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A book that catches one’s attention—hook, line and sinker!

Raul Dias | Updated on November 02, 2021

A Fish in Alien Streams is an engrossing account of how the ‘alien’ brown trout found its place in our rivers.

Much to my chagrin, there is very little doubt in my mind that the long-form format of feature articles is slowly becoming a relic of the past. One that is currying woefully inadequate favour with today’s readers. Especially in these days of quick and snappy social media-sensitised and customised content. Thankfully, there is still a dying breed out there who luxuriate in the prose-saturated delights of long-form.

One such, many-paged article—on how the alien brown trout fish came to call Indian rivers its home—published in the Hindi magazine Kadambari back in the late 2000s led to this rather engaging book A Fish In Alien Streams by Herjinder. It was an idea that escaped the brevity-confining limits of a magazine article to morph into a concise and authoritative piece of work. One that is based on a subject as unconventional as it is wildly interesting and crucially relevant in today’s ecologically challenging foodscape milieu.

Swimming in new waters

Right at the onset, the book lays out all its cards on the table. It does so by making it clear that there was nothing remotely altruistic about introducing salmon and especially the brown trout into Indian waters by our erstwhile colonialists in the late 1800s.

Homesick British officers and other civil servants living and working in the cool hill stations of British India found minimal appeal in the indigenous mahseer. A similar river fish to both salmon and trout that they collectively agreed was less of a challenge to catch and eat. They craved a spot of “angling in the hilly streams, mighty rivers and magnificent lakes of the sprawling subcontinent”. A thrill of the hunt like they got back home. One that only the brown trout could give them as a chase-worthy game fish.

Thus began the tumultuous and often arduous process—that the book delves into in great detail—of populating the high country rivers, streams, lakes and ponds of cool-climate regions of the Dominion with brown trout. Right from the Kashmir Valley, Kullu and Uttarkashi in the north, to the Nilgiris, Travancore and even Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) in the deep south of the subcontinent, brown trout ova (eggs) carefully shipped from Britain were slowly introduced into the cool, ever-flowing sweet waters. Thus, setting the stage for a well-told, roller coaster ride of a tale that’s filled with magnificent passion, countless failures and ultimate triumph.

Meandering Along

Almost two thirds into the book, the author takes us on an important detour. This section of the book delves into how ecological and environmental concerns of introducing an invasive species (a term itself as alien as the brown trout in India was in the late 1800s and early 1900s) were callously side-lined in favour of it being a so-called“superior fish”.

It also shows how the trout gave certain places in India, like Kullu, a distinct identity on the tourism map. Conversely, an almost heart-breaking epilogue—that features prominently a trout-loving and -deprived Anglo-Indian gentleman called Jimmy Johnson—is a portent for a rather despondent future of the fast disappearing brown trout in India.

The octogenarian offspring of a colonel in the British Indian Army who calls Raisen, a “small but very beautiful stopover on the scenic route from Kullu to Manali, set on the banks of the Beas river” home, is all but left with nostalgic memories of a trout-abundant childhood.

Off Key Notes

While the author’s meticulous research into this work is greatly appreciated and lends some much-needed gravitas to a book such as this one, I feel that it also takes away something fundamentally vital, if improperly used. Hampering the flow of the narrative are the ever-present trout (among other fishing) related excerpts. All quoted ad verbatim in sizeable chunks from a wide swathe of books, letters and notes.

The cited works—mostly by British fishing enthusiasts and anglers of the colonial era—themselves take up six whole pages as back-of-the-book footnote credits in an already slim 200-page book. These could have easily been woven by the author into the tapestry of his prose seamlessly. Instead, they pop up like ill-timed interlopers breaking the reader’s reverie.

I was also rather disappointed not to find the brown trout in India today, referenced in some current, socio-cultural context. Maybe the book could have benefited further from having a few chefs, restaurateurs, and food industry leaders give us their take on the role trout plays as an ingredient in their kitchens, and thus, on our menus, and ultimately, plates!

Demand does, after all, follow the all-important supply route. And vice versa. Which in turn leads to better stewardship and regulated fishing practices. Two essential elements are needed to ensure the trout’s—and all other endangered species’—continual survival in our waters. Something that I feel rightfully should be a meaty morsel, if not the crux of a book such as this.

About the book:

A Fish In Alien Streams

Herjinder

Hachette India

200 pages (paperback)

₹350

Check out the book on Amazon here

(A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food-travel writer, a restaurant reviewer, and a food consultant)

Published on November 02, 2021

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