Free From School
By Rahul Alvares

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter 1: A Fish Shop in Mapusa

You must try to understand that when I finished school I was as raw as raw could be. I had never travelled anywhere on my own, never purchased a train ticket, since like most kids my age I had only travelled with my parents or relatives and they made all the decisions. I had no experience of how to handle money (my knowledge being limited to spending the 50 paise or one rupee I would receive as pocket money now and then).

So while I had set my sights on travelling far and wide my parents wisely thought that I should begin by learning to manage on my own within Goa itself. It was also the rainy season and travelling around the country would be much more difficult they explained.

So I started out by helping at an aquarium shop in Mapusa, the town nearest my village. The proprietor of the shop is Ashok D’Cruz, a college friend of my father’s. I must tell you about Ashok. He is no ordinary businessman: keeping fish is a passion with him. He is far more interested in chatting with his customers about fish than making money selling them. I have never seen him forcing any of his customers to buy from his stock of aquarium fish.

In fact, it was Ashok who introduced me to the amazing world of aquarium fish way back when I was just nine and studying in Class V. Under his guidance then, I experimented with breeding guppies, platties and mollies, fairly simple types of fish to breed. However, it was a matter of great excitement for me at that time to be successful in my experiments and Ashok was generous enough to even buy back from me the baby fish I reared just to encourage me. Later I developed sufficient confidence to experiment with and breed more difficult types of fish, like Siamese Fighting Fish and Blue Guramies-all under the expert tutelage of Ashok.

So it was to Ashok’s shop that I went every morning at 9.00 a.m., speeding on my bicycle to be on time. I would stay there until lunch time, a regular hands on, doing whatever I was asked to do.

Ashok’s shop is not very large. It is a two-roomed shop on the ground floor of the Gomes Catao complex. It has a display section in front and a store room at the back. The showroom has about twenty fish tanks on display with a variety of fish that Ashok purchases mainly from Mumbai. Each tank stores a particular species of fish. Ashok’s shop is located away from the main market area so he does not have the advantage of casual customers dropping by. However Ashok has his regular customers and there are always at least twenty to thirty customers daily.

During my first few days at his shop, my work was only to watch the tanks, clean those which were dirty, remove the dead fish and do some other small jobs. I also fed the fish and treated the wounded and diseased fish. Sometimes, I also attended to customers. Gradually, I began to accompany Ashok on his rounds to various places.

A gentleman in Moira wanted to set up an aquarium at his home. He had a tank. He also had definite ideas about how he wanted it to finally look and Ashok was called to see how it could all be done. The man sent his car for us. At his house we discussed the location of the tank, lighting arrangements, the water filters, the kind and quantity of fish he would like to have, and maintenance. After we were fully satisfied that we had everything right and had noted down his requirements, we returned to Mapusa. Later he came for the material which we kept ready for him.

Another time I accompanied Ashok to a client’s office to put a pair of Dwarf Guramies in the fish tank and to fix a picture as a backdrop for the tank. On such visits I watched care fully what Ashok did and soon enough Ashok started sending me on my own to visit some of his clients who had small or simple problems.

I went to clients to fix aquarium equipment such as air pumps and filters, to fix toys in the tanks, to check fish for diseases or if there was a sudden crisis such as fish dying in numbers, or if a client wished to add more fish to his collection. I was sent to collect overdue payments or simply to enquire the aquariums were doing. Sometimes I went on my own to visit some of the places where we had set up tanks and enjoyed watching the fish swimming happily in their new homes.

One day my employer decided to send me as a spy to find out the prices of fish and fish food at a competitive fish shop. I tried to behave like a casual customer and walked coolly into the competitor’s shop and gradually began to ask the prices of fish and fish food. After I had found out what was needed I bought a pair of cheap Black Mollies from his shop just to show him that I was a genuine customer. From the information I got, we found Ashok’s to be comparatively cheaper than the competitor.

During this period I improved my knowledge about aquarium fish tremendously. This was mainly due to two things. Firstly, I had spent a lot of time observing the fish at Ashok’s shop and getting practical experience from the places we visited. Secondly, I had been reading the fish books that my father bought for me as a gift for getting a distinction in my SSC exam. The books were quite expensive but well worth the cost. Being able to get theoretical knowledge and practical experience at the same time gave me a lot of confidence with regard to aquarium fish.

One of the important highlights of my experience at Ashok’s was learning to make fish tanks. Ashok told me that since we were going through a slack period, he would teach me how to make fish tanks. I had to start from basics which meant purchasing glass for six tanks, having the glass pieces cut to specifications and then having the pieces delivered at the shop without a scratch.

I had accompanied Ashok on several occasions earlier to the glass shop and watched as he ordered glass explaining his requirements, or having a piece re-cut because it was done wrongly. In fact, I had been sent often to the glass shop for small purchases so I was fairly familiar with the owner and the procedures. Ashok had even taught me how to calculate the price of glass. Still it was a new experience for me when Ashok handed me some money and gave me general directions on what to do and I was on my own.

I managed to purchase the glass and also to get it cut to size. So far, so good. Now came the difficult part of transporting the glass pieces to the shop. I wondered whether I should get a rickshaw for the purpose but was a little hesitant since I hadn’t checked what it would cost for the trip, short though it would be. While I was trying to make up my mind by testing the package for its weight, the shopkeeper assured me that I would be able to handcarry the glass to Ashok’s shop, which is what I finally did.

I started out. In the beginning, it was no problem. However, the package grew heavier and heavier as I trudged up the road to Ashok’s shop with rickshaws, taxis and motorcycles honking away on all sides. Even before I reached my destination I doubted the wisdom of my actions for I was tired and my arms ached but I dared not put down the glass simply because it was glass. When I finally reached the shop I heaved a sigh of relief that the glass was intact. Ashok was horrified at my decision and understandably very angry too for as he explained to me should I have had an accident on the way the consequences would have been disastrous and he was after all responsible for me! I truly learnt an important lesson that day.

Learning to make an aquarium tank is great fun. One has to first plan the size of the tank. For this one must first decide on the length of the tank. After that, the height and the breadth are to be proportionately calculated. The sides of the glass are held together with silicone, which is a glue, and which feels like rubber when it hardens. Silicone does not dissolve in water. The tricky part is being able to apply the silicone only to the edges of the glass and not letting your sticky fingers touch any other portions of the glass. Otherwise, the glass will look dirty, for the silicone marks will stay like a fingerprint on the glass forever. After the tank is resealed on the inside with silicone (to give double protection), it is left for a day to dry. The next day it is tested by filling with water and if all is well the tank is ready for sale and can be delivered to the customer.

After I was taught how to do the first tank, I started helping with the rest. I recall how once by mistake I stuck the glass upside down. “There’s something fishy about the looks of this tank,” said Ashok. When he realized what my mistake was, he very nearly put me into the tank!

My first opportunity at testing my skills at finding out the reasons for “fish dying in an aquarium” (the most common complaint from customers) came when the manager of Hotel Osborne in Calangute asked Ashok to come and examine their aquarium on the hotel premises. The fish were dying, he said. The owner of the hotel was a very good customer of Ashok’s and so Ashok was keen to solve the problem. However as he could not go himself that day and did not wish to delay matters, he decided to send me instead. He gave me the manager’s visiting card, directions to the hotel, some fish medicines and a pump to install in place of the old one which was defective and I was on my own. I was proud and happy that Ashok felt confident to entrust me with such an important job.

I left in the evening for the hotel. I found it with no problem at all. It was a large hotel with lovely lawns and a swimming pool. I walked into the hotel proudly, with my head held high, and tried to act as if I were a very experienced fish doctor. I went and met the manager. He told me which fish had died. I searched for symptoms of disease but found none. I then realised that the problem was very simple and one that is very common: a case of overfeeding. Fish require food in proportion to their size but often people put more food than necessary into the tank. The extra food makes the water cloudy and polluted and this causes the fish to die.

I cleaned the tanks, replaced the pump, checked the filters and showed the hotel staff how to feed the fish. I even managed to do some sales work by selling them some fish medicines which they could keep as standby and made a bill for them on the bill book that Ashok had given me. They seemed satisfied with my work and made me a cup of tea, which I didn’t drink because I don’t drink tea. After I had finished I couldn’t wait to tell Ashok about my experience.

During this period, I took the opportunity once to visit fish shops in Panjim which I had heard about but had not yet seen. The occasion came when my 3-gear cycle broke down and I needed to go to Panjim to get spares. I tried to persuade my mother to get them for me from Panjim since she went there often. She refused, saying that I should learn to do things on my own. That’s when I thought of making a whole-day trip to Panjim to buy the spares, visit fish shops and also make a few purchases for Ashok.

The next day, I accompanied my mum to Panjim where she showed me a few essential places and then left me on my own. I was a bit nervous but was determined to manage somehow. I first went to the Kamat restaurant to eat as I was hungry. I was amazed at how much it cost me to fill my stomach outside home! After that, I searched for a shop from where I could purchase silicone (Ashok’s errand). After a lot of asking around I found the place. Then I looked for the cycle shop, found it quickly enough but discovered that the item I wanted was out of stock and would be available only the next week.

I was then free to visit the two fish shops I had in mind: “Bislin” and “Something Fishy”. Bislin was well stocked and had many types of exotic fish but I found it very expensive. I chatted with the people who ran the shop (it is a family business). They also kept birds for sale. After watching the fish for sometime I decided to go to Something Fishy which was just around the corner. At Something Fishy, I was disappointed at first sight to see very few fish. The shop assistant told me that as they were expecting fish the following weekend almost all their tanks were empty. But what I saw remaining in the display tank amazed me. I saw man-eating piranhas with my own eyes for the first time in my life! However, the piranhas were quite timid and shy. Apparently, it is only when they are kept hungry that they become ferocious meat-eaters. Something Fishy also had exotic fish called Black Ghost which sold at Rs.3000 a pair!

Apart from learning about fish at Ashok’s shop I gained a lot of other valuable experience.

I had never done banking before. But one day Ashok casually asked me if I would go to his bank to withdraw some money. I didn’t feel like telling him that I had no idea of how to go about doing this. Instead I asked for directions to the bank and set out. Somehow I figured my way around and got the job done. I was sent many times after that to the bank to deposit and withdraw money.

Although I had all the time in the world at my disposal I found it was not the easiest thing for me to effectively manage my time. Several times I would be speeding away on my bicycle to Ashok’s shop because I had woken up late that morning. Or I had to push my lunch hour till later because I had not completed all my tasks for the day. It was an experience learning to plan my day properly and I would feel quite pleased with myself when I got things right on my own.

I also gained a lot of valuable insights into my own hobbies and interests since for the first time in my life I was on my own and free to make decisions or experiment with ideas I thought worthwhile.

I discovered that I have a great passion for reading books. I used to go every morning to the library, on my way to Ashok’s shop, and pick up something to read during my free time. My favourite books were the Hardy Boys and I finished practically the entire series while I was at Ashok’s. I also enjoyed comics like Tintin and Phantom.

Evenings, after I had finished with Ashok’s shop, I would listen to the FM radio music programmes. Like any other teenager, I like fast and loud music. Fortunately, my aunt Allison visiting us from Canada gave me a walkman which enabled me to play my music without disturbing the others. I thought about starting to learn the guitar but my parents advised against starting guitar lessons immediately as I had plans to travel out of Goa in the coming months. Letter writing is not one of my favourite things. However, I was forced to reply to the people who sent me letters and cash prizes, congratulating me on my examination results. I was overjoyed to receive prompt replies from several of my relatives and friends commending me on my choice of a year’s sabbatical. I also realised that you only get letters when you write to people. However, I still don’t enjoy letter-writing.

On Sundays, I used to do a few odd jobs to earn some pocket money. Like washing the car for which I used to get five rupees from my dad. I was also the main errand boy at home and I did all kinds of jobs like paying the electricity bills, buying the rations and so on.

All in all, working at Ashok’s was a good beginning.

Field Work Notes:
Now Julie Has a Fish Tank

Juliet and Peter D’Souza are college friends of my parents. They live at Calangute. Peter is a criminal lawyer and Juliet is a school teacher. Our families occasionally go on outings together. On one of these picnics during my SSC year Juliet discovering my interest in aquarium fish promptly tried to get me to assist her in setting up an aquarium in their home.

Actually they did have a fish tank earlier but the bottom glass had cracked and Juliet had given it to Ashok for repairs. And there it remained, in Ashok’s shop, with nobody attending to it. Juliet had reminded me on several occasions about the tank but there was little I could do other than pass on her reminders to Ashok. When I started working with Ashok I quickly took the opportunity of keeping my promise to her.

The first problem was to find the tank. I began searching for it in the storeroom of Ashok’s shop. I found it right at the bottom of all the other big tanks. I was relieved to see it still in one piece. Ashok and I then removed the broken bottom glass. We took the measurements and bought new glass from the glass shop. After fixing the tank, I went to Peter’s office and told him to pick it up and take it home whenever he could.

Peter came by and took it home the next evening. A few days later I cycled down to their house to set it up. Once there I realized that Juliet did not have any material for placing in the tank except a little gravel which was not enough to cover even the base of the tank. I explained to her all the essential items needed and she gave me a freehand to purchase material and decorations for the tank. On my next visit, I took a few kilos of gravel, a pump, plastic plants, fish medicine, the undergravel filter, some pipeline, a few regulators, T-joints and a fishnet. I also took four types of aquarium toys and two shells for her to choose from.

I started off with washing the gravel, then fixed the under-gravel filter. I next poured gravel over the filter, and placed the decorations of shells and toys on top. Then the tap and filters were joined to the air pump. All this while I was watched intently by Angelann and Miriam, Juliet’s two young daughters, who kept offering opinions or help here and there. After about two hours, everything was ready. Only the fish and aquatic plants remained to be put in the aquarium. The task of selecting the fish for the tank was not part of my assignment as Julie said that she would buy the fish from a fish shop in Candolim. However, as she doubted whether live plants were sold in Candolim, she asked me to send her the plants through Peter. She also told me to prepare a bill for her which I was to hand over to Peter. All this I did within the next two days.

A week later, I had to visit Peter and Julie’s place to deliver a note to Peter from my dad. I was keen to see the fish she had bought and how they were doing in the new home I had made for them. As a present I decided to take five pairs of guppies from my garden tank. Imagine my shock when I found that the tank was just as I had left it, with no fish at all to inhabit the lovely quarters. I was glad I had brought along the guppies and these became the first lot of fish to inhabit the tank. I also fixed the light and the regulators and set the plants properly.

Juliet’s little daughters crowded round me as I stood back to admire the now complete aquarium: fish swimming happily with newly installed plants and air filters bubbling away in a corner. Juliet soon joined us and thanked me warmly and to my utter surprise slipped a 50 rupee note into my pocket. I protested that she should not pay me for this as I was having great fun but she insisted that I take the money and this became my first earning.

In similar fashion I set up fish tanks for a few other family friends. Besides having a lot of fun and gaining valuable experience, I also earned pocket money! Avdoot and Rekha Munj in Mapusa have a lovely big tank which I helped set up for their daughter; Alvito and Celine Santiago from Parra also had an empty fish tank which they wanted to put back in use and I organised the fish for them too.

There was also the large fish tank in the office of the Principal of my school (St. Anthony’s at Monte Guirim), which I had maintained during my school days. I continued to keep watch over it through my younger brother Milind, who, like me, is also a fish fan.


Chapter 1: A Fish Shop in Mapusa  •  Chapter 2: Learning a Bit of Farming  •  Chapter 3: Plant Festivals  •  Chapter 4: Learning about Mushrooms  •  Chapter 5: A Trip to Kerala  •  Chapter 6: Snakes Alive!  •  Chapter 7: A Vacation within a Vacation  •  Chapter 8: Earthworms  •  Chapter 9: Spiders  •  Chapter 10: Crocodile Dundee  •  Chapter 11: Learning to Teach  •  Chapter 12: You Have Sight, I Have Vision  •  Chapter 13: Surveying a Forest  •  Chapter 14: Chief Guest At Belgaum

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Free From School
By Rahul Alvares
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