This fish was born different. Abnormal, as some older fish said. She had small gills smaller than others’ and large oversized fins, much like the wings of a bird. Her eyes were large and grey and her body bulkier than others’.
And what all the other fishes wanted to know was how she came to be different like this.
That was a mystery – the little fish herself did not know how she was different. And why. At first she didn’t quite know that she was unlike the others. She could do everything the others could and that was what mattered. But then, as the days went by, other fishes looked curiously at her and she turned pink with embarrassment. Being different made her uncomfortable sometimes.
Different. Separate. Strange. Aloof. Words that breathe. And wait. For the next impression. Another meaning. A second look. And a lingering thought. And rarely, an envious sigh – ah, if only I, too, could be different! But that would not be nice at all. Too much differentness would be too same. And that would spoil the fun.
Different is also silly. Nature playing a practical prank. Only nobody laughs at it. It is seen as a flaw. A serious flaw that must be reared seriously. Nature’s prank misfires and nobody enjoys it, not even, in the end, nature herself.
The Fish, the different Fish with the bulky body and fins like wings turned serious. She had been happy the way she was. Until the others had stared. Her gills, small! Her fins, large like an elephant’s swaying ears. But then, she had not seen an elephant. And she did not know. Which was good, on second thoughts. It would have shocked her. The idea that she, living in the warm luxurious water should have fins like the large black ears of a tall, trumpeting elephant.
This story belongs to a river. No, the story is about the Different Fish who belongs to the river. Anyhow, both the river and the fish are important to the tale and that is how, it belongs to them both.
The river is an old river. Older than most of us. Wiser than all of us. She flows a long distance and endures much during her voyage to the sea. Dirt. Dead bodies. Dinghies rowing out into her belly. Spit and salt. Shit and waste. The river just washes over it all and flows on. Unmindful. Forgiving. Deep and sorrowful. At times, angry. Angry at people who stare at her blindly.
And those who shout across the width of her to the other bank. “Whooooaaaaaaaa!”
Ouch! That hurts! The sound as it ricochets off the blue surface shatters the calm of the river’s ancient heart.
Cruel, unfeeling people!
Long ago, the river came down from the snowy mountaintops. Swift. Youthful. Eager to see the world. A spring in her step and song in her voice, she flew into plains and ran through the golden desert sands. Ah, it was good to get away from the stony quiet of the strong mountaintops. To descend from the craggy heights that had held her spirit captive. To claim, proudly, ownership of the world that spread docilely before her. Her life expanded and she flowed majestically into frightened caves and crevices that shrank before her gushing.
How the fish came to live in her waters, she does not now remember. What she does remember is that one day, she heard murmurings and little gasps of air being taken in. The fish had arrived. The river exulted. The fish became her playmates. When she sprang over a huge boulder, they jumped with her. And sang. When she hid within a dark crevice, they slid inside too. And were quiet. The fish were more than her playmates. They were the river’s life-blood. They lived. And she lived. And the days grew long and happy. And sped by.
This was many years ago. Since then, the river had seen many things. And many fish. Now, she was old. And wise. And had turned quieter. And sadder. As with old people, who have seen a lot of life. The toasted side. Black and flaky. Bitter and dry. Their veins thicken with the crust of cynicism and sleeplessness. They smile slower. Their eyes turn deep and dark. With shadows of a time gone by. A time that refuses to return. A time that tickles, playfully, the strings of the heart and the globules of memory. The hurt goes away. But the dull disappointment of missed chances sits on the heart. A serpent of poisonous possession. That is why Old people are sad. And smile slower.
The river was older than the Old people. And wiser. But not cynical, like them. Her wisdom had uprooted cynicism and what remained was pure sadness. A sadness that made her naïve. And kind. And loving. Like the old flower seller who had sat on her bank for as long as she could remember. The river always paused beside him. To smell his flowers. And see him not see the urchins who stole a stalk of ruby-red roses from the corner of his little stall.
Ah, she thought, he is a kind fellow, this old flower seller. He allows those stupid boys to steal his fragrant flowers. It gives him as much happiness as selling large bunches to rich folk.
But, wait, the story is about the Different Fish. The fish who lived in the Old Wise River. The fish was now older. Each day she grew older still. And understood. Her differentness. Her strangeness. And felt sad.
The wise river embraced her. Whispered to her that it was all right. Being different was okay. Even wonderful, if you really considered it.
But the Fish did not understand the River’s words. She felt the lifting current, the warm caress of the water. But did not hear the words of comfort. She was too engrossed in her thoughts to heed the other voice. That was sad. Had she understood she would have been at peace. But young fish rarely heed the river’s soft voice.
So engrossed was she in thoughts of her clumsy shape, she forgot to swim. Or hide behind smooth glistening stones. Or even chase the shadows as they ducked and dove through the gently moving water layers. She just saw her shimmering reflections. And remembered. Her small gills. Her large fins. And disappointment crowded out other thoughts. The Fish forgot to feel the sloping current and the dappled water. She only thought how she was not like the other fishes. Sleek. Those little fins that shook with soft fish laughter. Those slippery backs and swishing tails that cut sharply through water.
Ah! how much she wanted to be like all those others.
One day, the Different Fish stopped by a little cliff. The littlest cliff on the river’s bank. A shy drooping Neem tree grew on it. Shaken by the river breeze, overwhelmed by the swift current, he stood unsure of his ground. But he stood. And on his thin branches sat an ordinary brown sparrow. Small and sharp, like all good ordinary sparrows. He chirped. He looked around in a proprietary manner. And chirped again. In a shrill, overbearing tone. He peered down into the river as she stood beside the cliff. Unimpressed by her silent waters, he looked away in the distance. It was time to fly away. He was busy and had to get some extra worm-bites, for his hungry waifs waiting in the nest. Off he flew.
The Different Fish saw him fly and sighed wistfully. She longed to be a bird. No, she longed to be a sparrow. Or, a neem tree. Or, a wild bush. Oh, just anything at all. Other than what she was. Strange and ugly. A Fish that was not quite like the others.
Sadly, she peered into the water and saw her shadow. Those large fins spreading out like lotus leaves. They really made her fish-heart sink.
How could nature have done this to her?
And she swam away, dejected. Away from her reflection, that made her feel hurt inside.
That day, Different Fish moped a lot. Her friends cavorted near the blue-green middle, playing among themselves, but she was disconsolate. And kept to the dark damp corners. She did not feel hungry. Her heart felt heavy. And her fins hung like lead weights on her.
The Wise River watched her and tried again. Being different was all right. Nature perhaps meant you for other things. Not simply swimming. Nor diving aimlessly into clear sunlit depths.
But The Fish did not hear. Did not comprehend. She just moped.
That night the moon rose brittle in the hard blue summer sky. Clear. Cruel. It stood right overhead and stared into the shifting layers of shining water. Through the green, blue, indigo and magenta layers. He saw the Fish with the strange fat body and those large lotus fins. But the moon did not laugh. He, too, was old. And scarred. And living with it. He looked at the oversized fins again. Those sad beautiful eyes. And he thought it was time to use some of his moonbeam magic.
Now, that requires some digression. The moon likes to think he is God. Of Small Things. And Little Creatures. When he shines in the sky, he peers into dark shadowy corners and sees little worms that creep. His curious moonbeams penetrate underneath closed doors and into darkened wells, sifting through the dust and grime of the daytime.
And the Moon, God of small things especially loves little fish. He gives them his special silver-dusted moonbeams to ride on and the playful fish swim on top of the river-surface when He is high in the sky. The silver-dusted moonbeams titillate them and they laugh. The moonbeams lift their hearts to heaven and the fish are elated. The Moon is their friend. Their lover.
The Moon is a Charmer. A cool charmer who can change the way the world looks. When Night sweeps her deathly veil over the golden evening sun, darkness descends swift. Cold. Dark. The sun in the West flees, forgetting to gather up his warm red rays. And the blue sky bows her head in acquiescence over yonder Horizon. Night’s veil gathers up the leftover daylight and gobbles it up, hungry. Like a Black hole. It grinds little faraway stars underfoot and try as they might, their light is choked off. And all nature hides away, frightened. Waiting for Night to shake off her dark veil.
The Moon is a cheeky Charmer. When Night has staked her claim of the forests and the rivers and the silent fields, he arrives. Confident. An adornment. A different shape each night. And flatters the Night. Charming with his cool magic. And his silvery tinkle bells. Touching the Night in her soft spots. Delicately weaving his moonbeams into thin glistening lace that hovers tantalizingly on her handsome forehead. And flattered, Night does not gobble him. She is in love with him. With the beauty he gives her. The Moon charmed her aeons ago and Night has not yet shaken off the spell of the moonbeams.
Meanwhile, Different Fish floated in the depths, half-asleep and very sad. Her grey eyes looked brimstone black as they reflected the black water. Tonight, she felt a deep sadness. A long deep sadness that reached out from long ago and swept her down. Her movements were listless. And she despised her strangeness. Tonight more than ever before.
The river heard her sorrow and wept. Long and hard.
The Moon saw the river’s tears. He heard the Fish’s sorrowful sighs. And he sent down a magical moonbeam. The Fish in the water felt the moonbeam curl lovingly around her. It shone down into her eyes. Bright. Blinding her. It lifted her. Powerfully. So that she could not resist. And even as confusion clouded her thoughts, the magical moonbeam had lifted her out of the river and Fish was flying.
Riding the silvery moonbeam, she flew over the water. There was a moment of fear and she faltered. She looked down. She saw her friends, the other fishes jumping sleekly on the still river surface. She saw the surprise in their eyes. The wonder in their upturned faces. The love in the river’s eyes. And her fear evaporated.
As she rode, her large fins, the lotus leaf fins opened up and began to move up and down. A bird’s wings. Up. Down. Up and down again. The moonbeams guided the fins in their flight. And as Fish’s wings learnt the motion of the air currents her spirit soared.
She was flying. Actually. The gawky, fat fish was flying. She felt a secret thrill. She was free. And different. And happy. For the very first time in her fish life.
It was unbelievable. This was not happening to her. She was fat. Her body was ungainly. Her gills were small and her fins, ugly. She was not even like the brown sparrow. She could not fly! No, she must be dreaming. She looked around her. Inky black cool expanse.
All around her, the inky well stretched and happy stars blinked at her, astonished. Fish saw them nod encouragingly and she felt confident. She moved her fins. Up and down. Up and down. And flew on.
The silvery river ribbon danced beneath her and above her hung the dark black sky. And in between them, Fish flew on. Her fins moved. Up and down. For the first time, she felt un-sad. Light. Something that felt like joy lifted her heart. And hope. Something that was different. Unlike all that she has ever felt before.
The other fish in the river rejoiced. And danced. The river smiled. A long beautiful smile. Full of knowing. And the Moon old, wise and trusting, drew up his moonbeams. The Fish had found her purpose in the world. From here, she could take it on her own.