Back then Papa and I would hop across rocks and boulders along the Tirthan River every morning, with our fishing rods in hand—he had a sleek fly rod and I had an amateur’s spinner. He had just started me on fishing, and we did our lessons before I walked with Madhu to school.
A week had gone by and there were no wriggling trout at the end of my line; just soaking shoelaces and rags, dripping twigs and brambles, things Tirthan River wanted out of its water. I spent most of my time sitting on boulders, untying tiny nylon knots on my spinner after a poor cast, or trying to tug my hook free from an invisible rock under water. In these moments I would sometimes run my fingers across my pimpled forehead which felt more like the insole of Papa’s bumpy massage slipper with each passing day. Then I would look up to see Papa tap his forehead and shake his finger: don’t fiddle with the pimples. He would then take the rod from me, fix the spinner or free the line, and I would silently ache for my first trout.
Papa called himself a naturalist, and he knew trout better than most people. He had a trekking agency, and foreigners came laden with gear—nets, heavy vests, river-side toolkits, gloves, big rubber boots—to fish with him after a trek. So foolish. All Papa used was his fly-rod and some basic tackle. Sometimes I would put aside my spinner, let down my hair, and just watch Papa bait the trout. It was like cinema; there were dramatic tensions at play. There was so much movement: the water slipping fast along its channel, Papa casting his line, trying new spots hopping from boulder to boulder but always with a quiet which suggested stillness. It was a colourful sight too. He wore an orange cap and khaki pants, and his line was neon green, an odd sight on the water’s cool blue. When he cast his line, it did not whip through the air but soared before gently caressing the river. The fly-bait would float along the river surface, aided by the moving water as he slowly pulled back the line. He repeated this gesture silently, the line falling into the water, him pulling it back, casting again, till a Tirthan trout was tricked into biting the bait. All this to the whooshing background music of rustling water and pine needles clinking in the wind.
He could even tie two baits to his line and pull out two fish at the same time. How did he know what happens underwater, where the trout were, if they would bite? I remember when his friends came over for a drink, they told me he had luck. But it wasn’t that, he caught them all the time. What was the secret? “Badki my girl,” he said one day, with a hint of smugness even. “One just needs the right balance in life. The right things need to come together.” He calmly pulled out a brown trout, its tail slapping the air with a cascade of drops. He smiled at me. I sighed. I used to think he was like the Dalai Lama: a smiling old man full of vague wisdoms. I cast my line in all the places he did, the spinner toyishly ticking and whizzing as I reeled in an empty hook. A crow sitting on a large boulder nearby tilted its head and cawed.
“Too small,” Papa said as he released his trout back into the water. “I’ll get the fish for lunch. You should head on to school now.”
“Mmmmmm muah muah mmmmuuuaah.”
I rolled my eyes as Madhu wrapped her arms around herself, stretched her lips into a pout and squelched wet, imaginary, and disgusting kisses which might have left a trail of saliva along the road to school. Wiping her mouth she said, “I bet this is how you would kiss Rahul.”
She shoved me and we both laughed as we trudged ahead, thumbs tucked under our bags’ shoulder straps. If we had extra time we sometimes went off the road and sat by the bank to find in the still, deceptive mountainside some sign of activity: a white langur hidden in green, plucking and chewing rhododendron leaves; a band of distant, tiny uncles making their way down to the market; the purple bandana of an aunty collecting firewood.
Madhu picked up a stone from the road and launched it towards the river. It landed on the bank, several feet from the shoreline. “Let’s sit for a while,” she said. Usually we chatted by the river, laughed, killed time. But I shook my head. She rolled her eyes and we resumed walking.
I had to reach school quickly because I knew Rahul would be back in class. Rahul. Only Madhu knew I was in love with him. It was my greatest secret, kept more silent than a single pinecone packed under mounds of winter snow, but only till the day all secrecy and silence would melt and he would know that I loved him and that he was mine and no one else’s. Then we would finally kiss. One day I would tell him all. I had fantasies of professing my love to him in public: on stages, in plays, under the stars in front of his friends. Madhu was a year older than me, and she had already been through one romance in school. We had only started getting pimples on our foreheads and chins, hair on our legs. The periods had started a year or two before. So, while Madhu often said that she had already kissed, I doubted her. She did not really know what to do with boys.
“Reached,” Madhu sighed as we approached Snow Peak International School. I was too preoccupied to reply.
We went to our respective classrooms. I nodded at my acquaintances in class. The bell had not rung and the students were busy with that particular freedom which is the absence of a teacher. Snow Peak International School did not deserve the word international. Most people in Kullu did not know about it, forget about other nations. It was a lone three-story building, uphill, and the river was far enough to be silent but close enough to be seen. But none of this mattered, Rahul had just walked in. He always arrived after me so I always saw him daubed in the sunlight beaming through the open door, a long and yellow rectangle stretched across the floor right up to the teacher’s desk: the perfect ramp for him to walk over. His sleeves, rolled up to just above his elbows as usual, ended in little rectangular strips bound tight against his skin—I figured his father made him chop wood every evening. He had many friends and was usually late, so when he walked in he would smile—teeth glistening—because familiar faces would already be present.
I remember Madhu saying, “Nakli, at least you should just speak with him.” I felt hurt because it was true: I had never spoken with Rahul. Maybe I was just a face in his imagination, maybe not even that. He might not have even known my name, and if he did, it was all he knew. As I was thinking this the teacher walked in and the class rose and sat down like marmots in the mountains. The day’s lessons began. I could not pay any attention.
“Today we clean the fish.”
On the kitchen slab were two browns, their mouths open in shock at their predicament, their red speckled sides glistening with water. Papa had made me clean trout three times already. The guts did not sicken me but they were beginning to bore me. I did not ask any questions and picked up the knife next to a trout.
“You lead,” he said. “I will follow.”
I picked up a fish, turned it belly-side up in my left hand, inserted the cold knife’s tip into its vent near the bottom, and started slicing my way up towards the jaw. Do not insert the knife too deep. Cross the pelvic fins, the belly. Pec. Toral. Fins. And then. You reach the jaw. Papa asks—
Now you insert the knife laterally across the lower jaw, through the two slits on either side of the head, and cut upwards so there is a tuck sound, like a button being wrenched from a shirt, and the fish is left with a second hole below its mouth. The next task is tricky, and Papa’s eyes are trained for a mistake. Press the lower jaw with left thumb to keep the fish in place, insert right thumb snug into the top of the slit along the belly; index finger goes into the new hole but evade the sharp teeth—the tricky part and the last hope of revenge for Mr. Brown here. In a pinched grasp, pull, and all the guts hang in your right hand.
I quickly moved to throw them.
“No,” said Papa.
Even the fourth time, and all the times after, Papa and I sifted through the guts and named the individual parts.
Cooking fish with Papa was like conducting surgery. The first time, I did not even pick up a knife and he did not show me how to gut the fish either. A fish was already cut up but he had not just cut it, he had dissected it, and arranged all the internal organs neatly on the kitchen slab. This is the spleen, he had said pointing to a gelatinous pile of black slime; this is the digestive tract consisting of the oesophagus, stomach, pyloric caeca, intestine, and the anus; this is the liver; these are the gonads; gills; and look, the air bladder and kidney are stretched along the spine. Like this, see?
Sometimes I thought Papa was a nutcase. He went through life with this stoic resolve but he did all these ridiculous things like saying “These are the trout’s gonads” and thought it was normal. I loved him very much, so I never asked too many questions. If dissecting trout kept his resolve in place, so be it. If catching trout impressed him, then I wanted to catch him a big trout someday. But as I said “this is the anus” for the fourth time that month, I had to ask him a question.
“Papa, do we really have to do this again?”
He had been smiling, hands behind his back, the symmetry of his grey cropped hair unbothered. But his eyebrow slowly lifted itself, as if it had been hooked and reeled in.
“You want to catch trout?”
I nodded with determination.
“Then you must know it well. Inside,” he pointed to the kitchen slab, “and out,” he pointed towards the river. “Fishing is hunting. If you are going to catch your prey you must know how it moves, where it stays, what it eats, and why it does all these things. Why it does anything and how it is able to do it. To truly know that, to truly understand your prey,” he gestured towards the trout, “you must know this. Clear?”
Over the next week I sat towards the back of the classroom, so Rahul could never escape my sight. Focused observation revealed some less than romantic facts about Rahul’s personality. He was not very bright, he indulged in the lazy behaviour I did not like in other boys, like doting on each other’s hairstyles—“spikes”—coming lathered in gel, wearing loose pants, and making crude jokes at other people’s expense. We would have to work on these things once we got together. But before fixing his weakness, I leveraged it. He never brought a pen to school. So I bought ten extra gel pens and kept them in an open pencil bag on my desk, all their caps peeping out so their vibrant colours—purple, yellow, blue—popped out against the dull brown of the classroom desks. I hoped he would ask me for one.
As I sat unmoving during the day, focused on capturing my objective which ignored the bait and wandered to my classmates instead, I developed a hunter’s stillness and slowly became almost invisible, as if I were the chair itself, so that the pens could be seen without distraction. These were the perils of learning to fish in my teenage years: the irony of embracing invisibility to be noticed by a boy was lost on me. But it was not lost on Madhu, and she did not approve of my changing behaviour. Her zealous kissing gesture had been replaced by an exasperated sigh and a frustrated questioning. “Uff, yaara. What do you even see in him?” She was often with her arms crossed, and she would sometimes come into my class to steal my pen baits.
I could have given lectures to Madhu about what I saw in Rahul: the way he sometimes stood, his body weight shifted onto his left leg, with his hands behind his head, or the way he laughed in small consecutive bursts, like a series of coughs. But this was just information noted during the day. At night I drew warmth from my pillow by hugging it tightly, and made use of these observations. I slipped from authored fantasies of fishing trips with Rahul (which always ended in unlimited kissing), into unintended dreams—I remember one where I violently ran my hands through his hair and kissed him, and opened my eyes to see him covered in scales, convulsing, black bulbous eyes glinting with a shine of white, a pencil thin tongue wiggling in an o-shaped mouth. We then jolted into an orchard full of apple trees with pens for fruit, filled with desks where the sun was bright and brilliant, the grass luscious, and the world hued with the purple, yellow, and blue of light transmitted through the caps of pens. We walked around the orchard plucking pens and exchanging them as we talked with that energy typical of compatible boys and girls. If I could just talk. Since I had not spoken with him in life, speaking with him in dreams was tragic because after waking up I could not recall the sound of the words I had spoken. Dreams happen in our minds where sound cannot exist. Sound in the imagination can only be a cunning trick.
Karan had spoken. Rahul turned a few feet ahead of me, and I felt like Papa did when a trout bites the bait but shoots away to hide behind a rock.
“Here you go, yaara.” Rahul pocketed Karan’s lowly Reynolds gel pen, dull and boring. “Thanks, bhai.” “Going for the fair?” “Yes, on Sunday. Should be fun.” “Haan, bhai. I’m going too. Let’s meet up there.” They decided when they would meet at the fair before Rahul turned on his heel, returned to his desk, and gently sat down. He did not turn around again.
By the next day, I had spent two weeks learning how to fish. It was a Saturday evening and Madhu had come over to talk and play games of our own invention by the river. We would throw a stick into the water and then run alongside for as long as it was visible, hopping across boulders and ducking under tufts of spindly pine needles to keep up. After playing we propped our legs onto a big rock and lay on the ground, talking and twiddling our feet against the sky. Then Papa came with our fishing rods and gave Madhu a quick lesson too: unlock the spinner, use your finger to hold the line, this is how you cast, and the rest. Madhu and I took turns casting.
Papa had stopped me from casting downstream right from the start. It was a rookie mistake: you would then have to reel in the hook against the current, which made the rod vibrate as if a baited trout was wriggling underwater. So, when I reeled in the line, with the water going the right way, and felt the rod vibrate, I shouted out in joy “Papa! Papa!” I later cursed myself for reacting that way. A good hunter would have maintained their composure, remained silent, and calmly finished the job. For the first time I baited a trout. With greed I reeled in the line, and the spinner’s whizzing sound was like a victory theme to me. I raised the fish out of the water, the rod reverberating in my clasped hands. It was no trophy but it had an alright size, some six inches; enough to be taken into the kitchen in an open season. It was easy to think, after having spent weeks to no avail, that baiting trout was the objective of fishing. But the fight had not ended, and as I congratulated myself—Madhu too was hopping alongside—I felt the rod suddenly lose weight as my fish plopped into the water and swam away, the hook swinging troutless in the air. I was too thrilled too early and I paid for my excitement. I didn’t even get to touch it. But Papa was chuckling. “We’re figuring it out,” he said. For a while I felt a heavy disappointment and was quiet. But gradually the weight reduced and I felt the light victory of progress. I was figuring it out.
It was beginning to get dark, and all three of us made our way home. Soon we were sitting at the dinner table, drinking lemon water and chatting. But I had an agenda and I was feeling lucky, so as they talked I charted out my plan. Things were really coming together. I just needed Madhu to attend the fair; Papa would not let me go alone. The plan was to go to the fair with Madhu, buy something for Rahul, locate him, approach and ask him to explore the fair with me, and then give him the gift as a lasting souvenir. But Madhu had grown too irritated with my aspiration for Rahul. She did not want to discuss him with me anymore. It had to be done subtly.
Papa was telling Madhu about Uncle with whom he was good friends. He said, “Your father was not a bad fisherman himself.” Madhu smiled and he continued as he got up, “You girls continue. I will take your leave.” He went with a newspaper in hand to his favourite armchair. I took my chance.
“Papa,” I said. “Should I bring meat from the market tomorrow?” He peeped from beside the paper and nodded.
“Come with me?” I asked Madhu.
“I can’t come tomorrow. I have homework so Mumma won’t let me. I think the fair is also happening tomorrow? Near the market only?”
“Yes, it is.” I looked at Madhu pleadingly. “Papa, Papa can we please go to the fair tomorrow?”
Madhu stiffened. He emerged from behind his paper as he flapped it down with a crackle. He looked at us, his eyes continuing a quick left to right movement, as one’s eyes do while reading.
“But you hate these fairs,” he said. “Why do you want to go?”
“There are some good events planned this time. We want to go together,” I said. Madhu pinched my arm under the table.
“Fine. I will take you and Madhu. I don’t want you spending too much time there alone.”
“Papa, please? Other students will also be there. We will be back before dinner.”
“But I don’t understand. I took you to these fairs and you never said one good word and now—”
“Please?” There was a long silence as he continued to look at me with some disappointment. He grumbled and returned to his paper.
“You will take the phone with you and I will call at 7:00 PM sharp. If you are not on your way back, then I will come there and take a class of these ‘other students’ myself. Madhu, keep an eye on her.”
I accompanied Madhu outside. It was dark and half of her face was in shadow as we stood under a yellow bulb. I was explaining my plan when she interrupted.
“That’s fine but why did you make me lie? I told you I have to do homework. And what will I even do if your plan works? You will walk around with that idiot and I’ll just be left alone.”
“He’s not an idiot.”
“Whatever. I won’t come. Bye.”
I remember how she walked away into a cold night, arms pressed against her sides, hands tucked into her pockets, and just before the dark swallowed her, when she felt alone, how she shook her head and disappeared. I felt she had judged me. I thought it was rather petty; that she should behave this way after knowing how I felt. She should have been a better friend and accompanied me. I slept bitter but with the guiding intent of talking to Rahul the next day.
By early evening I was on a pink local bus which rattled its way along the coiling road, every now and then slamming still to jerk everyone forward. There were several people my age chatting and laughing. Elderly men and women eyed them with contempt. Old Bollywood songs were playing on the bus music system: Kabhi kisi ko dil diya? Diya! Maine bhi diya! La la la la! La la la la! As I remembered Rishi Kapoor’s disco outfit, I began to realise my own adventure was rather bold. It was becoming dark outside and I tried counting the lights in the mountainside to take my mind off the squeamishness in my stomach. “Groundgroundgroundground,” the conductor said as the neon lights of the Festival Ground slid into my window. I got out of the bus and stared at the carnival. Papa was correct, I hated them. They were crowded, with people shouting and bawling on the wooden rides—a fifteen-foot Giant Wheel and a Columbus Ship. Vanilla and strawberry softies were galore as people walked between stalls and performances. The bus drove away from behind me and I began walking towards the stalls.
As I walked into the crowd, the ensuing conversations were senseless and intimidating— they faded away before completion, and were quickly replaced by new ones. Arrey de de na, yaara ha-ha-ha ice cream is cheap here haan chal chal gun stall chal aa ja na, bhai he didn’t come today? Seemingly dissonant chatter came together to create the drone of talk in a crowded place. I felt like a novice swimmer in a deep pool and so I went to the stalls in the side for safety. I had already seen some familiar faces from the neighbourhood. The Dev family was on an outing and I saw some people from school whom I had never spoken with. I hoped I would see Rahul too but I realised that it was difficult. I turned towards a stall which had many souvenirs: a small replica of the festival—giant wheel included—some bangles and earrings, some bowls. But when I saw a small wooden trout, I purchased it immediately. I would give it to Rahul.
I wandered through the fair and began to feel silly and afraid. No one was there alone. Who goes to a fair by themselves? I subjected all my thoughts to scrutiny: you cannot buy a softie, the vendor will judge you for being alone; no point going on the Giant Wheel, the operator will judge you. Approaching anyone was a painful idea because then I would be revealed as the friendless girl at the fair. I liked being alone next to Tirthan River. The sounds of small movements—the graze of pants against your knees, the light clap of your shoe landing on a rock, or even the splash of a rock cast in slightly distant water—are engulfed and made mute under the rustle. When everything is mute, being alone is acceptable, it is possible to feel solitude even in company. But as I strolled by the stalls in the din, the eyes of men wearing Himachali caps strolled with me. I quickened my pace and felt uneasy. If only I had Madhu, I thought in anguish.
Then I saw Rahul. I squeezed the wooden trout with my sweaty hand and felt the woodwork rub against the skin of my palm. I trained my eyes on him so I wouldn’t lose him and realised he was not moving. He was standing alone under a light post, unaware of me. He was wearing a blue sweater with the Kinnauri cap, and the sweater’s blue looked nice set against the hues of the fair. He stood the way he usually did when he was in one place for too long, with his hands behind his head. He looked so handsome.
I stood around awkwardly looking at him and then I don’t know what happened but I turned to leave. I didn’t have the courage to speak. I could not bring myself to walk up to him and execute my plan. I got on the next bus home, and as the distance between him and me increased, in the confines of my own head where nobody knew about my failure, only me, I felt a nauseating shame. When I reached home, Papa was confused.
“But you were only gone for an hour?”
The next morning was the windy afterthought of a night full of rain, and the deodars and oaks were coated in water, their heavy leaves bobbing every now and then with the dispatch of a drop. I sent Madhu a message while I still had the phone.
I give up.
I’ll come at 11.
The weather cleared as I set about getting ready and doing my chores. Madhu came at 11 and we went by the river to talk. The water’s flow was fast because of the rain, so we sat at a small distance, on a large rock tucked under a pine tree. With a stick I squiggled lines in wet sand, and in a low voice hushed by the river, I told her about the previous night. She nodded slowly when I was done. We both stared at the mess of confused, directionless lines I had drawn.
“I am sorry I didn’t come. You should have just spoken to him. It would have been fine.”
I sighed. I failed to say what I felt. Whatever it was, it made me think I was not a doer of things. Catching trout, speaking to Rahul, these were brave deeds I was just not designed to achieve. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Hmm. It will be fine. Don’t worry.”
I nodded. She slowly nodded too and we resumed observing the squiggly lines in silence. A redstart flew past us and perched itself on a big rock in the middle of the river, where it surveyed the water for a few seconds and took off, deeming the day too risky for a dive. I was observing it when, in a quick motion, Madhu leaned in and kissed my lips. It felt like such a bizarre gesture, so removed from the paths we daily tread in the mountains, so different in taste from the apples and cherries we grew in our orchards, so very new, that it had a brazenness which demanded reckoning. But Madhu and I were stunned into a silence we had not experienced before. We parted quickly, and I looked at her—she had a face flushed red.
As we stared at each other I saw mirth tinting across Madhu’s face and we simultaneously giggled. It felt like the right way to break the silence and, somehow, it felt like a brave thing to have done. Once we settled down again, she put her arm around my shoulder and said, “Forget Rahul,” in that airy sigh which follows laughter. That day comes back to me often. We never kissed again. Never felt the need. But I feel grateful to her. Eventually, I threw that wooden trout into the dustbin and it just so happened that I never said a word to Rahul.
I caught my first trout a few days later.