Journalist Samanth Subramanian calls fishing “an activity composed of water and air and light and space, all arranged in precarious balance around a central idea of a man in a boat, waiting for a bite.”
This central idea sends him on a clockwise sweep around India’s coastline, following an old and beguiling story. This book records the taste of fish from Bengal to Gujarat, but is much more about the people who catch, cook and eat fish along coastal India, an entry into the history, culture, politics, religion and economies of a thousand interlinked worlds.
So he witnesses raging debates over the Padma hilsa versus the Ganga hilsa in West Bengal. He joins other asthma sufferers to undergo the Bathini Goud family’s famous annual ‘fish treatment’ in Andhra Pradesh, swallowing a live fish and entering the potent political backstory of the event. He sees the twinning of livelihood and faith in the fishing mast-based cross of the Catholic Parava community in Tamil Nadu. In Karnataka, his passion for rawa fry and Mangalorean fish curry are briefly transposed upon one comely cook; he talks to Goan anglers who recount epic battles with sailfish, and to environmentalists who decry the devastation that tourism has wrought on fishing communities. In Mumbai he goes in search of the Kolis and gorges on Gomantak and Malvani cuisine. And in “the misshapen lower jaw of Gujarat”, he talks to the fishing boat-builders who straddle a centuries-old way of life and modernity.
Subramanian’s sensibility is that of the textbook journalist—curious and empathetic, but unsentimental. His prose, however, is elegant, gently funny, and filled with startling images—from mussels that “looked like giant spiders that had waded heroically through batter only to then accidentally fall into hot coconut oil” to the associations of said oil with a hair product: “somehow it smelled very familiar and yet very wrong, as if someone had decided to make tea with Head & Shoulders or salad dressing out of Brylcreem”. He has a gift for evocative phrases (“the dry logic of capitalism”) and for offbeat insights such as “the ability to dine out alone, however, seems to be like the ability to curl your tongue—either you have it or you don’t.”
One is tempted to say the same of writers—if there is something to quibble about, it is that this little jewel of a travelogue is all too brief. Subramanian is a writer to watch out for.