This story was originally published in Kelp Journal on May 21:
“Fish” won Kelp’s Shelter in Place contest — writing during the COVID-19 lockdown – under the Fiction category, and was also published in the magazine’s Summer 2020 edition.
Apr 15. Day 24 of India’s lockdown.
I embark for the fish-shop. Saleem’s phoned: he’s stocked rahu. We’ve spent weeks conserving groceries. Yesterday, the P.M. extended the lockdown till May 3rd. A bleak prospect. Fish curry will fortify us. At midmorning, already sweltering, I stroll down streets startlingly dust-free.
Bleak? Not for us. Nationwide, millions of migrant workers are stuck hundreds of miles from home. Jobless. Public transport suspended, they’re walking cross-country. In COVID-19 hotspots, police are brutalising citizens out to buy rice. Medicines.
Here, in Bangalore’s suburbs, enforcement is weak. Juhi and I work all year in different cities. Now we work, lunch, play checkers at one desk. A vacation.
Here’s the fish-shop.
A couple in ice-blue jeans, silk kurtas, and sunhats turn to glare. I understand: they’re policing social distancing. I await my turn outside. Fingering their PM-95 masks for perfect seal, they turn away.
Across India, outside shops, shopkeepers have chalked squares, six feet apart, for customers to queue. No squares here. This fish-shop is tiny, its surroundings unpaved earth.
I know this couple. In Nike Airs and high-tech tracksuits, they walk every morning, lakeside, their panting, snorting pugs.
The Sharmas. Utkarsh and Nikita. Everyone knows them.
“Basa, you have?” says Utkarsh, simplifying his English – Saleem’s illiterate. Also shouting – though Saleem’s not deaf. Or is he shouting to break through the muffle of his mask?
“Yes, fresh basa!” From the small cooler, Saleem produces a lissome pink-finned beauty. Its scales, in the sun, glitter million-silver.
“One kilo. Make Bengali cut,” Utkarsh instructs. “No back-pieces!” meaning the fish’s dorsal side, with its bones hair-thin, steel-sharp.
“Back-pieces hard to eat,” Nikita explains.
Smiling, Saleem hands the fish to his sons at the worktable. The fish-shop is poor, but the neighbourhood has gentrified. Saleem’s intimate with the whims of the wealthy.
Eleven-year-old Hasan scales the fish with a wooden brush. Broad-faced, blade-studded. Then fifteen-year-old Ali guts, cleans, and slices the fish. “Bengali cut,” repeats Utkarsh, peering, ten feet away. Ali nods.
Over Utkarsh’s shoulders, beneath the counter, I espy a cat. White, stunted, emaciated. Belly-up on the gray stone floor. Playing with Salim’s black rubber slippers.
She’s starving. How does she lie there, playing? Perhaps the slippers feel chew like food.
I’ve not seen this cat. She, too, must be a migrant. Used to haunt another, bigger fish-shop. With big shops shut, streets empty, rubbish-dumps picked clean – India’s vast population of stray animals is also on the move. Desperate.
“Shop open all day?” Nikita interrogates Khadija.
Behind the counter Khadija, leather-faced, looks up from basket-weaving. Her side-hustle. Alone in the family, at the cash-drawer, Khadija keeps fish-free.
“No ma’am. Four hours only,” returns Khadija. “We follow government instructions.”
“Bet they do,” Utkarsh mutters, “With nobody to enforce them.”
“You should follow instructions,” insists Nikita. “Four hours only, yes? Everyone should come morning only. Like us. Then you close. Then everyone stays safe!”
Khadija nods vehemently. Smiling, she remarks in Kannada: “After Their Majesties have transacted their business, everyone should shut up shop and go starve. For their safety!”
Saleem smiles at Khadija, then affably at Utkarsh and Nikita. They, not understanding a word, smile back. These Indians speak only English.
The white cat rises, stretches, and walks into the back-room. Behind dingy curtains, half-drawn, four cots lie pushed together. Under motley bedsheets also dingy. Here, under the hot tin roof where we stand sweating, the family eat and sleep.
Up the empty road, in kurta and dhoti once white, eyes bloodshot, shuffles an old man. Leaning on stick, right forearm extended. Seeing us, he jingles the heap of small change in his outstretched palm.
“Why can’t they put beggars somewhere inside,” Nikita wonders. “Feed them. Just walking about, spreading disease. This is why the lockdown was extended. Here!” Ten meters away, she throws a coin. Stiff-kneed, the beggar stoops, groping in the dust.
My blood boils. I hand the beggar the two packets of biscuits I carry for street dogs. The couple’s disapproving gaze pierces me. “He’s not even wearing a mask,” Nikita calls at me.
“Surely he can afford a mask?” says Utkarsh. “Those cheap black ones? How much can those cost? Ten, twenty rupees?”
I’ve had it with their policing. I approach the fish-cooler to select my rahu.
“Utkarsh,” Nikita murmurs, “Let’s find another fish-shop. These Muslims…” She eyes me. Checks if I’m Muslim. “Everyone’s saying they spread COVID deliberately. Congregating in mosques. And just look how they live!”
I tune them out. I watch Ali gut the basa in one dexterous motion. Hasan’s scaling my rahu.
Saleem reemerges. From the bedroom, milk-bottle in right hand, infant on left arm.
Looking up, he catches me staring. “My sister’s,” he explains. “What a time to be born!” He laughs at the cat, tugging at his trouser-hems. “This unfortunate has also just entered our lives.”
Violently she tugs. Has hunger maddened her? “Enough,” murmurs Saleem.
She stops. She meows.
“Soon, Monkey,” says Saleem. “Have this, meanwhile.” His foot indicates a bowl on the floor. He squirts down some milk. The cat drinks.
Setting aside the basa’s back-cuts, Ali plastic-bags the rest. Will the back-cuts go to another customer, discounted? Or into the family’s pot?
Saleem weighs the basa. “Rs. 240.”
“Google Pay?” asks Utkarsh, iPhone in hand.
Muttering, Utkarsh pays Khadija. Receives his change with gloved fingertips. Sprays the notes. Utkarsh and Nikita leave.
Whistling, Ali throws a slice of back-cut. The cat catches it mid-air.
I watch Utkarsh and Nikita stroll away into heat-shimmering noon. “Selfish idiots.”
Khadija laughs. “There’s a saying, sir. ‘People are as stupid as life lets them be.’ When there’re floods, potatoes are pricier. Rich people don’t notice. They don’t eat potatoes. They eat fruit from Australia. A neighbour moves. They don’t notice. Their neighbour didn’t babysit for them – or steal from them. We notice. Our survival, at the best of times, depends on neighbours. On strangers.”
Awaiting my rahu, I watch the cat eat. Emaciated – but manouevring, around the deadly bones, gracefully.
What have your experiences of the lockdown been like? What instances of kindness — or callousness — to the humans and nonhuman animals affected by the lockdown have you observed? Do you think everyday experience with deprivation makes us more likely, or less likely, for an individual, a family, or a community to help others in need?