‘DO NOT TOUCH THE HOLY FISH’. The sign greets visitors to an obscure holy site slumbering on the muddy street of an out-of-the-way village in Kashmir, India. I use the plural ‘visitors’ by the barest of margins – my buddy Matt and I are the only people for the caretaker’s suspicious gaze to follow.
We wander briefly between large, unadorned concrete pools filled with fish. What makes these fish holy? Are all of them holy? Maybe they’re mostly bog-standard ‘lay’ fish, with just some especially sacred versions mixed in?
It’s an odd place. But satisfyingly quirky, and with a touch of that difficult to describe but most excellent feeling of suddenly noticing that, out of every place on Earth, you’re somewhere which for you is truly distant and atypical.
We glean little and leave largely mystified. For me, it typifies the oddities that I’ve encountered in each religion I’ve spent time with. That in the foothills of a distant mountain range, the devoted live convinced they’ve got a couple tanks full of swimming divinities. And yet for the unknowing seven billion other men and women, life moves along all the same.
While the divine and spectacular naturally draw the traveller’s attention, this sign, this place, represents more than that. It’s a little yellow tin prompt to connect, for a fleeting moment, with a stranger’s world. Our lives aren’t the stuff of miraculous events, of monuments and museums, or of natural wonders. Our lives are a succession of days and moments, filled almost entirely with the mundane.
For example, here – on a presumably unremarkable day – the thought arose in someone’s mind that there could be a problematic level of holy fish touching. Time passed. A decision was made that the problem would be eased by a sign. Appropriate warnings were proposed, and one chosen. Translations were sourced into other languages, the number of which balanced size with comprehensiveness. Fonts selected, and colours. And eventually one day a man decided it was the moment to begin mounting it to the appropriate site, consciously or unconsciously opting for the method of attachment they felt would work best.
So mundane, so irrelevant to the world at large, and so intriguingly different to the mundanity of my own life. Both inherently, and equally, valuable. A whole other world which buzzes on unknowing and independent of my existence, and that I would never have experienced even this tenuously if not for a yellow tin prompt.
As it turns out, one little sign can say a lot.
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