Tales From The Indian Fish Trail

A young boy attempts the fish cure. © P. ANIL KUMAR
01 May, 2010

Journalist Samanth Subramanian never really liked fish—but when he decides to travel India’s diverse coast, he finds he must actually partake of these slippery beasts. Whether exploring a Catholic fishing community in Tamil Nadu, the ancient art of boat building in Gujarat or the hunt for the world’s fastest fish near Goa—even as he feasts on hilsa, mackerel and Bombay duck—he finds that fish lie at the heart of many different worlds. What results is a fluid, almost quixotic journey down the Indian fish trail.

In this excerpt from his travelogue, Subramanian investigates the controversial Hyderabad fish cure.

‘On Swallowing a Live Fish’ is excerpted from Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast


(forthcoming from Penguin Books India, May 2010)

FOR MANY YEARS, even well into his sightless eighties, my paternal grandfather used to practise an art that must be called ‘faith healing,’ but only because it was predicated on his faith and because it healed. Nobody in my family knows exactly where or how he absorbed this art, and only my father can even attempt to explain how it works. But the Tamil verb for his actions, mandrikardhu, sounded so much like the name of the Indrajal Comics hero Mandrake the Magician that, at some point in my childhood, I conflated my grandfather’s art with Mandrake’s: magic.

Whenever my grandfather came to stay with us, I’d have the opportunity to linger and watch him at work. He would sit opposite the patient, both on low wooden planks, he bare-chested and buzzing with health, the patient querulous but always eager to believe. My grandfather would shut his eyes and collapse into a little trance, his lips whispering noiselessly. Then he would, with his index finger, trace a host of mysterious prayers into a brass platter of vibhuthi, sacred ash, placed in front of him. The patient, meanwhile, would sit on in silence.

A few further minutes into the process, my grandfather’s moving finger, having writ, would move on no more. He would palm a few pinches of the ash and, filling his cheeks, blow it all over the patient. Then he would draw a thumbprint of ash in a streak across the patient’s forehead, demand an open mouth, and drop in a peck of ash. What remained on the salver would be folded into neat sachets made of old newspapers, to be consumed in instalments over the next week or ten days, as rigorously as antibiotics or any other more orthodox medication.

My grandfather’s energized ash was most effective, it was said, against poisonous insect bites and jaundice. One family tale went thus: When he was still living in New Delhi, working as a civil servant, my grandfather had as a visitor one of the most eminent physicists of the time. His scientific temper would, of course, not allow him to actually trust in such mumbo-jumbo, but his scientific temper was overruled by his wife’s temper, which urged him in no uncertain terms to get his particularly severe jaundice treated by Ramachandran-mama.

So the scientist arrived, bursting with bad bile and

disbelief. My grandfather began, his usual methods augmented for jaundice only by a shallow bowl of water set near his patient. As he traced and whispered, he would move his hand from the patient to the bowl, back to the patient and then back to the bowl. Slowly the water turned a sickly yellow-green.

‘What’s that?’ the scientist barked.

‘That’s the excess bilirubin in you,’ he was told.

‘That can’t be,’ he shot back, and when the treatment ended, he whisked the bowl off with him, to be tested at a lab.

Being a family story, the denouement was naturally dramatic. The scientist came back the next day or the day after, fell at my grandfather’s feet, and begged to be forgiven for his scepticism. The lab had found traces of bilirubin in the water. More importantly, he was feeling remarkably better already, his jaundice slowly inching towards the exit.

I never had jaundice, and I don’t think any insects beyond the routine household menagerie of mosquitoes and ants ever bit me. But in my fierce attacks of childhood asthma, my grandfather’s art met its match. Time and again, I would sit in front of him, wheezing and heaving, while he concentrated ever harder and traced ever more purposefully. In my schoolbag, as regularly present as the lunch it accompanied, would be a neat newspaper sachet of vibhuthi, to be taken during breaks. I came to know its taste the way a caffeine addict knows his espresso.

But it did no good. An attack would wane, but the next dusty place, or the next change of season, or the next drink of cold water would set it flaring again. Secretly, and the fable of the skeptical scientist notwithstanding, I always wondered if it was because I just didn’t believe hard enough—if, in faith healing, it was as important for the healed to have faith as for the healer.

EVENTUALLY, AS I GREW OLDER, my asthma started to make only sporadic appearances, as if it had been worn out by my parents’ infinite energy and their kitchen-sink approach to treatment. We tried, almost literally, everything—nebulisers and tablets, of course, but also yoga, exercise, homeopathy, variously controlled diets, an ice-cream-free existence, and Ayurveda. I ate boiled eggs for months on end because one doctor said it would help strengthen my constitution. Another time, I was told to perform the yogic trick of pouring warm salt water into one nostril, having it flush the respiratory passages, and return out of the other nostril. I was seven or eight years old, so unsurprisingly, I did it wrong and snorted myself full of the solution. Sometimes, during bumpy car rides or airplane turbulence, I imagine I can still feel the saline sloshing around inside my lungs.

The one thing I did not try, the one nostrum that seemed too exotic even for my parents, was the famous ‘fish treatment’ of Hyderabad, involving the wilful ingestion of a live murrel fingerling that had been stuffed to its gills with an unknown medicine. Perhaps because it was the sole remedy that we resisted, it took on the romance of untold promise; European colonists in Africa, training their gaze on the mysteries of the only unexplored continent, must have felt the same way.

But the fish treatment was also so visibly and glamorously an Event, far more than boiled eggs and nasal lavage. The bronchially disadvantaged would flock to Hyderabad every summer for this free treatment, often brought in from diverse corners of India on special trains run just for the purpose. As they queued patiently, they would appear on television news reports, which never seemed to tire of the spectacle. The crowds were estimated in the hundreds of thousands, and the medicine itself was said to date back to the mid-nineteenth century. The sheer scale of all this seemed, to my mind, to be entirely appropriate. After all, the treatment of something as elemental as asthma, which robs you of the very breath of life, should be epic and enigmatic and miraculously curative.

The history of this marathon of healing—or, at least, the history as explained by the Bathini Goud family, which keeps its proprietary treatment a closely held secret—dates back to 1845. In that year, the life of one Veeranna Goud changed dramatically. Till then, he had been a toddy tapper by caste and profession, but he was one of Andhra Pradesh’s more philanthropic toddy tappers. ‘He gave away a third of whatever he earned to the poor, no matter how much or how little it was,’ Bathini Harinath Goud told me. ‘That’s just the type of man he was.’

When I met him, Harinath was sixty-eight and rake-thin, his white beard matched by equally white, very fierce tufts of hair sprouting from his ears. He’d been participating in his family’s annual ritual for sixty-three years. ‘Veeranna Goud was my great-grandfather. He had one son, Shivram, who also had only one son, Shankar,’ Harinath said. Shankar, though, was more prolific; he had five sons and four daughters. ‘Between us, we’ve been conducting this treatment since our father passed away in 1962.’

In 1845, that annus mirabilis of Veeranna Goud, a sage from the Himalayas had descended into the plains and was wandering India. It was the start of the monsoon, and when Veeranna encountered him, the sage was wet, hungry and homeless. ‘Veeranna fed and clothed him—expecting, of course, nothing in return,’ Harinath said. ‘The sage saw that he wouldn’t commercialize this gift, that he would use it to help his fellow man. So he taught him the art of making this medicine.’

The recipe for this medicine has not left the Goud family since; in fact, even Goud daughters never learn it because, Harinath said, ‘after all, when they get married, they go into another family.’ All that’s known is that it is a lumpy paste, in a vivid shade of yellow. The paste is rolled into a ball, stuffed into the mouth of a month-old, two-inch-long murrel fish, which is in turn stuffed into the waiting gullet of a patient, to be swallowed intact. ‘As the fish wriggles on its way down, it helps disperse the medicine more effectively,’ one pseudo-scientific argument in favour of the treatment goes, conveniently forgetting that asthma plagues the bronchial tubes, not the oesophagus.

Two days before Mrigashira Karthi—the day that signifies the advent of the monsoon every year, and the day on which the Gouds spend twenty-four straight hours thrusting fish down throats—Harinath’s house in Hyderabad’s Kawadiguda section was surprisingly peaceful. Cell phones were ringing more insistently than usual, there were stacks of pink and blue flyers on nearly every available surface, and squadrons of relatives, descended upon Hyderabad to help with the cure, paraded past us on their way in or out. But I’d expected secrecy and urgency, murmurs of incantations, perhaps even the odd sniff of brewing medicine—a Witches’ Sabbath of activity. Instead, I had Harinath relaxing on a sofa, and two grandchildren, fresh out of their baths, anointing themselves liberally with Nycil talcum powder in front of a mirror.

Harinath handed me one of the flyers that would be distributed on the day of the treatment. In Telugu, English and Hindi, the flyers listed a strict diet, consisting of exactly twenty-seven items, which had to be followed for forty-five days after the treatment. It was an unusual menu. It included old rice and dried mango pieces but also goat meat; it recommended idlis but not chutney; it painstakingly listed, as individual items, even spices like turmeric, salt and pepper. Oddest of all was Item No. 27, which read like a bizarre chemistry experiment: ‘Heat an iron rod. Soak it in cow’s buttermilk and drink it.’

‘And you have to take the medicine as well, every fifteen days during that forty-five-day period, in the form of little pellets,’ Harinath said. ‘And then come back for the fish treatment for the next two years.’ Although these days, he added vaguely, because of all the fertilizer in the food and the pollution in the air, it could even take three or four years for the treatment to dig its feet in. At that, the bubble of my boyhood vision quivered violently. This sounded nothing like epic or enigmatic or miraculously curative. Why, it even had pellet-sized dosages of medicine! It may as well have been homeopathy!

AS HE SPOKE, Harinath exhibited a strange verbal tic that puzzled me at first. He talked easily and at length, in almost pre-crafted sentences, about his family’s history, but every time he said the word ‘dawai’—‘treatment’ or ‘medicine’—he stumbled, caught himself, and replaced it with the word ‘prasadam.’ Selectively and specifically, he was bowdlerizing his own speech.

Behind that tic, I was to discover, lay a decade-long backstory of rising opposition in Hyderabad to the Goud fish treatment. The opposition has been led by two organizations—the Jana Vignana Vedika, an NGO that was born of, but no longer resides with, the Communist Party of India–Marxist; and the Hyderabad chapter of the America-based Center for Inquiry, a non-profit that promotes reason and science over superstition.

In the early 2000s, this opposition began to hotly question everything about the treatment—its efficacy, its secrecy, its potential for harm, and its promotion by the Andhra Pradesh government. When I met Harinath, it was a couple of weeks before a public-interest litigation came up for hearing in a Hyderabad city civil court, challenging five government departments and the Gouds. Two years earlier, in the face of such contention, the government had felt compelled to put up a banner at the treatment’s venue, stating that the ‘medicine’ had no curative properties. ‘Ha! That had no effect on attendance at all,’ Harinath said, with a snort.

Innaiah Narisetti, a former journalist and the chair of the local Center for Inquiry chapter, is a dignified, articulate man, with a track record like the back of a porcupine, bristling with sharp needles of attack against irrational belief and superstition. ‘This is a cult organization,’ he said. ‘The doctors say it isn’t scientific. It isn’t hygienic. No patient records are maintained; there are no follow-up visits. But still they claim a cure! That is bogus.’ I mentioned to him Harinath’s tic, of labelling it a ‘prasadam’ instead of a cure, and Narisetti laughed. ‘The courts won’t get taken in by that. They’ll see through it, they’ll see that it’s just a strategy.’

Part of Narisetti’s harangue included the understandable grievances of the wronged taxpayer. Until 1997, the Gouds had conducted their event, at their own expense, in their ancestral home in the old Doodh Bowli quarter of Hyderabad. ‘People would sleep in the alleys near our house, on the sidewalk, just for this,’ Harinath remembered. ‘You’d get tears in your eyes just listening to them cough all night.’ In 1997, though, following some communal turmoil, a curfew was imposed in Doodh Bowli. N. Chandrababu Naidu, then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, started to allow the Gouds free use of larger public spaces—for a year, the Nizam College’s football fields, and subsequently the Exhibition Grounds in Nampally, its new home.

Eleven years later, when I attended, there was even more evidence of government support—eight ambulances, 1,100 police personnel, six closed-circuit televisions, and an assured power supply of 1,000 kilowatts. Navin Mittal, the district collector, did some rough mental arithmetic and told me that the government would spend roughly Rs 60 lakhs of taxpayer money in manpower and resources for the event. Which only proves that Milton Friedman was right: There is no such thing as a free lunch, or even a free snack of nutritious murrel fish.

But that’s not all, Narisetti hastened to point out. ‘There are huge losses because the state supplies the fish as well, selling them to the crowds for Rs 10 each,’ he said. ‘All these fish are ordered, but word has spread that this treatment is not working, so the crowds have come down. Last year, there were thousands of wasted fish.’

But, I feebly ventured, my boyhood bubble quivering some more, ‘Harinath said there were four lakh attendees last year?’

‘Not at all,’ Narisetti said. ‘There were twenty thousand.’

THE NEXT MORNING, I hunted down the Department of Fisheries to clarify this number. V. Raghothama Swamy, the joint director there, was in the midst of aggregating, from various ponds and tanks in Andhra Pradesh, thousands of murrel fingerlings, remotely monitoring their journeys to Hyderabad like an anxious chaperone.

‘So how many fish, exactly, did you distribute last year?’ I asked.

‘Forty-five thousand,’ Swamy said.

Again, I mentioned Goud’s figure of four lakh attendees to him. He smiled indulgently, glanced at a colleague, and then said, as if softening the blow to a child who’d discovered that Santa Claus was fictional ‘Well, there were also ten thousand or so vegetarians and they take their medicine in jaggery. And many attendants for the asthmatics were also present, you must remember. So the crowd was large.’

‘But was it four lakhs?’

‘No. Definitely not,’ Swamy answered.

On my way down the stairs, I saw a poster hanging on the wall. It showed many fish, lying quite dead in a net, being pulled in from the ocean. The caption read: ‘Fish is our health.’

Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure.

THE BLEEDING TAXPAYERS ASIDE, the other prong of the opposition to the Goud treatment attacks the medicine itself, the yellow paste that the family claims is concocted on the principles of Ayurveda. A few years earlier, the Gouds had sent samples of the paste to the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow and to the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata. The latter’s report, which Harinath photocopied and handed to me, refused to offer any opinions about the paste’s curative abilities. It would only offer, grudgingly, that the paste wouldn’t actually kill you—because an assay revealed heavy metal concentrations to be within the limits prescribed by law—and that it had no steroids secretly working against the asthma.

Harinath also had another letter, which, mystifyingly, he freely showed me. It was from the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, or AYUSH, a government body that purports to govern such alternative medicine. The AYUSH letter refused to classify the Gouds’ cure as Ayurveda, calling it ‘at best . . . a folklore medicine practiced by a traditional healer, who is not institutionally qualified.’

The thing with conviction, of course, is that it can operate to extreme lengths on the side of both belief and disbelief. Harinath, in his quest to persuade me of his paste’s medicinal properties, allowed himself to be swept into a current of questionable rhetoric. ‘We have test-tube babies now, so why don’t we believe the legend of Duryodhana and his brothers being born of a ball of flesh?’ he asked. ‘We have rocket ships now, so why not the vimanas of the Ramayana?’

Narisetti, the advocate of rationalism, is no less vulnerable to making flatly provocative statements. ‘The government should be supporting only culture, not religion. Religion is a superstitious belief. It is not a part of culture,’ he told me. But religion, and particularly in India, informs so much of our culture, I offered—the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the festivals we celebrate, the classical music we listen to, the art and theatre we support. ‘That can all survive without religion,’ he said. And then, a step further: ‘The government’s job is to educate people about this, to show that religion is just a superstitious belief. The government should reduce the presence of religion gradually until we finally get rid of it. That’s when we will live in a really secular society.’

The two men, in a sense, were funhouse mirror versions of each other—Harinath with his faith, and Narisetti with his faith in the sheer irrelevance of faith. But somehow, to believe as deeply as Harinath seemed to believe, even in something as unfounded as his asthma remedy, jarred me less than Narisetti’s dismissal of religion altogether. For the first time in my life, I felt more unsettled by the views of the faithless than by the views of the faithful.

Even if the entire event was a manufactured sham (as opposed to an unconscious sham, and in the intent to dupe lies a vast difference), nobody could tell me exactly what purpose such a sham would serve. One argument had it that the Goud community formed an important vote bank in Andhra Pradesh, and that politicians preferred to support the Bathini Goud family rather than offend the community’s sentiment. But more puzzling still was the Gouds’ own motivation to do this every year, for no remuneration—to prepare their paste, to stand at the head of a throbbing crowd, in the stifling heat that throbbing crowds effortlessly throw off, and stick their hands down dozens of unfamiliar throats every hour. As a mere hobby, that sounds—and is—severely overrated.

Eager theories account for this too. A few years ago, in a significant windfall, the Chandrababu Naidu government was said to have handed over to the Gouds some land in Old Hyderabad. ‘They said it was to grow their herbs,’ Narisetti said. ‘Till then, they claimed they were sourcing the herbs from the Himalayas, and that the land would make their task easier.’ Also, Narisetti added, the Gouds get a cut from the auxiliary businesses that spring up around the centrepiece event every year—shops of toys and clothes, food stalls, pushcarts of religious paraphernalia, all selling to the captive audience at the Exhibition Grounds.

It all sounded just about plausible; there have been more improbably painstaking moneymaking schemes than the caper thus outlined. And yet, the day before the treatment, when Harinath walked into the little office at the Exhibition Grounds, he didn’t head directly to the young girl who was seated behind a desk handing out advance tokens; he didn’t ask to know how many tokens had been distributed or what the response was. Instead, he strode very rapidly into the office, straight to waist-high stacks of fresh flyers that had just been delivered there, still warm from the printers. He peeled away a flyer from the top and scanned the instructions and the list of twenty-seven permitted items on the diet sheet. Then he relaxed, smiled, and said to his companion: ‘It’s all there, it’s all correct.’ To me, that didn’t seem like the behaviour of a man out to skim a few rupees off the sale of every cheap plastic whistle or multi-coloured T-shirt.

THE DOODH BOWLI SECTION of Hyderabad, lying a couple of kilometres from the Charminar, is an ancient quarter of mosques and thin, confusing streets that regularly double back upon themselves. The Bathini Goud family’s ancestral home, tucked into one of these streets, had been newly whitewashed, and its parrot-green window frames had been repainted. ‘We do a pooja the day before, at the house in Doodh Bowli. It’s usually just the family, but you must come,’ Harinath had said, and so I had gone, curious to see the clan.

By the time Harinath and I arrived, the family was already assembled on the terrace, under a temporary canopy of cloth. In a corner, next to a small altar, the family priest sat murmuring to himself and glaring occasionally at the world at large. Harinath whipped off his shirt and sat down in the front, next to his two older brothers. I took a discreet seat at the back, feeling slightly self-conscious until I saw my fellow intruder—a French documentary filmmaker with a digital video camera, who orbited the congregation like a diligent planet, filming the entire pooja.

Truth to tell, there wasn’t much to film. This was a regular Satyanarayana pooja, performed in many Hindu homes before an occasion of significance. And like almost every one of the communal poojas I’ve ever attended, there were the requisite distracted children, the whimpering baby, the sombre gentlemen up front, and the comforting white noise of women talking and laughing at the back. Harinath, sweating even in spite of the playful surges of monsoonal breeze that cut through the midday heat, sat very still, eyes closed, hands folded in prayer.

We must have sat there for at least an hour in this manner, and attentions began to flag. The filmmaker filmed from less bravura angles, the baby whimpered louder, Harinath sweated more, and the children, losing patience, began to make sorties downstairs into the cooler confines of the house. A little while later, some men began to bring up huge wicker baskets of cooked rice, sweets and pooris, and steel buckets of sambar and rasam. In the heat, and in the restricted confines of the canopy, the wonderful, dense smell of the food rose and hung, like a spice-seeded storm cloud, above the family. Attentions, unsurprisingly, wilted further.

Harinath finally broke a coconut, a girl came and tied a red-and- yellow thread, with a betel leaf, around my wrist, and the priest performed his arati, offering up cubes of sugar and diced bananas to the deity. It seemed like the end, but then the group moved downstairs, first to the house’s stuffy pooja room and then to the real focus of all this consecration: the well.

When we’d first met, I had asked Harinath whether he had ever considered taking his treatment across India, like a travelling apothecary. He had bridled at the suggestion and then said, cryptically: ‘We need our Doodh Bowli well.’ Later I had persuaded him to explain that statement, and he told me about the importance of making the medicine with the water from the well in the Doodh Bowli house. ‘Only that water. Nothing else will do,’ he had said. One summer, he claimed, every well in Doodh Bowli had gone dry, and Hyderabad had thirsted for water—yet the well in the ancestral home had gushed with sweet, cool water.

That well is really a small, square hole in the ground, set to one side of the courtyard past the entrance of the house. Just above it, built into the staircase leading to the terrace, is a sacred tulasi plant in a bower, as if it were benignly conferring its holy status upon the well all year round. The water is not too far below the surface, but it remains so cool that even leaning over it, during the summer months, feels like passing through a blast of air conditioning.

The priest now took position over the well and consecrated it with rice, vermillion and turmeric. As if he were a trainer pepping his boxer for the big fight, the priest flattered the well water in his recitations, calling it the embodiment of the Ganga, the Yamuna, the Narmada, the Kaveri and the Sindhu rivers. In the pooja room behind us, the women had gathered independently and were singing in low, tuneless voices. Only after that was it time to eat.

After lunch, the Bathini Goud residence was flooded with visitors—neighbours dropping in to see how things were going, more members of the family, reporters and camera crews to interview Harinath, who seemed to have been designated communications director for the event. His daughter Alka took charge of his two cell phones, answering some calls and giving others to her father. It was, by now, past three in the afternoon, and I asked Harinath: ‘But when will you actually begin making the medicine?’

‘We’ll probably start in the evening, or later at night, when all this has died down.’

I thought about that, and then asked: ‘Can I stay to watch?’

Harinath smiled a slow, sweet smile, and said: ‘You know that isn’t possible.’

I knew. I’d just figured that there was no harm in trying.

WITH LITTLE TO DO until the start of the treatment the next evening, I wandered back to the Exhibition Grounds and sat in the little office building, near the Bartronics desk. Bartronics, a Hyderabad-based company, had installed automated entry systems into other locations with teeming crowds, such as the Vaishno Devi shrine in the Himalayas and the Tirumala temple at Tirupathi. The previous year, Bartronics had been engaged to implement a similar process at the Exhibition Grounds, and with needless zeal, a sophisticated biometrics system, involving fingerprints and photographs, was installed.

‘But it began to take a long time to check the biometrics, and people started shouting and complaining,’ a Bartronics employee told me. ‘Besides, there’s no real danger of any malpractice here, since it’s all free.’ So biometrics sat it out on the bench this year. Instead, people came to the office two or three days in advance to pick up two tokens—one for the fish counter, and one that allotted them to a specific, one-hour window of time. Then they walked away planning to come early anyway. ‘You know, just in case,’ one man said.

Sitting next to the token-dispensing desk, I began to detect, in Harinath’s prospective patients, the same hesitant hope that I’d seen in my grandfather’s visitors many years ago. A number of them asked: ‘Does this really work?’ and the beleaguered Bartronics lady was forced to say that she was just giving out the tokens. Some scrutinised the token intently, as if it held some clue to their prospects. A few hung around, after they’d pocketed their tokens, to look at the others who came after them, as if the appearance of their fellow ward-mates would give them a better idea of this unorthodox hospital.

One middle-aged man had flown from Montreal to be at Hyderabad during the treatment. ‘My lungs operate at about 38 per cent capacity. I have to travel with a bag full of medication,’ he said, showing me a plastic pouch crammed with tablets, nebulisers, capsules and a syringe. He looked in the bloom of health, but he said he’d spent his life trying medications of various provenances. ‘I can’t even travel alone; I need a friend with me all the time.’ He’d read about the Bathini Goud remedy on the Internet. ‘Right about now, I’m willing to try anything.’

Amarendra Kumar, an automobile dealer from Bihar, came with his wife, both looking to be able to breathe freely again. He had arrived in Hyderabad the previous morning, mistakenly believing that the treatment would start the day I met them. ‘I had booked my return tickets for tomorrow afternoon’s train,’ he said, worried. ‘Now I’ll have to cancel and rebook for Sunday.’

The most uncertain visitors of the afternoon were a Jain family of four. They entered together and stood next to me, silently watching the tokens change hands. Then the father tapped me on the shoulder and asked: ‘Does it work better with the fish?’

‘It’s supposed to,’ I told him. ‘There’s a vegetarian version, but the fish is said to be more effective.’

He stepped back into a moment’s silence and then said, almost to himself: ‘But we don’t eat meat.’

More silence, and then, sensing that the family was not quite as well informed as they should have been, I said: ‘You do know that the fish is alive, don’t you?’

This ignited a conflagration of comical reactions. The father sank deeper into worry. The mother, though, laughed almost hysterically. She then walked resolutely to the door and started to mock-retch graphically, holding her stomach, a mischievous smile playing over her face. ‘Come on,’ she’d say between heaves, ‘no fish, let’s go.’ Her older son, aged approximately ten, looked fascinated by the newly gruesome lustre to this treatment. His younger brother, who must have been six or seven, tugged at his father’s shirt, pulling him away, his face crumpling slowly in horror like a sheet of cellophane.

The father wrestled with himself for five whole minutes. Then he stepped up to the Bartronics counter and asked for two tokens for his children. ‘Only in case the fish is needed,’ he justified to his family. But if the quest for his sons’ perfect health did win out over the tenets of his religion, who could blame him?

SATURDAY EVENING PROVED to be hot, sticky and humid, the sort of weather that prompts the imagination to believe that moisture can simply be wrung out of the air. Hyderabad’s traffic, re-routed near Nampally to keep the approach to the Exhibition Grounds clear, was at its thorniest best. I entered the Grounds at half past eight for a treatment that was supposed to have begun an hour earlier. But I needn’t have worried. The Bathini Gouds, leaving Doodh Bowli with their vats of medicine, travelling under police escort, had reached the venue only at eight o’clock, snared in the traffic rearrangements organized for their benefit.

By the time I arrived, the little road leading to the Grounds’ Ajanta Gate was clogged with people, flanked on either side by what Narisetti had called the ‘auxiliary businesses.’ Spread out on tarpaulins on the ground or on rickety pushcarts were T-shirts, children’s shoes, toys with crazy lights and wailing sounds, and bags in cloth and plastic. Nothing, as far as I asked, was priced at more than Rs 20, and the vendors, instead of looking excited at the prospect of a twenty-four-hour sales extravaganza, were following with forlorn eyes the crowds that rushed past them.

By 5 p.m. on that day, the Bartronics people had told me, around thirty-five thousand advance tokens had been given out, but the entrance into the Grounds was surprisingly serene. On low, broad concrete platforms, people squatted, ate, slept and played, patiently waiting for the time slot printed on their tickets. On the public address system, between bursts of shehnai music, an announcer, already hoarse, was warning people not to pinch their plastic bags of fish closed. ‘The fish will suffocate. Keep the mouth of the bag open.’ And then again the same announcement followed, in Hindi and Telugu.

Walking past police and medical assistance booths, stalls for free food, stalls for water, and a slumbering fire engine, I entered the maze that led up to the dais. Under a temporary tin roof, these passages, formed by iron railings and rickety wooden staves, were designed to direct the crowds to one of thirty-three counters up front; they reminded me of immigration queues at large international airports. The token system may have mitigated the crowd within those passages, but it could do nothing about the way everybody pressed up densely near the counters. Two-thirds of the maze was empty, but near every one of the thirty-three counters, people clamoured to go first, holding up their little bags of fish like cigarette lighters at a rock concert.

Pushing my way through the stifling heat of this mosh pit and squeezing out with a pop at the front, I found Harinath, in his yellow shawl and white dhoti, in an oasis of relative calm. ‘At my age,’ he said, ‘I can’t stand at those counters and work at that pace.’ The others worked faster, often pushing fish into five or six mouths per minute, standing in a crowd and unaware or uncaring of the growing pools of muddy water around their feet. Harinath, for his part, positioned himself one rank behind the rest of his family, near a little raised stage area where he could occasionally sit and contemplate the ocean of people in front of him.

An old matriarch of Harinath’s family, sitting behind him and rolling out miniature cannonballs of medicine, handed me one. It was a livid yellow from the turmeric, but it smelled and tasted of almost pure asafoetida, a spice whose very root is the word ‘foetid.’ I have not been able to stomach the taste of asafoetida ever since, at a very young age, I mistook a hunk of it in my upma for a peanut, bit eagerly into it, and proceeded to throw up violently. I rolled that lump of medicine around in my fingers only for a few seconds, but I could still smell the asafoetida the next morning.

As soon as I reached Harinath, he began collaring familiar faces from the crowd and bringing them over to make introductions. ‘This woman, she’s come from Maharashtra two times already, and her asthma is much better,’ he would say. ‘Go on! Tell him how much better your asthma is.’

‘Much better,’ the woman said sincerely.

‘See, she’s much better,’ Harinath beamed.

Even aside from these testimonies for my benefit, people would rush up to Harinath to thank him, or to even just touch him, as if that were supplementary blessing. One man with a withered leg somehow jettisoned his crutches to kneel and touch Harinath’s feet. Others would tell him, like children proudly reporting their mathematics scores to their parents, that they were ‘75 per cent better’ or even ‘98 per cent better,’ as if they were able to keenly calibrate even a 2 per cent remainder of their asthma.

But the unmistakable soundtrack to the Bathini Goud marathon cure was that of crying and retching. The cure was hardest on the young—the young fish, of course, but also the young children. Parents would lift their children bodily, holding them and keeping their mouths open. Harinath would slip the murrel fish out of its plastic sac, pinch its neck to open its mouth, and insert a dose of medicine. Then, with two long and dexterous fingers, he would stick the fish all the way at the back of the throat, snap the child’s jaw shut, and squeeze the nose, forcing the child to gulp and swallow.

Not surprisingly, the results were often disastrous. One girl, who must have been twelve or thirteen, attempted to throw up as soon as she was let go; her father, equally adamant, tried to force her mouth shut. Other children, even young infants, swallowed their fish perfectly, but they instantly began wailing in horror, as if instinct, or the enforced feel of the whole exercise, had told them that something unnatural had just happened. One boy shouted in alarm: ‘It’s in my throat, ma, I can still feel it!’ His mother began rubbing down his gullet, hoping to encourage the fish to complete the journey to its doom.

The adults didn’t always fare better. Many, it is true, took approximately two seconds to swallow and move on. In a feat of physiological control, one composed gentleman was even able to indicate, to his minder, that his fish had gone down the wrong length of piping, bring it back up into his mouth, and then swiftly re-ingest it. But one woman, with the fish in her throat, thumped herself on her chest and brought it back out. Harinath picked it up off the coir matting on the floor, checked if it was still alive, swirled it around in a bucket of chlorine water, and tried again.

And then, suddenly, it was my turn.

The most disconcerting moment of the entire process was a few seconds of stasis, when Harinath held the fish up, medicine gleaming in its mouth, and I stood with my mouth open as if it were the Eucharist wafer, dimly aware that I could still twist away and run. Then the stasis broke, and Harinath’s hand, full of fish, was in my mouth.

From all the first-hand observation that evening, I must have somehow learned how to swallow right, because the fish went down, tail first, much easier than I expected. It was slippery and small, and although I felt an initial tickle, I think it had expired by the time it was a third of the way down my throat. Right away, though, I realized that it wasn’t the fish that was making people retch; it was the asafoetida, so strong and vicious that tears started in your eyes in that very first second. Then, as it slid down, it burned such a trail of further pungency down your throat that your hair stood on end and your fingers clenched involuntarily. Eyes still streaming, I grabbed at a bottle of water behind Harinath, although somehow, my mind had inscrutably fixed on its own preferred solution to the asafoetida’s pungency: fresh-cut mangoes.

For a few further hours into the night, I sat behind Harinath and watched the crowds. I watched many, many people come right up to Harinath, their nerve screwed up, fully aware of what lay before them—and then they backed out, hope and false courage defeated by the immediate reality. As they walked away, they seemed puzzled and distressed, not so much by what they’d narrowly avoided as by their sudden loss of faith. It was almost as if they had desperately wanted to believe but had been finally let down by their closest accomplice: their own body.

I watched Harinath too. He rested only in snatches of a few minutes, and he was almost always talking and enquiring and blessing. Not for the first time, I wondered what was in it for him—whether it was the sense that, at least for one day every year, the Bathini Gouds were the most important and influential people in Hyderabad. Whether it was that their fish ‘remedy’— remedy or not—defined them, gave them an identity. Whether there was some hidden commercial motive, or whether the Gouds really believed that they were sending people home asthma-free. Really, there was no way to tell. But for a few moments, watching Harinath at work, I was reminded powerfully of my grandfather and his healing sessions, of his roaring faith, and of how, in that charged slice of time, for both the healer and the healed—and even for me, watching with a child’s easily suspended disbelief—anything was possible. We could all be well again.