Friday, October 31, 2008

On fishing

I feel sorry for fishermen who spend years and years fishing, without knowing that it’s not the fish they are after. To call fishing an occupation or a sport would be to not understand that it is much more than just that. Fishing is not a job or a recreational activity. Fishing is not even about the fish. It represents the biggest human addiction – Hope.

A lonely angler sitting meditatively with a fishing rod on a boat in the middle of a peaceful lake, with the line in the water is not the most exciting sight. But that’s missing the point. There is a lot more going on just beneath the surface. Fishing is a mind game. It’s a marathon battle between the fish and the man. It involves great deception, guile, trickery and imagination. But you don’t see that. You only see the angler cradling a motionless line in a still lake. You don’t see the enormous living constellation swirling and swooshing under the calm surface. You don’t see the countless layers and planes and currents being worked out in the mind of the man. It is an epic battle of survival played out in a deceptively motionless environment, and it is all played out in the mind. A good fisherman reads into the mind of the victim.

I’m not talking about commercial trawling here. Taking a 70 metre trawler into the middle of the ocean and hauling aboard thirty-five tones of salmon – that’s not fishing. That is taking a bulldozer to a brain surgery.

Fishing is a game of chess. You don’t just catch fish. Novices catch fish. Real fishermen reap fish. There is no luck or chance involved in it. The catch is the reward for tough mental exertion. So is defeat. It is a reward. Only a true fisherman can see that. Fishing is not about the fish at all. It is a state of mind. It’s the attention to detail, it is instinct paired with imagination. It is a mystical game of possibilities; an enquiry into circumstances. It is chaos theory. The water is not a dull, featureless expanse, but it is a living thing. It is a delightful world full of treasures and riches. It is constantly moving and changing, like there is electricity in it. The fish too, are as fickle and transient as the magical sphere they call home.

You are the stranger. You are the one sitting outside their world, on its roof. You are the piece that doesn’t fit; the awful intrusion in what is otherwise a picture of harmony. A true fisherman never wonders about the one that got away, and knows that, in another world somewhere, a fish would have extended him the same courtesy.

All you see is line going into the water, and your reflection on its calm surface. But who knows what treasures or dangers lurk on the other side of the mirror? What is joined to the line on the other end is limited only by your imagination. It is whatever you imagine it to be, till the instant you reel in the line and make it real, and bring it out into this side of the mirror. Into your world.
It’s not about the fish. There is never a dull moment while fishing. It is a glorious drama involving two mortal beings connected to each other by a fragile thread- one weak and frail and the other strong and powerful. The weak one waits patiently with guile and cunning for the other to take the bait and thrash around for his life. It is the quintessential philosophical conflict. It is mind versus matter.

On Chopsticks

One of my greatest regrets is that I’ve never quite learned to eat with chopsticks. I guess it’s because no one has ever guided me properly on the matter of chopstick handling, but I’m sure it’s because I really can’t be bothered.

In my motorcycling circle, they speak of a Japanese mechanic who once had to replace a worn camshaft on a motorcycle. Now these shafts have a pattern of grooves on them, in which oil is carried around from the galleries to lubricate and cool the valves. In the old shaft, these grooves were worn out. So this mechanic mounted the old shaft on a fast turning lathe and poured molten steel on it straight from a furnace. He then quenched it by plunging it into oil at room temperature, to relieve it of internal stresses and give it more tensile strength. He then copied the groove pattern from a new shaft by making an imprint on a sheet of translucent paper using kohl, and then cut the pattern on the old shaft, turning it back within a micrometer of its old dimension.

It is an awesome story, and the whole painstaking exercise was hard, laborious and incredibly stupid, because it cost him Rs.850. And a brand new shaft is worth Rs.800.

In a list of Japanese inventions posted on the internet, there was a device that you’d have to strap on to your hat right below your ear and when its electrodes sensed a sneeze coming, it would automatically dispense a paper napkin right in front of your nose. Although why anyone familiar with the concept of handkerchiefs and pockets would go so far as to wear a hat and strap on a heavy and embarrassing apparatus still puzzles me.

Most Japanese people want trees in their homes. Most Indians do, too. That is why most Indian homes have Neem trees growing right in the center. But the average Japanese house is only 110 sq.ft in area, and there are about a gazillion houses in Tokyo alone. There isn’t enough room for two medium sized people, leave alone a tree. Faced with such circumstances, an average Indian would have done the sensible thing – chop down all the trees in the neighbourhood and forget the matter. But the Japanese? No. They had to wire, prune and file trees down to miniature sizes, and carry them around in little pots! Looking at a giant sequoia tree, would the average Neanderthal man have ever thought “Hmmm, I’d like a pocket sized version of that on my study desk”? No. Because the average Neanderthal man did not have study desks. The average Japanese Neanderthal man on the other hand not only had a study desk, he also had a palmtop on it which was connected through Wi-Fi to Honda solar powered DNA robots which were presently mowing his lawn. And he was already trying to decide whether to name the miniature invention Bonsai or Hentai.

See, that’s the thing with the Japanese. They want a smaller version of everything. When everything has become small, they’d then want smaller versions of the smaller things. They will take the smallest and simplest task and computerize the living daylights out of it and make it unwieldy. They can go to any lengths to do that. Believe me. The entire western civilization (west of Japan that is) is founded on the basic principle of making things easier. But the Japanese want to make things more complex. They just don’t understand the concept of too much trouble. Nothing is ever too much trouble for them.

Maybe that explains why they use chopsticks to eat rice. If there is a simpler way of doing things, the Japanese will NOT accept it. I mean, how else would you explain it? It’s not like they have not seen the spoon. They have. So they can’t even pretend as though they don’t know about the spoon and plead ignorance. No. The only other logical reasons that explain the continuing use of chopsticks are a) lack of greens in Japanese food and b) a huge mafia funded chopstick production industry. One look at the technological innovations coming out of Japan is enough to throw the lack-of-greens theory out of the window (Though it is still a mystery why a nation of such keen scientists cannot spot the one blaring intellectual anomaly in an otherwise flawless topography). Sadly, we have to live with the pitiless burden of proof, and hence a mafia-funded-chopstick-industry theory doesn’t hold water, either.

So, I think my theory stands unchallenged. I have finally solved the age-old riddle. I’ve cracked the code. In evolution terms, this is the equivalent of deducing the reasons for the extinction of the Galapagos apple snail. I deserve some award for this, surely. (I don’t know if there is such a thing as a Galapagos apple snail. I made that up.)

See, you can place a chopstick next to a spoon and crack all the witty jokes you want till the cows come home, but remember, in Japan, they are making just as many jokes about you and your spoon. You will never understand it, because you don’t understand their culture, and because their jokes are in Japanese.

That brings me to the question that has been gnawing at my mind ever since I began thinking about Japanese culture. If the Japanese go to such elaborate lengths to make things as complex as possible, why do they eat fish raw? So is Sushi really an Australian invention?