Monday, 31 May 2010



From the Sunderbans to the Sir Creek --- the varied landscapes and the people along India's vast coastline have distinct stories of their own. But there are similarities too, as journalist Samanth Subramanian found out when he travelled to India’s coastal States, “looking at fish in a larger context”. So in his recently-published travelogue, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, the fishermen, the fish traders, the boat builders, the fish gourmets and of course the multitude of fishes come together with myths, fact, local history, traditions, culture and experiences. “It is not a food or travel guide though, but a travelogue,” the author reminds me.

Subramanian refers to his rather awful childhood experience with fish that either makes him the best person or otherwise to write on fish. In any case, when he decides to write his book, it begins with the fish-crazy Bengalees. The tricks of cooking Ilish fish, the humdrum at the fish markets in and around Kolkata as well as the well-known fishing points like Kolaghat and Diamond Harbour come alive through Subramanian’s words. For me, these places are so familiar that I could almost see the actions.

How much research was needed to understand the nuances of the places and traditions? It was a “three-part process”, the author informs. “Each chapter began with an idea. Then I read a lot and spoke to people to form a vague idea of the places and people. Then I travelled to those places. And after I came back from that visit, I read again,” Subramanian explains. “The actual reporting part was good,” he adds.

Subramanian took about two-and-half years to complete his book; he admits to missing deadlines after deadlines though his publishers kept the faith in him. So did his employers who supported him as Subramanian worked on the book. “It was not easy though”, considering he had to travel over the weekends, or take leave at times while maintaining a full time job as a journalist. Did the discontinuity in his travels impact his writing? “I wanted to make sure that I do a thorough job. So when I wrote a chapter, I wrote it in full, or else the links could have been lost,” he says.

Among the places visited by the author were Manapadu in Tamil Nadu, toddy shops in Kerala, Goa beaches that are dying, eateries in Mangalore, Sassoon Dock and the eateries in Mumbai, and the boat building yards in the towns of Mangrol and Veraval in Gujarat. 'How easy or difficult was it for you to convince the people at these places that he was not an intruding angler trying to take away some local secret?' I ask him. Subramanian laughs. “I didn't face any distrust from anyone. It was obvious from my notebooks and the suitcases that I am not the intruding angler or a spy,” he replies. “Rather, the people in those smaller towns and localities are less cynical and were ready to talk. For them it was a novelty that someone from the city, who's writing a book, is interviewing them. Writing a book is considered nobler”.

Among his experiences while on the fish trail, Subramanian visited the Bathini Goud family of Andhra Pradesh who are famous for providing the 'fish cure' for patients of asthma. The entire governmental arrangement to facilitate the annual event during which thousands of people queue up to swallow a small fish with a secret medicine, the exaggerations, the expectations and the air of solemnity in the Goud household make for an interesting reading. 'Is it the fish only or you wanted to how fishy are the Gouds' claims,' I ask Subramanian. He laughs out loudly. “I was just passing by. But it struck to me that this event has been going on for so many years... people go there and they believe in the cure. And the Goud family has been carrying it on with a firm belief in themselves. I found it all semi-mystical and interesting. But I cannot comment on whether the cure works”.

Foodies, especially those who love fish, will gorge all the 'food talk' that people indulged into across the pages, as the author relished plates after plates of fish cuisines. Special mention must be made of the lady at Sushegad Gomanatak --- an eatery in Mahim; she made Subramanian to understand the differences between Gomantak and Malvani style of cooking. Gobind Patil, the local leader of the Koli community in Mumbai is another cook-connoisseur who “veers towards food no matter whatever could be the talking point”. I ask Subramanian about which one gets better score --- the upscale restaurant or a nondescript roadside eatery. “That's a very good question. According to me, the nondescript eateries are better because they always provide fresh fish,” he says. “And my favourite dish has been the Rawa fry that I ate in Mangalore,” he affirms.

During his travels, Subramanian met environmentalist among others. They have been concerned with the excessive fishing that is going on. But the fishermen too are concerned, the author says. “They are not only concerned because of not getting good catch, but they also know the ill effects of catching young fish. So, in case they catch a young fish, they throw it back to the sea or else they won't get older fish one day”. In this context he mentions how the number of fishermen has decreased but the number of fishing trawlers got increased.

Being a journalist, Subramanian has been observant. But he has spiced up the travelogue with ample doses of his wit, imagination and also his views. Didn't he ever feel to write a fiction instead and let his imagination take control? “Well, I have been away from fiction for the last five to six years. So, I never thought of writing a fiction based on my travels,” he says. “As a journalist, I have to be objective. But at the same time I have my own mind. So, in the book I tried to balance between reporting and my own thoughts”.

Subramanian is hoping to come up with more non-fiction works. “But they may not be a travelogue,” he says.

We are almost towards the end of the interview.
I tell Subramanian that I liked his book very much.
“Thank you...” he says gently.
Then I divulge a little about myself: 'You know, I don't eat fish...' I tell him.
“But aren't you a Bengalee?” he asks.
'Yes... but in my family I have been an exception... everyone else loved fish... but I never liked it'.
“So it must have been tough for you to read this book?” he asks.
'Not at all. I told you... I enjoyed reading it so much that I didn't give up. I read it almost at a stretch... It's fantastic, I must say again...'
“Thank you so much Biswadip...” Subramanian says in his gentle voice.