Authors: Samanth Subramanian
This is a travel book like no other—inspired in its conception and marvellously skilful in its execution. Subramanian uses the production and consumption of fish to provide a series of arresting insights into the culture and ecology of the subcontinent. With vivid sketches of landscapes and waterscapes, the narrative is peopled by a rich cast of characters… The prose is elegant but never lush, the tone warm and sometimes tender.’—
In a coastline as long and diverse as India’s, fish inhabit the heart of many worlds—food of course, but also culture, commerce, sport, history and society. Journeying along the edge of the peninsula, Samanth Subramanian reports upon a kaleidoscope of extraordinary stories.
In nine essays,
conducts rich journalistic investigations: among others, of the famed fish treatment for asthmatics in Hyderabad; of the preparation and the process of eating West Bengal’s prized hilsa; of the ancient art of building fishing boats in Gujarat; of the fiery cuisine and the singular spirit of Kerala’s toddy shops; of the food and the lives of Mumbai’s first peoples; of the history of an old Catholic fishing community in Tamil Nadu; of the hunt for the world’s fastest fish near Goa.
Throughout his travels, Subramanian observes the cosmopolitanism and diverse influences absorbed by India’s coastal societies, the withdrawing of traditional fishermen from their craft, the corresponding growth of fishing as pure and voluminous commerce, and the degradation of waters and beaches from over-fishing.
Pulsating with pleasure, adventure and discovery, and tempered by nostalgia and loss,
speaks as eloquently to the armchair traveller as to lovers of the sea and its lore.
Photographs by Madhu Kapparath Cover design by Pinaki De
By dint of both circumstance and choice, Samanth Subramanian is a journalist. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s in international relations from Columbia University. By preference, he gravitates towards the long-form, narrative version of journalism—waning today, but still rewarding and revealing to both writers and readers. He has written, among other publications, for
Far Eastern Economic Review, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, The National
This is his first book.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Penguin Books India 2010
Copyright © Samanth Subramanian 2010
All rights reserved
This digital edition published in 2011.
e-ISBN : 978-81-8475-255-7
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To my parents,
who taught me to write and to read,
for which I can never thank them enough.
Rise, brothers, rise! The wakening skies
pray to the morning light.
The wind lies asleep in the arms of the dawn
like a child that has cried all night.
Come, let us gather our nets from the shore
and set our catamarans free,
To capture the leaping wealth of the tide,
for we are the kings of the sea!
No longer delay, let us hasten away
in the track of the sea gull’s call,
The sea is our mother, the cloud is our brother,
the waves are our comrades all.
What though we toss at the fall of the sun
where the hand of the sea-god drives?
He who holds the storm by the hair,
will hide in his breast our lives.
Sweet is the shade of the cocoanut glade,
and the scent of the mango grove,
And sweet are the sands at the full o’ the moon
with the sound of the voices we love;
But sweeter, O brothers, the kiss of the spray
and the dance of the wild foam’s glee;
Row, brothers, row to the edge of the verge,
where the low sky mates with the sea.
The Coromandel Fishers,
hen I was twelve years old, and we were living in Indonesia, my sister and I once accompanied my parents to one of the regular dinner parties that anchored the calendar of the Indian expatriate. As per routine, we were shunted off upstairs with our friends, to watch television and play video games. Our parents sat downstairs with the other parents, probably to complain about how all their children did these days was watch television and play video games.
Summoned for dinner an hour or so later, we came down into the dining room, to a large table laden with various plates of food. My memory seems to have captured this scene and then, like a rogue design editor, Photoshopped it into even sharper significance. The peripheral details of the other dishes are blurred, but the centrepiece of the table remains in vivid focus. It was a whole, steamed fish, coloured such a wretched gray that it reminded me instantly of death. I also recall a smell that lurked over the table like an invisible warning. I did not eat much dinner that night.
Taste is the most temperamental of our senses, remarkably resilient in some ways but also malleable enough for one to be repulsed for life by a single experience. That dinner party was sufficient to put me off fish for the next decade, and even in my early twenties, when I cautiously began venturing back towards seafood, I stuck wherever possible to the safe, taste-slaying possibilities of batter and the deep fryer. Fish and chips I could face, but not fish in soup, or fish baked or grilled or, worst of
all, steamed. This was not as restricting as it sounds. Everybody else in my family is rigidly vegetarian, and I was happy enough with poultry and meat when I ate out.
Depending on how you look at it, this makes me either the least ideal or the most ideal person to write about fish. Naturally, I prefer to take the latter view, and to believe that being unencumbered by dense schools of fish-related memories is a distinct advantage. But this book goes beyond considering fish merely as food. Particularly in a nation with as lengthy and diverse a coastline as India’s, fish can sit at the heart of many worlds—of culture, of history, of sport, of commerce, of society. It can knit the coast together in one dramatic swoop: The hilsa, pride and joy of Bengal, now often arrives in many fish markets from Gujarat, at the very opposite end of the coastline. Or it can fragment the coast into a multitude of passions and traditions, each different from the one found a hundred kilometres to the north or south of it. Looking more closely at even one aspect of these worlds is like picking up the most visible thread of a fishing net, and suddenly seeing the entire skein lift into view.
Much as I would have liked to begin in Kolkata and ramble right around the edges of the Indian peninsula over several continuous months, I wasn’t able to travel that way. Instead, I tore large chunks of time out of my working life, which is possibly why the journey divided itself easily into individual segments, and thence into individual chapters. I flew a lot. I also took buses and motorcycles and trains and cars, dozens of auto-rickshaws (including one that I drove, rather poorly, on a deserted Kerala highway), many flimsy-looking boats, twice a bicycle, and once a jerry-rigged motor vehicle for which no technical term exists.
Almost always, I travelled alone, and so I came to depend on the kindnesses of people who knew people who knew my friends. They would ease my entry into alien worlds, at least initially; when I didn’t follow the language, they would translate and add helpful annotations. In their comforting shadow, emboldened by the fact that they belonged even if I didn’t, I could loiter endlessly, watching and listening, starting up dialogues where I chose. In this way, I aspired to become what V. S. Naipaul once called ‘a discoverer of people, a finder-out of stories.’
In pottering about the Indian coast and writing about it, I have not intended to produce a guide to lead others down the same route. This is, in that sense, not a how-to-travel book but a travelogue—a record of my journeys, my experiences and observations, my conversations with the people I met, and my investigations into subjects that I happened to find incredibly fascinating. Put another way, it is simply what I believe all travel writing to be in its absolute essence: plain, old-fashioned journalism, disabuser of notions, destroyer of preconceptions, discoverer of the relative, shifting nature of truth.
day before I arrived in Kolkata, Burrabazar began to burn. Fire ate through fourteen levels of the Nandaram Market complex and its adjoining shops, and late in the evening, I fancied that the smoke still slept in the air. It wasn’t just because of traffic smog that I struggled to read a green-on-white sign mounted on a building, or to spot the little toenail clipping of a moon; I genuinely sensed the acridity of fresh smoke. Later, a friend’s father informed me that what I smelled was the burning of leaves, a popular winter-evening pastime much like dog walking or badminton. (That green-on-white sign, by the way, turned out to announce the premises of the Pollution Control Board.)
Smouldering vegetation notwithstanding, I’d been reliably told that winter is the best time to visit Kolkata. The weather behaves itself and moves into a Goldilocks state—not hot but not too cold, not humid but not too dry. The pace of life slackens even by Kolkata standards, tempers are more even, the traffic seems tolerable, and the puchkas taste better. What winter is not a good time for, they told me, is to eat hilsa, and as this is all
that I wanted to do, Kolkata and I appeared to be at odds with each other. At every turn, Bengali classicists—and there are many of them—suggested gently that I return for hilsa in the monsoon. There are no hilsa to be had now, they would state definitively—at least, no hilsa worth the eating. Grit your teeth, make it through the next few months, and come back then. The hilsa, they implied, is simultaneously a fish and a lesson in moral science: Good things come to those who wait.
But Kolkata’s fish barons, far less classicist, have decided that fish are more lucrative than morals. In mid-January, I found hilsa everywhere I looked. Restaurants produced it without a murmur of protest, droves of trucks bore it in from Bangladesh, riverside shack eateries pressed it upon me, and fish markets teemed with it. Good things came to those who had even Rs 60 in their wallets. Which was how, less than three hours after I first coughed on leaf smoke, I was sitting with a plate of rice and a shallow dish of shorshe ilish in front of me.
If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on Centre Court. It is the undisputed champion of fish in this corner of India, possessed of enigmatic qualities of taste and all the more desired because of its vaunted seasonal elusiveness. Poets have written on it, one calling the ilish, as the hilsa is known in Bengali, ‘the darling of the waters.’ The hilsa can be a symbol of Bengali identity but also of the sibling rivalry between East and West Bengal. It participates in another rivalry as well: A hilsa dinner is a tradition for fans of the East Bengal football team when it wins, just as prawns are for fans of Mohun Bagan. At every fish bazaar, in a pleasing spot of meta-fishing, the promise of fresh hilsa is bait for customers, shouted out to reel business in.
For many years, my immediate mental reference point to the phrase ‘fish market’ has been the admonition of the teachers
at my school in Chennai, many of whom had clearly never been to such a market. During particularly raucous afternoons, the teacher would sally forth, in rhetorical spirit: ‘Where do you think you are? A fish market?’ I remember I would pause at the time, suspending my hijinks sometimes for a whole second, to quickly imagine a deafening charnel house where one waded through rivers of blood and offal, battled piercing odours, and purchased fish from beetle-browed, thuggish merchants of death.
The Lake Market fish stalls rose far above those infernal expectations. In one long space papered over with wall prints of Shiva and Kali, appropriate deities of destruction, the vendors sat behind their fish on concrete platforms. Cutters jutted out from under their knees, their dark blades rising like the trunks of trumpeting elephants. Melting ice and blood dripped in taut rivulets into the gutters that lined the aisles. At the corner of each platform, fish innards stacked up in neat pyramids. The fish was so fresh there was barely any odour; the solitary line of chicken vendors at the far wall was entirely responsible for the atmosphere’s redolence. Most notably, though, business was conducted at a very civilized volume; my teachers, I think, would have been suitably astonished.
Khokon, my gaunt and bescarved guide, was the first to assure me that there was now good hilsa to be had even in the off-season in Kolkata, and he marched me towards a vendor to prove it. The traditional start of the hilsa season, Saraswathi Pooja, was still over a month away. That is when the fish, sea-dwellers for the rest of the year, begin to move house in large numbers, swimming upriver to spawn. But there are hilsa to be found in the rivers in winter as well; one theory has it, in fact, that eco-savvy Bengalis of earlier centuries constructed the idea of the hilsa ‘season’ and buckled it to the religious calendar only to avoid overfishing.
In my hands, the proffered hilsa felt firm, dense and oily. Its fine silver scales were not immediately obvious to the touch, but they still glinted, under the low overhead lamps, like a tray of precious gems. All the hilsa in the market that day, each between eight hundred grams and one and a half kilogrammes, were from Bangladesh, and they wouldn’t have been there even ten days earlier. The Bangladesh government, in response to high domestic demand, had imposed a six-month ban on exports to India, and the ban had run its course a week before I reached Kolkata, when fish shipments resumed across the Benapole—Petrapole border.
As united as they are in appreciation of the hilsa, Bengalis are divided by geography over the relative merits of hilsa from the Padma and Ganga rivers. Bangladeshis prize the plumper fish from the Padma above everything else; the Ganga hilsa, they will concede magnanimously, is still hilsa, but that is really all that can be said for it. West Bengalis, on the other hand, look with sympathy upon their oriental cousins, who cannot appreciate the intense flavours of the Ganga hilsa; their collective opinion is that the Bangladeshis are more to be pitied than scorned for their congenital error in judgement.
At the Lake Market bazaar, the fish vendors claimed that they could tell Ganga hilsa from Padma hilsa simply by touch. How? ‘The Indian fish looks more silvery,’ one sage began, but then suddenly, like a stricken Freemason on the verge of divulging the secret handshake, he gave up, and hinted instead at a mystic art. ‘It’s in the touch, you won’t understand it,’ he said elliptically. ‘Just as you can’t tell if somebody is a good person or a bad person by just looking at their face. You need to know fish; you need to have that experience.’
His younger, non-Templar neighbour had fewer qualms. ‘The Padma fish are oilier, and I have a theory for that. There is more silt in the Ganga, so the fish are leaner, since they fight against the silt and the current to swim upstream.’ The Padma fish,
happily deprived of this workout, thus turned out plumper and rounder. ‘And then there is also a pronounced pink streak on the underbelly of the Bangladeshi fish,’ he added, helpfully pointing it out to me by tracing a smear of pinkness with a chipped fingernail.
I began to move on, but my vendor seemed at a loose end, eager to chat. ‘How come it isn’t busier than it is right now?’ I asked. It was already 10 a.m., but there were still baskets of shrimp and crab, pre-filleted hilsa, and monster-sized catla spread out on banana leaves, awaiting buyers. ‘It’s a Monday,’ he said. ‘Very few people buy fish on a Monday.’
This puzzled me. It wasn’t a religious stricture, as far as I could tell, and nobody seemed to know any other reason for fishless Mondays. Weeks later, though, I lit upon one possible solution. In
the New York chef Anthony Bourdain advises his readers never to order fish in a restaurant on Monday. At the beginning of the week, a restaurant chef is still trying to move out the fish left over from the weekend. ‘He anticipates the likelihood that he might still have some fish lying around on Monday morning—and he’d like to get money for it without poisoning his customers,’ Bourdain explains. ‘If it still smells okay on Monday night—you’re eating it.’ Forewarned, especially in the case of dodgy fish, is forearmed.
Shorshe ilish, perhaps the most popular technique of cooking hilsa, involves simmering and serving cuts of the fish in a mustard sauce so pungent that its wallop reaches right into your sinuses. The sauce is a marvellous assembly of grainy mustard, curd, chillies, turmeric and lemon, achieving the sort of bright yellow that is otherwise only found in pots of poster paint. But its very power always leaves room for regret that it might be masking the natural creamy taste of the fish.
The first time I ate shorshe ilish, however, I thought no such thing; I was too focussed on making sure that the bones didn’t kill me. The hilsa has a viciously designed skeleton, evolution’s way of convincing predators that they should look elsewhere for lunch. Like an overbuilt house, its superstructure has big support bones, feathery little bones called thorns that tickle as they slide accidentally down your throat, and a host of other innocuous bones that seem to serve no purpose but that can probably puncture your digestive system once swallowed. ‘The Bengalis have a standing joke,’ Sharad Dewan, the executive chef at the Park hotel in Kolkata, told me. ‘A true Bengali can take a mouthful of hilsa, and sort meat from bone in his mouth, swallowing the meat and storing the bones to one side, to be extricated later. If you can’t do that, you’re not a real Bengali.’
Dewan is a New Delhi man himself, and he first ate hilsa at the house of a friend in that city’s Bengali enclave of Chittaranjan Park. ‘I remember how they would cook the entire fish. Not one part was wasted,’ said Dewan. ‘The evening would start with fried hilsa, and then there would be a curry with mustard, and then little cutlets of hilsa roe. If I ever spent the night there, I’d wake up the next morning to see breakfast that used up the fish’s head—either in a soupy stock called jhol or mashed up into a chutney.’ The chutney, called ambol ilish, involves deep-frying the head, breaking it up into little pieces, and marinating them in raw tamarind, sugar, lemon juice and the Bengali five-spice mixture known as panch phoran.
If you can wangle your way into it—I couldn’t—the best place in Kolkata to eat hilsa, by popular opinion, is the exclusive Bengal Club. But Dewan’s kitchen at the Park is not far behind. My hilsa education got suddenly intensive under one of his lieutenants, Vasanthi, whose relaxed, toothy grin completely belied her swift hands, her alert eyes, and her martinet manner with a gangling assistant.
‘First, we learn to cut.’ Cutting into a hilsa feels very much like cutting into a very firm, fresh tomato. First a swipe near the neck, then near the tail, and then longitudinal cuts along the sides to peel away the fillet from that side of the fish. This particular hilsa had gorgeous, pink, slightly marbled flesh. ‘Each fillet has a little black area at the bottom, lining the belly of the fish,’ said Vasanthi. ‘Cut that off. It tastes of nothing.’ With another fish, we lopped off the head and, through the digestive orifice, scooped out a mass of congealed blood and hilsa innards. Then we cut the fish into thick slices—what Vasanthi called ‘curry cuts’—to fry. ‘In Bengal, we keep the fins on, we don’t cut them off,’ said Vasanthi. ‘And look here, this is the roe. You can prise it out and fry it up with mustard, onions and green chillies.’ Around the liver sat ruddy flaps of fat, signs of a hilsa that had led a contented life. ‘That liver would be great to fry.’