Kamayani Sharma on “Catching Fish”: I wrote the first draft of the poem on 14 April 2012. I remember the exact date because I emailed the poem to a friend as soon as I finished it. In those days, having just graduated from university and moved to Bombay for my first job, I treated verse as a form of chronicle and correspondence. In a city of migrants and hustlers, I too was trying to find my own footing—on pavements trimming chowpattys* and on footboards of local trains.
As much as I enjoyed the unique flavours offered by Bombay’s infectious mix of languages, I missed the more chaste registers and colloquial delights of natively spoken Hindustani, my first language. I often found myself being drawn into conversation with other Hindustani-speakers, many of whom were working-class northern Indians who had upped sticks and moved to Bambai for a better life. During one such impromptu chat with a young auto rickshaw driver about the same age as myself, we got to discuss when we’d go home to meet our families.
He was planning to leave for his hometown of Varanasi the following day. As the rickshaw’s engine crackled during our ride, he became increasingly animated, describing to me how his clan would drain the pond at night to catch fish for a homecoming feast. His enthusiasm, embodied in his vivid, descriptive diction, stayed with me, lonely as I was in this big, busy metropolis. This was the starting point for this poem, the intimacy that shared language can create between strangers.
In a later draft, I worked on the contrasts that run through the poem: between the river Ganga** keeping time along the ancient city of Varanasi and the coastal modernity of Mumbai. There emerged organically the central theme: nostalgia for the beloved land left behind, foiled by the necessity of this alien place which provides for those away.
There is also the aspect of the ride itself—parallel tracks of two people involved in the poem’s scenario: the speaker and the listener. This is where the diaristic desire, to insert myself as witness to the conspirator protagonist’s outpourings, rears itself. The references to the superficially transactional nature of this interaction I am recording are a way to distance myself from what is really his story. I don’t want to admit how invested I am in this fantasy. I’d rather just be a passenger, a confidante, than be afflicted by homesickness myself.
* Also known as chapattis
** Better known outside India as the Ganges
C A T C H I N G … F I S H
by Kamayani Sharma
“In our Benaras, catching fish is a crime.”
fish squire monk and metre
around ghats, shadowy as slokas.
The river sinewy with history, “not like here.”
Beside, the sea is slack, the night neon.
“Do you have change for a 100?”
In Bombay, is afoot
a conspiracy to ensnare Benarasi fish
“as soon as I can take a holiday.”
The crime, like a dream, is committed at night.
Ponds parched at dusk,
fish gathered at dawn.
I fumble in my purse for small bills.
Kamayani Sharma is a Delhi-based writer, researcher and podcaster. Her poetry has been published in Fulcrum, Kartika Review, Pratilipi, Rue Scribe and 14 International Younger Poets (Arts & Letters, 2021), and longlisted for the Toto Funds the Arts Awards. Her critical writing has appeared in Artforum, Momus, Aperture, Frieze, The White Review, Art Monthly UK and ART India. A Kalpalata Fellow 2022 in Visual Culture Writing, she was a finalist at the International Awards for Art Criticism 2020. Sharma runs ARTalaap, South Asia’s first independent visual culture podcast. Find out more here.