‘Hilsa an insight into Bengali society’

New Delhi, May 30 (IANS) The art of deboning a hilsa, a gourmet fish from Bengal, is ‘a rite of passage – a trial by bone that grants an outsider the right to entry into the Bengali civil society’, says travel writer Samanth Subramanian.

‘An executive chef at Kolkata’s Park Hotel once said only a real Bengali could negotiate the bone. When I heard it, trial by bone became a challenge for me,’ says the young writer, who has authored the new travelogue ‘Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast’.

Subramanian has tackled the hilsa or ‘ilish’ in all its cooked avatars since then – ‘shorshe ilish’ (with mustard), ‘bhapa ilish’ (steamed), ‘ilish paturi’ (wrapped in plantain leaf) and deep fried ‘ilish’.

‘ ‘Shorshe ilish’ tickles my tastebuds. The sauce is so fiery and invigorating that it keeps bringing you back to it,’ Subramanian told IANS in an interview.

His book ‘Following Fish’, described by writer Ramachandra Guha as a ‘stunning debut by a hugely-gifted writer’, conducts a journalistic investigation into the story of fish – as a way of life and livelihood along India’s nearly 7,600-km coastline.

It looks at the culinary traditions, myths, pisciculture, indigenous livelihoods, fish varieties and cultures that have spawned around fish in nine essays.

The writer begins his fishing odyssey in Kolkata where he pursued the hilsa with ‘single-minded intensity’.

‘The fish has such a unique place in the Bengali society. It is reflective of the Bengali obsession that they like to do certain things in a certain way,’ he analysed.

The young traveller subsequently trawled the waters down south to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where he even drove an autorickshaw, ‘rather poorly, on an empty Kerala highway to chase his muse’.

In Andhra Pradesh, the rite of ‘swallowing live fish as a cure for asthma’ was the core of Subramanian’s study while in Tamil Nadu, he explored the influences of foreign landfalls on the traditional micro-cultures along the coast centred around fishing.

But Kerala was a delight, the writer said.

‘I wanted to explore the unique toddy shop culture of Kerala. It is a highly male-dominated and laidback world where people are neglectful of time. The toddy shops in the state are symbolic of their inherent love for alcohol. It is great fun to step into that world for a little while to experiment,’ Subramanian said.

‘However, I was a bit ambivalent about the food I ate. In the backwaters, I came across ocean monsters that I never thought could exist,’ he added.

But one creature that captured the writer’s imagination was the beral – ‘a fat long banana-like fish that was almost a nautical nightmare’. He also speaks of the ‘fried currymin’.

‘The food in Kerala’s toddy shops was carefully calibrated so that it was spicy enough to garner more orders for toddy,’ Subramanian said.

The south conquered, the writer travelled west to Gujarat, Goa and Mumbai.

In Mumbai, kolis – the earliest fishing community – was the object of Subramanian’s curiosity.

‘I knew they were there, but as the metropolis, its economy and demography had changed over the years I wanted to explore the relationship between the kolis and the sea. The traditional fishing cultures were waning with the spurt in premium real estate trade,’ he said.

‘Moreover, the rise in the number of career opportunities have promoted the new generation of fishermen to switch to lucrative vocations,’ he said.

One factor that binds fisherman along the Indian coast is the threat of marginalisation of ethnic fishermen who still rely on their catamarans by mechanised trawlers, the writer said.

‘Mechanised fishing boats make fishing unsustainable. What is being taken out of the sea is not what is being generated by the sea. The balance is skewed. The traditional fishing communities – who need a pristine stretch of shoreline to operate – are also disappearing, along with the beaches. The imbalance has to be addressed,’ he said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])