“Gourami Fish Tale” by Zilka Joseph

Zilka Joseph


At eleven, I had only seen the “kissing” kind 
in the Mumbai aquarium, the platter-flat pink gouramis 

with enormous lips sucking at each other’s mouths 
for an eternity till boredom made me look around 

for something more shocking. But the edible kind 
I never saw until Captain Da Silva happened 

to catch one in Lake Powai, (where he invited 
some sailor friends to fish) its brown-

black scales shining like melted chocolate, one white
spot bright near its gills and a line of tinier dots 

trailing along its spine till they faded 
into tail. The men fished for carp, for tilapia, 

but my little-girl job was to snag bait—slippery 
chilvas (that’s what Captain Da Silva called 

this minnow-like fish), and proud I grew 
of my silver arrows darting about in the blue 

plastic bucket. But I craved big game, 
and tried the heavier tackle. A sharp tug 

at my slack line made me yell, ecstatic 
as a shadow emerged—a gourami it was 

(declared Captain Da Silva, and a good 
size too)! Its sulky protruding lips gaped, 

desperate, and I gasped in horror, and yet 
joy fluttered like a hundred fins 

in the ocean of my chest, while the fishing rod shivered 
with the small weight of my prize, the dying fish 

flipping and flapping on the rough boards 
of the wooden machaan. Squeamish at first 

to pull the barbed torment from its bloody
face, I got bolder, (won much praise 

from all) for removing the hook 
from the thick-lipped mouth that kissed 

and kissed at the empty air, at the terrifying 
churn of demon faces above it, and, gulped 

the poison oxygen until my dad released it 
into a yellow nylon-string net 

which held the catch, quickly lowering it
into the water. Innocent babe of the lake, 

frightened soul—pierced, tortured, 
suffocating slowly all the way home,

betrayed by me (this fierce savior 
and lover of animals, this grand Little Lady

of No Mercy), and fried crisp that night 
at Captain Da Silva’s. Eating two pieces 

I am told (no mean feat for a girl of such
petite stature), removing the bones 

with help from my mother, I chatter on
about how I caught it, while the men 

pat my back, chug Johnny Walker, 
tell my dad I have his genes, this was no 

small catch, a keeper indeed, (wink wink) 
the envy of officers and anglers.

from Rattle #73, Fall 2021
Tribute to Indian Poets


Zilka Joseph: “My home was Kolkata, India. I grew up there, was educated there, taught there, and got married there. Years later, I moved to the U.S. with my husband, and struggled with all the things that new immigrants (of color, especially) go through. I would return home to see my parents, to help them as they got older and frailer. But I have not visited that city since my mother passed. Entire worlds seem lost to me, and yet they are all present in some dimension as they are inextricably entangled with the present. Sometimes it seems that I have lived several lives all at once and memories of these many lives (in India and in the U.S.) overlay and play with each other. Parents, friends, relatives, students have come and gone, and I grapple with the emptiness that is left behind. I especially mourn the loss of my beloved parents, my city, and in some of my poetry, I try to bring what’s lost back to life.” (web)

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