Zaheda Hina winner of SAARC LITERARY AWARDS from FOSWAL, is a prominent Pakistani writer who writes in Urdu. Her stories have been widely translated into many languages, including English, to great acclaim. She has been writing columns for newspapers and has also edited several magazines. Her writing is characterised by her marked progressive leanings and a passionate espousal of women’s issues and human rights concerns.

Small Fish, Big Fish

Some aquamarine water is held captive in a cell of glass walls. There is sand on the floor of the cell. Sundry marine plants grow in the sand. A few moss-covered porous pebbles, of varying shapes and sizes, and a few sea-shells lie strewn around. The captive water breathes; bubbles shoot from its body, spiral up to the surface, and dissolve.

A fish swims slowly amid the bubbles. About a foot long and flat, the pale-green fish has a red spot of striking intensity on its tail and a fringe with white streaks sprouting from the base of its head. The fish’s eyes are full of sadness at having been torn from its native environment of deep seas. The fish looks familiar to me. I stop short and fix my gaze on it as one straining to identify a familiar face, to find the outline of that face in the jigsaw puzzle of relationships.

My daughter falters as she reads the name inscribed on the plaque. I cannot make out what she says, and remove my gaze from the fish and begin to read the particulars supplied by the aquarium management. Fish, too, have their own special names, nicknames, pedigrees, nationalities, their migrations from deep, open seas to glass-incarcerated waters, and the adjustments that must follow.

The moment I spot the name ‘Achilles Tang’, I recall where and when I had first seen that fish. And with that I am reminded of Tamkinat – Tamkinat Asad – the butt of people’s gossip in the city. The interesting thing, though, was that she always knew what stories people had been spreading about her. In fact, she would herself relate to me those scandals, spicing them up to make them even more outrageous; then she would laugh herself silly.
Tamkinat Asad was like a bewitching mirage shimmering across our sandswept landscape. The thirsty would see her and run after her until they would collapse, gasping for breath. She was no Sita for sure, nor a Savitri either. If anything, she was more woman than most: fleshy, animated, with warm blood swirling through her veins in which swam the gold and silver fish of all imaginable pleasures. When she put on a hip-hugging sari, people could clearly see the deep whirlpool of her navel.
Her frivolity irritated me. I would reason with her. But she would laugh and evade the issue. People thought she was slightly daft, but they hardly knew anything about her. She and I had been close friends for a long time. I know how she loved to put on appearances – of a clown, of a coquette.
My first encounter with ‘Achilles Tang’ was in Tamkinat’s bedroom. One entire room in her house had been converted into an aquarium. She must have spent a fortune on her hobby. Even so, that ‘Achilles Tang’ had so utterly captivated her that she put it in her bedroom. Tamkinat had bought it in Singapore – its natural habitat being the Indo-Pacific – and brought it back to Pakistan with the greatest care.
Looking now at this ‘Achilles Tang’ as it serenely glided in the aquarium, I remember how long back that other fish, barely twelve inches long, had severed the intimacy between Tamkinat and her husband, Air Commodore Asad. Tamkinat could not bear to have it out of sight for a minute; Asad, on the other hand, hated all fish. He could tolerate one room in the house set apart as an aquarium; what he could not tolerate was the constant presence of that fish in their bedroom. After a few stiff arguments, it was decided that they would sleep in separate bedrooms and meet whenever separation became too oppressive, in a third room.

Tamkinat loved her daughter Iram more than anything else. She would often say: “In olden times, the life of a princess would be lodged in the pupil of some parrot’s eye, or in a pearl in some demon’s earring. Likewise, my own life is lodged in Iram.” Perhaps that’s why she called Iram – ‘Life’.

Asad and Tamkinat lived a fast life. Like ‘jet-setters’ they divided their time among such pursuits as cocktails, discos, card games, clubs, swimming, and riding. But Iram had scarcely had a whiff of that life of fun and thrills. It is not that the couple had deliberately kept their daughter away from the mainstream – in fact she went to a convent school, watched Indian movies on the VCR, read Western novels – but she definitely was quite different from the other girls of her social class. God knows how Tamkinat had brought Iram up so that she had lost none of her innocence. I would often envy the girl, whose personality combined a stunning blend of Eastern manners and Western sensibility.

Tamkinat had stumbled upon her hobby quite by accident. And the story of that ‘stumbling’ was rather exotic. She had been to Bangkok. There she ran into a learned pandit who was an accomplished yogi and read horoscopes with prophetic accuracy. Tamkinat had him read her horoscope and teach her some yoga.

The matter would have ended there had Tamkinat not had one ‘nerve’ too many. The meeting