By Nigar Ataulla
When I was a child, our teachers at school would scold us if we dared to chat with our friends in during class hours. "What? Do you think this school is a fish bazaar?" Of course, most of us had never been to a fish market, but from the way our teachers spoke it was apparent that it was a nasty, noisy place.
As a child, my mother would sometimes cook fish for us at home. Our pet cat would patiently sit by her side in the kitchen, waiting for her to toss him a fish-head, which he would hungrily gobble up. I was told that fish was a rich source of protein (or was it vitamins or calcium?) and, therefore, a must for every growing kid. And so I ate fish with relish whenever it was cooked at home. Even at this time I remember being a passionate animal lover, but, curiously enough, I never really thought of fish as being animals, too, and, accordingly, worthy of my love and care. That was, in part, because I had been made to believe what were claimed to be various 'scientific facts' about the supposed immense health benefits of a fishy diet.
That continued uninterrupted till very recently, when a major twist occurred in my dietary history during a short trip to the seaside town of Kundapura, 30-odd kilometres from Udupi in southern Karnataka. There is nothing particularly spectacular about the town itself. It boasts nothing much by way of tourist interest. Ugly glass-paned multi-storey buildings are rapidly replacing beautiful traditional cottages, and buses and motor-cycles incessantly zip up and down roads where just a few years ago bullock-carts lazily plodded along on. But the beaches that stretch along the long coastline on either side of the town are stunningly beautiful. Silent and spotlessly clean, and lined with neat fishermen's cottages, they are just the perfect place to unwind and contemplate, the ideal beach holiday. Surprisingly—and mercifully—they attract few tourists.
Three days traipsing down these quiet stretches of sand were the highpoint of my recent week-long holiday to Kundapura. And the most exciting thing about it all was witnessing the abundant marine life that appeared when the tides went down. Vast heaps of shelled creatures clung to the coast—little animals housed in beautiful shells of various shapes, hues and sizes. Bright blue star-fish lay scattered about on little bars of sand, crawling ever so slowly back to the sea. Tiny translucent crabs raced down the beach and disappeared into little holes—perhaps the homes of some other creatures. Sea-gulls and wide-winged eagles soared in the empty skies and then suddenly dived into the water on spotting some unsuspecting prey.
As I trod along the beach one day, I spotted a silver-hued baby fish that had swept ashore and was lying silently on the sand. I ran to check if it was still alive, but it had probably long since died. Still, I picked it up and put it back into the sea in the fond hope that it might only be unconscious and might wake up once back in the water. Trudging further along the shore, I chanced upon a bigger, orange-specked fish—a real beauty it was. It had a distinctly smiling face. Its mouth was wide open, and it looked like as if it wanted to say something. It had no signs of life left, but yet I picked it up and put it back into the sea, hoping it would revive. Was it the mother of the small fish I had just seen?, I wondered. Had it swum all the way to trace its lost child and, in the process, lost its life, too? How soon a fish ceases to live when it is torn from its watery home, I wondered, painfully struck at the thought of these two delightful creatures who were now no more.
The next afternoon, I hopped on to a bus and headed to Gangolli, a busy fishing harbour. Two boats had just arrived, laden with a day's catch of fish. Workers—mostly women—armed with spades shoveled heaps of fish into enormous baskets, which they then dumped into waiting trucks, which would transport them to Bangalore, Mumbai and even beyond. Dozens of trucks left Gangolli every day, laden with I have no idea many tens of tons of fish.
As I gazed, with horror, at the enormous piles of hapless animals lying all about me amidst the overpowering stench of death, I spotted a boatman fixing a tiny fish on a hook, which would be used as a bait. The fish was still alive, writhing this way and that in pain. Simply unable to bear the ghastly sight, I pleaded with the man to let the creature go. Although unable to understand why I was so upset, he did so, flinging the hapless creature into the water. I saw it spreading its little fins and sail ahead, as if hurrying away from the man as fast as it could, and I felt a deep peace within. The dreadful sight and stench before me forced me to beat a hasty retreat to the sanitized comfort of my lodge in Kundapura.
That short visit to Gangolli was, for me, a real eye-opener. The massive pyramids of fish, I mused, had just a short while earlier been perfectly at peace in their home in the sea. Now, they were dead. Their bodies were being swept up in shovels and dumped into trucks. They would soon find their way to fish markets in big cities and then on someone's plate—in doing so, lining someone's pocket and tickling someone else's tongue. There was, of course, nothing that I could do about the whole thing. This was life, and dealing in death, in hapless animals like these, was, I knew, a practice probably as old as humankind itself. My heart ached at the thought of the delightful creatures off whose lives people made a lucrative business and whose supposedly tasty bodies wound their way into people's bellies. At that moment there was nothing more that I wanted than for them to be let free to swim in their oceanic home for as long as their lives would let them.I looked at the baskets of fish and said to the little creatures they were overflowing with, "I will never eat you again, because you, too, have a right to live."