“You’re all great fishermen, huh?” Grandpa snorted, lighting up a borrowed cigarette. “Let me tell you, none of you even knows what fishing is.”
All of us sat back to listen. “You must have caught some big ones in your time, Grandpa,” someone murmured.
“Big ones!” Grandpa squinted through the cigarette smoke. “I’ve been fishing, man and boy, for seventy years. You lot can’t even imagine the size of the fish I’ve caught. If you saw those fish you’d die of fear. Fish!”
“Real whoppers, were they?” another one of us said, with a sudden cough. We all glared at him.
“What was that?” Grandpa asked suspiciously, his toothless mouth twitching. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” I replied hastily. “It doesn’t matter. Which was the largest fish you’ve ever caught, Grandpa?”
“Oh, I’ve caught a lot, a lot,” Grandpa said, blowing twin jets of smoke through his nostrils. “I’ve caught fish the size of that car you lot came in. But none of them was as large as the one which got away.”
“The one which got away?” We glanced at each other. “You mean a fish actually got away from you?” the wag from earlier asked.
“Yes.” Grandpa quelled him with a stare. “One fish, and only one fish, in my entire career got away from me. Just one.”
“It must have been some fish,” I said reverently, “to get away from a master fisherman like you, Grandpa.”
Everyone glared at me for some reason. “Do you want the story, or don’t you?” Grandpa asked in a dangerous tone of voice.
“Yes, of course,” I replied hurriedly. “Sorry. Grandpa. Have another cigarette.”
“Well, yes,” Grandpa said, mollified. “It was the only fish which ever got away from me.” He paused thoughtfully, the smoke eddying round his wizened face.
“Though, to be frank, I don’t really know if it were I who was hunting him, or the other way round,” he said. “Even the tiger couldn’t help.”
“The tiger,” Grandpa repeated, nodding. “Poor fellow, he must have felt cheated. I felt sorry for him.”
It was a long time ago [Grandpa said], when I was a young man, and handsome, and so strong that I could bend iron rods into hoops with my hands. You soft city boys can’t begin to imagine how strong I was.
Back then I was living in my ancestral village, a long way from here, not far from where the great swamps begin. The river there’s like nothing you ever saw, so wide that when the flood comes you’d think you were standing by the side of the sea.
For all that I was the best looking and strongest young man in the village, I was a bachelor. That was because I was so poor that I didn’t have two coins to rub together, and no immediate prospect of getting any. And it didn’t really matter to me, because none of the village girls took my fancy. They were pretty enough, but not what I wanted.
Then, one day, the chief’s niece came visiting from another village up-country. We’d all heard she was coming, and that she was unmarried and the chief was looking for a groom for her. I was mildly curious, no more. What did the fat chief’s niece matter to me? Nothing.
It was on the second day of her visit that I saw her for the first time. I’d just rowed my boat in from a day’s fishing on the river, and was unloading my nets, when she came.
I had been talking to one of my friends – he’s a big shot now, you’d know the name if I told you – when I saw his jaw drop as though it was on a hinge as he looked at something beyond me. I turned to see what he was looking at, and my heart seemed to stop still in my chest. She was that beautiful.
I watched her come down to the bank, and she saw me looking at her and smiled, and sat down to wash her feet in the water. And when she smiled that way, at once I knew I had to make her mine.
“What are you looking at?” my friend asked.
I turned away from the girl as casually as possible. “Nothing,” I told him. “Just the sunset. It’s such a lovely sunset.”
“It’s the wrong direction for the sunset,” he said. And it was.
But I scarcely heard him. For the first time in my life I began to regret not having money. I would have to make some, and fast. But how? Fishing was my only trade, and the fishing in the river near the village wasn’t enough for anyone to get rich on. There was only one solution – I would have to go where there were more fish, and bigger fish, and there was no competition. I would have to go down to the swamp.
I don’t know if any of you have ever been down to the swamp? It’s a pestilential place, I tell you – full of mud and reeds, and tall mangrove trees with roots like spikes which can go through your foot like a spear if you don’t look sharp where you’re going. There are crocodiles, too, and snakes, and so many insects that you feel as if they’ll suck you dry. At night, you can see strange lights, and hear odd noises, and you could swear they were people singing and dancing, but when you get close there’s nothing at all. It’s a terrible place, that swamp, and nobody goes there if he can help it.
But there are lakes and rivers all over, and the fishes grow to sizes so large that it would make your head spin to think of them. A couple of good trips, I decided, and I’d have enough put by to go to the chief and make enquiries for her hand. After all, I was the strongest and handsomest around – all I needed was some money, and why should he refuse?
So, without wasting any time, I took all the food I had, some gourds full of drinking water, and by the time the sun had risen the next morning, I was already on my way. By evening, I was on the margin of the swamp, and tied my boat to a mangrove tree, meaning to start fishing the next morning.
I told you about the lights that glow in the dark in the swamp. All that first night, those lights played the devil around the boat, and I could hear giggling and laughing. Also, frogs croaked incessantly. By “croaked” I mean they made noise louder than the politicians who yell through loudspeakers come election time. And also the clouds of mosquitoes came round. Mosquitoes? They were the size of sparrows. If it hadn’t been for the fact that my skin was too tough for their mouths to penetrate, I wouldn’t have had a drop of blood left in my body.
Finally, though, towards morning, I dozed off.
I was woken by a soft growl. Opening my eyes quickly, I saw a tiger sitting on the boat across from me.
He was a very large tiger, bright orange in colour with broad black stripes. When he saw I was awake, he growled again and got up to bite me.
I wasn’t the strongest man in the village for nothing, of course. A few blows later, the tiger was cowering in the bottom of my boat, wagging the tip of his tail apologetically and licking my hand.
“That won’t be enough, master tiger,” I said sternly. “You live in this swamp, so you’re going to act as my guide and help me to the biggest fish you know. Or else you’ll get this again.” I held up my fist. “Understand?”
The tiger winced, mewed piteously, climbed out of the boat, and waited politely on the bank while I undid my boat from the mangrove. Then he walked off into the swamp, pausing frequently to look back over his shoulder to make sure I was following.
All day, I rowed my boat behind the tiger. As I went, I saw many fish, sometimes very large ones, and I was tempted to cast my net for them. But each time I even thought about it, the tiger would look back over his shoulder and shake his head impatiently, and I knew he was leading me to where the really big fishes were.
By mid-afternoon we had come so far that my arm muscles had begun to tire a little, and I’d begun to think of ordering the tiger to rest for a while. Just then, he suddenly stopped at a point which seemed to me no different from the others – a place where mangroves grew up to the edge of the water and mud and clumps of reeds broke the surface here and there – and plonked himself down, nodding at the water with his head, as if to say, “there you are, go ahead and fish.”
At first I thought he was joking, because I could see not a single fish anywhere. And then I began to get angry, because we had already passed over schools of carp big enough to fill my boat to the gunwales, and he’d not let me fish. But, just as I was about to tell him just what I thought of his little trick, I noticed something strange.
All the while we’d been coming up river, we’d seen life – small frogs hopping among the reeds, the splash of tiny fish, the occasional sight of a terrapin sunning itself on a log of wood. But here, at this spot, I could see nothing. Even the dragonflies skimming the surface seemed to be wary, never hovering as they did elsewhere.
It was very strange, and I couldn’t think why it should be that way.
A moment later, I found out.
A few boats’ lengths from me, something broke the surface. It was a flat black mass, so huge that I thought for a moment it was the back of an elephant, swimming. And then I saw a feeler as thick around as my leg, and an eye half the size of a cart wheel, and I knew I was looking at the head – and only the head – of the biggest catfish I had ever seen.
My hands blurred into action as I bent over the oars, rowing towards where the immense monster had submerged. Reaching the spot, I gathered up my net.
That net of mine was a tremendous one. Someday I must tell you how I came by it. It was so big that it was spread out over a circus tent to dry, and its cords were as thick as the chains used to tether elephants. No other man could even pick it up, let alone with one hand like me. Oh, that net, I miss it still.
As soon as I dropped it over the side, I felt it snag something. And a moment later, the boat was being dragged through the water at a speed I could scarcely believe.
Even the tiger was startled. He gave out a yelp of astonishment, jumped to his paws, and began racing along the bank, his eyes round with astonishment. As for me, I could only grab the boat’s gunwale and hang on.
The catfish dragged me through the water the entire afternoon, and then through the evening. When darkness fell, I imagined that he would tire and want to rest, but no such luck. If anything, he seemed to be going even faster, until I began to worry that he would smash my boat to smithereens against a mangrove. As it turned out, that might have been almost a good thing.
All through that night the catfish dragged me through the swamp, without a pause. Finally I decided that since there wasn’t much I could do about it, I might as well sleep, and I curled up in the bottom of my boat. Whenever I woke up during the night, the catfish was still going strong.
It was morning by the time the catfish stopped. I’d been in the middle of a dream of flying through the air on a bed of feathers, and when the fish stopped, my bed fell apart in mid air. I woke with a jerk.
The first thing I saw was my old friend the tiger sitting on the bank, with an extremely anxious expression on his face. At first I thought he’d followed me around all night, but looking around I found I was in the same part of the swamp where I’d started. Obviously, the catfish had brought me back to his home.
I thought I was lucky, that he had tired himself out and come back home to die. I was mistaken.
That catfish had brought me home to eat me.
The tiger must have known it. He jumped up and began pacing up and down the bank, whining at me. Once or twice I thought he was about to get in the water to swim to the boat, but each time he obviously thought better of it. I didn’t pay much attention to him, unfortunately – still imagining that the catfish had given up the struggle, and already visualising the money he would fetch at the market, I grabbed the net and gave a hefty pull.
It came up so suddenly that I almost fell over backward. And an instant later, the catfish rammed the boat from below.
Even a boat as sturdy as mine wasn’t proof against that catfish’s charge. Slowly tipping, it rolled over, and I was thrown into the water.
For a moment, I confess, I was a little nonplussed. Being actually in the water with that colossal brute was more than I’d bargained for, especially when I glimpsed a gigantic black shadow swimming by, and felt a pressure wave which hit me like a swinging door. But then I remembered that the catfish was still snared in my net, which was strong enough to hold an elephant, and I felt better.
But that feeling lasted only for a moment. I was swimming for the overturned boat when I felt something brush my hand. It was the net, and the cords were broken. And for the first time, I felt a chill of fear, because the ends of the cord weren’t ripped – they were cut, as neatly as by a knife.
Can you imagine what the fish had done? He’d cut the net with his teeth, and, gathering it up in his mouth, towed the boat around all night, just to work up an appetite.
This realisation, as I said, gave me a chill of fear. Right now, the fish would be somewhere below me, looking up to see me silhouetted against the light at the water surface. When he had seen me, up he would come, mouth open to swallow me like a sweet.
There was only one thing for me to do. Kicking backwards and up, I dived as steeply as I could.
It wasn’t easy, diving into that murk, knowing the monster catfish was somewhere close by, but I didn’t hesitate. Unfortunately, I’d barely managed to gather half a breath before being spilled into the water, which meant I could only stay underwater for an hour or so. If I’d had a chance to get properly ready, I could have stayed submerged all day.
But I had to do what I could. Swimming straight down until I reached the mud at the bottom, I began flowing the river bed, with the thought of finding my way to the far bank and climbing out. Somewhere nearby, I was uneasily conscious, was the giant fish, his jaws full of teeth like iron spikes. It was not a comforting thought.
And then I came across something in the bed of the river.
Today, so many years later, I can still see it, and I marvel at that catfish. It was a trawler, one of the big ones, which were then just appearing. The catfish had grabbed it somewhere, I suppose – a launch that size would never have entered the swamp on its own. He had probably used himself as bait, allowed the trawler to net him, and then dragged it back to the swamp. Once there, he’d sunk it, and eaten the crew as they’d tried to swim for safety. They hadn’t really had a chance. But it would give me shelter for a while.
Feeling my way with my hands, I swam across the broken deck until I found a way in. And though it was as dark as the inside of a coal shed at midnight in there, I found my way around, over broken seats and the remnants of the wheelhouse. And there I found something on the deck. It was a heavy bag, and when I lifted it, I felt it heavy with the shifting weight of coins.
The trawler’s captain must have got a large amount of money from somewhere – maybe the crew’s payroll, which he hadn’t yet had a chance to share out before the sinking. Well, it wouldn’t be of any use to him, but it would be of use to me.
Slinging the bag around my neck, I kicked away a part of the hull and swam out, heading for the surface. I was so excited at the discovery, you see, that I forgot about the catfish for a moment.
Unfortunately, the catfish hadn’t forgotten about me.
I realised this the moment my head broke the surface. I felt, as if something immense was swimming through the water after me, a wave of water so big that it lifted me up far enough to show me I was only a short distance from the shore. As fast as I could, I began swimming towards it. And, with jaws agape, the catfish swam after me.
Now, if I had dropped the bag of money, I could easily have outstripped that catfish. But I didn’t want to drop the bag – I’d earned it, and my happiness depended on it. So it became a race between the catfish and me, with my life as the prize.
And I might have lost, but for the tiger.
I’d just looked over my shoulder, and seen the catfish’s gigantic jaws snapping at my heels, when something fell on me from above. It was the tiger, who had leaped down from a mangrove tree branch. Gripping my shoulder firmly but gently in his jaws, he paddled hard for the shore. Together, we just managed to make it. I felt the catfish’s barbels brush my ankles as it turned away, splashing mud and water all over everything as it went. I looked back in time to see it lift up the hull of my boat in its jaws and chew it to splinters.
After that I came back. It took less time than it might, because the tiger gave me a lift on his back to the edge of the swamp. I think he felt sorry for me. At least he must have been awfully disappointed. I wasn’t, though, not really. After all, I had got the money, and as soon as I got back I’d have the girl.
“And that,” Grandpa said, stubbing out his latest cigarette, “is the story of the fish which got away.”
“But you can’t leave it like that!” we protested. “What happened when you got back? Did you get the girl?”
“No,” Grandpa sighed. “When I got back, I found my friend, the one who had been with me when I first saw her, had already married her. How, you ask? Nothing simpler – he had given up fishing and started using his boat to bring tourists over to see the sunset. The chief said he had good business sense.” He shook his head. “And to think that he’d never even noticed the sunset until I’d given him the idea!”
We all ruminated on the tragedy for a moment. And then Grandpa perked up. “But, you know what?” he asked.
“I got to ride on a tiger. How many people do you know who have done that?”
None, we admitted, trying not to laugh.
Grandpa cocked his head. “And he still gives me a ride sometimes.” We all heard it then, a low liquid growl from outside the window, a growl to melt the marrow in our bones. “Ah, there he is now. I’ll see you youngsters later...if you stay around.”
Smiling gently, Grandpa picked up the entire carton of cigarettes and walked out into the night.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012