What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Samanth Subramanian's "Followig Fish"

I relish Samanth Subramanian’s writing. He crafts the kind of sturdy, specific, plain-style sentence – first person, active voice, spiced with a hint of adventure or exoticism – that I devour. “One morning earlier this year, I took the Delhi Metro to an eastern suburb called Ghaziabad, where the Aam Aadmi Party is headquartered,” he writes, in his absorbing "The Agitator" (The New Yorker, September 2, 2013), and I instantly think, Okay, I’m with you. Let’s go! Subramanian’s wonderful Following Fish (2010), which I’ve just finished reading, brims with such lines:

One day, I accompanied Father Kattar to his home village of Veerapandiyapattinam, a community of roughly five thousand fishermen, forty-five minutes’ drive from Tuticorin and less than two kilometres from the temple town of Tiruchendur.

With nothing else to do, I began walking the promenade beside the River Mandovi, a procession of lemon-yellow and powder-blue walls across the road to my right, and moored riverboat casinos with names like Noah’s Ark and King’s Casino, dozing after the previous night’s excesses, to my left.

Climbing the few steps up into the temple – each rendered permanently sticky underfoot by the spilled juice of hundreds of smashed coconuts – I entered a small sanctum with two individual shrines.

Only on my final full day in Goa was I able to follow the second part of Alvares’ advice: to walk the beach from Calangute to Candolim.

In Veraval, thanks to Bapu, I wheedled my way for hours at a time into the yards of two master boat builders.

Following Fish is a brilliant, delicious travelogue, an account of Subramanian’s meanderings along “the long, magnificent necklace of India’s coastline,” exploring fish markets (“fisherwomen with toes reddened by fish blood squat behind cutters, little steel tubs of still-swimming catfish, and turmeric-smeared cuts of fish”), toddy shops (“This toddy had been tapped just a couple of hours earlier and was still so sweet that, when it was brought to our table, it managed to attract fruit flies out of nowhere”), eateries (“Out of the gloom, a waiter materialized and first brought me water in a squat, broad steel bowl, then a cool glass of the spiced kokum-coconut milk drink known as sol kadhi, and then a superb set lunch that sang of home: rice, fresh rotis, an elongated piece of fried fish, a bowl of curry, and a piece of curried fish”), beaches (“The beach had little sand to spare; the ground felt hard under my feet, not as if the sand had been packed by water but as if there were brick or clay just beneath”), and boat-building yards (“Here, a boy in his late teens was dipping strands of braided cotton into a mix of oil and resin, and then inserting the strands into the crevices between the planks with the help of a chisel and a mallet, pounding them into place until the crevices were full”).

My favorite chapter is “On seeking to eat as a city once ate,” in which Subramanian describes eating a meal in an old Mumbai “lunch home” or khanawal called Anantashram:

For the entirety of my meal, though, it was the curry that held my attention. It was more than anything else, a thick fish soup, flavoured heartily with mackerel, smooth with coconut, yellow with turmeric, tart with kokum, and finished with a flourish of tempered mustard seeds. I asked for a second helping of the curry, to go with the perfectly cylindrical serving of rice; of the curried mackerel itself, though, I was not a fan. It seemed to have given its all to its gravy and it now sat glistening but essence-less on the edge of my plate. When I rose after my meal, in fact, that remaining hunk of fish earned me a scolding from my waiter for not finishing my food.

Like that thick, heartily flavored Anantashram curry, Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish is close to perfection. I enjoyed it immensely.  

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