A part of my school days were spent at Kamptee, a small cantonment town on the Kanhan River near Nagpur, India. A kilometer-wide torrent in the monsoon months, the Kanhan shrank to a modest clear stream during the winter. On one of its bends, the river had gouged out a deep pool where the water swirled in slow lazy eddies. Overhanging boughs of Gulmohur, a lovely tree, profusely flowered with orange blooms, (also called Flame of the Forest) and banks of rich green grass created a peaceful picture. Situated close to an old, disused bathing place this idyllic place was known as Parsi Ghat.
Some of my happiest boyhood hours were spent angling around Parsi Ghat, equipped with rod and knapsack. My favorite quarry was the murral (or “Sowl”, as it is known in Punjab), a distant relative of the African lung fish, cousin to the North American Bowfin and prized in India for its medicinal properties. A predatory fish of aggressive temperament, the murral (pronounced as in ‘muzzle’) had long since captivated me with its graceful movements as well as its fighting qualities when hooked. He is second to the famed Mahseer, one of the best fresh water sporting fish of the world, and is well known among experienced anglers for his “tail walking,” a spectacular feature from his repertoire of evasive tactics when hooked. On a sunny winter morning, it was not unusual to see murral gliding up from the depths to gulp in mouthfuls of air and cruise the surface while basking in the sunlight. During the late evenings, if one was lucky, one could sometimes see him cruising along the grassy banks, on the lookout for a hapless chick, rat, frog or insect to fall his way.
I was seldom alone on the river. There was the familiar group of local fishermen, a silent, taciturn fraternity. The eldest among them was a grizzled octogenarian whom everyone called Baba. They knew me by sight and treated me with tolerant, almost patronizing kindness, as one would a child trying to emulate adults at their work.
I will never forget that sunny day in the winter of ’67 when I first saw the Old Man. School was out then, and I had been at Parsi Ghat since six in the morning. By eight I had caught a fourteen-inch murral on a brass spinner (a bright, revolving lure, with hooks attached, which is pulled through the water so as to simulate a small fish). Baba and a couple of his cronies, sitting about twenty feet away and baiting their hooks with atta had caught three or four small carp. I had just decided to take a breakfast break and was unwrapping my packet of sandwiches, when, for no specific reason, I looked up … and froze.
On the sunlit surface of water barely twenty feet from the bank, a dark shadow was steadily growing in size, the sort of shadow typically caused by something beneath the surface of the water. As I looked, the blurred outlines of the shadow took form to outline a huge mural-such a murral I had never dreamed existed. Fully thirty eight to forty inches from nose to tip of tail, he was the granddaddy of all murrals! As his snout broke the surface of the water and his lips opened to take a deep gulp of air, I looked down his wide, pink maw and could actually see the serrated row of blood red gills set far back in that huge gullet. The giant fish veered slightly to move right past me, now a scant six to seven feet away. Preceded by a small bow wave, he glided past me like a nuclear submarine, the very lack of visible effort proclaiming the power behind those fins. He passed close enough for me to notice a curious glint on his tail fin. Once he was about ten yards away, he returned to the depths with a casual flick of his great tail and was lost to sight.
I turned around and saw that Baba and the others had also been witnesses to the spectacle. “Did you see that?” I spluttered, barely coherent in my excitement, “Did you see that murral?”
“We saw him. We have been seeing him for many years now. He is the buddha (old man) of this place, and he can never be caught. He is not as greedy as the Mrigal and even craftier than the Rohu. Many have tried to catch him, but he is too clever. Come, forget about the buddha and be happy with the small fishes he sends your way”.
I returned to my rod, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I couldn’t get the picture of the Old Man out of my mind, his awesome size, broad back and the way he moved through the water. From that moment on, my sole aim in life was to catch the Old Man. I tried all types of baits, spinners, plugs and lures, drawn at different speeds and made to “swim” in different ways through the water, at different times and at different depths at various places around Parsi Ghat, but with no success. My angling comrades viewed my efforts first with amusement, then, as the days turned to weeks, concern, with much shaking of heads and whispered consultations.
Three weeks after I first saw the Old Man, I had noticeably lost weight and had become silent and preoccupied, obsessed with my only purpose in life-catching the great fish. My parents thought I had, at last, fallen in love, and welcomed it as a step in the right direction, preferable, at any rate, to “murdering harmless fish.” I spent all my waking hours at the river, from dawn to well after dark. At night I used to lie awake thinking about the old man and what he would be doing at that time … cruising along the river bottom, perhaps, in a wild creature’s never ending quest for food, guided by the primeval instincts based on the genetic memory of millions of ancestors before him, the same instincts that had, till now, kept him safe in a hostile universe. I had an almost physical need of feeling the old man on my line, seeing my rod bend to his strength, and hearing my reel scream as he ripped off line … My father finally put his foot down when I announced my intention of spending a night by the river in my feverish attempts to get the Old Man.
The river now gave me a palpable ache in the belly, but, perversely, I couldn’t stay away from it. As if to taunt me, on a few evenings by the water I heard the mighty “splat” of a giant tail slapping the water, and looked up to see the widening ripples that marked the spot where, I was certain, the Old Man had come up for a lungful of air. At such times I would grit my teeth, look down at the water and strain to contain my frustration without crying out loud.
Then one winter morning, like the earth opening up under my feet, the impossible happened. I was retrieving a brass spinner, and once it came to within eight to nine feet of the bank, was preparing to lift it out of the water, when I saw a familiar shadow rapidly growing in size just behind the lure. Paralyzed, the only thing I could think of was to continue what I was doing. The next thing I remember was my arm being violently wrenched from its socket, and the reel screaming in triumph. In what seemed like slow motion, I barely remembered the basic rule of keeping the rod up and stepping back, while a voice was screaming in my mind, “That’s the Old Man on your line! That’s the Old Man tearing your arm off and ripping line off your reel!”
During the next twenty five minutes or so, I ran almost a hundred yards along the bank to prevent the Old Man from breaking my line, before I was able to play out the great fish and bring him into shallow water. Catching sight of me at the last moment, he mustered energy for a last wild dash for freedom that tore fifty yards off my reel. It took me another five minutes to bring him in, wagging his head and almost upside down with fatigue. I was exhausted, my arm was numb and he could certainly have got away, had he but known that I was almost as far gone as he was, but I managed to put my arms under him and heave him onto the grassy bank where he lay, his great gill plates pumping empty air. Standing weak-kneed with exultation and getting my breath back, my attention was drawn to the curious glint I had noticed on his tail the first day I saw him. It turned out to be a small metal tag stapled on the tail fin. Squinting in the reflected sunlight, I could just about make out the inscription, “Caught and released by Maj E. Forester, HM Army on 11 Feb 1959 in the Wainganga Valley.”
Looking down at the Old Man gasping his life away, I grappled with one of the most difficult decisions of my young life. Finally, I made up my mind and lifted him up in my arms, staggered down the water’s edge and gently placed him back in his element. I wasn’t too worried about him surviving the experience, as I knew that murral could live for a long time out of water. Straightening up, I watched as the big fish swam shakily off into the depths and felt more at peace with myself than I had been for months.
I turned around to see that I had been performing to a packed house. Baba puffed thoughtfully on his beedi and looked into the far distance for a moment. Then, looking down at me with a ghost of a smile, he said, “It is as I said. The buddha can never be caught. Let us eat our food and forget about him”.
I shared their frugal meal in silence, for nobody spoke. In fact, no one ever mentioned it again. But from that day they treated me as one of them, and not as a mere schoolboy with a fishing rod.