October 07, 2010

Following Fish: a review

In the famed Anantashram restaurant in Khotachiwadi in Bombay, Samanth Subramanian is savouring the delights of his bangda meal. He overhears a conversation "so diverting" that he actually forgets what he is supposed to be doing there -- ingesting gastronomic material for this book -- and tunes in to the two men.

After the initial pleasantries, one says to the other: "In some time, anyway, we will all be naked."

After a suitable pause for this information to sink in, the other replies: "What?"

I'll leave you to discover the rest of this surreal exchange that so charmed Samanth in Anantashram. But when I read it, it struck me as being, in some ways, his book in miniature. You're following fish (and well, your book's called that after all). You stop somewhere to taste what some local eatery has done with the stuff, and it is usually an excellent meal. But you have your eyes and ears open too, in addition to your mouth. (Though sometimes your eyes are open because they are watering with all the mouth-watering spices that are stuffed or rubbed or marinated into the fish … I'll leave that there too). And since they are open, you see and hear and absorb plenty of everything that surrounds the consumption of fish, and later you write about all that too. And it's a good thing: It would be a dull book indeed that was filled to the gills (no I did not intend that pun) only with descriptions of tasty meals.

And this is not a dull book. Though it has those descriptions all right.

Samanth has a felicity with words and language that, simply put, I can only envy. Time and again, he finds the simile that brings to life whatever he is telling you about, or the phrase that makes you question assumptions, or maybe just the word or two that makes you laugh out loud. Sometimes one or more of those at the same time.

In Goa, he finds the Sinquerim jetty "thrumming with jet-skis and powerboats". But Samanth also knows that this is early in the season; at the peak, he imagines there would be far more thrumming, with vessels "scudding through like hordes of angry water beetles." Spot on with the image, and you can't help a smile at the image of irate insects scuttling about like … well, like boats.

In Chennai, he opens a gifted tub of dried mackerel podi, that charming Tamil word for a mixed spice. "Tasted raw," says Samanth, "it races to the back of your throat and proceeds to set your tonsils on fire, but with rice and a liberal spoon of ghee, it settles down and thereafter only singes your mouth with occasional bursts of playful fieriness." I mean, I've tasted podi like that. Asked to describe it, about all I ever managed was a gasped "It's hot!" Never thought of attributing speed and playfulness to them. Yet Samanth's words make you feel like the stuff is being its playful self on your virgin tongue, tapping out its eye-watering rhythm on those unsuspecting tastebuds.

But of course the book is about more than fish and tastes. It's through that lens that Samanth tells us about churches and Marathi chauvinism and markets and boat-building and plenty of other things that make this such a fascinating country. For just one example, listen -- and I mean listen -- to him as he unfolds the Howrah fish market early one morning: "the sotto scrape of crates being dragged, the fortissimo yodel of fish prices, the cymbal-crashes of balance pans, the persistent notes of conversation … like second or third violins, and the occasional tuba-like burst of the horn of a truck."

Did you hear it? I've finished the book, and even so I imagine the Howrah Market Concerto #1, conductor Samanth Subramanian, playing on in my head as I muddle through the day.

So do I have a complaint? Yes, and it's to do with what I've mentioned above. There were times when I felt the similes coming at me just a little too fast, like a series of monsoon waves crashing on one of the beaches Samanth wanders. (There, he's got me doing it too). They make things vivid, sure, but sometimes you want the description straight up, no frills, just the facts ma'am. Because sometimes straight up is more vivid than any simile. Sometimes no frills makes the next simile jump even more energetically from the page.

For that reason, I wish Samanth had left some of his experiences unadorned.

Still, overall this is a little jewel of a book. Now I'm looking forward to visiting Toddy Shop #86 in Alleppey with it in hand, to reading passages from it there over toddy and karimeen, and to staggering out both drunk and stuffed to the gills (I didn't mean that pun either), but sated in the extreme.

And when that's done, I'll ask Samanth to tell me more, lots more, about lovely Shailaja with long hair tied into a bun who made him the best Mangalore fish curry in existence. And then I'll get on a bus or train or any damned transport from Alleppey to Mangalore and sit back, dreaming toddy-enhanced dreams of long hair and fish curry.


Full disclosure: I'm in Samanth's acknowledgements.


Aditya said...

The idea of this book is just brilliant. I had seen this mentioned at rediff.com, a couple of months ago. Certainly, would pick this up once I am back home!

Anonymous said...

Anantashram! :( its closed now, isn't it? The Curry Nazi...dam I miss it