parade home. But I couldn’t give it to my mother with the wilfully understated man-triumph that all hunter-gatherers must feel. For a moment I thought it was perhaps time to confess to the dark art of secret fishing and list all my achievements in the field.

In the end I settled for the fifteen minutes of glory of walking home with the bulging bag in one hand and fishing rod in the other. B carried the other bag containing the also-catches. In the little market square, I walked slowly and said prolonged salaams to the few people who always sat by the shops. These were the boys and men with whom I wasn’t allowed to socialize. These were the boys and men who chose not to come to our aid when my grandmother died.

By the time we were closer home I had made my decision. As B began to curve towards the by-lane that went to his house, I handed him my big bag and said with some paternalistic pride, ‘B, give it your father and mother’. He looked up at me, then at the bags in his hands, and left. I don’t know why I didn’t just say mother. The proverbially phlegmatic Tailor Master was the most visible face in the neighbourhood, seated as he was every day behind the large glass panel in his boss’s seat at the business he ran in front of his house.

Before him, it had been his father, who, I remembered, didn’t do any tailoring but sat all day in the shop, looking at passers-by, holding forth on any topic – a legendary tobacconist who knew the recipe for perfectly consistent wet tobacco, how communism was the only way towards a casteless society … – and sometimes cursing between minor coughing fits, as he dragged on the shop hookah. When the old man died, I sneaked through unknown legs and watched his body on a wooden plank when the men atop those legs gave him his last bath. He looked like a large shrivelled white bird.

The next day or the day after, Tailor Master waved at me as I passed his workshop. I had made sure he saw me. ‘That was some good booty, Junior Mirza, why don’t you fish more often, and also teach B how to catch the big items … The little ones don’t make for good dinner,’ he said as I sat down. Kashmiris are inveterate carnivores, but for many families with limited incomes it is often only a once-a-week luxury. To have a midweek bonanza – even if it was only fish and not the usual lamb or mutton – compelled the tailor, a man at least five times my age, to express gratitude, albeit in his own way. I was proud of myself and resolved to catch even bigger fish when I was older, stronger.

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*Excerpted from the collection A Desolation Called Peace edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat with permission from HarperCollins India*

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