I knew my caterer math. They were supposed to bring in non-veg dishes only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was one blue Monday and my colleagues and I were in queue holding our plates inmate style. As I prepared to move on, as I must, she added: "vegetarian saar". She was trying to be helpful but ended up being quite befuddling till she elaborated "It is made of paruppu (dal), shaped like a fish-head".
Now, I am not sure who the target audience was. To those who relished real fish, this was one bad joke. To chronic vegetarians, the very sight of a fish is a worse joke - not to mention bad manners: playing with food and all that. It is only those habitual vegetarians with negotiable moral values, like yours truly, who felt inclined to give it a try. Moreover in my case there was an additional motive. There seemed to be, on the caterer's payroll, someone who dished out - couldn't resist that one - ideas to justify his existence. So, a strong sense of fraternity compelled me to try it.
Following Fish is one of the more interesting travel books I have read in a while. Careful readers of this blog - all two of you that is - will recall that my feelings towards the travelogue genre aren't quite fond, which is also because I haven't tried many. I had heard about this book but wasn't really planning on buying it when I went to Landmark. It was the catchy book-cover poster with the teasing show of depth in the hold, that did it. Now after having read it, I'm quite glad I read into the mild metaphor in the cover-photo.
Through the course of the essays, the author Samanth Subramaniam, shares with us his : development of familiarity with hilsa, brief crush for a Mangalorean lady who homecooks a speciality for him, daytime toddy hunt across the length of Kerala and quest for the 'original' cuisine of a city made diverse by the layer upon layer of history and many more and so many such stories tangentially connected to fish. While the fluent writing makes for a breezy read, the book is also strewn with trivia and attempts to connect some cultural dots within each chapter, making the writing very appealing to me.
the very word koli translates to spider and fisherman because, as the historian
D.D.Kosambi explained, the fisherman uses his net much as a spider uses its web
Sometimes it is a throwaway piece like that, sometimes it is about connecting the Indus Valley ship building tradition to today's ship building in Gujarat, musing about how Portuguese cuisine sidestepped coastal Tamil Nadu and parts where the author slips in humour of the kind that make Jeeves' upper lip twitch imperceptibly:
Mackarel has a famously insistent taste but this fish was shy and reclusive, asI laughed out loud though. I was then flanked - or rather outflanked - by two curvaceous gentlemen for the better part of six hours on a Government bus from Samayapuram to Chennai. So I think I managed to laugh till it hurt - the next guy.
if it would have rather been at home with a good book. (p83)
Each of the stories - essays has a rather staid ring to it - makes for engaging reading. The taste descriptions remind one of the stories of Naanjil Naadan - who is known to leave his protagonists mire in their existential crises for a while, while he dives into a digression of the local cuisine, nuances of preparations and taste. The portraits of the people, whom the author manages to make us quite familiar with, is perhaps the most lingering impact the book will make: the Mangalorean auto driver, who recounting his trip to Madras says, "these auto drivers always fleece you" and the skeptic who doubts the Gouds' fish-medicine so deeply that his skepticism solidifies into an orthodoxy of its own, the angler and the unionist who long for the days of yore in their own different ways and so on.
After bravely lunching on a dal-fish - which the world ought to know, was terrible even by my lenient standards - I climbed up back to the office. Sealed in, encucibicled and checking on news feeds and tweets and allegedly cogitating on matters of great pith and substance, I ventured on the ever recurring wistful fancy for a tangible/visceral way of spending, what are allegedly, the last of my best years.
Not wanting to spend my week's wistfulness ration on day one, I begin to dash off some words - my own dal fish - that will get a person or two interested in the real thing.
In reviewspeak that means : two thumbs way up.