Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast
By Samanth Subramanian
You read a book like this and you are reminded once more that there is little as compelling as truly good travel writing - delving into the idiosyncrasies of people and places with genuine curiosity and empathy, working with journalistic rigor yet bringing in a subjective viewpoint, combining good writing with unexpected insight.Subramanian’s first attempt at a book is an extremely interesting one.
He works his way around the long Indian coastline - Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, moving to the west, to Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat. Every state has a story to tell Subramanian, unique yet strangely connected, interesting tales, bringing to life both the diversity of the Indian subcontinent and the commonality of the life on a coast.
In Bengal, he writes about the Bengali obsession with hilsa (“If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on Centre Court”) - the right way to chew it, separating the bones from the flesh within the mouth; the difference between the Bangladeshi and the Bengali hilsa; its availability year long, rather than just during the monsoon in an earlier time; and its preparation in the delectable shorsha ilish.
In Hyderabad (not really the coast, but close enough to warrant a fishy tale), Subramanian encounters India’s predilection for faith-cures. The Bathini Goud family’s cure for asthma includes a medical preparation stuffed into a live fish that you then need to swallow - live. Subramanian leaves it to the reader to decide if this is the real thing or plain old quackery.
In the Tamil Nadu coast, he meets the Paravas, an old fishing community converted to Christianity by the Portuguese but whose Christianity is mostly a veneer that envelopes age-old Hindu customs. “There is syncretism in language, in how words such as ‘kovil’ and ‘aradhana’, traditionally intended for temples and Hindu celebrations of worship, are now applied to churches and Catholic feasts. There is syncretism in practice,in the lighting of lamps instead of candles, in the full-stretch prostrations that men performed at Our Lady of Snows, in conducting both the Hindu valakappu ceremony for pregnant women and Christian baptism for newborn babies, even in the respectful act of leaving one’s shoes outside the entrance of the church. And sometimes, there is syncretism in thought, in how a Christian fisherman still propitiates the Hindu god Murugan and refers to him ‘Machaan’ or ‘brother-in-law’, because Murugan’s wife Devayani came from Parava stock - at least according to a Parava legend that has somehow been comfortably ensconced within another faith for five hundred years now.”
In Kerala, Subramanian goes in search of the perfect toddy and realizes that ‘the best toddy, toddy that is fresh and untouched by base additives, should taste only marginally less mild than milk, with a slight sweetness, a faint note of ferment, and the occasional granule of coconut husk.” He is introduced to a world where work can literally stop for toddy, where certain types of it are rigidly sold only to certain types of people, where toddy food is only meant to increase your appetite for toddy itself, where the fish fried in coconut oil is truly an acquired taste and where toddy can make sworn brothers of men who otherwise were vastly different.
In Karnataka, he goes looking for his childhood memory of the perfect Mangalorean fish curry - and finds it after considerable effort in the home of a local official of a Mangalorean fisherman’s co-operative. In a small town between Goa and Maharashtra, he goes fishing for the fastest fish in the sea - the sailfish. He does not find one, but in the process, he gives his readers a peek into the joys of recreational fishing - “The sight of a worthy catch is breathlessly anticipated; the thrill of the sport resides in how suddenly it can turn. But for the rest of the time, the art of fishing is really the art of waiting in thin disguise - waiting not only from hour to hour, as we were doing at sea, or from day to day, as with the fisherman Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but even from year to year, as for the annual Indian variation of the sailfish. There is no room in the boat for impatience; I can’t think of any other sport that so effectively screens its participants on the basis of a single quality of temperament.”
In Goa, Subramanian finds an entire lifestyle slowly disappearing - where the traditional fisherfolk are giving up their ancient fishing jobs for the easier and more lucrative jobs generated by the tourism industry, where the sand of the beaches is fast disappearing into new construction, where the oh-so-authentic Goan shack culture is actually so completely inauthentic, and where the seas have been so over-fished by trawlers and mechanized boats that most of Goa’s fish is now actually brought in from neighbouring states.
In Maharashtra, he goes looking for the Koli community, the original Mumbaikars, and their food. And discerns the difference between Gomantak and Malvani cuisine, while discovering also the Koli challenge to chicken soup - the Nisot. And in Gujarat, Subramanian meets the boat makers, people who have been making boats for generations, with little change in technique.
In his journey along the coast, Subramanian realizes that inspite of the differences he finds across states, what really surprises him is the discovery of similarities - the livelihoods rising and falling with the fishing calendar, the cosmopolitan nature of the fishing communities, ever willing to absorb influences of visitors from the sea across ages, and the battles with the modern age where the traditional fishing trade is being rapidly displaced by businessmen in motorized boats and trawlers. The similarities are so strong because at the end, as he says, “Fishing is still elemental in the most elemental sense of the word - an activity composed of water and air and light space, all arranged in precarious balance around a central idea of a man in a boat, waiting for a bite.”
It is a thought-provoking book, but equally, it is entertaining. If you enjoy travelling through the eyes of a first rate writer, this one is for you.