As soon as I reached the school to pick Xena up, my heart skipped a beat.
Something looked fishy.
It was indeed a fish. A fish in a tiny sealed packet of water, in Xena's left hand and a plastic tank in her right hand. She looked delighted. I knew the class had gone on an excursion to a fish farm that morning, but I did not imagine for a second that they would come back armed with 'return gifts'.
A fish on my hands. A live fish on my hands!
So I looked for her teacher and my words just came tumbling out incoherently. "Hi, what is... what is... what is this? Is this a fish?? Is this a fish that we need to take home? Is this some project? What is this?"
The teacher smiled and calmly said, "Oh, every child got a take-home fish at the fish farm."
All I could think of was this. A take-home fish? A live take-home fish??? You let them take a fish home???
If you think I was overreacting, let me elaborate on the last time I had a pet of the aquatic nature. I was a little girl, accompanying my dad to the fish market, and I saw a tiny fish flopping about over a heap of dead ones. I asked my dad if he could buy it for me so I could keep it as a pet. Dad looked unsure, but he bought it for me anyway. I got it home, and transferred it into a tall glass jar. It swam around happily. I was thrilled.
Now the question was - what would it eat? Nobody knew what kind of fish it was, but I did know that in general, fish ate worms! Simple. So I went down to the garden and dug up an earthworm. (Yes, I did!) I put it in the jar and guess what? The fish ate it!
But not for long. Maybe it was a saltwater fish, or maybe earthworms were the wrong food for it. I don't know what happened but one morning, I woke up to see it floating belly up. I was very young, and the tears flowed freely. I cried the whole morning and even refused to go to school. (Me, the school-loving class nerd, refusing to go to school!) I did go to school eventually (of course) and vowed that I would never EVER have another pet. If a tiny fish I'd got at the fish market had that effect on me within a few days, I couldn't imagine what a dog or a rabbit would do to me.
And that's why I had a major panic attack when I saw Xena with the fish. I'd accompanied her on every single excursion so far, even though it's optional for parents to go. This I'd skipped because she'd said, "Mama, you don't have to come this time. I'm very responsible." and my heart had just melted.
Of course, now I was paying the price for it. We had a fish on our hands and there was no way out. We couldn't abandon it. So I asked the teacher, "Err... okay... What do I give it? What will it eat?" She gave me a peculiar look, one that translated into "Why don't you start with dum biryani?" Then she slowly said, "Fish food."
"What kind of fish food?" I may be a fish newbie, but I was sure there are different kinds of fish food.
"Just look for betta fish food in the pet shop." She said.
Okay. Okay. I took a deep breath. We can do this, I told Xena. It was more for myself actually.
And so, holding Xena's hand in one hand and the fish and the tank in the other, I made my way out of the school. The water in the bag was not enough to completely cover the fish and I feared for its life. The excursion had been in the morning, so the fish had been in that oxygen-deprived state for several hours now. The bag was machine-sealed so even though I wanted to instantly put it in the tank and empty the contents of Xena's water bottle into it, I couldn't. Not that I'm an expert, but I could tell that the fish was not looking too good. So I told Xena we needed to get home as soon as possible to put the fish in a lot more water. I tried to get a cab, but of course, they are just an urban myth so you can't really get one.
So we took the bus, and I have to say it was one of the most stressful journeys of my entire life (second only to highway robbers shooting at our bus when my dad was posted in Bihar, but that's a story for another day). The fish seemed to be turning over to try and submerge itself as much as possible in the 0.0045 ml of water the bag contained, and I was having terrifying visions of the belly-up fish from my childhood. "Don't you die on me!" I kept muttering under my breath, with a curious Xena looking on.
We got home and immediately filled the tank with water and put the fish inside. It instantly started swimming around, and for the first time, I noticed what a beautiful blue fish it was.
Okay, food next. I wasn't sure how many times these fish needed to be fed, and whether it was already its mealtime. I was lucky that mom-in-law was home, so I literally flung Xena at her, took a photo of the fish on my phone and made a mad dash for the nearest pet shop. I showed them the photo and they gave me some betta fish food. I asked the salesperson (it was an unsure-looking teenager, who looked like she was probably on a holiday job) how much and how many times I had to feed it and she said, "Umm... you could try a little first?" Sheesh. I figured I'd have to turn to the net for real and useful advice.
I hurried back and put some of the flaky food in the tank. And guess what? The fish refused to eat it. After a while, it swallowed a flake, but immediately spat it out. Arrrghhh! Why do all food-haters of the world come my way?? Sigh. It was Xena's fish after all. Food rejection is a way of life in that world.
So I quickly got online and asked for advice in a forum that had never let me down. Sure enough, within 5 minutes I had all the answers. It was a Siamese fighting fish, also known as betta. It was supposed to be quite a hardy fish. "Don't keep another fish with it, it's very aggressive!" One of the forum members warned me. "Another fish??? Are you kidding??? No chance." I thought. Let's just try to keep this one alive.
Of course, there was some confusion as well, as some said the tank was fine, while others asked me to get a bigger one. Some said that they are very hardy fish, while others said they can suddenly die for no apparent reason. Some said that their betta lived only for a day (!!!!!), while others reported a lifespan of a decade. One of them even said, "They don't live long. Which can actually be a good thing." One of them also shared my indignation at the school thrusting 4-year-olds with pets without any proper guidelines, and asked me to go return it to them!
I couldn't return it, of course. Xena was too attached to it by now. She'd even named it Blueberry. With mixed feelings, I got on google and tried to get some more information. I found that these fish have stomachs the size of their eyeballs, so they eat very little. In fact, it's critical not to overfeed them, or they'd die. Overfeed? Right. This one refused to even be underfed. But at least I was assured that it wouldn't die of starvation.
The next morning, it was still not eating. I dashed to another pet shop and got another kind of food. Pellets. Guess what? Rejected again. I was feeling rather depressed. Honestly speaking, I did not have time for all this googling and pet shop runs and worrying. Mine is a very tightly-packed schedule, and a household that runs on near-100% efficiency, and there really is no space for any other living thing in the house. The fish not eating was adding to the stress.
However, things changed that evening. It started to eat. Yippppeeee!
The next morning, it was waiting for me like a bhukkad of the highest order. It literally jumped at the food and polished it off in 3 seconds. I was so tempted to give it more, but I reminded myself about the stomach-eyeball rule.
More googling told me that feeding it and changing the water regularly might not be enough. I could get a plant for oxygen, and possibly some pebbles to liven up its home. The next day, I ran to the pet shop again and bought colourful pebbles and a water plant. I came home and washed the pebbles (they looked too colourful not to run colour, and I used to own a FabIndia top at one point in time, so I'm wary of anything that's brightly-coloured), but they were okay. I placed the plant and the pebbles in the tank, and the fish took to its new colourful home like... erm, fish to water. It was swishing around happily, weaving in and out around the leaves, and blowing tiny bubbles.
I didn't know what the cost of the fish was, but I did know that I'd at least spent ten times the amount at the pet shop in those three days. But I kept reminding myself that I should invest only my money, not my emotions. But I've to admit it's been hard. When I come back from the gym in the mornings, it's not to an empty house anymore. As soon I put my keys down, I go over to check on it. It makes me happy in a weird kind of way to see it happily swimming around.
More googling told me that it's a boy fish. At first Xena was very reluctant to accept this and kept saying, "But she's a girl!" But now she's come around and we've decided that he is Mr. Blueberry Bubbles.
(Before I knew that this betta was a boy, I'd briefly considered naming it Betti. Hur hur. But I knew no one else would find it funny.)
But there is also that nagging feeling of guilt that maybe it deserves better. Fish forums tell me that for it to really thrive, the tank should have at least 1 gallon of water, there should be a filter and a heater, and water conditioner and weekly treats of what they called 'frozen bloodworms'. I went to the pet shop to check out what on earth these were, and I think my blood froze at the sight of the frozen bloodworms. Moreover, they needed to be kept in the freezer. Okay, there was no way I was going to keep those things in my freezer. So yes, the guilt is there. We are moving out in a few weeks for the renovation of our home and I'm in the midst of getting rid of as many things as I can. The last thing I should be doing at this point is buying a 1-gallon fish tank with a filter and heater and what not.
A friend told me that fishkeeping is one of those things that starts out simple and consumes you if you get really into it. Kind of like buying a DSLR camera. You get a simple enough camera at first and then you start buying complicated lenses that go up to thousands of dollars. And you can't stop.
But this was not a camera. This was a living thing. After doing all that, it could still die on me any day. It's been about a week, and I've had many many panicky 'Is it ok? Is it gonna die?' moments, similar to what I'd had when we had done the caterpillar metamorphosis activity. But the caterpillar was a relatively low-risk venture where things didn't hinge on us doing much. You feed it leaves and it becomes a pupa and then you just step back and watch in amazement.
Blueberry seems mostly okay, but still behaves strangely at times. Like last night when it was getting startled at the slightest movement. It's better now, and after googling, I've moved it to the top of a shelf that sees less movement than the dining table. Apparently, they can get stressed and die any time. Apparently, they can get constipated and then you need to fix it using a frozen pea. Apparently, I need to stop with the googling.
Blueberry has invoked a medley of feelings in me. Wonder, astonishment, amusement, love, serenity, panic, depression, anxiety, guilt, and love again. For now, I'm taking it one day at a time, and do the best that I can. I don't know what the future holds for it, and how Xena will react when the inevitable happens, but for now, Blueberry is very much alive and swimming and a part of our home.