It has been very hot in the past few days.
I was woken up by Shastri shaking me just before dawn. It was quite chilly then. Shastri is my cousin, this is his first season on the river and I am instructing him. He had already banked up the fire and started to heat the small chai making pot. The big one takes too long to heat so we use the small one for the morning chai.
One of the dogs, Chuk, was sick yesterday, I don’t know what to do, just pray that she recovers, unlike poor Sukki. We buried her last night and gave her a royal send-off. We all gathered around the grave and Ravi placed candles at north, south, east and west to protect her from evil spirits on her journey. Ravi had started saying prayers for her but we were interrupted when one of the sahibs called us back into the camp. He wanted more whisky. Ravi served him. I would have spat in his glass but Ravi says that is not the way to do things. I always respect Ravi’s wishes, he is my uncle after all.
The client sahibs this week are all Europeans. Sometimes we have Indian government officials and they are the worst clients, but the Europeans are the ones who really annoy me. The Indians are only playing at being sahibs, pretending that they are rich white men. Some of them even pronounce their names in the English style, fools. The Europeans though, these are the real sahibs. I hate them.
They sit and swop their fishing stories and other lies around the fire pit in the evenings. The talk is always the same. One will always complain that the big mahseer are not showing this year and another will blame it on the poachers who dynamite the river further up. Another will then counter this by saying that this never happens here, because here there are guides to police the stretch. Then one will say that they don’t understand why the poachers dynamite the river. Didn’t these locals realise that if there were more big mahseer here then lots more sahibs would come to fish the river and so bring a thriving economy with them. Then the last comment before the laughter. Someone would always say it. “Nobody will ever understand the workings of the Asian mind”. And they will all laugh their drunken laughter.
They are all so predictable.
Oh. They are not all bad. Mr Peter comes every year and he is always kind to us. When he is not drunk anyway. When he is drunk then he is sometimes bad. Last year he hit Rikesh when he would not get him more whisky, and that was wrong. It wasn’t Riki’s fault we had run out. Who could expect that someone could drink so much? But normally Mr Peter is a good man and we have little to complain about with him. His friends though… Mr Roger, Mr Keef and Mr Stan… These are not men that I like. They treat us all like animals, no, worse! I would never treat Chuk the way these men treat us. For one thing, because it is not in me, and for another, she would bite me if I did!
Last night was a typical one. They had eaten their meal and had sat around the fire-pit drinking, talking and bragging as they always did. Talking about us as if we never even existed, without even bothering to lower their voices. Making fun of our names. I heard Mr Stan’s voice at one point
“…So then my one, wassisname, Rentacar?”
“You mean Venkata” corrected another
“Yeah, thasstheone, he says ‘No sir, you always put four turns in the knot’ so I sez, don’t tell me how to tie a knot. I’m paying your wages son!”
Someone started to laugh and they all joined in. Then, of course, someone said it.
“Gawd. Nobody will ever understand the workings of the Asian mind, eh”. They all roared with laughter again.
Yes, they all laughed and Riki and I looked at each other and shrugged. Then we went to serve them more drinks. When we served them, we smiled with them. And at them. Big smiles, showing lots of teeth. They like that.
Today Shastri and I were ready in record time. We took the chai to the tents and called to each of the sahibs in turn, waking them from their snoring. Hearing them snort and grunt like pigs before coming awake to take their cups and saucers from my hand, like animals taking food from their trainers.
“Dawn Sahib, ready in five minutes sir”.
They take the chai and the two biscuits on the saucer and finally emerge, normally looking the worst for wear after all the alcohol they consumed the previous night. I always smile at the sight of their bloated white faces first thing in the mornings.
This morning I took Mr Stan with me. He collected his rods and we went down to the river bank. Ravi and Riki were already there with the coracle in the water ready for us. The coracle was the leaky one. I hoisted up my shorts, they are much too big for me, and waded into the river. I placed the wicker stool in the centre of the craft and kneeled with the paddle ready. My sahib got into the coracle clumsily, almost falling before he found his balance, swearing at me to be careful as he took his seat. I boarded, then paddled out into the swift current, straight ahead to the Camp 3 Pool rock. The day was going to be a hot one. The mist was already beginning to lift from the river but the water sloshing around my knees was still freezing cold as I paddled. My teeth chattered with the cold. The first of the day’s insects could be seen buzzing around the rock and I glimpsed some deer on the far bank. The sahib did not see them of course. He sat, erect, holding his rods at the vertical, like a maharaja on his throne.
I pulled the coracle up to the rock and hopped over the side to steady the craft as the sahib alighted, me standing knee-deep whilst he tried to keep his feet dry. No hope of that of course, not in this, the leaky craft. Riki had placed a large ball of raggi in the coracle wrapped in some cloth to help keep it moist. I picked it out, noticing that it was quite dark on one side, going stale. I hoped that Shastri would be making up a fresh batch today. I pulled the leather skinned craft up the rock and turned to the sahib.
“All ready sahib?” I asked. My English has improved a lot in the past three seasons. When I started working at the camp, I spoke only three words. One season was spent as kitchen boy and then I progressed to guide – that was when I really started learning a lot of words. Now I sometimes think I speak the language better than some of the sahibs. Like this one. Mr Stan (I know that is not his correct name but it amuses me to play the dumb native) was tackling up one of the rods. I took the other. My rod was equipped with a multiplier and heavy monofil line. His was a fixed spool loaded with braid.
“I think it is better if we swop the lines around when we return sir” I suggested.
“What for? Don’t you like the mono line then?”
I tried to explain that braid has no stretch and that fixed spool reels are not designed for this line, but he would not take any notice of me. Well, I had to try.
I set the drag on my reel and cast out toward the grasses growing on the rocks opposite me. The free-lined raggi-ball landed exactly on target, upstream into the fast flow. I counted to fifteen in my head then locked the spool. My sahib also cast out. As the bait hit the water he closed the pick-up.
“No, no sahib. Feed it some line please”. He looked at me disgruntled, he does not like being told what to do, but he did as I bade him anyway. I watched thirty foot of line peel off his spool and held up my hand. “Enough”. He closed the bail arm.
We stood there on the rock. Two men. A strange feeling. So similar yet so different. Like the birds overhead. High above us some eagles soared whilst over to the right some vultures were wheeling, probably waiting for some poor injured creature to die before swooping down to claim their meal. The sahibs thought them awful creatures, but they are not. They are part of nature, part of the Cauvery valley. The same as we are, Shastri, Riki, Ravi and the rest of us. But we are not the same as these sahibs.
I was the first to feel a fish. “Quickly sahib. Take the rod”. He did so, the fastest I had seen him move that day. The fish was pulling the rod tip in fast short snatches and my sahib was eager to strike.
“Wait sahib. Nibbling sahib, only nibbling”.
Then the rod wrenched around. “Now sahib! Now striking!”
He heaved the rod back and the rod-tip heeled over. Not much but a little. Within a few minutes he was cranking a small mahseer up to the rock. He swung it up out of the water and over to me, where I unhooked it and set it free. I smiled at him as I did so.
“Maybe a big one next time sir” I said, encouraging him as I kneaded some more raggi onto the hook. “Try again”.
Of course there were no big ones that day. Nor had there been all week. The best fish so far was a seven pound white mahseer caught by Mr Roger. Riki had been out with him to the Otter Pool and had told me that Mr Roger was both delighted and disappointed when he caught it. Ravi is right. These men are strange.
We paddled back… Well, of course, I mean that I paddled back to the camp around ten. Already it was very hot. Mr Stan went straight to the camp bar for a cold vodka and Limca and I set off for the village to see my wife and children, and to collect something. I had four hours before I was due back in camp.
The afternoon session was the final one of the week for this party. Again I took Mr Stan, but this time we went far downstream to the Monkey Pool at the bottom of the stretch. Here we fished for an hour before the turtles came and destroyed what fishing there had been. Within seconds of a raggi-ball hitting the water, a turtle would take it. We had little option but to cut the line or lose a finger by attempting to retrieve the hooks. So we went to the bottom end of the pool and fished the run-off. The fast water. I saw three large fish here, all around the back of the big rock in the middle. We never hooked any of these but Mr Stan did take a pink-carp of around ten pounds using chilwa live-bait. He was so very pleased! Like a small boy. Strange man.
The next morning I smiled and laughed with the rest of the staff as we waved the sahibs goodbye. Mr Stan had given me a ten dollar tip. A single bill, taken from a wallet so thick it must have contained thousands. Then we had all stood together, smiling, so they could take their photographs. So they could take home their memories and show their friends the funny little men who had been their guides for the giant mahseer that they had not quite caught on this trip, but would catch for sure the next year.
The Mahindra Jeep roared up the valley and vanished over the hill, taking the sahibs back to their aeroplanes and their cars and their Playboy magazines. I watched the dust of the jeep’s wake settle, then turned and walked down to where the coracle lay, pulled up on the bank, under the tree that my father used to call the Firewood tree. A tribe of monkeys chattered at me from its foliage as I paddled off downstream, no need for the stool on this trip.
At the Monkey Pool I went straight to the big rock where I had seen the three big mahseer. I pulled the coracle ashore and hoisted my shorts higher. I must get some new ones. I took a thin biddy cigarette from my tin and lit it with a match, from the collection I keep there with my hook sharpening stone. I looked down behind the rock and confirmed that the three big fish were still there. From my bag I took that thing I had collected from the village and muttered aloud, mimicking the sahibs from the previous night. “Nobody will ever understand the workings of the Asian mind”. Then I lit it from my cigarette, and dropped the stick of dynamite into the pool.