Following Fish – Delightful Travelogue


Samanth Subramanian’s debut work, Following Fish, is a collection of essays which captures the essence of coastal India that is in some way or the other intertwined with fish. The author begins following fish cuisine from Kolkata in search of Bengal’s favorite hilsa fish and along the east coast eventually ending in Mangrol a town in Gujarat on the west coast. The people of Mangrol, even today survive by building boats for fishermen. The author traces the path of fish used in Hyderabad’s famous ‘fish treatment’, does interesting anthropology in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, which has a vibrant, largely Christian fishing community, gets high on toddy and karimeen in Kerala, tries hunting for the best fish curry in Mangalore, explores Goans’ fondness for fishing and how the beaches and art of fishing is being lost to overdose of tourism and tries finding the real Mumbaikars — the ‘Kolis’.

How did I, a vegetarian, and one who finds even the smell of fish repulsive get hold of this book which, at the outset, appears to be all about fish cuisine? I read excerpts from the book in the Lounge magazine. The writing about the Kerala toddy shops was lucid and made me realize that the book was not just about the fishes.

What I found interesting was that the book wasn’t just about fish and the delicious cuisine, but also about the people, the places, and their history. All this written in a very elegant manner yet with simplicity.

The most vibrant of all the essays to me was the one on the fishing community in Tuticorin. This essay is a good study of the anthropology of the fishing community which is largely Christian, thanks to Portuguese who set foot here in the sixteenth century and helped the paravas (a caste of fishermen) to overcome their rivals, the kayalar who followed the Islamic faith, thanks to Arabs who arrived in Tuticorin earlier. It was interesting to find overlapping aspects between the Christian faith as is currently followed by the community and the Hindus.  Church rituals include the aradhana, the valakappu ceremony for pregnant women, prostration before the church altar and even to the point of referring to the church as kovil.

I learnt a new word from this essay– syncretism — the fusion of two different belief systems.  In a very delightful way the author renders the life of the community as they live now and the disintegration of hierarchy which was prevalent till the previous generation.

The author’s experiences trying to get good toddy and tasty Karimeen in shops that dot Kerala’s highways made for a humorous read. The author’s auto-rickshaw rides reminded me of my own observations that auto -rickshaw drivers can be very forthcoming in lively conversations if you are willing to listen. The author comes across interesting characters who help him hunt the best toddy.

Another essay that I liked was that of the hunt for the best fish curry in Mangalore. I had visited Mangalore myself and felt that it celebrated a kind of laid back attitude which I liked the most. The shutters of most shops were down at noon and the roads were bereft of traffic. My thoughts on Mangalore were reaffirmed when Samanth Subramanian described the same attitude in Mangalore. He notes that there was a restaurant which had its shutters down indefinitely on the pretext of ongoing roadwork although the restaurant’s door was easily accessible.

Other essays also made for an interesting read, particularly the one on Mumbai and its Koli fishing community. It was interesting to know the origin of the name Mumbai (from Mumba Devi, the patron goddess of the Koli community). The essay on the dying art of fishing in Goa, thanks to excessive fishing and overdoing of activities to increase the influx of tourists has taken a toll on the ecology and the culture.

Overall, this is a delightful little travel book which was written the way I wanted and not a how-to travel guide but one in which people and places speak for themselves.