Water lilies bloom in the lagoons
where cranes part the flowers
looking for fish then fly away
to stay in fragrant seaside groves
near my lover’s village washed by the sea.
– Neithal (Ainkurunuru – 184)
In the culturalscape of Sangam or pre historic Tamil literature, neithal, the coastal area, is eulogised by poets for its spectacular sunsets, sweeping vistas of sea, sand and sky; it also lent itself to musing on the ephemeral quality of life before the expanse of nature. It was associated with the sites of glorious battles, heart wrenching deaths, set to the sounds of gathering storms, crashing waves, roaring seas. Here lonely young lasses pined and awaited the return of lovers who had sailed to sea. The fishing hero would brave the elements for a good catch and in an act defying death pick a pearl or a necklace of shells for his beloved.
The romantic element is obviously layered as neithal‘s dominant emotion is yearning- be it communion with nature, God, self, with a lover. Some musicologists opine that the Tamil Pann could have been an earlier precursor to the north Indian raga. The beauty of Thodi, set to the tremulous strumming of an ancient harp, say some music experts, was best suited for songs about the coastal landscape.
Samanth Subramanian’s travelogue Finding Fish is an interesting book on the over 7000 kms of coastline of India. The journalist with a decade’s experience sets to travel through the coast from West Bengal to end in Gujarat, savouring and sampling the various kinds of fish in the states.
Finding Fish is not about fashionable gastronomic tourism.Subramanian’s journey encompasses tradition, culture, livelihood, personal anecdotes, vignettes of the land and its people, fisher folk, friends, and stories. Much like a social anthropologist he weaves in information on the species of fish found in each area, the topography of the beachfronts, the netted ties of men and fish and money in commerce, nautical details, politics of the place and social mix of a people. The bit about the woman angler in Goa brings to play all the elements associated with fishing with a touch of lightness and beauty.
Subramanian’s travels take him to wet markets, the dockyards where fishermen anchor their boats, or drag in their trawlers; he witnesses the hardships, the Moby Dick moments or the man and nature wrestle behind a prized catch; the sights and smells of a market; and in the process receives country wisdom from a fishmonger or two. Apocryphal seaside ventures, environmental worries, coastal livelihoods and ultimately the uniqueness of each species of fish of the area and other stories of religion, caste and regionalism are woven by Subramanian’s graceful prose.
From the illish in Kolkata where the fish is a divine motif, to faith healing by eating live fish at Hyderabad, past a Sunday mass at church at Manapadu in Tamil Nadu, travels through toddy shops in Kerala polishing karimeen with arrack, the delights of mackerel in coconut cream in Mangalore, fish shopping with a former Shiv Sena hand at Mumbai tasting the sailfish and at sea chasing a grouper to the zen like moment in Goa watching an angling fisherwoman to end his travels at the boatmaking yards of Gujarat, Samanth sails through them all.
Though Subramanian begins travelling from the east he doesn’t mention the 400 kms of coastal area of Orissa and it’s variety of freshwater, salt and river water fish and the subtle variants of an illish machcha, a delicacy in Oriya cuisine. Given Subramanian’s lively articles on music it would have added value to his coastal smorgasbord if he could have brought in a cultural dimension that included folk songs that are particular to each region.A Koli song to the goddess before setting to sail; the blues of a boatman on the Hooghly; or Karaiyar paatu, archaic Tamil coastal songs and choral Elelo paatu and those of Goan boatmen including Karvi fisher folk songs would have lent a touch of music that Subramanian obviously has an ear for.
The curious tale of how Subramanian, hailing from a family of committed vegetarians in Madras, got converted to eating and savouring his fish remains unexplained. But then as the old saying goes, the sea hath fish for every man.