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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.