A travelogue by an Indian journalist about the many roles of fish within his nation’s culture.
Though there are many mouthwatering meals devoured within these pages, Subramanian (This Divided Island: Life, Death, and the Sri Lankan War, 2015, etc.) maintains that “this book goes beyond considering fish as merely food…fish can sit at the heart of many worlds—of culture, of history, of sport, of commerce, of society.” The author recognizes that though his subject may be fish, his stories are about people, told in the words of those who fish, those who eat fish, those who build fishing boats, and those who witness the tension in the coastal towns between the economies built on the traditions of fishing and the transition to tourism. Most of the book is first-person reportage, with the author visiting locations that have a seashore in common but are culturally diverse. One of the most interesting shows how “in the mid-1530s, roughly twenty thousand people from thirty villages converted to Christianity—possibly the largest single conversion in history.” Yet he finds that the culture continues to find “an older base of Hindu customs” under its “veneer” of Catholicism. Spirituality also figures in the faith-healing pilgrimages of tens of thousands for an asthma cure that involves ingesting a live, wriggling fish. In other chapters, Subramanian discovers that home cooking offers him a taste of heaven that no restaurant meal can approximate and that fish curries can be as diverse as the cultures that spawn them. He also shows how villages that have depended on fishing for generations have found a faster and easier way to generate income through tourism, which threatens the fishing. In the end, however, something essential remains unchanged: “Fishing is still elemental in the most elemental sense of the word—an activity composed of water and air and light and space, all arranged in precarious balance around a central idea of a man in a boat, waiting for a bite.”
An enjoyable exploration of the coastline of India, with a focus on fish.