book review: following fish, samanth subramanian

In an effort to get through her to-be-read pile, Steph is attempting to read one non-white travelogue a month in 2017. Her first: Following Fish: Travels around the Indian coast, by Samanth Subramanian.

Hope you like learning about fish curries and the evils of globalisation. 4.5/5 fishies.

Here’s the thing about reading a travelogue about India written by an Indian: When you get a paragraph that sounds like this:

Climbing the vew steps up into the temple – each rendered permanently sticky underfoot by the spilled juice of hundreds of smashed coconuts – I entered a small sanctum with two individual shrines. One, containing a moon-faced idol of Annapurna flanked by two  heavily mustached bronze soldiers, seemed forlorn and ignored; instead, the crowds congregated in little clumps around the other shrine, bearing a low statue of Mumbadevi herself, a fierce-looking, orange goddess with ten arms. The idol was more face than body: it was easier to spot, for instance, the large ornament in her left nostril than the diminutive lion s he rode. Long stalks of purple and pink flowers fanned out behind her, and she wore a classic Maharashtrian green sari, which was constantly being adjusted this way or that by the bored priest sitting alongside her.

You don’t think, ugh, what a pretentious white dude. You think, oh, yes. He’s exploring places that are almost, but not quite, like home. And he’s doing it as an insider, not an outsider. Well, as much of an insider as one can be when one turns up at a tiny fishing location and all the generations of a fishing family are glaring at you.

And his words walk the line between ‘here is a familiar thing’ and ‘here is a thing I must explain to an audience unfamiliar with the thing.’ It’s clear the book is both written for people from India, and written for people who are not from India.

It’s a nice experience, to not have to wonder if he’s off to find himself, or find exotic locations, or whatever. He’s just off to find the perfect fish curry, and I can’t fault him for that.

Following Fish is a gentle travelogue of Subramanian taking brief trips away from his New Dehli home to wander up and down the coasts of India, visiting tiny fishing villages and large cities, all with one thing in common: they’re all well-known for their beautiful fish curries.

And I love it. I love his turns of phrase. I love its tiny jabs at our colonisers woven in between his love of eating. I love the lazy turns of the fans and the anecdotes of women who are affronted when fish bite their hooks, throwing them back before they can truly be caught and ruin the languid afternoon with a need to gut and scale. I love the snobbery of the lady at Sushegad Gomantak, and the rudeness of taking advantage of hosts in order to eat the best fish. I love the contemplation of national politics and the conflicts of tourism versus fishing.

I love this paragraph, because it’s secretly about sand piracy:

“Then there’s the sand,” Alvares went on. “Go look at Anjuna beach – it is that weirdest of things, a sandless beach. They’re carting away the sand dunes to put into the plinths of all these new buildings that are coming up. Studies say that by 2020, with a rise in the sea level, 5 to 10 per cent of Goa will go under. But they’re still destroying these protective sand dunes.”

I enjoyed reading this book, and would eat these curries if I could. It was an enjoyable post-colonial travelogue. 4.5 out of 5 fishies.

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