What's it like to chase fish and fishermen all along India's coast? Journalist Samanth Subramanian talks about how his first book, Following Fish, happened.
He's a journalist by circumstance and by choice, says the press release that accompanies his first book, Following Fish: Travels Along the Indian Coast. And that instantly rouses curiosity. 'By choice', I can understand but 'circumstance' u?
Following Fish is a hugely enjoyable book about journalist Samanth Subramanian's travels along India's coastline, checking out not just the various ways in which fish is prepared but also its links with history, economy, and society. Partly reflective, partly anecdotal, but wholly fun, his account of the reverence the hilsa is accorded in Bengal keeps you smiling while his search for the Mangalore fish curry is another page turner.
In Chennai for the launch of the book, published by Penguin, Samanth took time off for a chat about his travels for the book, the kind of journalism he prefers and, of course, the circumstance that led to his becoming a journalist.
First off, what is the circumstance that led you to journalism?
(Laughs) After school, I realised that I didn't want to go the usual route of engineering or medicine, so I started applying to American universities. The forms required me to fill in some subject I wanted to major in, and figuring I could always change it later if I needed to, I put in “journalism” as a placeholder. But my first few journalism classes proved so fascinating that I chose to simply continue in that stream.
How come your first book is a travelogue? And why fish?
I guess the Freudians would say that it was because of my childhood – because of how much my family moved, in India and overseas. (Smiles)But really, this book is journalism in the guise of travel writing. I had discussed the idea of a journey around the Indian coast with Penguin, but I chose to make that brief broader, to focus not just on food but on economy, on culture, on the lives of the people who live on the coast.
Any writers who inspired you with the writing?
A number, I'm sure. But more than any one writer, I'd pinpoint an institution and say that the long-form journalistic writing of the New Yorker has always been my real guiding inspiration. It's a style that is dying out even in the U.S. now, where it first started, and I think that's a shame. I think narrative journalism can tackle complex subjects beautifully. Also, we did realise after we settled on the book's format that it would be similar in style to Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon. I hadn't read it at the time, and I deliberately did not read it subsequently, to make sure I wasn't unduly influenced by it. Maybe I should read it now.
Apart from fish, was there any common factor along the coastline; in the lives of the fishermen?
(Reflectively) There are variations, but the really uniting factor I found was the loss of the livelihood of traditional fishermen. They're losing out on both land and sea. It's a sad situation. There is a black irony in the fact that, in Goa, fishermen are being sucked into the tourism industry, which was responsible for the loss of their livelihood in the first place. Another aspect is the environmental degradation; that again is something that is best seen in Goa.
Do they have any solutions?
Not really; they just say the government must do more to help them. I think people are just beginning to wake up to this now. For example, trawlers are guilty of fishing during the monsoon, which is the wrong time to fish; as a result, they'd gather up even small fry. A court has just imposed a ban on trawlers fishing in Kerala during the monsoon, which is a welcome move. We need more like it.
Your approach in the book varies: in some chapters there's a lot about food and recipes, in some – especially the Tamil Nadu – it's more about the community.
I wanted to keep the content diverse. And really, in every chapter – even the chapters that are ostensibly about food – I wanted to look at broader social and cultural themes. So in Tamil Nadu, of course, I was researching the history of a community known as the Paravas. But even in the Mumbai chapter, I use food to discuss threads of Mumbai's socio-cultural fabric. The fish in the title of the book is really an entry point, an excuse to look at broader subjects.
What was the best trip you undertook for this book?
The most enjoyable trip had to be the Kerala one. (Laughs) I was travelling from the south to the north of the state, over a week, eating and drinking in toddy shops with a good friend. Some people would call that a holiday. The chapter closest to my heart is the one set in Andhra Pradesh, about the fish remedy for asthma dispensed by the Bathini Goud family. This also, in a way, goes back to my childhood, and to my grandfather's own faith-based healing. The chapter gave me a way to look at the duality of rationality vs. belief.
Were there any unproductive trips?
Not really… I mean, no travel is unproductive in that sense… But of course, I got a whole lot of material that I couldn't use in this book.
I think I need to get over this one first. (Smiles) I'll definitely write another one, I just don't know what it'll be about as yet. I know I've found a genre – narrative journalism – that I'm absolutely comfortable with. Somehow, I don't see myself as a novelist. I like to find stories in the real world and tell them well – I find that hugely satisfying.