There was a fish market a few minutes from where I lived. The small market was crowded from the wee hours of morning to mid-day. The fish stench, the sounds of a fish market, loud voices of men and women, always pervaded the place with only an occasional silence. The best time to visit the market was mid-afternoon; with a few people in the market the only sound that could be heard was the squawking of rats and mewing of cats.
The market was filled with countless fish, all with different names, forms and sizes, but what caught my attention were the crabs. In the summer holidays I used to spend hours watching crabs kept in weed baskets. Crabs climbing on the edges of baskets, their proclivity to escape, the fierce combats between crabs- the stronger breaking the claw of the weaker. And as a thirteen-year-old I could not figure out as to why crabs fought? Why did they attempt to escape from fishermen’s baskets when their chances were bleak?
The only other kid who enjoyed visiting the fish market with me was a girl who lived in my neighbourhood—a pretty and smart girl with a cute smile. Soon my focus strayed from fish and crabs, and within two months of acquaintance, I was a goner. My fish-partner and I were completely in the throes of young love with the cappella of noises around us, the odours of the fish market and scales of fish sticking to our skins. In the days ahead we ate, studied, danced, observed, and shared feelings unknown to us as if we had discovered a part of ourselves that was missing. It was some sort of obsession; our days were spent in the fish market and nights dreaming about each other. One is easily rapt at that young age and so were we. We found our solace in the chaos of the fish market. We spoke less, and observed a lot. And the more we observed the lesser we spoke.
At times we visited the market late in the evening to scavenge. Most fish we observed were dead. Their sadness was overborne in their eyes, allowing us to daydream. I would say “tunas in a school circling round-and-round the enormous pool” and she would say “jack chasing the silversides”. I would say “king fish and sharks setting their razor-sharp teeth into chunks of meat” and she would say “octopus and squids sputtering and sparkling like shorted-out light bulbs”.
We would continue watching fish and crabs as months passed by. It was something like breathing. Nothing much changed in those months, weather-wise or otherwise. Every coming day and month was similar to the ones gone by. But I do particularly remember that particular month when there were no crabs for sale in the market. I remember this in great detail, as that was the month my parents had decided to shift to a new town. There were plenty of fish, but the crabs seemed to have disappeared! Every day, we would ask our friends, the fisherwomen, about the disappearance of the crabs. All gave a nonchalant answer and none satisfactory.
One day while strolling through the fish market, my partner found a crab claw. There were no crabs for sale in the market, but amongst the many fish and the hustle-bustle of the market, there lay a massive crab claw, almost 10 centimetre long. It was the biggest claw we had ever seen. She picked up the claw and had a closer look. We soon figured out that it had been laying in the garbage for some time. She cleaned the dust and put it in her small backpack. The next time when I met her she gave me the crab claw as a gift, saying “this is for you”. I smiled at her my young boyish smile. On returning home, I kept the crab claw on my table, as a token, as a paperweight. To me, it was a symbol of my first love.
In the new town there was no fish market, and I soon lost touch with my partner. My only connection with the old town and my love was the crab claw. I would return home and gaze at the crab claw on my desk. So it was that my most impressionable years of adolescence were spent gazing at the crab claw. At times, it would remind me of a tiny shrivelled monster, at others, the giant tooth of a dinosaur; at times an artefact unearthed from the Siberia, at yet another her cute smile, bringing mixed feelings together. Although it was just a broken crab claw, it bore no resemblance to a common crab jaw, nor to any claw I had ever seen. It was special. My attachment was visceral. What was worse, the severed claw exuded a singular, somehow unspeakable aura of sadness.
Then I travelled cities. Once in the midst of the rigmarole of a daily chore, I lost the crab claw. In all those years it never occurred to me that I had a crab claw, what it meant to me, what circumnavigations had brought me to that cavernous fish market, my infatuation, and my first love. It all came back to me, that crab’s claw, after seeing a coconut crab claw. I stood still, transfixed. My heart ached, and jaw dropped, thinking about the claw. And when I gazed at the coconut crab claw, showers of memories fell all around like stars, transporting me back to the fishing market, to the town I once lived in, my days in daze with fascination, infatuation and a summer storm of living memories.