Engaging travelogue
Sumit Ahlawat

Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast
By Samanth Subramanian.
Penguin Books.
Pages 184. Rs 250.

INDIA’s 5,700-km-long coastline is one of its most prominent features, the one that gives India its shape on the world map, influences its climate, and has set the terms of its trade, culture and course of its history, and yet, despite all this, little has been written on all these themes, especially if one compares it to the vast amount of literature produced on the great Himalayas, its rivers and inland plains. (With the possible exception of Amitav Ghosh in The Hungry Tide and Sea of Poppies.)

The South Indian coastline has been the vantage point of world commerce (from Arabia to India and China) for more than 2,000 years. South Indian coasts also attracted European travellers, adventurers, merchants and missionaries. The Vijaynagar empire (1336-1565) had flourishing trade with the Arabs, Romans, Portugese, and Iranins. The coasts also served the purpose of pumping stations for European ships sailing towards India and China. The result is a cosmopolitan coastline that has absorbed diverse influences from all over the world, duly reflected in the cultural and religious diversity of Indian peninsula, that has to its credit India’s oldest Muslim and Christian communities.

The book is essentially a celebration of this cosmopolitanism in all its aspects, from architecture, culture, cuisine to language and rituals. In his travels, he gives lucid description of a 16th-century church on the shore of Manapadu (Tamil Nadu), where Franchis Xavier offered mass in 1542. Here, the signboard reads: "This cave once the dwelling place of a Shaivite Sanyasi has been sanctified by the prayers and penances of St Franchis Xavier." More interesting was the description of a coastal community near Kanyakumari, known to Tamil Sangam literature as "neithalimakkal" (people of coastal tracts), parava by caste, overwhelmingly catholic by religion, but who today prefer to be called the Bharathas, tracing their lineage to the legendary king of Ayodhya, and brother of Rama. This is India and this is what is known to the students of social sciences as its mixed, syncretic culture, where plasticised religion, legend, myth, popular history all are intertwined into each other.

In the nine essays, the author gives lucrative description of South Indian cuisine and the centrality of fish in it. It starts with an essay on Bengal, where he talks about Bengali’s obsession with perfect hisla, and than moves along the coastline all the way to Gujarat. In between, he discusses the famed fish treatment of asthmatics in Hyderabad, the ancient art of building boats in Gujarat, the spicy cuisine and spirit of Kerala’s toddy shops, food and lives of Mumbai’s first people, history of Indiavarious coastal fishing communities, and the hunt for world’s fastest fish near Goa.

This book evidences the fact how geography of an area destines its history, culture and everyday life. It’s a story of adventure and discovery, tempered with nostalgia and loss of an open world, where culture, language, architecture and religion travelled with commerce, undaunted by the artificial boundaries of nation states. It shows that all societies were open and they were all influenced by each other, that there is no such thing as pure indigenous culture.

Besides, the book presents the social history of various fishing communities. It shows that any social history must be the history of common folks, a documentation of their memorised history, their myths and legends, their worldview and their historical choices. It shows that the people about which author writes actually do exist and they have a right to appear in books in their own capacity.

It also voices the quiet, unheroic struggle of fishing communities for their existence in a fast changing world; their struggle to keep pace with outside world, without destroying their own world view, a struggle to stand still in the forward march of history, and also discusses the bad effects of the tourism industry in Goa, the lament of the locals for the loss of their old familiar Goa, their concerns for the degrading waters and beaches from over-fishing, the ethical dilemmas of fishers in Goa who can make immediate profit in tourism industry, but which in the long run is destroying not only its environment, sand and beaches but also its society. It’s a story of a dying profession—fishing in calm seawaters, of changing ethics and lifestyles, of sold out government policies and everything going bad in the glamour of foreign currency produced by the flourishing tourism industry.

It’s gloomy thoroughly, as it records our helplessness and our combined inevitable defeat against the simple profit maximising logic of capitalism. An interesting travelogue, suffused with eloquent elements of history, culture and ecology. It’s a treat, both to armchair traveller and sea adventurers.