As I write this, I struggle to keep the balance between giving expression (language, style, pace, drama) to a continuum of ideas, and filling with ideas a rhythmic continuity of what my brain comprehends as graceful sophisticated language worthy of written expression. Whichever way you may look at Indian writing in English, the latter seems to have almost decisively encroached upon the former. No wonder then, that Indian fiction writing standards in English language (barring only Arundhat Roy of course) are rather awful, characterized by what I would call a pornographic tendency – writing trying to stand in for something else but in the process, vulgarizing it further. Indeed the tendency cuts across a wide range and breaches the vast territory of non-fiction writing as well but at the same time, narrative journalistic writing has made drastic and delightful progress. This is indeed writing that has disciplined itself over time, started with ambitions loftier than journalism but later realized itself within the orbit of journalistic convictions through issue-based boundary conditions.
The book I just finished reading – ‘Following Fish’ by Samanth Subramaniam – fits the above category, I reckon. It marks a young author’s attempt to come to terms with the coastal cultures and their various dependencies on the fish that come to represent, at different points of time, aspects such as food, trade, identity, industry, craft, taste, nativity, risk, and journey. It is remarkable how Samanth manages to evoke all of these within 150 odd pages of delightful prose that retains the joy of traveling, the discernment of a food enthusiast, the cautious sharpness of a social scientist, and the persuasive command of a curious journalist. His language is rich in precise metaphors, fluent across cultural distinctiveness, and inclusive of colloquial flavours as well as punctuated by dramatic pauses. His method is meticulous and patient, observant and committed, also expansive and cuts across infinite ways of approaching the fish in order to follow it.He makes regional comparisons come alive, communities’ investments in their past acquire a powerful meaning, and cultural analysis go beyond usual suspects such as nostalgia and loss. In one long journey through India’s coastline, he tells the story of our times, following several historical and emotional trajectories that lead towards mysteries of several disjointed pasts that were eventually forged together. Samanth opens up those few hidden cavities inside these forgings making us sit up and notice what still remains, and why, and where exactly.
His inspirational journeys do not make it a travel book even though they do inspire you to travel on your own, not retrace as much as re-search. He may be persuasive and thrilling like every writer must be, but he also inspires analytical critical approach to studying minds and opinions, ideas and passsions, by exposing their fragilities and idiosyncratic origins. As one tastes Hilsa in Calcutta, and Karimeen in Kerala, searches for authentic Mangalorean fish curry, and vital differences between Malawani and Gomantak cuisines, one realizes the meanings of one’s own identity and taste in comparison and contrast to others’, their impatience reminds us of our own, their assertions take us back to our own. Following fish is elemental in not only the sense that Samanth underlines, “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,” but also in the sense that it exposes fundamentals of cultural transactions, identity conflicts, and true meanings of setting out in search of food, in search of what one really knows, yet what one really doesn’t know about what one knows. It speaks to us in the language of anxieties, legends, and the pleasure of seeking, which comes together in a journey into the sea. Thankfully, it is not a journey like Hemingway’s, arresting one’s identity from between individualism and temporally protected challenges; instead it acquires its meaning within a continuum, through endlessness of a Camusian journey into the sea like that of Sisyphus, absurd yet establishing a profound meaning which cannot be arrested but floats around oneself in the early morning air that wakes the man and invites him to follow the fish.
Strongly recommended to those who appreciate quality writing.