Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast

Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast

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Item Code: IHL421
Author: Samanth Subramanian
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9780143064473
Pages: 180
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.8 inch X 5.2 inch

When I was twelve years old, and we were living in Indonesia, my sister and I once accompanied my parents to one of the regular dinner parties that anchored the calendar of the Indian expatriate. As per routine, we were shunted off upstairs with our friends, to watch television and play video games. Our parents sat downstairs with the other parents, probably to complain about how all their children did these clays was watch television and play video games.

Summoned for dinner an hour or so later, we came down into the dining room, to a large table laden with various plates of food. My memory seems to have captured this scene and then, like a rogue design editor, Photoshopped it into even sharper significance. The peripheral details of the other dishes are blurred, but the centrepiece of the table remains in vivid focus. It was a whole, steamed fish, coloured such a wretched gray that it reminded me instantly of death. I also recall a smell that lurked over the table like an invisible warning. I did not eat much dinner that night.

Taste is the most temperamental of our senses, remarkably resilient in some ways but also malleable enough for one to be repulsed for life by a single experience. That dinner party was sufficient to put me off fish for the next decade, and even in my early twenties, when I cautiously began venturing back towards seafood, I stuck wherever possible to the safe, taste-slaying possibilities of batter and the deep fryer. Fish and chips I could face, but not fish in soup, or fish baked or grilled or, worst of all, steamed. This was not as restricting as it sounds. Everybody else in my family is rigidly vegetarian, and I was happy enough with poultry and meat when I ate out.

Depending on how you look at it, this makes me either the least ideal or the most ideal person to write about fish. Naturally I prefer to take the latter view, and to believe that being unencumbered by dense schools of fish—related memories is a distinct advantage. But this book goes beyond considering fish merely as food. Particularly in a nation with as lengthy and diverse a coastline as India’s, fish can sit at the heart of many worlds—of culture, of history of sport, of commerce, of society It can knit the coast together in one dramatic swoop: The hilsa, pride and joy of Bengal, now often arrives in many fish markets from Gujarat, at the very opposite end of the coastline. Or it can fragment the coast into a multitude of passions and traditions, each different from the one found a hundred kilometres to the north or south of it. Looking more closely at even one aspect of these worlds is like picking up the most visible thread of a fishing net, and suddenly seeing the entire skein lift into view.

Much as I would have liked to begin in Kolkata and ramble right around the edges of the Indian peninsula over several continuous months, I wasn’t able to travel that way Instead, I tore large chunks of time out of my working life, which is possibly why the journey divided itself easily into individual segments, and thence into individual chapters. I flew a lot. I also took buses and motorcycles and trains and cars, dozens of auto-rickshaws (including one that I drove, rather poorly on a deserted Kerala highway), many flimsy-looking boats, twice a bicycle, and once a jerry-rigged motor vehicle for which no technical term exists.

Almost always, I travelled alone, and so I came to depend on the kindnesses of people who knew people who knew my friends. They would ease my entry into alien worlds, at least initially; when I didn’t follow the language, they would translate and add helpful annotations. In their comforting shadow, emboldened by the fact that they belonged even if I didn’t, I could loiter endlessly watching and listening, starting up dialogues where I chose. In this way I aspired to become what V S. Naipaul once called ‘a discoverer of people, a finder-out of stories

In pottering about the Indian coast and writing about it, I have not intended to produce a guide to lead others down the same route. This is, in that sense, not a how-to-travel book but a travelogue—a record of my journeys, my experiences and observations, my conversations with the people I met, and my investigations into subjects that I happened to find incredibly fascinating. Put another way, it is simply what I believe all travel writing to be in its absolute essence: plain, old-fashioned journalism, disabuser of notions, destroyer of preconceptions, discoverer of the relative, shifting nature of truth.

Back of the Book

‘This is a travel book like no other-inspired in its conception and marvelously skilful in its execution. Subramanian uses the production and consumption of fish to provide a series of arresting insights into the culture and ecology of the subcontinent. With vivid sketches of landscapes and waterscapes, the narrative is peopled by a rich cast of characters….The prose is elegant but never lush, the tone warm and sometimes tender.’-Ramachandra Guha

In a coastline as long and diverse as India’s, fish inhabit the heart of many world-food of course, but also culture, commerce, sport, history and society. Journeying along the edge of the peninsula, Samanth Subramanian reports upon a kaleidoscope of extraordinary stories.

In nine essays, following Fish conducts rich journalistic investigations: among others, of the famed fish treatment for asthmatics in Hyderabad; of the preparation and the process of eating West Bengal’s prized hilsa; of the ancient art of building fishing boats in Gujarat; of the fiery cuisine and the singular spirit of Kerala’s toddy shops of the food and the lives of Mumbai’s first peoples; of the history of an old Catholic fishing community in Tamil Nadu; of the hunt for the world’s fastest fish near Goa.

Throughout his travels, Subramanian observes the cosmopolitanism and diverse influences absorbed by India’s coastal societies, the withdrawing of traditional fishermen from their craft, the corresponding growth of fishing as pure and voluminous commerce, and the degradation of waters and beaches from over-fishing.

Pulsating with pleasure, adventure and discovery, and tempered by nostalgia and loss, Following Fish speaks as eloquently to the armchair traveler as to lovers of the sea and its lore.


Introduction xi
1On hunting the hilsa and mastering its bones 1
2On swallowing a live fish 18
3On the ear lobe that changed history 40
4On an odyssey through toddy shops 61
5On. searching for a once—lost love 80
6On pursuing the fastest fish in the ocean 97
7On grieving for bygone beaches and fish 110
8On seeking to eat as a city once ate 128
9On the crafting of a fishing boat 149
Afterword 164
Acknowledgements 166
Sample Pages

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