Tag Archives: coastline

Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish

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At a certain point in his piscine-inspired circumnavigation of India, Samanth Subramanian does the one thing that seals the deal as to his dedication to his research: he swallows.

Although he contends, in conversation before the Chennai launch of his book, that he could have written the remarkable non-fiction debut that is Following Fish even if he were not a fish-eater, his swallowing of a live murrel fingerling (not to mention the utter relish with which he describes the seafood he consumes on his travels), suggests otherwise. For someone who spent a decade getting over the disgust of seeing a whole steamed fish as an adolescent, this book is a more than satisfying penance for the deficit.

But rarely is this exploration of fish purely epicurean, although some of the most evocative segments of this book are precisely about this aspect. In Kerala, for example, fish becomes quite literally a side dish in the pursuit of toddy. In Mangalore and Kolkata, searches ensue for different variants of the perfect fish curry. But there’s much more. The live murrel fingerling is ritually swallowed whole in Hyderabad hardly as an adventurous challenge to the palate, but as a cure for asthma. Mumbai’s fish curries are first marinated in the tensions of migration and the question of whom a city could truly belong to. And these are only some of the kinds of fish he follows – even the fishes he encounters that are released back into the water upon capture, or never even seen but understood as the linchpin on which a story pivots, serve as introductions into ways of life and coexistence. In nine eloquent chapters, Following Fish casts lines all along India’s peninsular coast, from Bengal to Gujarat (Orissa is given a miss as two strong leads presented themselves in Maharashtra), and at each place, its author seems to reel in a completely different catch.

Asked what the fish would be to him if it could be only one thing, Subramanian says, “a window”, then apologizes for the clumsy metaphor before continuing. “But it’s multiple windows isn’t it? Every place you open a window, you get a glimpse of another world.” Clumsy or not, it’s a neat capsule for the many narratives that emerge: food and culture, sport and commerce, history and change.

There is much to admire in this collection, not least among them a particularly assured writing style. The narrator himself surfaces infrequently; as far as possible, the stories are about everyone other than himself, and its spare sentimentality is one of its greatest strengths. This is doubly commendable not only for having eluded the modern tropes of the confessional voice, but also because in spite of it being a work with an certain detachment, there is no sense anywhere that this is a dispassionate project.

“I would still classify a lot of this work as journalism, or perhaps narrative journalism” says Subramanian. “And of course, the first rule of journalism is to put yourself outside the story. You have to go there knowing that you have zero knowledge and everybody else is relatively an expert.” Marketed as the first travelogue in the nonfiction narrative genre in India, Following Fish sets a high standard in its reportage and the perfectly balanced pitch of its reserved yet engaged voice.

Nowhere is this skill more evident than in two captures dealing directly with dying cultures. In what is arguably the book’s richest chapter, a community of Catholic fishing-peoples in the Tuticorin district are brought alive in an account that is at once part anthropology and part farewell tribute. Elsewhere, Subramanian lets down his characteristic objectivity in his documentation of the effect of tourism in Goa, where he says the loss of a fishing culture is particularly poignant, because “everybody fishes – not just commercially”. Modernization and its impact on fishing communities troubles him, but he labours under no delusions of activism: “The eternal plight of the journalist is, can he change things? A journalist can only write things. The next step depends on others. In every single state I visited, I heard this complaint. It’s probably the single uniting factor among the communities. The displacement is happening everywhere and in a lot of cases it’s a particularly poor state of affairs”.

Among the many things that this book might be, it stays truest – and does proudest – the purpose the author has intended: a travelogue. “A travel book should not be a how-to-travel book,” he says later at the launch. ‘It should just be a log of what was experienced – that’s where the word travelogue comes from.”

And travel writing in this age is significantly different from its predecessors (Subramanian pegs the beginning of the genre at the writings of the 5th century Greek historian Herodotus) by virtue of how easy it has become to actually cross distances. “Earlier, the journey itself was about the story. For Marco Polo to go to China was difficult. Now it is so easy to get on a plane – so the work becomes focused on the destination itself.” Following Fish was not, as its structure might indicate, a faithful journey along the coastline, but the culmination of a series of trips over around two years to locations along it. In this sense and in others, it is a methodical book, tightly plotted and cohesive, yet with possibly more charm than a more meandering exploration might have.

Following Fish is a highly accomplished debut, the kind that makes it tempting to assume it as a barometer for the future of its genre in this country. While so grandiose a proclamation might best be withheld, suffice to say: the splash this book deserves to make should have quite an interesting ripple effect.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Mourning the Marina

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That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.

Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.

This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.

Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.

I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.

I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.

One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.

I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.

When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.

It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.

Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.

This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).

Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.