Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast

Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast by Samanth Subramanian

Book: Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast by Samanth Subramanian Read Free Book Online
Authors: Samanth Subramanian
backwaters. We got, first, a plate of fried chembelli, a small, inexpensive fish that tasted chewy and fibrous, like a better class of cardboard. Then we got a hideous looking fish called the beral. Deprived of its fins, the beral’s long, thick body looked almost snakelike, and its face was thuggish—definitely the sort of fish to avoid meeting in a dark, deserted bend of the river. But I had maligned the beral too soon. Its homely features concealed, if not a heart of gold, at least fresh, smooth meat and a crisp skin.
    By lunchtime, we were in the poignant situation of already having eaten the equivalent of three lunches. It had grown suddenly warm, my friend’s head began to loll in sleep, and I was shuddering at the thought of meeting another masala-heavy product of the backwaters. All three issues were simultaneously addressed by thatmarvellous mode of transport: The Backwaters Bus. The Backwaters Bus seems to have been created, in some part, as an exercise in voyeurism. With around eighty passengers on board, at Rs 10 a head, it ambles from Alleppey to Kottayam in four hours, through a maze of vegetation-clogged creeks that appear impossible to remember or navigate. But the only time it really slows down from its amble to a shuffle is in relatively open waters, apparently to give every passenger a view of the bizarre houseboats all around.

    A toddy shop, off a highway near
Alleppey
    The most basic houseboats were the most logically constructed ones—long, with a single cabin, and extensive deck space. One level up, the slightly larger houseboats warranted a raised sun deck of sorts, where a couple of lounge chairs could sit on either side of a table of drinks. So far, so good.
    But then, in a single, befuddling leap, came the top-of-the-line houseboats—raised sun deck, extensive hardwood furniture, baroque cabinets, satellite dishes, and plasma TV sets. It was in one of these that I saw a group of four people, sitting with their backs to the water, watching a golf game on television. Behind me, from the commuters on my Backwaters Bus, there were titters at that surreal vision, and nudges to neighbours to look-look-look. In one stroke, the sightseers had become the sightseen.
    It would have been only too easy, I thought, for the residents of this gorgeous district to resent intruders, to be reluctant to share their gold-dappled green waters with anybody else, much less with eyesore houseboats and plasma TVs. But I sensed that nowhere in Alleppey, and it wasn’t just the dry logic of capitalism, of how tourism had improved everybody’s standard of living. Instead, it tended more towards the sort of benevolent tolerance with which grandparents regard grandchildren with wayward minds. As the Backwaters Bus cleared the open waters and entered a tributary on the other side, a few people exchangedamused smiles, shook their heads in mock wonder, and returned to their newspapers for the rest of the ride.

    Later that evening, at Kottayam, our palates rebelled furiously, wanting something other than fish fried in coconut oil. It was a notable meal, if only to observe, in the interests of science, what we ordered instead. My friend, the Malayali, ordered beef fried in coconut oil. And I? I ordered curd and rice—soothing white, free of belligerent masala and pools of silvery grease and shards of bone and the arresting taste of fish. It was heaven. It tasted like my childhood.

    The quintessential toddy shop in Kerala is still a male bastion—unsurprisingly, in a state that its residents say is still a deeply conservative one. ‘Just yesterday afternoon,’ Mahesh Thampy had told me, ‘I saw three local women standing at a pushcart, eating a few dosas off paper plates. And people stared incessantly, very unused to even that simple sight.’
    But in the last few years, two elevating things have happened. The toddy shop, long a part of authentic Kerala, has now become a part of Authentic Kerala, the tourist-brochure

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