May 5, 2016

Fish in the water

By Salman Rashid
The writer is author of Jhelum: City of the Vitasta (Sang-e-Meel, 2005)

When Alexander’s General Krateros started off with the ten thousand-strong contingent of aging veterans back for Macedonia, he had parted from his commander at Patala (Hyderabad).

Three hundred and fifty kilometres northwest of Patala and some two weeks after the contingent of aging veterans bid farewell to Alexander, to head for Macedonia in the year 325 BCE, blasé veterans from years of hard travelling and even harder fighting, would have looked up in awe. There, spread out in front, was a large irregular splash of green, offsetting the bleak ochre of the mountains in the background.

As they neared, birdsong bursting out of the thickets would have been more than welcoming. Nearer still, the tinkle of rushing waters would have soothed the tired marchers. But Krateros would not have tarried long here for he had the Moola Pass to negotiate to the Baloch uplands before he could reach Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar). Neither Krateros nor any of his veterans left behind a record of what they saw and how they felt upon reaching this lovely oasis. Nor, too, did they tell us what it was called. But one thing that cannot be denied is that this army would have passed through Chhattal Shah, for there was no other way of ascending the Moola if you came from the low country of Sindh.

I followed up on Krateros over two thousand years later. Though my primary desire was to see what Krateros had seen all those years ago, we were also going to investigate the fish that no one could eat. Wali Mohammad, my friend from Shahdadkot, had told the tale: The fish were sacred of the saint Chhatal Shah Noorani and if you ate them, they came squirming out from the back end the next morning. Since everyone was afraid of this embarrassing development, they were not molested and the fish were completely tame and actually came into one’s hands, he said.

A vegetarian of sorts, I have never been able to resist fish and I thought this was a fish-eater’s paradise. The little stream was teeming with fish. And no ordinary rubbish, but mahasher fish. I do not know which family this fish belongs to, but whether from the Haro in the Potohar or from the Hub River or here at Chhattal Shah, there are few better fish to eat.

The stream led up to a large circular natural reservoir that was fed by a number of underground springs. The water was sparkling clear and abounding with more mahasher. Only their size was much larger than the ones we had seen in the stream. My mouth watered and as I went to the water’s edge to get lunch, the fish slithered away.

I ragged my friend about the lousy story. I carried on as we sat down in the dappled shade of banyan and pipal trees to await the cup of tea the keeper of the shrine offered us. I was still ranting when tea arrived. The elderly keeper listened to me raving on and on. How could fish emerge from the eater’s sphincter I asked him.

What this wise old man said knocked me over. “Saeen, if there had been no story, these wild hill people would have eaten off these fish. This would have been a dead stream.” Then he told me to go back to the water and see how the fish glistened as they swam about in the dappled light.

I went back to the rill and sat by its side. The cavorting fish did indeed flash different colours: Iridescent green, orange and blue. As I sat there contemplating this beauty, it suddenly dawned upon me that the fish story was no foolish quasi-religious rubbish. This was one of the earliest; perhaps even the earliest, conservation programmes that have been in force for centuries.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2011.

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