It was some time ago that I came across a fantastic tale, and told you about it. Whilst that was just another yarn from the wonderful world of Tahir Shah my interest may have been heightened by a pressing need to manage asthma, though a cure with a live fish filled with paste wriggling down your insides is not what I had in mind. And I was reminded of Tahir Shah’s account of the Gowd family of Hyderabad the other day, as I delved into more fishy tales from the sub-continent. Indeed chapter two brought us another encounter with the same family and their escapades.
I had been reading Following Fish, which turned out to be a hugely enjoyable jaunt round the coasts of India. So good was it that Samanth Subramanian was awarded the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize after the first edition appeared in 2010. It’s available now in this country, in paperback, from Atlantic.
Subramanian takes us to Gujarat and Hyderabad, to Mumbai, Kolkata and to Goa. And all the while the topic is fish. But we vary from building and caulking the boats in the traditional manner, to grinding the spices for the curry, and just about everything else in between.
The hilsa is a delicacy, though I’m not sure I’d be keen on sampling anything that came from the waters of the Ganges, sacred or otherwise. But stocks are diminishing. And battle rages, the Kolkatans preferring the Ganga fish, whilst the West Bengalis swear by the produce of their own waters. We visit the markets, as dawn breaks, head to restaurants across the estuary, sampling, tasting.
In Mangalore we dress our fish in whispers of ginger, and mustard seeds, comparing masalas. And then there’s the toddy shops, the home brews to wash down lunch.
Over in Goa the ten rupee fish curry doubles in price, and then the decimal point moves to the right. It’s beach life, and tourists and shacks – alcohol is not permitted in the open, hence seasonal shacks, licensed, and sun beds, where once there were canoes and nets and pride – and raw waste is buried in the sand; sand that will be blown away, exposing the detritus of modern life. Dunes are dug out for building materials and the protection is gone. The beach disappears. Trawlers scavenge the waters and jet skis scare what’s left. There are no fish. The beaches that once were home to fishing canoes now make riches from tourists, and to hang with the consequences
In Gujarat we visit the boat-builders, working in the same woods as their ancestors, and also in fibreglass. The same techniques used in Marco Polo’s day are still in use, and the water in the bay flows undisturbed to the edge of Antarctica. Dug-out canoes, from single trunks, paddled out to depths of 100 feet are now rare. But the fishing boats built today are based on the same design as the cargo fleet from the Age of Discovery, and the techniques are the same, enhanced by the odd power tool.
But the fish are running out. Inshore limits and off-seasons are ignored. Long line hooks carry a century of baits, and trawlers take the fry and the breeding stock.
And running through it all there will always be a man with a line, and with time to ponder. And there will always be spices and chillies, pastes and sauces. Samanth Subramanian is an excellent guide, and I’ve a strong craving for fish curry. I’ll watch out for more from his pen.
And whilst on the subject of books, congratulations to Gavin Francis, whose Empire Antarctica has been announced as the nomination from the non-fiction category for the Scottish Book of the Year. You can cast your vote here, from 1 October. And remember where you first heard of Gavin’s writing, both On The Bedside Table, and on The Bookshelf.