Exotic stories of the orient speak of ponds of golden carps, tell of a beautiful princess who, dressed in the richest of gold silk embroidered with pearls and precious jewels, falls in love with a giant golden carp. He is transformed into a prince, his iridescent scales becoming priceless gems, and they live happily every after.
Our golden carp are greedy monsters, fighting and thrashing through the water, swimming over, under, and practically through each other to get at handfuls of rice, chepattis, and French fries thrown at them by the kitchen staff.
Standing on the sunny breakwater, trying to warm a body frozen by a breakfast exposure to an unheated restaurant, I ask, “Why do these carp come for food, and those don’t?” I point first toward the swarming fish, then at a huge school of smaller ones—all facing upstream, with their tails to us. No matter how close the food comes to them, I’ve noticed, they don’t move.
Across the narrow waterway, a flood plain of boulders runs another twenty to thirty yards before reaching the far bank where a group of lemurs play in the trees and amongst the root structures that reach down toward the rocks. The white hairs circling their faces flash as they move, making it look, at this distance, as though they’re wearing hijab.
“A kingfisher,” one of the young men says in English. “See.”
I see. It flits up the river, its wings a vivid blue against the solid green hills. It lands in a large tree and is lost. Unlike its name, the kingfisher is not the huge bird one would imagine, but a small thing—about the size of my fist. What he lacks in size, though, he makes up for in visibility.
A flock of egrets come next, wheeling and turning in a brilliant display of ever-changing white patterns painted on a blue sky. They land, taking up positions on rocks along the far shore, looking like stylized question marks.
And on the subject of questions, I’d forgotten mine about the fish when one of the staff—he tells me his name is Amal or maybe it’s spelled Hamal or with some other variant. Amal says that some of the carp are Black Carp and some are Golden. “Yes. This gold carp.” He points. “This black carp. Yes.” Which is meant to explain everything.
And leads to the next question. Why? But having already tested my ability to simplify English and the budding naturalists’ ability to understand both my vocabulary and accent, I abandon the effort. Some things are best left a mystery.
Warm, now, I leave the carp, both the swarming and stationary varieties, to their breakfast—none of these fish, I fear, will ever make a prince—and climb the hill. Next on our schedule is an elephant safari on a lovely great beast named Lakshmi. Perhaps we’ll see a bear?