‘Is this Ompal Singh Bagga?’
The lady on the phone pronounced his name perfectly. He deduces that it was someone calling from a call centre in India.
‘Call me Paul,’ he says.
Ompal Singh Bagga had been calling himself ‘Paul’ since he got an internal transfer to the Greater Los Angeles Area at the IT company he was working for.
‘I’m calling for your subscription of the Marine Biology Monthly magazine. Would you like to renew your annual subscription?’ Asks the woman in a fake American accent.
Paul pauses for a moment and starts fantasizing again, how life would have been if he had been a marine biologist and not a software engineer. Paul always wanted to be a marine biologist, but when he completed high school in 1998, he was forced by his parents, and the Indian economic environment, to study computer engineering.
‘Sure. Go ahead and renew my subscription.’
After the telephonic conversation, Paul looks at his watch. Even though it’s 8:00 p.m., which is much before his bedtime, Paul goes and lies on his bed and rests his head on the inclined pillow of the cushioned bedhead.
Paul is dating Lucy, a German-descent barista, who loves to read. Lucy had recommended many books to Paul, but Paul never read any. He would rather watch the National Geographic Channel. The last reading suggestion Lucy offered Paul was Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, and Paul actually bought the book and planned to read it, as a sweet gesture towards Lucy.
‘Let’s see what you’re all about,’ he says, looking at the novella lying next to him on his bed.
Paul picks up the book and starts reading it. In a matter of moments Paul is completely submerged.
He feels that the sun is just too bright at the break of dawn, the next morning. It shouldn’t be during this time of the year, even in the beach town of Santa Monica. He looks at the wall clock and realizes that he has slept for only three hours. He was reading till late in the night, and had completed the novella.
Out of habit, Paul brings his hands together and tries to crack his knuckles to relax himself and get back into the slumber. But his fingers keep slipping from one another when he applies pressure to reach the relieving, but sharp, popping sound. Paul also realizes that his hands are much more rigid than usual, as if he is touching chinaware.
Paul brings his hand, or what someone may call a limb he possessed in a state of human-to-aquatic-life-transformation, towards his face. He notices that his fingers, from the tip of the fingernail to the start of the knuckle, are joined together with a thick unsmooth adhesive-like substance. He looks under his t-shirt and observes the outline of symmetrical rhombus-shaped grooves on his skin. It looks like someone has cut these symmetrical rhombuses on his body with a razorblade. Paul also finds more grooves, in parallel lines, right beneath his neck, like the radiator grill of an old Chrysler.
He just wants to go to sleep again.
‘It’s going to be alright when I wake up, I’m just tired.’
No matter how hard he tries to close his eyes, he cannot avoid the sun’s rays. Irritated, he tries to put his hands over his eyes. But surprisingly, his arms are getting shorter and his elbows are getting weaker by the minute. And then, just as he touches his closed eyes, the super thin membrane of what he has left of his eyelids comes peeling off. It sticks to his incessantly bone-density-decreasing hand, like the thin outer skin of an onion.
‘OK, so I have lost my eyelids now. My skin is getting harder and scaly; the bones on my limbs are getting weaker. It is quite obvious – I’m undergoing a Kafkaesque transformation into a fish. What I don’t understand is, if I am turning into a fish, and I can see the outline of my gills-in-formation beneath my neck, how can I still Brea-’
Suddenly Paul feels his chest tightening and a severe shortness of breath. He starts coughing and wheezing.
‘Ah, there it is.’
He had suffered a lot of asthmatic attacks since childhood. He had the experience to cope with a situation like this and not hyperventilate.
Coughing, limping and sometimes wriggling, Paul reaches the bathroom. He plugs the Jacuzzi drain and lets multiple outlets of water thrust out into the Jacuzzi as fast as they can. He rolls himself into the bathtub and places his neck right in the middle of the numerous jets of water and takes a long breath.
With the Jacuzzi now half full, Paul is, at least for an instant, relieved, breathing heavily with his upper half completely submerged in water. His arms and legs have reduced to half their original size and possess a quarter of their original bone matter.
After about half a minute, the parts of his body that have been submerged in water start pinching him acutely. Paul thinks it might be the water pressure from the Jacuzzi outlets, but he notices the dark orange-coloured liquid mixture of pus and blood filling the bathtub. He knows the blood cells of the submerged part of his transforming body are exploding. ‘
‘But, why? Water should be my friend.’
Paul comprehends that he needs to go to a hospital otherwise he will die due to excessive bleeding. He understands that even if his limbs turn into a boneless mass, his remaining bone structure would remain intact, even when the transformation is complete. Fish have strong bones with respect to their body mass. He considers calling an ambulance, or someone who could give him a ride to the hospital, but knows that his skin is bleeding excessively and is most possibly infected, so he doesn’t have the time.
The Santa Monica Hospital is just a five-minute drive away, and Paul comes up with an idea to drive himself there. Holding his breath and rolling himself out of the bathtub, he wriggles and slides his way around the bathroom into the hallway. With his body, he pushes the side table on which he keeps his car key. His electronic fob car key falls down, and to his surprise, he catches the key mid-air with his legs, which have now fused into one small triangular and very thin tail fin.
He has now started to understand the new features of his body, and wants the transformation to be complete. He swiftly wriggles and crawls to his front yard and dips his face, and up to one-third of his upper body, into the almost-full pail of water that he always keeps for the birds to drink. His car is in the driveway, on the side to the pail. The water in the pail, although letting him breathe, hurts like salt on his wounds.
Using his skinny tail fin, Paul taps on the electronic fob key to unlock and open the car door in the driveway right next to the pail. He picks up the pail of water with his mouth and places it on the leg-space area of the front passenger seat. He takes another one-third body-dip into the pail of water and then uses his lower body to push himself onto the driver’s seat. He pushes the ignition button and puts the automatic gearbox into ‘drive’ with his mouth and then places his fish-face mouth on the steering wheel. He pushes the button on the fob car key that shuts the front doors of his expensive car automatically. He puts the car in motion by pressing on the accelerator with his tail fin. He manages to drive into the street that leads to the Santa Monica Pier Bridge. Paul applies the brake with his fin and stops the car in the middle of the road and takes another dip into the pail.
He knows that all he needs to do is cross the pier bridge to get to hospital.
Paul also notices that the blood on the lower part of his body, which has not been in contact with water for a while, has now clotted. He concurs that it definitely was the water that is making him bleed.
‘But again, why?’
Paul feels breathless while driving. Even though the hospital is just a couple of minutes away, he can’t hold his breath for one more second. He stops the car in the middle of the busy pier bridge to take a fast dip into the pail of water placed on the floor mat by the seat on his right. He feels good that he doesn’t have to shift gears.
‘Thankfully I bought an automatic. The car is worth its price.’
Suddenly, he feels a strong jerk due to a loud crash at the back of his car. His fish-face knocks onto the windscreen and then jerks back into his seat’s headrest. Although, his car is still being pushed. Even though he is in a state of pain and dizziness, Paul catches a glimpse of the out-of-control 18-wheel truck behind him that is pushing him towards the edge of the pier bridge. He realizes that he shouldn’t have stopped in the middle of the road.
Paul’s car breaks through the metal scaffolding on the pier bridge and falls into the ocean. His car starts filling with water. Paul knows this is the end. And then the windscreen breaks and a wave of seawater hits him.
‘This is it. This is the end.’
But after Paul recovers from the hard smash of seawater to his body, he notices that he hasn’t felt better all day. The water is healing his skin. His breathing has also improved. Paul, now fully transformed, swims out of the broken windshield as if he had been doing this since he was a baby. He rides the ocean currents faster than he could ever imagine. Instantly, he understands.
‘Of course, I’ve always wanted to be a marine biologist. Therefore, I’m a sea-water fish, not a fresh-water fish.’