Fishhead. Republic of Want is an experimental novel by Ignatius Valentine Aloysius. It’s a layered metafictional work in the style of Cervantes and Borges, where Fate (Destiny) is the story’s overarching narrator, addressing love and human behavior within hunger’s grip. In 1970s Bombay, a hungry teenage boy called Fishhead struggles with his family’s indigence in the tenement, only to wrestle with the acceptance of an affectionate middle-class girl who likes him. He hopes his curiosity and want will free him from his harsh conditions at home while he enters a world of literature, art, and music, and then sets his sights for work on an offshore oil rig after a crisis, despite his fear of deep water.
In this excerpt Fishhead is a hungry teenage boy in a tenement in Bombay who follows his father to a rustic drinking establishment. This story was excerpted from the original novel manuscript of Fishhead and adapted for the 9/14/2016 Kill Your Darlings/Third Coast Review Lit night readings on the theme of temperance (Chicago/World).
A Tabernacle for Drinkers
Fishhead followed Dad out of the meat and seafood stalls. He stayed close behind, as Dad left the crowded market then walked a hundred feet or so across the open square with its huge fig tree in the center. A low wall surrounded the tree, plastered on all sides by Bollywood movie posters and earthen-red signs honoring Hindu gods and the country itself. Debris littered the area—a gathering place of sorts in this eastern suburb of Chembur in hot, overcrowded Bombay. A cow with a distended stomach chewed on a plastic bag. A boy rushed by on a cycle, and Dad made his way to The Deccan Lunch House on the opposite end of the square. Nothing terminated his aim.
Fishhead had some tinge of regret for following Dad like this, although he failed to declare his true reason. He wished to know a little of the man’s private life, to understand it somehow because Dad spent most of his daylight hours away from home. No money, no work. Why this pretense to appear busy? Mom’s job as a telephone operator downtown took more out of her than she had to give.
In the restaurant, a male server welcomed Dad and led him in. Seeing this, Fishhead turned away then waited at the fig tree, hoping to catch his father’s exit. A teenage boy like him had better things to do with his time, the thought crossed his mind. This life, this curse and suffering occupied him so much, he found no chance to be free and spend time on the school’s playground or clubhouse with his schoolmates, with girls. He liked Anupa. Did she visit the clubhouse often? He ought to go there.
In the distance, a harsh thunderclap echoed through oncoming dark clouds. Daylight changed too quickly, now a murky tunnel of the monsoons. The crash of dishes in the restaurant made Fishhead turn to face it and its bright fluorescent lights. Moments later, Dad said something to the owner and walked out. Fishhead ducked and came around the fig tree, stepping around a couple of men and a few kids playing near him. He made the kids curious, and they crouched behind him to imitate him. A game. Dad crossed the square and retraced his steps through the dirty alleyway and shanties. So dark for the afternoon. He cut across the marketplace by the train station and went further east until he came to a village twenty minutes away. Unbelievable, Fishhead thought, unbelievable! Dad managed to uncoil the snakiest destinations in the most unclean places. Fishhead kept his father in sight as the man made his way through a few tight, bending alleys with narrow, dirty drainage gutters passing through the middle. Standing water and debris. Cemented gutters. More chickens and a pair of mangy dogs. Barefoot children at play; they cared less about the gloomy skies.
Dad walked into a shed with a metal corrugated roof and stepped over the high doorsill. Fishhead waited a few houses back, feigning a crisis with his footwear, bending to attend to it but fixing his sight on the door of the shed just ahead. And then he walked straight there, a bold and brazen youth. He stuck his head through the doorway, even though he risked being seen by his father. He looked around in a hurry and adjusted his sight to the dimly-lit interior. A dismal place. The odor of hooch and the illicit still cuffed his senses, choking him, its intensity rising to his head and giving him a momentary brain freeze, a whip. The smoke from lit candles inside. About ten men sat cross-legged in a stupor, facing each other along the rectangular perimeter of the shed’s dark walls. Dad took his place among them just as a server brought him a drink and exited through a door on the other side, perhaps entering a preparation area, some makeshift kitchen. Fishhead stepped back, not wanting anyone to question him. Neither in nor out; and, he, too young for a customer. He looked in again. Dad shifted from one butt cheek to the other, and folded his legs again to get comfortable. He looked down and crossed his legs as if in a yoga pose, focusing on the milky glass in front of him. He sat as these men did. And in the center but directly on the mud floor, the owner’s daily fare: bowls of potato chips, peeled boiled eggs, trail mixes, roasted peanuts in shells, and three used lit candles standing in their own wax on bottle tops. A shrine, a tabernacle for drinkers. Few used bottles of hooch and beer stood among the bowls. A display more luxurious than home; no wonder Dad chose not to eat with the family. So where else did he go to find relief from the demands of home?
Fishhead had enough, more than enough. He pulled out from the doorway, disgusted and upset. But just as he moved, Dad lifted his head to face him, their eyes locking if only for a second, but perhaps not enough to permit recognition; and yet Fishhead distrusted his judgment after he’d pushed away from the doorframe and turned around in the dirt passageway outside the alcohol den. His heart sprinted. Did Dad really see him? Did he? And now what?
The first thick volley of raindrops fell, pounding the metal roof like he’d just entered an active warzone. An unimaginable torrent came, hurled against a slate-grey sky. A deafening howl of the downpour. People and animals dashed for cover. Chickens ran with fluttered wings, clucking. Fishhead pressed his body against the wall of a shack and stood there, undecided about his next move. Rainwater slammed against the earth and rebounded, pelting and drenching him. No safe place to hide. The rain stung. He needed to rush home, but not now. He glanced behind his shoulders for Dad, but Dad may never leave the alcohol den anytime soon, sure to keep his glass refilled through the emerging spate. A rain like this kept you indoors and chilled you.
Fishhead edged his way through the tight alley, hugging walls of shacks, acknowledging residents there, all strangers to him. The downpour surrounding him for a good length of eternity. He pulled his feet forward through the shin-high flood coursing through the alley and foaming like a plague. When he reached the main road, the violent water nearly touched his knees, and he struggled to keep his flip-flops on. Traffic stalled; two rickshaws putt-putted and choked in front of the cigarette factory. A taxi cut through the water with caution.
He tilted his face to the sky and opened his mouth to drink the rain as it slapped his tongue and cheeks, his teeth, and shut eyelids. This drenching. His clothes stuck to his body and discomforted him; his dark hair went limp, splaying against the shape of his head. He thought of Mom now. His condition did not matter, she mattered. She’d get home from work hours later, but when? He had no way to reach her, and the city began to shut down slowly. His father, so removed from everything.
About the author: Ignatius Valentine Aloysius earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies, where he now teaches Advanced Writing in the Integrated Design and Strategy graduate program. He also teaches in the English department at Harold Washington College, and is a graphic designer and musician. Ignatius lives in Evanston. This story was excerpted from the original novel manuscript of Fishhead and adapted for the 9/7/2016 Third Coast Review-sponsored live lit series. Kill Your Darlings.