Memories, Nature

The Ichthyologist

“You could call me an Ichthyologist”. That was the rather grandiose statement with which I started my essay for the English language paper of my High School ICSE exams. We had been given three topics for the essay section. The first topic was the sentence “I was walking down the road when…” The second was the picture of a boy floating a paper boat in a puddle (if my memory serves me right) and the third was on a hobby. I selected the third and safe option. Our papers would go to other schools in other states for correction. Unfortunately, that year, my school got slaughtered in our English exam for reasons unbeknownst to us. I did reasonably well under the circumstances, given the carnage, but I digress!

Ichthyology is the study of fish and I took some liberty in assuming the title since I had an aquarium at home. It was a gift from my neighbor and friend, Srikanth. It was his originally and I would spend happy hours in his house watching the fish. He had black mollies and guppies, swordtails and angelfish. When we moved from Kumara Park to our own house, Srikanth gifted the aquarium and some accessories such as a fish net and rock chips for the base of the aquarium.

We were moving to an area that was yet to be developed.  I had no friends for the simple reason that there were hardly any houses in Sanjaynagar in 1981.  Unpaved roads, no water supply, no sewage.  Jackals howled in the night and snakes sloughed their skin in our garden. It felt like going back in time and for a twelve-year-old boy, it was a grand adventure.  My mother probably felt guilty that I was leaving behind a large group of friends and she acquiesced to my request to keep an aquarium.  

Bharat Aquarium at Russel Market. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Lobo)

Srikanth stayed with us in the new house for a week and I went with him to Russell Market where there was an aquarium on the first floor (second floor by US Standards). “Bharat Aquarium” always attracted my attention whenever we went shopping to Russel Market. While my dad shopped for vegetables or was at the fish market, I would steal away for a few minutes to gaze at the tanks lining the walls of the store. Srikanth’s aquarium was custom made, it was about 9”x24” and was of excellent quality. The lid had vents and a socket for a bulb.

Srikanth and I returned with plastic bags which housed guppies, mollies and platies. Inexpensive fish, attractive and good for a beginner. The owner had poured water into a plastic bag, netted the fish and put them expertly in the bag. He then blew air into the bag from an aerator, tied the top and handed the bag to us. In preparation for the arrival of the fish, we had washed sand and rinsed it till the water ran clear. The sand then went into the base of the tank, interspersed with rock chips for decoration. The tank was then filled with water. When we got home, we released the fish into the tank. Freed from the confines of the plastic bag they swam around inquisitively exploring their new habitat. My tank was initially bare, no plants but I took a couple of decorative corals which were in our curio cabinet and set them down in the base of the aquarium. We also bought fish food from Bharat Aquarium, it was a faintly sweet-smelling powder that the fish seemed to enjoy.

I was a novice and completely at sea, but Srikanth also gave me a book along with the aquarium, The Pan Book of the Home Aquarium by John S. Vinden, F.Z.S. The book was a veritable bible on fish and aquariums. I poured over the book and its illustrations. Written primarily for an English audience, it nevertheless had a lot of interesting information that I devoured. I learned about gravid spots in guppies and bubble nests built by Siamese fighting fish. I learned that I could trick a Siamese fighter fish into thinking it was confronting a rival by placing a mirror in front of the tank.  The ensuing show of aggression was a spectacle.

My go-to aquarium book!

Aquariums were not very common when I was growing up and when I did see one, it was usually a solitary tank with goldfish and other common fish. We had family friends called the Pailurs and Mr Pailur was passionate about fish. When the family moved from Kumara Park to Matthikere, Mr. Pailur constructed several tanks in his backyard and filled them with a variety of fish. I would normally refuse to accompany my mother when she visited her friends. However, I would gladly visit the Pailurs. Besides the tanks in the backyard, he had several aquariums indoors. I would spend the afternoon walking from one tank to another observing the fish. I could identify several of them thanks to the book that I had at home. The ones I couldn’t I would ask Mr. Pailur when he returned home from work.

Over time, I got a little adventurous and started stocking my aquarium with other fish. Tiger Barbs, Siamese fighters, Blue Gouramis, Kissing Gouramis and Kuhli loaches. The loaches were bottom dwellers. Nocturnal in nature, they were scavengers and served the useful function of cleaning the bottom of the tank. I introduced a few rocks with enough space for them to hide during the day. There was excitement when the guppy reproduced. I had observed the gravid spot growing larger and darker by the day and one morning there were minuscule guppies darting around in the aquarium. I called my parents and my brother and excitedly broke the news to them. When I returned home from school, I went to the tank expectantly and was surprised to find that their numbers had decreased significantly. The puzzle was solved when I saw a parent chase one of the fry and gobble the hapless victim. After that, I moved the female out into a separate bottle, letting the fry grow up a little before transferring them back to the aquarium.

My visits to Bombay were always exciting but now they were even more exciting since my cousin Bab also had an aquarium.  We would visit the stores in Juhu to pick up supplies or to gaze at the fish.  It was on one of my trips there that I ended up buying an aerator for my tank.  Aerators were quite expensive in Bangalore and I found one at a store in Juhu for what seemed to be a reasonable price – Rs 30.  It was still a princely sum of money.  I had about Rs 22 on me, Bab generously offered Rs 5  but we were still short.  The shop keeper was unmoved.  I desperately searched my pockets for loose change and so did Bab and we were probably a couple of Rupees short when the shopkeeper relented and I happily bore the trophy home.

When I returned to Bangalore, I hooked up the aerator and the sudden spurt of bubbles scared the fish away. They gradually got used to the aerator and would swim nonchalantly past the bubbles. I tried to construct homemade filters that would work in tandem with the aerator but my efforts were not entirely successful. In the meantime, I found a new ally in my classmate and friend Vijay who had moved into the neighborhood. He managed to convince his parents to invest in a tank and was soon the proud owner of a fairly large tank. He literally took to the aquarium like a fish takes to water! Vijay started with the usual fish but then moved onto more exotic species. He achieved the rare distinction of breeding Angelfish in captivity in his tank at home. This was no mean feat! On Saturdays, after our weekly tests, Vijay and I would visit Sea Birds aquarium, the new store that had opened in Shivajinagar. We would buy mollies, tiger barbs, gouramis or neon tetras. We also bought worms as food for the fish. These were usually a smelly ball of worms that wriggled incessantly and were put in a smaller bag filled with water. We would take the commuter bus home, carefully protecting the covers while bemused passengers asked us questions about the fish. Fortunately for us, the plastic covers never ruptured.

Aquarium with Mollies and Tetras. Notice the jar of fish food to the right. (Photo courtesy of Arvind Shenoy)

The guppies bred prolifically in my tank.  Over time, I achieved some success with the mollies and platies.  I had introduced plants by now, Amazon sword plant, Vallisneria and Cabomba (commonly called fanwort).  These provided hiding places for the fry.  However, the reproductive habits of the Siamese Fighters (Betta Splendens, commonly called Bettas in the US) was very interesting.  The males are usually extravagantly colored compared to the females.  The courtship and mating ritual involves the male spreading fins, flaring gills and twisting sharply all designed to attract the female.  If the female is willing,  the male builds a bubble nest, by blowing bubbles at the surface of the tank and forming a floating nest.  After mating, the male retrieves the fertilized eggs and places them in the nest.  Ironically, the female will eat the eggs if given a chance and is often chased away by the male or even killed sometimes.  The male then tends to the nest, retrieving any eggs that sink to the bottom and placing them back into the nest until the eggs hatch.   While siamese fighters lay eggs, guppies, mollies, platies and swordtails are livebearers.  

I learned a fair bit over time. The book introduced me to the anatomy of fish including dorsal fins, caudal fins and adipose fins. I learned about the habitats, food and mating habits of fish. Terms such as milt, mulm, cichlids and fin rot. If you guessed semen of male fish, detritus that settles at the bottom of the tank, a genus of fish and a disease that afflicts fish, then you guessed right! The last one was particularly devastating. The stores sold some “medicine” which was likely iodine. The affected fish had to be quarantined in a separate jar and treated with the solution. If the fish survived, it was reintroduced into the tank. I had an assortment of glass jars in the bathroom that served the dual functions of a quarantine ward and a maternity ward!

Cleaning the tank was fairly laborious. I changed water periodically and once every few months, I had to empty the tank and clean it. I would line up a couple of buckets filled with water and using a net, transfer the fish from the aquarium to the buckets. Mishaps would happen. Blue Gouramis were aggressive and could rip a net. Kuhli loaches were particularly hard to net. These eel-like fish, about 2 inches long, would dart at high speeds and just when I thought I had cornered one, it would find the smallest of gaps and slither away. When all the fish were transferred and accounted for, I would cover the bucket with a cardboard. Experience had taught me that some fish were skittish and would jump out of the bucket. The tank was emptied and cleaned thoroughly with an old toothbrush without using any cleaners or chemicals. The sand would be transferred into a separate bucket. I would pour warm water and clean the sand thoroughly. I would then clean the rocks, shells and coral and replace everything back as it was. After filling up the tank with water, I would scoop out sand and place the plants. The fish would go in at the end. We had well water, so chlorine content of water was never an issue.

I would feed the fish commercially available fish food. This was usually desiccated egg yolks or powdered dried shrimp. One had to balance the amount of feed to ensure that the fish were not overfed and that the extra food would not settle and rot at the bottom of the tank. The carnivorous fish definitely preferred live worms. A wriggling mass of black worms cost fifty paise. They stank and I would place them in a separate jar outside the house. The water had to be replaced frequently. I would transfer a small quantity into a feeder that was attached to the side of the aquarium at the water level. The feeder was perforated and the unfortunate wriggling worms that found their way out of the perforations would be snatched by the fish. Tiger barbs, blue gouramis and siamese fighters also ate minced chicken, swatted mosquitoes or chopped earthworms. I never kept Oscars. A member of the Cichlid family, they usually preyed on smaller fish. One day, my brother decided to test if the fish could be conditioned. We started tapping the cover of the aquarium before feeding them. Soon they would rise up to the surface in anticipation of food if we tapped the cover. That was my practical introduction to the theory of Pavlovian response!

An excerpt from the book. These are the fish that I started off with

Resources were few. We relied on knowledge passed onto us by shop keepers or other enthusiasts we met at the aquariums. The British Council Library had a couple of good books with glossy pictures. My school libraries had encyclopedias but these did not focus on aquariums. Sometime around 1982 or 1983, the Government aquarium opened its doors. It is situated near Cubbon Park and is one of the largest aquariums in India. Vijay and I would drop in on Saturdays after school and spend a couple of hours there. The entry fee was minimal and it boasted a collection that was not found in the local shops. We would often meet other fish enthusiasts there. The aquarium, which is still around, focusses on freshwater tropical fish and is not as large as the aquariums that I have visited in the US. It however houses a large variety of fish.

There were two large tanks (“keres” as they are known in the local language, Kannada) in the Sanjaynagar area in the early 1980s. These were subsequently drained and converted to housing colonies. The present ISRO complex is situated on land that was once a tank. A short distance from this tank was an abandoned house with a large open well. This well had a thriving colony of Singapore Fantail guppies. Guppies were the cheapest fish available at aquariums. Some people in fact stocked them in aquariums as they bred reliably almost every month and their fry served as food for other fish. Singapore fantails, depending on how fancy they were, were more expensive. Their tail fins (caudal fins) were shaped like a fan and colored brilliantly. Think of the patterns that arise from marbling fabrics. I introduced a couple of fantails in my aquarium but the tiger barbs sensing new prey, nipped at their fantails biting chunks off. I reluctantly returned them to the environs of the well.

I kept up with the aquarium until I left home for my undergrad. My mother took care of the aquarium for a couple of years. When the last inhabitant, the kuhli loach, died after 9 years in the tank, she gave the aquarium away. My interest had waned by then. I forgot about aquariums till my daughter was about three. She was at the age when lizards and frogs still fascinated her and she would beg to be taken to pet stores such as PetSmart or PetCo. This was a whole new world for me as it was for her. I would excitedly point out black mollies, neon tetras, oscars, kissing gourami and angelfish to her. I was impressed by the variety of accessories that were available here, all reasonably priced. I decided to set up an aquarium once again at home. I started researching the size of tanks, the types of fish to keep, the feed etc. I bought a book at Barnes & Noble. I also reached out to Vijay who was now doing his fellowship in the US and still going strong with the hobby. He passed on some valuable tips. However, in the end, I dropped the idea. At that time, we would visit India for four weeks at a stretch and even though automated feeders are available, I was just not confident about them.

I visited Vijay last year. He used to have large tanks but had since given them away. A busy cardiologist, he found keeping up with the hobby time-consuming. He had pursued the hobby much longer and more seriously than I had. When he had his tanks here in the US, he had bought some exotic varieties from breeders across the country. We reminisced about the old times recalling our trips to Sea Birds and Bharat Aquarium. “That book you had was something else,” he said. “I’ve read a lot of books since then but that was the best”. He was referring to the book that Srikanth had given me. I agreed. The book has been lost now. I searched for the book on and off on Amazon as well as Abebooks but it was not available. Last month, while searching for a book on K.L. Saigal, I searched for the book by John Vinden and there it was on Amazon! The shipping cost way more than the price of the book, it had to be shipped from the UK. I went ahead and ordered the book.

The book arrived last Friday. It was just as I had remembered it. An original edition with yellowing pages but in excellent condition. I immediately took a picture of it and sent it to Srikanth who had gifted me the book and to Vijay, who hastened to place an order himself. Another picture went to my brother. Srikanth, who now lives in Australia, replied that he missed keeping tropical fish but has an outdoor pond with a couple of Koi. My brother, who had shared the same interest, replied stating it was a huge trip down memory lane for him. I’ve skimmed through the book and what stands out to me is that it really is a simple book with no frills. It is packed with information and simple sketches. The books available today have glossy pictures and great quality paper but they don’t hold the same appeal to me. Perhaps its just nostalgia!

The internet is a veritable treasure trove of information but there was no internet then. This book was all we had whenever we had any questions or doubts. I had read it cover to cover a couple of times and knew a lot of the contents by heart at that point in time. I don’t think it qualified me as an Ichthyologist by any stretch of the imagination but amongst the sea of essays that a harried teacher had to grade, I figured it would be a line that would stand out and perhaps capture his or her attention. It probably did, I suspect most of the students wrote about stamp or coin collections. I was never an Ichthyologist, at best I was a fish keeper. I would, however, prefer John Vinden’s description, a budding aquarist!

  • The picture of Bharat Aquarium is courtesy of Ryan Lobo who kindly consented to allow me to use the picture from his article on Bidoun.
  • The pictures of aquariums used here are courtesy of my cousin, Arvind Shenoy, who graciously sent me a number of pictures and videos.  I don’t have a single picture of my aquarium.  Camera phones are ubiquitous now but we did not have a camera at home when I was growing up.   
  • The featured image for this blog is one of Arvind’s tanks dedicated to Cichlids.  I had a long and interesting conversation with him this morning regarding fish and equipment.  A lot has changed since I had my aquarium in the 1980s but the fascination and enthusiasm endures!

2 thoughts on “The Ichthyologist

  1. For someone who is still at sea when it cones to fish and aquariums, you held my attention bro. Love to read your blogs.

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