By Saad bin Jung Price: 295.00 rupees, from Scholars Without Borders (www.swb.co.in); £10.00 UK from various stores including Coch y Bonddu (www.anglebooks.com) and River Reads (www.riverreads.co.uk)
There is a chapter in this book that struck an answering chord for me. The author puts a friend into The Chair, a renowned big-fish but notoriously rocky area on Karnataka’s river Cauvery. The whole river funnels through a narrow gap at this point, and the water churns like the inside of a washing machine.
The angler is, not surprisingly, somewhat apprehensive, thinking: “How the hell can anyone possibly land a fish in that maelstrom?” As you’ve guessed, a big fish takes, tears off line and eventually gets away.
The only difference between that angler and myself, sitting in the selfsame spot, is that he wasn’t left with a bloody thumb from foolishly putting his hand on the wildly spinning Abu 7000 in a futile big to stop the mahseer’s run. Ah, painful memories.
But perhaps I was fortunate that I did not provoke Subhan’s reaction to the lost fish in the book. He told Saad: “Never bringing this useless chap again.All our fish will run away.” Ghillie he may have been, but he was unforgiving about and even to those who failed to meet the high standards he set.
This book purports to be about the strange relationship between Saad bin Jung, a man born into extreme wealth, and Subhan, a poor Indian who became the prime guide on what is (or was) arguably the best stretch of the Cauvery for big mahseer. And certainly the large part of it follows their hugely differing lifestyles.
This is Saad wryly describing himself. “I share the blood of Dost Mohammed Khan, who formed the Bhopal Dynasty, the rulers of Pataudi and that of the Paigah nobles of Hyderabad.” He is a younger son of the Maharajah of Bhopal. (His family crest incorporates a mahseer). His uncle was the Nawab of Pataudi, the only man to captain both England and India at cricket. Saad himself played representative cricket for his country, but serious illness curtailed his blossoming career at a critical time. And he was pretty good, scoring a century against the touring West Indians when they were the world’s foremost team.
Subhan, on the other hand, was a child of the jungle, who never had an education but learnt the ways of nature instead. He could easily have become an infamous poacher but instead started working as a mahseer guide. That’s when he first met Saad, and the two formed an unlikely alliance that eventually resulted in Subhan becoming head guide at Saad’s own camp.
You might have expected him to show deference to royalty. On the contrary. This is how Saad recalls their first meeting. “He looked at me and said: ‘Salaam Sahab, you are late,’ and without saying anything else, he picked up the fishing gear an discarded it with contempt. Though the ragi was on the boil, we could not fish because Subhan refused to be seen anywhere near my beautiful tackle that I had so possessively treasured for just such a day. It was too late to go to his house and bring another set so instead we helped the staff establish camp.”
Not an auspicious start. And how many clients would accept treatment by someone who was ostensibly there to serve them? But aware of his guide’s formidable reputation, the prince accepts abuse from the pauper, and gradually, a unlikely bond is forged between the two. It proves so powerful that when Subhan advises Saad to set up his own camp, he does so, and takes Subhan with him.
It proves a wise move. Subhan, a native of the local village, recruits family and friends as camp helpers. They also know those who will poach with nets and dynamite, and prove stern defenders of the river, even to the point of resisting a notorious bandit, Veerappan. Along the way, he teaches Saad the ways of the jungle and the river. Together, they catch many big fish, with several topping 100lb. There are stories in this book of mahseer way larger than the current record.
There’s no happy ending here, however. Sadly, the Bushbetta stretch that Saad established under Subhan’s guidance is now closed to fishing, but open house for poachers. A dispute over fishing rights in a national park has meant that his camp has now been shut down, and it’s likely that most of the big fish on the stretch have now been turned into food.
Subhan, the man who inspired Saad, an ardent conservationist, to battle with bandits, poachers (he’s been attacked and shot at), malaria and elephants, died in July 2007 from tuberculosis. Saad himself predicts: “Sadly, the great hump-backed mahseer of the Cauvery will die, killed in the few holes in which they are hiding, lost to humans only because they, like the tigers of the forest, need the freedom of the entire river to procreate, feed and survive.”
This is a slightly quirky but highly readable book that will captivate all those who have fished for mahseer, especially on the Cauvery. It could have used a decent editor (there’s a fair bit of repetition) and the latter part, devoted to mahseer techniques, is a bit turgid and very specific to the Bushbetta stretch. It rather loses its way after the abrupt report of Subhan’s death, though the lesson of the last few pages is plain: if a man like Saad, with all his influence, cannot save the mahseer, what hope is there for India’s greatest fish?