“Varun gifted me”, said Tina holding out the bowl with a single gold fish for me to see. “Cute”, I said and tapped the glass bowl. The gold fish swam about round and round in the bowl. “Look, he even has his own food and medicines”, she said showing me two bottles. I smiled and went back to reading Macbeth for my test the next day. “How far have you reached?”, she asked as she set the bowl on the little shelf that was attached to the wall near her bed. I mumbled something inaudibly, set my book down, put on my jacket and stepped out for a walk.
“What boyfriend gifts his girlfriend a gold fish?”, I asked my best friend, Rashmi, as we sat sipping tea in the shady restaurant across our hostel. “Are you jealous?”, she asked me.
I scowled. “Why would I be jealous?” She shrugged and went back to sipping her tea.
That night, I lay on my bed and looked at the glass bowl with the gold fish in it. “Doesn’t he get bored?”, I asked Tina who was carefully putting in little red beads of fish food into the bowl. She seemed to be counting them.
“I guess”, she replied.
“Have you named him yet?”
“Why don’t you think of a name? He is yours as much as he is mine”
“Yeah, you are my roommate, I can share a pet with you.”
I smiled at her. “How does Ariel sound?”
“Ariel is a girl’s name”
“So? How do you know this isn’t a girl?”
“Ariel was the little mermaid’s name”
“I like it”
Ariel swam all alone in her glass bowl day and night. She slept with her eyes open. Her gills flapped incessantly. She swam for most part of the day, I wondered if she ever got tired.
One evening, Tina had gone out with Varun. I noticed Ariel was unusually still. Her breathing was a little slow and even when I tapped the bowl she didn’t move much. I called Tina on her mobile phone. “Put two drops of that blue liquid with a dropper in the water, don’t put more than two drops”, she said. I did as I was told and after a few moments Ariel was fine again.
“You scared me”, I told her and kissed the glass bowl. I was getting increasingly attached to the little fish. Although I spoke to her often, I had a feeling that Ariel was yearning for some fishy company. I made up my mind to get her a boyfriend when my father sent me the next month’s allowance. I wanted to get some decorations for the bowl too, maybe some sand and pebbles and a plant or two maybe. And some tunnel kind of things I had seen in the pet shop the other day. I had enquired about the rates, it all came up to about two hundred and fifty rupees. I didn’t know if my meagre allowance could afford it, I could forsake a few things anyways – like Raja Bakery’s Veg boat every week. That cost fifty bucks. I could do without the veg boat for a month.
The next evening, I returned to my room a little later than usual. Ariel was upside down in the bowl. I was perplexed. Tina was out again. I slowly put her in a mug of water, changed the water in her bowl, dropped some of the blue medicine in it and put her back in the bowl. She was still upside down. I called Tina. She came in a little later.
“Ariel’s dead”, she said. She seemed so cool about it. I felt a flutter in my stomach like Ariel was thrashing about fighting for her life inside me.
“Why? We took good care of her”, I mumbled.
“Maybe she died of boredom, flush her down the toilet”, said Tina nonchalantly brushing her hair.
“Flush her down the toilet? Are you nuts?”, I asked appalled at Tina’s indifference.
I brought out a little white box I had in my book shelf and carefully placed Ariel in it. I closed it and buried it in the garden. I put a flower on the grave, said a little prayer and cried all alone on the staircase. My warden’s cat smacked her lips. “Don’t even think about it”, I told her and went in.
The glass bowl sat there on the shelf empty and forlorn. I threw the water and cleaned up the bowl. I felt very sad, like I had lost a good friend.
It was my birthday a week after the incident. My parents had come to visit me and I went out to lunch with them. I returned to my room in the evening and there was a cake waiting for me. My room mates had arranged for a little party. I cut the cake and they hugged and kissed me and Tina held out the glass bowl in front of me. It had four little fishes in it. Two golden and two black. They were very beautiful.
“All yours”, she told me. I hugged her the tightest.
My days revolved around the fishes, I named them Jackie, Chan, Bruce and Lee. Varun laughed when Tina told him about it.
I received my allowance and asked Tina if she would go shopping with me to get the fishes toys, food and other things for the bowl. She said she had to practice for the dance she was performing on our annual day. She said she could ask Varun since he knew the right place and got things cheap. I was excited. She asked Varun and he agreed to take me to some shop he knew. He asked me to come to his apartment and we could go from there.
I took a shower and threw on a casual white t shirt and a pair of blue jeans. I reached his apartment and gave him a call from downstairs. He didn’t answer. I called Tina to ask her what to do, she gave me his door number and asked me to ring the doorbell. He might be asleep, she told me.
I went up to the fourth floor and rang the bell. There was no sound from within. There probably was a power cut. I pushed the door and it opened. It was dark inside. I walked in and called to him. There was no response. I groped for the light switch and turned it on. On the floor at my feet Varun lay with two other friends. They all appeared drunk.
I quietly walked back to my room and told Tina about it. “Oh, he must be stoned”, she told me casually. I stared at her. How could she be so cool about all this? Her boyfriend did drugs and she didn’t care? None of my business I told myself, even though my orthodox upbringing was screaming out from inside my head.
The next day was a Sunday and I was up early. I sat in the TV room and was swapping channels. There was nothing interesting. I decided to catch up on some news. Not that I liked listening to it, but dad always told me that being updated on news could help me strike a conversation with anyone I wanted. I turned to the local news channel. It is best to start from your own city.
“Varun Jain, who allegedly died of drug overdose yesterday, was a typical rich father’s lad who did drugs, went to pubs and even hired prostitutes”, screeched a lady’s voice. I stared shocked at Varun’s house being shown on the TV. He was apparently arrested in the past for selling drugs or something. And as the camera zoomed, I saw a girl’s figure entering his door, and the lady’s voice said, “Here we can see a girl entering Varun’s apartment, probably one of the prostitutes hired that day, captured on the apartment’s CCTV. The police are searching for her whereabouts so she could tell us more about him”. I could only see her back and recognized the white t-shirt and blue jeans instantly!