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Byasghat and Brigadier Chakraborty

There are so many kinds of insanity, and almost all of them fascinate
us: it could be a Mid-summer Night’s Dream type of madness, or it could be the
madness that drives men to provoke bulls into chasing them through the streets of
Pamplona, Spain. The certifiable madness of the lunatic has a draw all its own, and
we all know of the fighting madness that can overcome a man in the ring. The list
goes on and on. There is something very noble in insanity, I think; the mental
derailment of the other invokes a kind of holy terror in the ‘sane’, a sort of ‘there, but
for the Grace of God, go I’ attitude. It is a gift of the Gods, say the Arabs, believing
the lost one is under the direct influence of Allah. I hope so, for I am mad about
fishing.
Unfortunately, by virtue of being a Bong, the moment it let on that
I’m a fishing fanatic, the field is lost. Knowing smiles are exchanged, as if to say, he
eats fish, so he catches them: big deal! I find this infuriating because, incidentally,
I’m a meat man, good old chevvon for me, not even mutton or chicken, which latter
palls after a day or two. Not only am I lukewarm towards chicken, I happen to detest
Turkey, and guinea fowl I wouldn’t be caught dead chewing. The only winged meat
I fancy is partridge, brought down cleanly in mid-flight by a No. 6 shotgun shell.
Fish I rarely eat, except when compelled to, by household menu or maybe even
floodwater, and the smell of a Billingsgate can make me sicker than a dog.
But catching them: that’s a different matter altogether! It was the
fishing pole I had at Captaingunj, the one I last saw disappearing into the swirling
waters where our garden lay submerged under floodwaters, which did the job. I was
hooked for life. What I didn’t realize, till much later, was that Father was a fishing
fanatic, too. But the insanity lay dormant within him, for circumstantial reasons. He
hadn’t had too many opportunities to indulge in the sport, but it appears he had this
zamindar ‘mejo mama’ (a maternal uncle halfway down the list of seniority) who
gave him the bug.
Eyes shining, Father loved to relate how he would accompany the
grand old man in his Ford touring car as he drove from Meerut to the Hindon canal
that flows past the Hindon Air Force base in Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh.
Once, when his uncle was bringing in a large carp, Father got into the water to
expedite the process. At the crucial moment, however, the hook pulled free, and the
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line went limp. It took the big fish a fraction of a second to realize that it had been
literally ‘let off the hook’. The uncle stood frozen in despair as only an angler can
stand when he has played a big fish for over half an hour, only to lose it at the river
bank. But quick as a flash, Father had given the fish a mighty wallop and the Rohu,
all fifteen pounds of it, metamorphosed into a flying fish as it sailed out of the water
and landed on the bank.
Fast reflexes: Father had them in spades. No wonder he was such a
good batsman and wicket-keeper, I’ve seen him in action at Captaingunj, when he
was in his late ‘thirties, an age when most office-bound men get lumbago if they
stoop quickly to field a snappy on-drive coming at them over the turf. His agility put
men of twenty to shame. And in his youth he had covered himself with glory in
retrieving his uncle’s ‘lost’ fish. But apart from the tame stuff available at
Captaingunj, he really came back to his hobby when I joined Sherwood. Then he
would sit on the hotel verandah evenings and tell me tales of his boyhood, when his
father used to take his whole entourage of nearly twenty people (there were eleven
children in all) up to Naini Tal for the summer vacations, renting the large Primrose
Cottage for the months of May and June.
Great shoals of mahseer fish used to cruise the shoreline close to the
surface, Father used to relate, looking like so many islands of reddish-golden weeds
floating in the Sargasso Sea, and now and then an angler would bait a hook with a
minnow and cast it into the heart of the pulsating mass. There would a flurry of
foam, a splash as a fish took the bait, then, feeling the sting of the hook, race through
the massed fish, scattering them with a reel-scorching dash as it fought for freedom;
that first mad dash is typical of India’s (and arguably the world’s) greatest game-fish.
According to Father, a local shikari named Midu (whom I saw as an old man in
1957) and Jim Corbett himself jointly held the record for the largest catch in the lake
—56 lbs (25.45 kilograms), but there are no official records to support this. In fact,
there are no records at all, to the best of my knowledge, unlike the U.S. Fish &
Wildlife Service that maintains detailed record books for each and every species,
whether finned, furred, or feathered.
Whereas Rai Bahadur Abhay Charan Mukerji, I.E.S., Professor of
English at Muir College, Allahabad, could afford the luxury of a two-month holiday
in the hills, being in a profession where summer vacations are sacrosanct, his fifth
son, Baman Deva, could only manage a month off, in June. But even this was
enough, for June is not only the hottest month of the Indian summer, it’s also the
month in which Sherwood College celebrates its weeklong Founder’s Day vacation.
Apart from the school activities leading up to this welcome break in routine, such as
the P.T. display, march past, and the Annual Founder’s Play, I looked forward to the
fun of fishing in Naini Tal Lake with my father. True, there was horse riding,
movies, roller skating, boating and so much else, but it was the fishing that really
mattered.
The lake had regular machāns or fishing beats, from number one to
number ten, stretching from a spot just after the nullah that flowed down past the
Naina Devi temple to beyond the ‘toota pahaar’—‘broken hill’—in the direction of
the bus-stand in Malli Tal, where the St. Joseph’s School had their mooring jetty. As
a true-blue Sherwoodian, I detested the ‘Sem-ites’—as we called the denizens of our
rival school—but I envied them their sculling, something that Sherwood lacked for
whatever reasons, proximity to the lake was probably the deciding factor here, ‘Sem’
being just a ten- minute stroll from the lake while Sherwood was all of half-an-hour
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away, tucked away behind Ayarpatta Ridge.


Since these machāns were booked (licensed), practically round the
year, by local sportsmen whose livelihood depended on fishing with rod and line
(such was the catch in those days), Father always maintained very good terms with
Midu (who always booked No. 6 machān) and gave him a generous quota of rum
and a handsome cash prize to compensate for sharing his beat with him. I remember
Midu used to ‘sow’ ground bait (dissolving bait that lures fish to a spot but does not
provide them with any real food as such) very sparingly; just enough to entice the
fish overnight to the beat and keep them there, so that they were usually ravenous by
the time we reached the spot.
There were fairly large shoals of fish in the lake even in my boyhood
days, cruising in packs of a hundred or more, herding like sheep as they went up and
down the shoreline, apparently aimlessly (or were they out ‘sight-seeing’, gaping at
the sudden influx of tourists?), tails and fins fanning lazily from side to side. They
weren’t very large, mostly five to eight pounds in weight, but there were schools of a
hundred or two, and since Father landed three or four of them every day, he usually
gave one to Midu and donated the rest was to the hotel kitchen (which made him
very popular with old man Shapoorji, the Parsi gentlemen who then owned Hotel
Metropole).
When we tired of ‘bottom fishing’, which means putting bait (always
atta—boiled, kneaded flour-dough—and never earthworms (except under special
conditions) on the bottom of a lake, or when our bottoms started complaining that
they had bottomed-out in boredom (for there were days when the fish weren’t
biting), there was always trolling! Trawling is something a fishing boat does on the
high seas, trailing a purse seine or some such net. Trolling is similar, a scaled down
cousin of the deep-sea stuff, where one trails a live minnow on a hook carefully
inserted through the membrane of the lower jaw, fishing from a rowboat. One hugs
the shoreline, generally maintaining a distance of three or four oar lengths offshore,
the boatman keeping sound and splashes from his oars to the absolute minimum. The
boatman who can troll well can ask his price, usually Rs. Five per round of the lake
in those days. Today, I believe the boatmen charge forty rupees for a fast crossing
from Malli Tal to Talli Tal, and over fifty chips for a round!
Back in those days, Father used the same fishing tackle for trolling as
he used for bottom fishing, a cane rod from U.C. Karmakar & Co. or Kanto Bros.,
both of Bowbazar Street, Calcutta, and a ‘Sujan’ or ‘Suvra’ reel with a double-
ratchet-and-pawl mechanism which was less of a brake than means of producing an
audible signal that line was coming onto or leaving the spool, and number 9 hooks
from O. Mustaad, Norway. The 8-lb breaking strain nylon monofilament line was
imported in those days, mostly ‘Climax’ of Germany, the indigenous ‘Garware’ lines
still being a decade in the future. Anything thicker than this and it shows up in the
clear water, and in any case, it gives the fish a sporting chance to break free and
escape, if one is careless enough to put a finger in the way of whirling reel handles.
Nylon monofilament line has great strength and is quite flexible, but it
has two annoying drawbacks: it can snarl itself into a knotted mess in the twinkling
of an eye, and it snaps like thread if subjected to a sudden jerk. Nevertheless, it is a
vast improvement over the old braided ‘mooga’ silk line, much thicker than nylon
and far too visible in the water. Fish are getting better and smarter every day (how’d
they get hold of Dr. Coué’s mantra?), like Indians as a whole, and the days of mooga
are at an end except, perhaps, as backing to pad a large-capacity reel’s spool.
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The shift to Seohara and the discovery of Kalagarh on the Ramganga


marked a watershed in our fishing techniques. There were deep pools in this
submontane river, but Naini Tal-style bottom fishing rarely produced results for the
simple reason that the Mahaseer did almost all their eating in the rapids, the
oxygenated water giving them the energy needed to challenge the current, feasting
off minnows, fingerlings, and other edible matter brought down by the river.
Enter legendary Anil Deva Mukerji. He is a tall, gaunt old man now,
whose path we cross one day in the wilds of Corbett National Park, his weather-
beaten Land Rover reeking of fish. He has surveyed the malarial jungles of the
Terai (the swampy, marshy grasslands of northern Uttar Pradesh) on Pandit Nehru’s
behest, and submitted a report that leads to the lease of huge tracts of land at
subsidized rates for settlement and farming.
This a job fit for the most disease-resistant men on earth, the burly
sardarjis of the Punjab. These big, hard-working men of the soil, their appetite for
farmland whetted after being dispossessed of holdings left behind in what is now
Pakistan after the partition of India, proceed to tame these jungles. Kicchha,
Rudrapur, and Phoolbagh (now Pantnagar) become models for farmers elsewhere,
the husky men from the north clearing away the jungles swiftly, with the land now
groaning under harvest after bumper harvest of golden wheat.
Anil Deva Mukerji has done his duty but seen his dreams fade; he
sees the wilderness he knew like the back of his hand vanishing before his very eyes.
Paradoxically, the woodsman-hunter is the greatest conservationist. He harvests the
forest but is deeply involved in its preservation, for if the jungles vanish, the wildlife
follows it into oblivion taking a vital part of him with it. By signing a piece of paper,
A.D. Mukerji has signed away his living heritage; he becomes reclusive, a brooding
hermit. He owned sixteen rifles and guns, now he has sold them all; his only son has
shot himself over a failed love-affair, and the rifle racks stand bare, mute testimony
to happier days now departed with his dreams. He takes to angling, something with
which to fill the empty years.
So now, as jeep confronts its old rival, the British Land Rover,
he chats with us for half an hour, right there on the trail, ten-foot tall elephant grass
on either side of the track. Examining our equipment, he tells Father he has to update
his tackle to something better suited to the entirely different demands of whitewater
river fishing. Father listens keenly, respectfully; this man is a veteran of the woods, a
living legend, the man with whom he has been tiger hunting in the halcyon days of
his youth, a man who could drop a running Blackbuck at three hundred yards with a
single shot from his Martini-Henry rifle equipped only with open sights, who shot
many man-eating tigers and leopards, never promoting himself. There are no books
to his name, few photographs of him survive, his amazing feats known but to but a
select few.
Bespectacled, scholarly-looking, often mistaken for a poet, he does
not know the meaning of fear, a crack shot who spends more days in the jungle than
in his palatial mansion in Lucknow. He can track a wounded tiger, the most
dangerous animal on earth, into tall grass and finish it off, single-handed, as Father
has seen him do. So when he talks, which is rarely, men listen.
We need spinning tackle, he says, and we gaze at him blankly, so he
pulls out his rod and shows us. It’s a two-piece fiberglass rod, about seven feet long,
wonderfully light and whippy, and that odd-looking thing mounted on the cork
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handle has to be the reel. But what a reel! The spool is out in front, housed within a
cowl, at right angles to the rod and not in line with it, like our conventional reels.
There is a ‘bail’—a stainless steel wire mounted on the flyer rotating on a central
shaft in line with the rod, over which the line passes.
The bail wire folds back, locking in position, allowing one to cast out
the bait with a flick of the rod, then a turn of the handle snaps the bail back into
position, and as the flyer rotates on the double-ball bearing mounted shaft, the line is
wound back onto the spool. Only when the line is pulled off the reel does the spool
rotate, and there is a knurled nut holding the spool in place on the shaft that can be
turned clockwise to increase the resistance to a force (read ‘fish’) pulling line off the
spool. The generous spool holds, we are told, 150 yards of 8-lb line, which, with the
resistance provided by the friction brake (called a ‘drag’), is enough for all but the
largest of mahseer fish.
But if one puts one’s mind to it, casting out bait and retrieving it can
be done by hand, almost as effectively if not so smoothly or conveniently, by hand.
Where is the necessity of this complicated tackle? So it has to be the bait that’s really
different! We are correct! The bait is artificial, and there are endless variants on the
same theme, a metal or plastic object that, when cast into whitewater and slowly
retrieved, spins or wobbles in imitation of an injured or dying baitfish, an action well
nigh irresistible to a predatory gamefish like a mahseer. Deuced ingenious!
We follow him to the river for an on-the-spot demonstration. He
chooses a spot where the rapids begin and flicks out a ‘spoon’ or a ‘spinner’, I forget
which, and starts slowly winding the handle of the reel, wagging the rod tip to give a
little more ‘action’ to the lure. Nothing happens. He casts out again, and no sooner
has the lure hit the water than the reel checks momentarily; the rod stiffens, and then
bends into a deep arc as he leans back into the strike. Out in mid-stream, there is a
sudden commotion in the water, then the spool screams as line smokes off it.
He lets the fish run, giving side-strain, throwing the fish off balance
and tiring out the mahseer’s relatively weak pectoral and ventral fins that act as
balancing vanes. The drag was almost tight enough to sink the hook, but the strike
has driven it firmly home beyond the barb, and the fish is well-hooked and running
for all its worth…but to no avail. Fifteen minutes later, a Punjab mahseer, 12 pounds
of green-gold and silver with a touch of salmon pink, lies gasping on the sand.
We are convinced; already our crude tackle is an embarrassment. All
the way home, Father and I plan our next move—activating relatives abroad to get us
the stuff we need. An uncle stationed in Aden is the first choice; he has sent across a
large Philips transistor radio in 1960 and a GRUNDIG TK 23 spool-type tape-
recorder the following year. (It never reached us. My maternal grandfather took
delivery of it, but had it wrenched from his hand in a tram on the way home to
Ballygunje, Calcutta—that’s a thousand chips gone, but Father simply shrugs
philosophically and never mentions the incident again—win some, lose some is his
motto).
You know, I never got to meet this uncle of mine—he never returned
to India, smart chap—but in my Book of Life his name is written in foot-high
letters of gold. Year after year, he kept up a steady flow of fishing gear—two
fiberglass rods, a whippy stainless steel rod, a ‘Weekend 600’ spinning reel, a
GARCIA-Mitchell 204 reel, an ABU-GARCIA ‘Ambassadeur 6000’ level-
winding bait casting-cum-trolling reel, an ‘INTREPID Elite’ medium spinning reel,
an ‘INTREPID Surfcast’ sea spinning reel—and spoons galore, all bought from
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The Red Sea Shop, Steamer Point, Aden, an address that is permanently burned into
my fevered brain. I have become a fishing fanatic! One Mr. Barham, a planter in
Assam, sells Father a ‘Milbro’ (made in Scotland) hollow-fiberglass 9’ casting rod
through the mail to complete our arsenal.
Mr. Awasthy (Chief Chemist of the Seohara Sugar mill, our neighbor)
confirmed that his eldest son, Mani, in Washington. D.C., has put a reel in the
‘pipeline’. Months pass, but there is no sign of the ‘Shakespeare 2062’. Then one
day, the pardner and I are at cousin Sushital Banerji’s place on Teen Murti marg.
Feeling in need of some coffee, the pardner rummages in a cutlery drawer and comes
up with something that he never expects, and streaks off to the lady of the house with
it. “Oh! That coffee grinder, it’s useless. Try the Nescafe”, is her answer. The
anodized label on the gadget reads ‘Shakespeare 2062—Made in U.S.A.’
IT’S OUR LONG-LOST REEL! We jump with joy, as the
embarrassed lady hastily removes the last traces of coffee beans from behind the
spool with the pallu of her sari, repeating in a daze “The reel! The poor reel!”
The bail-spring is somewhat the worse for wear – nothing a pair of
pliers can’t fix – but otherwise it's river-worthy! It seems dapper diplomat D.P. Dhar
had dropped it off, but no one knew what to do with the mysterious object. Everyone
takes it to be a coffee-grinder. And so also does Indian diplomacy blunder through
the shoals, and things get worse day by day in the arena of international relations.
But hang on a minute…wasn’t there something in the title of this
piece about one Brigadier Chakraborty. Where is he? And what is a ‘Byasghat’?
Patience, dear reader, we will tell all. Some years have passed in bliss,
fishing for trout in Manali, for mahseer in the Ramganga, Naini Tal Lake, in the
Sutlej in the Punjab, and the Beas in Himachal Pradesh. We reckon we are about
ready for the Big Push!
At New Delhi’s Gol
Market, we have
discovered a shop named
‘Bharat Bhandar’ whose
proprietor, Mr. Ghosh,
has cultivated many anglers.
He deals in good-quality
second-hand fishing
tackle, apart from the
usual things a general store
stocks, and has even
managed to make perfect
replicas of popular and
effective lures including
Macdonald spoons in a
single treble-hook configuration. His imitation ‘MEPPS’ spinners (the originals come from
France) are as good as the real McCoy.
He wants to show Father and me some ‘plugs’ (imitation baitfish made of wood or plastic
that either float or dive deep on retrieval, depending on the make) he has. We aren’t too
interested; we have tried plugs, but have never caught anything on them, and now use
MacDonald wobblers (my mother used to spell them as ‘warblers’, to my delight!) almost
exclusively. No self-respecting river mahseer can resist them.
The plugs Mr. Ghosh had, however, were not two or three inches
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long, the usual size—these specimens were two-piece, jointed, and festooned with
formidable treble hooks the size of small boat-anchors—and were almost two feet
long! What kind of monster needed bait this large, we wondered. As though reading
our minds, Mr. Ghosh reaches under the shelf to bring out a framed, black-and-white
photograph, 8" x 10".
The terrain in the picture is typically sub-Himalayan; there’s a
boulder-strewn riverbed, and scowling into the camera is a stocky, deep-chested man
wearing only a Sandow cotton vest, shorts, and jungle boots. There is a wooden stake
about seven feet high driven into the earth, and hanging from it is a shark…no, no,
wait! That’s not a shark, it’s a…it’s a giant mahseer! “Eighty-pounder,” says Mr.
Ghosh matter-of-factly, as if an eighty-pound Mahaseer is an everyday occurrence.
The rod and reel in the photograph are awesome; next to them, our tackle is kid stuff.
“Byasghat!” pronounces Mr.Ghosh laconically. “It separates the men
from the boys. That is the great Brigadier Chakraborty.” He sees we are eying the
giant rod-reel set. “Luxor saumon-mer reel”, he says, reading our minds like a
good salesman, “…from France. It’s the best ocean-spinning reel ever made. Happen
to have one on me right now.” Again that grab at a lower shelf, then up comes his
hand, holding the biggest spinning reel I’ve ever seen. It dwarfs our ‘INTREPID
Surfcast’; its Hastings all over again, 1066 and all that rot, another instance of a
Norman victory over the Saxons. I must have the reel, but Father baulks—700 chips
is a lot of bread in those days. We can get a new one from abroad for less.
Mr. Ghosh understands. “There is an American reel to match it—the
GARCIA-Mitchell 302—number 402 is the fast-retrieve version. Either will do
splendidly. Anytime you want a rod to go with it, I have a 10' 6" BROWNING that is
perfect for it. By the way, the plugs are the only things that work at Byasghat. Each
plug costs 350 rupees”.
Yes, I acknowledge sadly, Byasghat is a man’s sort of place, not for
us civilians. I make a quick mental calculation; at going prices, a fishing outfit would
set me back at least fifteen hundred rupees, and the travel/camping another thousand.
Say, two point five grand, all found.
I don’t give up on Byasghat easily. ‘Iron Lady’ Otima Bordia is
currently in Washington, and I make a quick call to her…“Yes, you heard correctly,
a GARCIA-Mitchell 302 or 402.” Now all I have to do is wait, the die has been cast.
She returns empty-handed from Washington. “They thought I was nuts…an ocean-
spinning reel for inland fishing! They were still laughing as I left the store.” Back to
square one. Meanwhile, Mani has goofed, he has sent a smaller version, the
otherwise lovely-for-the-Ramganga Garcia Mitchell 406. It won’t do at all. This is
one I have to let go.

Do I? Nope. I go to Byasghat at least once a month nowadays. Delhi to Hardwar is


five hours, and from there I take a bus for Pauri via Lansdowne, a journey of about
eight hours. From Pauri, I walk 40 kms to Devaprayag, followed by another 28 kms
due south to Byasghat.
It’s nothing but a small village, a mere hole in the ground, and after
spending the night there, I take off north, for the place where the torrent that comes
cascading down the gorge meets the Ganges―a hard three-hour uphill trek. There is
a giant rock out there in mid-stream, close to the confluence, and as I set up my
tackle on the riverbank I wonder whether I can cast that far, for I’ve been assured
that a perfect cast, with the plug landing in the lee of the big boulder, will almost
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certainly result in a savage strike.


It’s an eighty yard cast, like the ones they make at La Jolla or Santa
Monica, Calif., in the States, casting out beyond the big breakers that roll in from the
Pacific—‘surfcasters’, these big, broad-shouldered men are called. They would be
astounded to see equipment matching their own being used in the foothills of the
Himalayas! I’ve made plenty of dry runs with this outfit, casting into the Yamuna,
and to the best of my estimation I’ve crossed seventy-five yards.
If I can do that here…the river’s thunderous voice almost drowns out
my thoughts. I tie the giant plug securely to the end of the 20-kilogram breaking
strain nylon line, a light line for a venture such as this, and test the cruel, viciously
barbed hooks, filed needle-sharp the evening before I set off, against the ball of my
thumb.
It is then that I notice the empty packet of Capstan cigarettes on the
sand. Once, long ago, a tall man in a sola hat used to smoke Capstans while he
fished. He would have liked being here with me right now…is it…could it be
possible that he’s…? I take a nip of brandy from the hip-flask before wading out into
the current, hefting the mighty rod …
And so the old man
dreamed
dreams of youth and
adventure and the
great times he had
lived through. He
rarely felt the
weight of the
years, the
loneliness that
came and went like
storm clouds or the
way the winters got
colder and
colder, sustained by the things he had done, as well as the things it was not ordained that he
should do.
He had lived a great life; he had got, and lost, a fortune, read great books, obeyed the
Cosmos, loved beauty, written books and poetry, sired a son, caught gallant fish and hunted
in jungles that no longer existed. He had faced up to his fate boldly and lived his life fully,
happily and now, as it passed before his eyes, it was good…so very good.
Now at last he understood what Oscar Wilde meant when he said that there were only two
great tragedies in life; the one, not to get your heart’s desire, the other, to get it...because it
was all the same in the final reckoning, they weren’t tragedies at all but triumphs. You lived
as you lived and got as you got and gave as you gave, and all that really mattered in the end
was how you looked at it inside yourself that made all the difference. He was smiling when
the angel came for him…


Subroto Mukerji


“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp


because the dawn has come.” — Rabindranath Tagore.
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