Following Fish – Samanth Subramanian

While I was in US, sometime last year, I read about Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish at rediff.com. A few months ago, I bought the book, read it and decided to write about it. It is not a review per se, though it can pass for one. Does not matter — here, below, is what I wrote.

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While I was reading Samanth Subramaniam’s Following Fish, I made a promise to myself –that I would write about this book no matter what. I would write, no matter what little voice my blog had, no matter what difference it made to the already formed opinion, no matter those already published reviews by famous publications. It is because Samanth’s idea – of going around India’s coast and writing about it, deserves applause and attention.

Perhaps, it would be better not to look at Samanth’s book entirely through the lens of a travelogue. This is not a comprehensive account of what he encountered while travelling the corners of India’s coastline. It is not about places to visit and coastlines to see. Anyway, 184 pages can’t be enough for that. Neither it is about the hidden gems, those unassuming places, to eat the best fish in various small towns. It is about how one of the oldest practices known to mankind, fishing, transforms lives.

The author starts with the east coast: in Calcutta, a commentary on the much prized Hilsa. His trysts in the fish market, early morning in Calcutta. On the way down, he, well, swallows a fish in Hyderabad while scrutinizing the asthma medicine that thousands swallow in a fish. This moves all the way to west, to Gujarat where Samanth investigates the art of crafting fishing boats.

While in Kerala, the author goes toddy hunting — how could he not? I mean, it’s a place where the fish, varieties of gravies and fries notwithstanding takes a backseat and becomes a sidekick to toddy – that peculiar liquor from Palm trees that is best served, yes, before noon. So our author goes exploring toddy and describes the best way to locate an authentic toddy shop that serves, well, authentic toddy (also included in the chapter is a guide to pronounce the toddy “shop” right). Whatever happened to fish? We don’t care!

Honestly, having traveled extensively through the west coast myself, I waited patiently until the pages turned and I found Samanth Subramanian in Mangalore. And with a very similar dilemma that I had when I first went there. Where to find the best Mangalore fish curry? And this is this other thing about the book — if you are a fish eater you’d end up eating more fish over the weekends. This could be a longshot but perhaps it is that writer-reader relationship that builds over the course of the book and the fish loving reader finds it delightful than ever to eat fish – the love for seafood now validated and justified by the author of the book himself.

And there are points where Samanth keeps me longing for a little more: Mangalore, Bombay – points in case. Because while writing about his experience in Bombay, perhaps the most telling of all, he cautiously flirts with the political and social state of the city, asks important questions we all have asked before (and continue to ask) and then stops, almost abruptly. The chapter is a delight while it lasts.

But then disappointment — Writing about Goa, a place I relate to closely, was for me, Samanth’s falling. In Goa, the author tells a tale, almost silently weeping, of the sellout of the fishermen folk to the tourism industry. A tight slap to the administration of the state and his talks with a few passionate Goan anglers, Samanth truthfully tells a depressing story that many even in Goa would be surprised to hear. Why I call it his falling is because he surrenders to the grief, and in the process, forgoes enlightening the reader of the wonderful culinary experience that Goa could be. I mean, its a crime no less — the very center of the Konkan Cuisine, with strong influences left behind by the Portuguese, what an addition it could have been to the book. And Samanth, simply abandons the journey that Goa’s food could have been to the reader, silently absolving himself of it all. Surely, the author must have had his customary fish curry there? Why didn’t he tell us about it?

Ideally, I would have had the book by my side, while writing this. That didn’t happen. So all the underlined quotes, evidence of Samanth’s excellent prose and narration couldn’t be a part of this writeup. In fact, this all comes out from mental notes taken while reading the book almost a couple of months ago. It is not necessarily a bad thing — it has made sure that I present a well thought of, objective view.

And finally — This is a book that will delight you, involve you. For someone who refrained from eating fish in his childhood, Samanth Subramanian’s debut, Following Fish is his coming of age, a full circle. But perhaps more importantly, this book is also a coming of age for Indian narrative journalism. It is important that we acknowledge, appreciate and give credit where it’s due because this one here, it sets a high standard. Following Fish is a book that is admired while reading and it should inspire many similar quests.

PS: Take a look at flipkart’s page of ‘Following Fish’, here

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