A Good Catch, This!

Review – Following Fish: Travels Around The Indian Coast by Samanth Subramanian

By Shana Susan Ninan

Half belonging to, and living most of my life in Kerala, I’m quite a fan of anything fish – dishes as well as any history related to it. When someone gifted me this travelogue, Following Fish, by debut author Samanth Subramanian, I was more than overjoyed. For someone who loves the beach and visits it often, and is crazy about sea food, reading this nine-essay travelogue was an absolute delight. Wait till I get to the part where I admit drooling over the semi-recipes Subramanian mentions in his book.

Each of his travels is allocated a chapter in which he doles out anything and everything about the area’s famous varieties of fish, fishing practices, the lifestyle of the people, the cooking methods for the fish dishes, and more. His clockwise journey from West Bengal to Gujarat is sunk with loads of history, interesting details regarding the fishing communities and their lives, ecological issues and a lot of humour.

The author’s relationship with fish changes dramatically through the book: from his childhood experience – rather nightmare – with a plate of steamed fish, talking about his grandfather’s remedy of swallowing a live murrel, and finally doing so in one of his travels to Hyderabad, to tasting varieties of Piscean dishes across the peninsula. He learns to separate the hilsa’s flesh from bone right in his mouth, eats, drinks, eats more, drinks more in Kerala’s toddy shops; finds his once lost love in the Mangalore fish curry; and, sails on the high seas to catch the fastest fish in the waters.

Just as the author said at one of the book launches, the ‘fish’ in the title is just an excuse for delving into the inner reaches of a trade that is still close to heart for many in India. Whether it is the debate between the tastiness of the Padma hilsa and the Ganga hilsa, the waning importance of the jati thalaivan in Tuticorin, the switch from traditional fishing to a purely commercial and avaricious one, the eternal struggle in Maharashtra, specifically Mumbai, as to who its original people are or the degradation of beaches in Goa, Subramanian has taken this book to a whole new level – one that brings to light many layered obscurities.

To me the book reeled out like a paperback documentary. His journalistic probes into the lives of the fishermen and those in the related industries might leave the readers with many questions. But like a true journalist he bares the facts to us – out and right there. All fishermen, no matter their class, community or caste, are the same throughout India. Their lives, their very breaths, are entwined in the one thing that they do best – fishing. This is an interesting observation the author makes at the end of the book, but is explained through his nine essays.

His narrative style of writing lends rhythm of the book. Words are carefully chosen to resonate in your mind log after you’ve flipped the page. The profusion of adjectives only adds to the charm. The recipes and semi-recipes are mouthwatering, to say the least. While on certain pages, when he was exquisitely dicing out each ingredient in a dish, I could nearly smell the aroma of every spice and herb mentioned! Only makes me wanna try each one of the dishes out.

My favourite essay is the one on hunting the sailfish, simply because the flow of the story keeps up with the fast-paced search for the “fastest fish in the sea”. Taking place off the Mumbai coast, this section deals with how men, toughened by the sea and the wind, share their experience on sparring with the sailfish. Sometimes, the sheer hunt for it is exhilarating enough and keeps the anglers hooked until the next time. All the same, Subramanian’s excursion across God’s Own Country is quite close to heart. I’m sure the readers will get an idea about the toddy shops’ hot and spicy curries from Subramanian’s words, but to actually eat some is awesome. The spices, especially pepper, in the layers of the fish or other seafood will crawl over every taste bud of yours, and the toddy will smooth it down. This hot and smooth combo is what keeps the owners’ pockets full – endless bottles of toddy are drunk to cool one’s senses than for the actual kick.

In Goa, the author is left to find out for himself how hapless fishermen have turned to tourism, their arch enemy, for earning a livelihood. The last chapter is quite an intriguing one. To think that the boat-builders of this day and technology still follow centuries-old practices! In Gujarat, the state with the longest coastline, carpenters, builders and artisans work day and night to produce the best crafts in the country.

Writing, and travel writing especially, is a discovery – a cross section of newly-learnt truths and the shattering of those once-believed. This book lives the saying.

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Rating: 9.0/10 (6 votes cast)
A Good Catch, This!, 9.0 out of 10 based on 6 ratings

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This entry was posted on Saturday, July 10th, 2010 at 7:11 pm and is filed under Reviews, Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.


  1. July 24th, 2010 | Chandru says:

    A mouth watering review which leaves the reader both curious and interested. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it. Great review, kudos!

  2. July 25th, 2010 | Susan says:

    A delicious review! Your passion for travel and tastes of other Indian cuisines truly melts out in your well-written excerpt!

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