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Fishing for a saviour

Almost midway into Saad Bin Jung’s book, Subhan & I, Subhan, who “knows more about angling for the mahseer in the Cauvery” than anyone else, gets rather philosophical. “Year after year,” Jung quotes him in the book, “the rains will come, the rivers will rise, the fish will spawn, and the mahseer will roll, but the perfectionists, us wizards of old, will pass away before our story has been told.” Subhan was partly right he passed away of tuberculosis in 2007, much before this book was written. But his story did not remain untold, after all.

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Author Saad Bin Jung unabashedly admits that without Subhan (below, pictured with Jung), there would have been no conservation effort to save the mahseer in river Cauvery. PIC COURTESY/ROLI BOOKS

Subhan & I is a gripping account on the conservation of the hump-backed mahseer in the moody waters of the river Cauvery. You may know little about angling or the virtues of the mahseer itself, but the book initiates the reader into the world effortlessly. It starts with a racy childhood account of Subhan’s first brush with a young, blood-thirsty tusker and how he uses the river’s currents to save his life.

Subhan

The next few pages establish Subhan’s ease and excellence in the river Cauvery he reads Cauvery like a book and knows what lies below the waters much before they surface. It is the mahseer and its conservation, however, that dominate the better part of Subhan & I. The greatest freshwater fighting fish is found in most rivers of India, but is under grave threat and has substantially reduced in size – this carp can achieve sizes of around 60lb, but today, a 30lb mahseer would be considered a good catch.

Jung, who set out to conserve the mahseer in the ’90s, says he knew a book on the conservation of the mahseer would have had no takers in India. “Have we managed to conserve anything, really?” he asks, over the telephone from South Africa, minutes after he is back from a wild safari. “We’ve spent crores of rupees on the tiger, but are we anywhere close to conserving it?” The country, believes Jung, is in protection mode, not conservation mode.

Subhan-book-cover
Subhan & I, By Saad Bin Jung Rs 295 Published by Lotus Roli

“It takes anything between eight to 20 years to see the fruits of diligent conservation efforts, and no officer in a government body wants to leave office without showing something on his record, so they all set out to ‘protect’ creatures in their limited tenure, but that’s not how the mahseer, or any creature for that matter, can be conserved,” says Jung. The gene pool of the mahseer today, he explains, is not as pure as it used to be, which is the biggest challenge for anyone who tries to conserve the giant fish.

Jung met Subhan in Haira in the early ’90s after he became a life member of the Wildlife Association Of South India (WASI) and then began an association that, in Jung’s words, changed him forever. “Subhan knew the Cauvery in and out and was such a character. Brusque and larger than life, he predicted the mistakes we would make in the river, and sometimes let us that was the only way to learn, he always said.”

After a detailed description of Jung’s first encounter with a huge mahseer (the chapter, fittingly, is called, ‘You Never Forget Your First Big Bang’), the book explores Jung’s struggles when it came to bringing Subhan around to take conservation seriously. “For Subhan and the people in his region, the mahseer means sustenance, and it was difficult to make him see why conserving it was important. I lived with Subhan for almost six years before I could make him see the benefits of the exercise,” explains Jung.

It was difficult even for Jung to restore Subhan’s faith in the system. “It is important to understand that Subhan came from a poverty-stricken background where the system does not provide even the basic amenities.” The relationship shared by Jung and Subhan could be evocative for many, but Jung admits Subhan was aware that he was a “tool” to spread Jung’s message in the South. “But having said that, neither our efforts, nor the book would have been possible if I had not met Subhan,” says Jung.

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