Taken from the autobiography, ‘An Unusual Freshwater Fish.’
Chapter 1, Prologue and The Bond Begins
Everyone that we came to know told us—give him away.
When we made the choice to relocate to Thailand, we needed help. And we asked for it in many places. I guess what we learned was that we should have gone to Arya to tell us what to do. Arya was already big at that time – he was about 1.5 meters. So, when we made the choice to relocate as a family of four—plus my mum meant five – we knew we had a challenge ahead. We had dreams of paradise, a Jungle Book world to live in where my two children could feed the elephants, and my husband and I could live in that harmony we pictured so many times. A harmony that we felt we deserved. We wanted to leave the city and be with our pets in the countryside of Thailand, and we couldn’t stop dreaming of it.
To relocate meant we had two choices: Relocate the family without the pets, or with them. We made the choice to go with them, all 15 of them. For cats and dogs it was quite easy: you get the export permit, then you get the import permit – straightforward – but for Arya, we really had a challenge ahead. He was the biggest hurdle, because nobody wanted to help us move an arapaima gigas, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish… on a plane.
When we bought Arya from the breeder, he was 30 cm, but by the time we moved him, he was huge… and he was heavy. The breeder said not to do it, and that we were taking ‘very big risk’. The hurdle was – he is a fish. ‘You can’t just put him in a cage like a dog, move him and land,’ Mr Yeo told us. So everyone said to give him away and let him be safe in Singapore. The choice was, say goodbye to Arya and move to Thailand without him, or try – knowing the potential hurdles – to go for it.
The decision we made initiated a chain of events that would change our lives forever. What we came to know was that Arya is somehow bonded with us. And that he’s not just a normal fish, and in fact – he’s not a fish at all. He is a spirit, and there is a connection between him and us. The connection began long ago, long before we chose to move Arya. The connection began, I suppose, when I was seven years old, growing up as an Indian girl in Singapore.
Animals have been in my life from a young age, they’re with me in my genes I guess and I have always felt so very close to them, so I started feeding the strays from the time I got my pocket money, at the age of seven. I never used that money for myself, oh no no no, I’d always keep it, and spend it on food for the animals.
On the way back home from my school I would see a lot of street cats in Singapore, so I’d buy cans of sardines from the shops, rush home to cook the rice, mix the sardines in and I’d start feeding. This was Bukit Batok in Singapore. The year was 1984.
I grew up as the youngest in a large family and so I was always going to the shops for my older brothers and sister to run errands, and I was happy with this, as I’d get to buy things for the cats. When I’d see a cat meowing on the street, I’d have to do something, and the feeling was natural to me. So normally, this would mean buying Ikan Bilis – a type of dried salted small fish.
At that time I already had two dogs, many birds, and many fish also, so the home was very crowded, especially with all of my brothers being there, and some of them didn’t like the animals that I had. There were even arguments over the animals and Mum would have to come and cool me down. I was passionate about them, and siding with them over my own family even as a child! I guess because the bond was this strong!
My eldest brother (by sixteen years) took us out to eat at a restaurant, on one fine day in Malaysia, and I saw the Arapaima for the first time in my life. There was a small pond at this particular restaurant, with knee-high water, and a very huge fish in it. I was instantly mesmerised. I was in awe of this giant fish. It was very calming, and peaceful to look at and be close to, and one thing that I had noticed… people were throwing coins at it.
Chinese people believe this fish to bring us good luck and they call it a Giant Dragon Fish and someone who believes in feng shui will be sure to pray to the Arapaima. You can find this fish in Chinese temples, I would later learn, but I didn’t know any of this information at this young age; I was just fascinated by the size and calmness of him. He was a gentle beast indeed, and there was a harmony to the experience that seemed to imprint in my being. Perhaps it was a bit girly, but I wanted to hug and cuddle him! I was drawn to touch him but I couldn’t. A lifelong fascination with this magical creature had begun—and I dreamed of having one someday.
My brothers all married and moved away, and my adopted sister went to stay with my grandmother. My life became more peaceful as a result: as it became just me, my mum and my pets. My mum (Mummy) was a cleaner of the road, so she was a hard worked, and was not a big earner. Even still, we had an apartment together, and even though she was sweeping and earning little, she never stopped me feeding the animals throughout the city – like the stray cats. Yes, we were poor but there was always money for the strays, and Mummy never restricted it. If a bird had fallen from a tree, was paralysed with legs stretched and in need of help, Mummy would give the money so I could help little birdie. This happened many times growing up, in Bukit Batok.
I wasn’t close with my father, but I did see him from time to time – feeding the birds. Like I was saying, I think it would be true to say that my connection with the animal world was and is, in my genes and if I didn’t feed, I would feel very guilty and I think my father also. Mum too – when she was sweeping – if she came across a chick, having fallen from a tree, she would bring it back. Initially she taught me how to feed in her own style… and after that I did my own way. Mum would use a cloth and wet the chicken food and squeeze, whereas I would turn the chicken food into tiny balls and feed them in this way, so I had my own approach, and I saved so many tiny birds who I could feed: such as sparrows, green pigeons, and doves – then – if they were able and strong – I’d let them go, but if they were paralysed, they’d come home with me. Some of these birds would come to stay with me for eighteen years: up to the time I married! Apart from the birds and cats, I had dogs, including rescue dogs and many fishes. People I knew would buy a lot of fish and stick them in tanks, but they would not clean the tanks very well. I would end up volunteering, cleaning them through and feeding the fishes properly. It would be fair to say that my whole life was moving around my pets, other people’s pets and the stray animals of Singapore.
I had friends but I was not interested in being on the phone talking about trivial things – going ‘out’ and including myself in the entertaining activities that normal people would at my age. I didn’t really have anyone my age to talk to also – I only had my pets, and I found that I could relate to them more than to the people. I felt comfortable with animals and when I’d cry, they’d come and sit beside me. Having so many animals pushed me to become mature and responsible from a young age and I received unconditional love from my pets which was highly nourishing for me, and I wanted to give this back, which I did. I often wondered though, why I was like I was. Why am I not like other people? I would sometimes wonder.
I was a very observant child. I watched how my mum was living her life, struggling and quarrelling with my dad, how my brothers’ marriages and lives were going, how money was an issue in everybody’s lives and I observed all of this and I would feel scared at times. I started praying to Mother Kali as a result. My mum introduced me to her (Mummy always used to pray to Kali) and she has played a significant role in my life since before I was born. Mum, you see, always wanted a daughter, so after four sons, she adopted my sister, but it wasn’t enough for her – so she decided to go to the Kali temple to ask for one. And then I was born.
When I was born, Mummy was thirty-five years old, and she took me to the Kali temple to ask for ‘blessings’ for me but something wrong had happened. My dad had already registered my name as Shanthi without consulting Mummy! At the time I am told, the priest was in a trance (the spirit of the god was in him) and he asked my mother: ‘Have you named the baby?’
‘Yes, her name is Shanti,’ Mummy answered. But the priest got angry.
‘You came to me for a daughter and I gave you one and you didn’t name her after me?’ he said. It was Kali who was speaking to Mummy through the priest. My mum apologised, telling the priest that it wasn’t her fault, and that her husband had registered the name without her knowing. Immediately, the priest wrote two names: Kail Ma, and Ooma Devi (another name for Kali). He let Mummy pick one, and she picked Kali Ma, and that’s what Mum calls me to this day, and all my family and my relatives – but not my dad. So… as well as my mum and my pets, I was always with Mother Kali. I was very close to her indeed. Yes, you could say: she was like a friend whom I could share anything with. My sorrows, my happiness – I’d speak to her about it all.
At the age of eleven; after a trip to Malaysia with Mummy, I decided to become a vegetarian (we would take the train to Penang in Malaysia every school holiday in June and December while I was in primary school). Mummy had some relations there in Malaysia. The train trip was 800km from Singapore – which was fourteen hours of travel: but I always looked forward to it. We used to go with Mummy’s sister and her children. Tea and coffee would be prepared, as well as rice and fried food. It never got boring for me. On one trip, I saw lorries carrying a lot of chickens in very tight crates and in each crate, they would pack so many chickens and I didn’t like this at all. In fact, I kept seeing such lorries and trucks and I would try not to look, as I would feel very guilty. In the corner of my heart, I knew that the chickens were enduring all of this for me – because I would eat the chicken. So, eventually I made the decision to become a vegetarian. Because of my love for animals, I couldn’t eat them anymore.
Another trip that influenced my life in a great way was when I went to India for the first time. We went for two weeks. We visited Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the village where Mummy was from in Chennai, and my grandparent’s hometown – Kari Kuddi.
We visited Hindu temples, such as Tirupati up on the hill, and other very famous pilgrimage temples, and it was here, in India that I realised how grateful I was for things. I thought I was poor over in Singapore, walking the streets and living with Mummy… until my eyes saw such poverty. Back in Singapore, I came to see, we in fact had all of the facilities, but in India, people don’t. I learnt to treasure and respect things after this. When I came back to Singapore, I said thank you for my bed, my private toilet, and the roof over my head. Even for the fan, as I had endured such incredible hotness in India. I became very grateful for the small things.
At thirteen years old, I went through some drastic measures to save a cat. Sometimes when Mum was sweeping the road, she would need to go inside the drain in order to clean it out, and I would help her. She would give me the litter and I would take it up from inside the drain.
On one fine day, when she requested me to go down one morning, I passed through my block and there was a cat sat in the second story (two and a half stories in fact) and it was meowing. I thought, okay – maybe it belongs to someone and they will go down and get it… so I let it be, went to meet Mum and came back hours later. Well… it was still there, and this would certainly not do. Something got into me that the cat was not able to get down, that she was in fact stuck! I didn’t think straight and felt that she needed saving. There were so many blocks of flats, that there were bound to be people watching, and I didn’t want to be reported, but I didn’t care how many people were watching, I needed to help the little one. I climbed up and got to the cat, and put her the right way around, so she could jump down nicely. The cat was fine—but I was stuck! And the only choice left for me—was to jump.
I had sacrificed myself for the cat without knowing, and you could say, quite irresponsibly. I had no choice and I jumped from a two-story building and I was covered in bruises – and my trousers were torn. It happened so fast and it hurt so terribly. Later that day I thought back about that event, and how fast it all happened: but when I thought back, I was somehow able to slow down the experience and recall it again. One thing I was able to notice in my memory, was that after I got the cat to a safe place, it looked at me saying, ‘Oh you have saved me, but what about you?’ It didn’t run immediately. It paused first, and looked at me, ‘Go!’ I signalled to it, and I jumped. On another occasion (down in a drain that was taller than me), I heard kittens crying and it was about to rain. I asked my dad for help to accompany me to the drain but he said no, as ‘there could be snakes and centipedes’. I went, nonetheless. There were so many incidences such as this that made me what I am now and I never regretted any of it. To me, life was perfect and it continued in this perfect way, all through my teenage years and up to my twenties.
When I began working, I was eventually able to buy a car, which was great, because it meant I could drive even further to look after animals, like the dogs in the jungle areas. Mum would do her part by cooking and preparing the food while I was working. It was all a bit hectic but I’d rush back during lunch hours, load up the boot with the food and head out to feed the strays: and then I’d go back to work! This continued for many years, and all the extra cash that I had went into feeding stray pups and buying packets of milk for them. Sometimes in the city, buildings were being constructed and the sites were covered in workers, so the city could be dangerous and difficult for my mum and me, so sometimes, we would wait until the night, and go out into the rain. Mum used to make holes in black bags and we would wear them over our heads. We would go out into the night looking like ghosts to feed the cats and stray dogs, carrying packs of food. Two girls pushing a trolley full of food up a slippy hill in the rainy night wearing black bags must have been quite a sight to any onlookers, but we didn’t care: it was about feeding the animals of Singapore. Sometimes we’d have to be careful of the snakes.
There were times when we were without a car, so we would hire a private taxi all the way to Johor in Malaysia, (which is cheaper to buy dog food) and we would load up the car and travel all the way back with five, six, seven, (huge) twenty kilo packets each. Sometimes we were asked by the taxi driver if we had a shop!! Mummy paid for all of this. Food, electricity – she managed it all on her tiny wage. Sometimes she would borrow, and pay back, but she managed.
At around this time, perhaps because I was growing up, I noticed my prayers to Mother Kali began to change. I began to say to her that ‘my mum has to be with me until I’m married and until I have kids,’ and I noticed myself saying such things. ‘If I get married,’ I would say, ‘then the person has to accept my mother, my kids, and my pets.’
And it all happened like this—like a fairy tale.