friends, no food [feature] – The Brown Daily Herald
My older sister, Nikila, brought Radis home as a party favor when I was in third grade. It was a purple betta fish, our family’s first pet and the first animal I would bond with. I crawled into my sister’s room every day after school to catch sight of Radish swimming in circles in her aquarium and, on occasion, attacking her reflection on the glass. For me, at age nine, looking into his bowl and watching him squirm gave me boundless joy; I stared at him and imagined myself in his position, sliding through the water.
While my sister was raising Radish, I learned from the sidelines what it takes to keep someone alive: you need to feed them, entertain them, and make sure they have a clean environment. One day, while my sister and I were washing Radish’s bowl, he jumped into the sink full of soap. Although she put it back in the bowl as soon as she could, later that day it sank to the bottom of her bowl and I heard my sister sobbing. The soap had poisoned him. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t find the tears. It was my first experience with death.
My family wouldn’t have a fish for two years, until my younger sister, Abi, brought home two goldfish from the county fair as a prize for throwing darts at balloons. Although my sister affectionately called them Rupert and Gregory, my mother immediately Indianized their names to Rishi and Ganga. Excited by the prospect of having more fish, I quickly moved them from their plastic bags into Radish’s old bowl and watched them grow.
When I came home from school each day, I waddled over to their bowl and looked inside to see what was going on. They looked at me sometimes, but most of the time they just floated in the water disinterestedly. Their bowl was sterile. It was just two fish and the gunk they produced. They seemed bored, so I begged my mom to buy some new accessories for their bowl. I asked her if she would like to live in our fishbowl, in a barren wasteland of water and excrement. After much discussion, we finally agreed to get blue rocks to decorate the bottom of the bowl and a rock arch to add some topological diversity.
Rishi and Ganga looked happier. Now when I came home they were swimming through the arch and biting the rocks. From then on, I started asking my mother for more and more accessories for them. We upgraded their bowl to a 10 gallon tank, added more colorful rocks and toys, and even covered the tank in wallpaper to make them look like they’re in the ocean. I had yet to formally study the literature demonstrating that environmental change and exciting environments improve the cognitive abilities of fish, but I cared about them and wanted to provide them with more than the bare minimum to survive. Along with the extra space and new tank decor, I got more goldfish to keep Rishi and Ganga company. The fish had grown from my weird obsession into a real aesthetic part of our house.
Then, in seventh grade, Ganga died. I noticed before going to school and cried all day. My friends, guidance counselors and teachers were sympathetic but perplexed by my tears. A friend even tried to comfort me by recounting the time her cat knocked over their aquarium and ate all of her fish. He laughed while telling me this story. Others could affirm my feelings, but could not understand my grief over a single goldfish. For me, Ganga was a family member. He was an individual and had his own idiosyncrasies: he never swam to the top of the tank to feed and jerked around the tank randomly to create a current in the water and disturb other fish.
This discrepancy in our reactions to a dying animal desensitized me. Clearly, I was exaggerating by crying over the death of a fish. After all, who cares about the fish? For the next two years, goldfish would continue to sink to the bottom of their tank. My only reaction was to take them out, lay them in the lake behind my house and pray for their little souls to reach moksha.
As my goldfish were dying, I decided to keep them company by catching more fish. At the fish market, I was fascinated by the variety of gilled creatures, from exotic eels and puffer fish to loaches and goldfish. But, at the same time, I felt sad. It seemed that at the bottom of every aquarium there were crowds of dead or near-death fish. I looked into the tank and tried to look at something other than those dying fish, but my eyes were still drawn to them. They sat pathetically at the bottom of the tank, opening and closing their mouths, clinging to each passing second.
Still, I brought home four black-skirted grouse and four red-eyed grouse, and gave them very eccentric names: Pizza, Hut, Taco, Bell, Pachacuti, Belly, Fish, and Stewart. They seemed very happy in my tank – playing with each other, swimming freely, and voraciously devouring any food I poured in. Seeing how much they loved to play with each other, my fascination with fish only grew. I became more and more invested in their lives and mythologized the groups of friends that existed within their small community of fish. Obviously Pizza & Hut and Taco & Bell would be great pairings. I started thinking of them more as interesting individuals and less as dumb drones. I liked them.
During my senior year of high school, I went out of town for three days to visit colleges and left my fish in the care of my mother, who had never had to take care of them before. When I returned at 3am on Sunday, I took a look around my aquarium to make sure they were okay. The first thing I noticed was that it was cloudy. The next thing I noticed was that there was rotting flesh floating around on top of my tank. Then finally I noticed that there was no fish. As I sobbed, my mother explained to me that our air conditioning had broken down while I was gone. And, since I live in Florida, the temperature in the tank got unbearably hot and boiled them to death. I left these individuals, whom I ostensibly loved, to die a slow, excruciating death. I gave up keeping fish after that. How could I continue?
After coming to Brown, I became extremely involved in animal rights – perhaps a natural consequence of my love for fish as a teenager. I learned about the magnitude of animal agriculture, saw the untold things happening on factory farms, and wanted to do something to help these suffering animals. Yet while I intellectually understood the reasons for supporting animal rights, I couldn’t connect to farm animal conflicts until I saw masses of fish piled up in tanks at the supermarket.
Among the fish confined to the tank, there was one fish in particular – a fatty catfish – that made eye contact with me. As he squirmed his body in distress, his bright, kind eyes met mine. We looked at each other, and with each passing second, a smile slowly began to grow on his face as he opened his mouth and wiggled his whiskers. His face was filled with hope, even as he was surrounded by 20 other fish, most of whom seemed to have resigned themselves to their impending and inevitable fate. This fish kept swimming forward, as if it could, with a little more willpower, somehow escape the cramped four-by-six-inch tank.
I had to look away. This fish was fighting for its life, but I knew the date of its death. I wanted to do something, but what was there to do? I might be able to smash the glass on the tank and free it, but so what? He would simply die of asphyxiation instead of being beheaded. I could try to buy him alive, but I had no way of caring for him, let alone bringing him home. He was no different from the fish I cared for and loved, and I was helpless to help him, just as I had been before. The only things I could offer were an ounce of sympathy, a place in my memory, and a prayer to a God I hoped existed. It had been three years since I cried for a fish, but here I stood in the supermarket, screaming at a fish killed for an unforgettable meal by someone who never cared for his life.
Reading news about how climate change is affecting our oceans, I often feel gloomy. There are predictions that we will have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2048. Giant trash cans consisting mainly of fishing nets strangle marine life. Overfishing destroys fish habitats, such as the Great Barrier Reef. For me, these facts are not sad because pollution or environmental degradation is in no way bad – I wouldn’t be invested in plastic waste on another planet, because there is no life there . I’m rather concerned about the staggering loss of aquatic life that fishing and environmental damage produce.
Specifically, I am not directly saddened by the number itself, but by the fact that these quantities represent the end of an individual life, repeating itself again and again. When my fish died, I didn’t cry because a number of them had died. I wept about each and their idiosyncrasies, as they mattered to me individually: Hut’s tendency to hide behind the arch whenever someone stood over the tank, Pachacuti’s ritual of swimming to poke my finger every time I put it in the water. I have no personal connection to the trillions of sea creatures that die each year, but I do recognize that they are individuals who want to live, just like any fish I have ever cared for – and that’s one reason enough for their lives to have value.
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